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Seeking Higher Ground: Terms of Endangerment

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By Nicolette Toussaint 

“You’re not special enough to overcome a bad marriage.” That line, from the 1983 film “Terms of Endearment,” set my teeth on edge when I first heard it.

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Decades later, I think that Shirley MacLaine’s character, Aurora Greenway, had a point. It flies in the face of my feminist credentials to say so, but marrying the wrong man is probably the worst mistake a young woman can make.

Statistics show that most women aren’t special enough to overcome it. In addition to the emotional damage divorce wreaks on men and women both, divorced moms—who get custody in 82.5 percent of US divorces—face poverty at a rate nearly double that of divorced dads (31.2 percent versus 17.4 percent). Because women make 78 cents on a man’s dollar, and because only about 70 percent of moms receive all the child support courts order, red ink tends to flow. (Incidentally, women are no better at ponying up mandated child support. They fall short and/or default at about the same rate as men.)

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Over the past few years, I have watched two divorced local friends—Margot, the mother of two teens, and Gina, who has a six-year old daughter—struggle to make ends meet. Both earn too little in a valley where wages don’t match housing costs. Both experienced domestic violence. Both ran up huge legal bills. Both have juggled the competing demands of full-time work against the schedule-defying needs of their kids.

Margot’s ex drank, threatened her with his truck, failed to pay both child support and his mortgage, alienated his kids, frittered away money they needed for college, then finally committed suicide.  

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A five-year legal battle has pushed Gina into bankruptcy. Her ex has just been awarded joint custody, so Gina can’t move to find a better job. And she’s seriously anxious about co-parenting with a man who has been violent to her.

But Paula Oldham fared worse. When I first met her, Paula was behind bars, wearing an orange jumpsuit at the Marin County Jail. I was there because my church friend Margi McCue, director of a battered women’s shelter, asked me, president of the San Francisco chapter of the National Organization for Women, to publicize Paula’s plight.

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The two met when Paula checked into Margi’s shelter to escape domestic violence. That happened a year before Paula disappeared into a mothers’ “underground railway.” Paula was convinced that Christina, a toddler, was being sexually abused by her father,    Martin, during court-ordered visits. Despite documented domestic violence, despite physical evidence of child abuse, despite financially ruinous legal battles, Paula could find no way to protect her daughter. In desperation, she finally fled to France, accompanied by Margi. Both were seized by the FBI in Spain.

In 1994, Anna Quindlan wrote about the case in the New York Times, noting that Paula lost “her job as a vice president at Wells Fargo, her house…her salary, her savings. Her freedom.” Because the court had ordered shared custody, Paula was charged with kidnapping. She was sentenced to two years in prison. And she lost all her parental rights. Martin got full and unsupervised custody of his daughter.

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I don’t know what became of Paula or Christina. I do know that decades of marching  for equal pay, building shelters and educating judges haven’t changed the world enough. This month, Michigan Circuit Judge Gregory S. Ross forced the mother of an eight-year-old boy (I’ll call her Maria) into a shared custody arrangement with convicted sex offender Christopher Mirasolo.

Mirasolo raped Maria when she was 12. Hence the child. Recently, Maria applied for welfare. That triggered legal procedures designed to garnish paternal support to reimburse Sanilac County. After DNA testing proved paternity, Judge Ross ordered Mirasolo’s name to be added to the child’s birth certificate and granted him visitation rights. He also barred Maria from moving more than 100 miles away.

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Moving was what my own mom—who worked nights as an ER nurse to fill gaps left by unpaid child support and who was stalked by my dad—did back in 1962.

I have a goddaughter, and my advice to her probably sounds like it came from Aurora Greenway. Ironically, it’s not far removed from what conservative Christians say too: “Character counts. Choose carefully, because you’re probably just one man away from poverty. Or worse.”

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Frankly, we (I’m including a lot of fabulous, feminist fathers in this pronoun) might do better by teaching our girls how to choose well, rather than by trying to make the system work after they choose poorly.

Because, from where I sit, it doesn’t look that much different from 1994. Or even 1962.

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Nicolette Toussaint, who is special enough to have overcome more than one bad marriage, is a current Sopris Sun board member.

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The views expressed here are solely those of the author.