Friends of mine have a 29-year-old son they finally stopped fighting over only a few years ago. Let's call this gem of a man-child Levi. He is agreeing to tell his story anonymously, in the hope to better understand his upbringing and perhaps help others either avoid or minimize their own custody battles.
To know this handsome, warm and engaging, well adjusted young man you might never suspect what he has been through. He supports himself earning a living in New York City as a fashion photographer, often travelling to Europe and the West Coast for work. We are visiting in between assignments shooting for a cosmetics firm and a rising designer where I live in Los Angeles.
As a teen Levi was being groomed to enter his maternal grandfather's business. A junior year of college away from the family in Barcelona, Spain, changed his mind. Without much encouragement or support from them, Levi's focus shifted from business as he took the reins of his life. The master's degree he completed at 25 in his chosen profession is paying off today.
What has been the major lesson learned from his parents' mistakes? Separate and individuate from your family of origin to become your own person early. A broad smile breaks out over Levi's high cheek bones knowing that nepotism has no place in his career advancement.
I'll call his mother Siobhan. She met Levi's father, Carlos, also a pseudonym, in college. It was an unplanned pregnancy. From the sidelines it appeared they lived a jet set lifestyle. Turns out it was terribly tumultuous. They wound up in Argentina, where Carlos has a powerful family. Soon after Siobhan developed an operable brain tumor.
Siobhan had a medical excuse to return home to New Jersey with Levi in tow. She made a full recovery, but the marriage did not. For the next decade, Levi's life was punctuated with the kerfuffle of evaluations and counseling to ensure he had a safe outlet to digest the experience. He was aware of multiple court hearings, sometimes reaching a fever pitch.
Levi was prevented from visiting his father outside of the East Coast due to fear Carlos was a 'flight risk.' When Carlos came to the States once or twice a year for visits, he often came with a number of relatives. A hefty six figure bond had to be posted in case Levi was 'kidnapped' and a private investigator could be hired to track the boy down.
Custody exchanges took place at police stations. After age 10, the number of annual visits to Levi dwindled to zero due to expense and time constraints on Carlos. Carlos is now on his fourth, happy common law marriage. Levi has two step-siblings from this union and four half-siblings from his father's two former wives.
Phone calls between father and son never stopped, but were not easy either. Levi got an earful of contradictory invective. He could never figure out who was right or telling the truth. To make matters worse, Carlos did not keep up with child support, college and other financial obligations to Levi. This lead to bad blood between Carlos and Levi's step-father, Andrew, who came into his life at age 15.
Levi never went to bed hungry, but he was aware Siobhan, her family and Andrew shouldered the shortfall. Andrew and Levi are estranged at this point, now that Siobhan's second marriage is dissolving.
It pains Levi to see his half brother from his mother, Andrew, Jr., age 14, suffer in Siobhan's current divorce. Once again, Levi is privy to another high conflict uncoupling. Throughout this, Levi is confident about falling in love, settling down and mating for life some day in the future.
What are some of the protective factors in the mix? Siobhan is from a close knit family of 7. Levi's maternal uncles stepped up and provided constant role models. Levi and his gaggle of first cousins bonded over hockey as youngsters.
Levi held fast to the promise he and Carlos would be reunited some day. He looked forward to turning 18 when he would have the right to visit his father's country unaccompanied. Every year since then, Levi has visited for a month at a time over the winter holidays. Levi and Carlos, as well as the extended South American family, have grown closer as a consequence.
Levi gets a kick out of being the big brother to his five half siblings and two step siblings. Levi is super excited for his American brother to visit with his South American family in 2016. The younger generation has already become acquainted through social media.
An unexpected consequence of his mother's present divorce is his parent's blossoming friendship. The harsh legacy remaining from his parent's mash up is the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in his custody battle, when each one of the players could use that money now.
But then again, Levi is acutely aware it would have been a detriment to grow up bounced around South America, ranch to beach house to city houses, one step ahead of private eyes. Argentina is not compliant with the principles of the Hague Convention governing international custody cases when minors are travelling. Siobhan and Carlos admit to having been puppets in an irrational extended family drama.
We get around to discussing your relationships, coming off a year of being single for the first time in your twenties. We talk about your hunch that women with, "daddy issues," as you say, flock to you. It could be that you and these girlfriends share histories of absent dads. Never doubting Carlos's love, his absence was a staggering presence. You are open to processing what this still means.
Levi, you have been the center of attention all your life; fought and fussed over in the name of love. Perhaps the controversy you were exposed to has made you stronger, rendering valuable grit, grounding and confidence needed to survive and thrive in the competitive world in which you operate. Here is my wish for you looking forward to your thirtieth birthday party. My dream is that most, if not all, of your entire family will attend. It will be a fantastic event, a long time coming and sweeter for it.