By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Zach was excited about the marriage. The day Kevin and I got engaged, Zach's first words were "Now when someone asks me about my dad, I'll have something to say!" We included him in the wedding preparations, and he had the honor of walking me down the aisle.
The months following the wedding were full of adjustments. Kevin took a new job, while I quit mine, ecstatic that I could finally be a stay-at-home-mom. We bought a house that put us in a different school district, which meant Zach would attend a new school that fall. He was also facing the adjustment of having two parents in his life now, and although he and Kevin got along well most of the time, their relationship endured some rough spots as they both settled into their roles of son and dad.
We thought that we were done making any major life changes for the time being. Unfortunately, while tending to the routine matter of having new wills drawn up to reflect our status as a married couple, we were propelled into a situation that resulted in months of emotional turmoil for all three of us.
While drawing up my own will, I included a request that Kevin be given custody of Zach in the event of my death. Our lawyer explained that regardless of whom I stipulated as Zach's guardian in my will, the ultimate decision in that matter would be left to the courts. Realistically, his natural father could contest guardianship and, although he had never been a part of Zach's life, his role as biological parent would carry a great deal of weight.
Our lawyer explained that the only way that Zach's permanent place with Kevin could be assured was to pursue the termination of my ex-husband's parental rights. This would allow Kevin to legally adopt Zach, ensuring that he could not be removed from Kevin's custody. Despite this promise of adoption, I dreaded the thought that I would need to see my ex-husband again.
Heartsick, I sat in the lawyer's office and cried. I wanted what was best for Zach, yet panic engulfed me at the thought of making any contact with this man.
Ours had been a short-lived marriage, full of emotional manipulation and abuse. Five months after we wed, I became pregnant and finally realized that I had to escape from this unhealthy environment. I knew that there was no way I would bring a baby into the world and have him grow up in that kind of dysfunctional family.
In the years following our divorce, there were no birthday cards or Christmas gifts from Zach's absent father. The only contact my ex-husband made was through intermittent drunken phone calls to me in the middle of the night. On rare occasions, he expressed an interest in seeing Zach but never followed through. I was thankful that Zach remained blissfully unaware of his father's sporadic contact, and thus never suffered from the disappointment of broken promises.
Now, with no word from my ex in almost two years, I was hesitant to risk initiating it myself. What if he wouldn't agree to the termination? What if this failed and precipitated a demand for visitation with his estranged son? I was terrified by that thought. There was nothing I wanted to avoid more than subjecting Zach to this potentially traumatic situation. He was happy with our new family life, and I wanted desperately for it to stay that way.
Our lawyer assured us that we had a very strong case. The minimal requirement for requesting termination was six months with no contact, and we had nearly five times that working in our favor. After thinking and praying about what to do, Kevin and I cautiously agreed that pursuing the termination was our best option. In January 1994 the proper papers were filed and a March court date was set.
I should have expected the morass of legal red tape after having previously endured two and a half years of custody and divorce proceedings. Still, the process proved frustrating. Since we didn't know exactly where my ex-husband was, the simple act of having him served with the necessary legal documents proved to be time-consuming. Once they were delivered, the waiting began. Would he agree to the termination or would he contest? I prayed he would just agree to relinquish his paternal rights, and we could then get on with the rest of our lives.
Of course, he contested. Through his court-appointed lawyer, he proceeded to do his best to hold up the entire process through technicalities. As if these setbacks weren't enough, the courts threw us another curve ball. Not only did both my ex and I need legal representation, but independent counsel was required for Zach as well, to ensure that his best interests were being considered.
This development induced a new wave of panic in me. Until now, we had kept our explanations to Zach very simple. He knew that Kevin wanted to legally adopt him and be his "real" dad and that when it was over, he would have a new last name. Now we had to explain why he would need to talk to a lawyer and that his biological father was not agreeing to what we wanted. This was confusing for Zach, since he didn't even know his natural dad, and I knew from the comments he made in the following weeks that the uncertainty of this situation was bothering him. Kevin and I were both upset that he had to endure these anxieties. While we did all we could to make him feel safe and secure, we continued to pray that this would all end soon.