Whether you've always been the primary parent or you've shared parenting responsibilities, a custody battle can shake you to your core.
If you find that the terror is starting to take over, remember these tips to help keep it together.
1. You aren't the first person to get divorced.
I know it feels like you are, especially if you're the first in your circle. But this happens every day. And the lawyers, mediators, social workers and judges you'll encounter on your journey will see things differently than you will. What seems like high drama to you will be a drop in the bucket to them.
If no one is kidnapping children, committing criminal acts of negligence or violence, or violating protective orders, it will be a relatively undramatic case to the professionals around you.
2. The pros have heard it all before.
You may have an ex that's threatening to bring up everything you've ever done wrong. Mental illness, drug use, sexual orientation, anything could get thrown out there by a vengeful ex. It's a terrifying prospect to have your dirty laundry aired out in front of other people, but you don't have to be a saint to be a parent. No one expects you to be perfect.
If you're where you're supposed to be, if you know your children and care about them, if you look out for their welfare, it's unlikely that any of these games will have an impact on the proceedings. And if these skeletons in your closet are from before children and marriage? It's unlikely anyone will bat an eye.
This is terrible for you, but it's par for the course in the world of divorce. Have faith in yourself.
3. Stability is in the best interests of the children.
When it comes to custody, you'll hear the phrase "best interest of the children" thrown around a lot. That means the kids come before the parents' drama, unless the drama is having a negative impact on the kids. If you're worried your time with your children will decrease significantly, remember that that kind of change is unlikely to happen unless there's something serious to back it up that affects health or safety.
If you really want to increase the time you get with your kids, be willing to take it slow. Show that you're responsible and you can make a case that it's important for you to be involved in your kids' lives. If you've proven yourself, things can move gradually in your favor.
4. Support systems matter.
Divorce can be isolating, and it can be hard to relate to other parents as you fight for custody. If you have friends who have gone through a divorce, even if it wasn't recent, try to find a group of people you can go to for support. Know others who are going through a divorce? Consider setting up a weekly meet-up or a Facebook group so you can talk it out and share advice. When you're scared about something it can help a lot to hear from someone who's just been through the same thing.
If you usually share everything with a sibling, a parent, or a close friend who hasn't gone through a divorce, you may find that this can put some distance between you. Don't be afraid to tell your close friends and family that you don't want to talk about it if it's taking a toll on you. You've got enough to deal with already.
You may want to consider a lawyer instead of a mediator. A mediator works with both sides, but a lawyer looks out just for you. That means you have someone in your corner at all times and knowing that may give you the boost of confidence you need. It also means you have someone to speak on your behalf when you sit down for meetings with your ex. Working out custody can require a lot of negotiating, and having someone who can do the talking for you can take the pressure off, so you don't have to worry about getting angry or upset during the meeting.
Keeping calm and centered can only help you in your custody case.
See more of Jessica's essays on Parenting & Divorce with Young Children.