Sunday, April 26, 2009

What It Is: Parenting and Morality revisited

It's raining in Brookside, and all the animals are trapped inside by their terrible humans who can't bear the thought of having pets out in a storm. The pathetic brown beagle is under the dining room table, at the feet of the boy, who is typing a Western Civ paper. The old girl cat is tucked on a shelf of the bookcase behind me, having fled the lean male cat, who rules the roost any chance he gets.

The graduation invitations, in their square white box with "Congratulations, Graduate!" scrolled across it, sit on the buffet. I'm hoping we'll get the event tickets on Monday, so we can send the little cardboard symbols of accomplishment into the care of the postal service. it is all becoming more real to me, with each passing day; we grow nearer and nearer to the day when I will leave my son on the steps of a freshman dorm, and come back home to an empty nest.

Though this is not Lake Wobegone, it has been a quiet week. I had a couple of hearings. One disturbed me, in a way, more than I thought it would. A former client had filed a Motion to Terminate Child Support pro se, and hired me to finish the task when it turned out to be contested. We appeared before the judge, mother and daughter on one side, me and my client on the other. The judge hearing the matter had no idea what circumstances existed other than my client's request to terminate due to age and the fact that his daughter had not provided any proof of attendance at post-secondary education despite the passage of two semesters and his repeated requests that she do so.

The judge was ignorant of anything else. He had no idea that the girl had used call-blocker to keep her father from checking on her; that she had had a child in her senior year of high school whom she would not let her father see; that the daughter's mother had a good-paying job and also blocked my client's calls. The discord arose from the fact that my client was married to another woman, and had four other children, and though he tried to integrate this child into the lives of her half-siblings, the mother was not having any of that and wanted him instead to leave his wife and come be with her. The wife, for her part, had put aside all rancor and invited her husband's one-time-mistress and the child into her home, time after time, despite repeated rejection, and had made a place for the child to visit over the years, a place the child's mother would never release her to enjoy.

Despite all of that, my client had diligently paid support for eighteen years, sending presents, cards, extras, and so forth. But still the bitterness stood as a wall preventing him from an active roll in that daughter's life such as I knew he played in the lives of his other four.

We proved our case, and the judge was none too pleased. He recessed to review the law, then reluctantly terminated support. He was troubled because the girl had enrolled in college, though she had not notified her father and had not finished enough hours for continued eligibility. The judge gruffly said that he knew the law regarding manifest circumstances and the facts did not fit, and so, he grudgingly acknowledged, he had little choice but to find that my client's motion was well-taken.

After granting our motion, the judge told my client that although his legal obligation was terminated, his moral obligation was not. "You had the moral obligation to support your daughter when you came in this courtroom," said the judge, "and that moral obligation still exists."

My client left the courtroom with tears in his eyes. I assured him that the judge could never know how mother, and, taught by mother, the daughter, had rejected him time after time; how the mother's bitterness when he chose to remain with his wife instead of leaving to be with her full-time seemed to have poisoned the daughter; how the daughter rejected his efforts to help with the grandchild, and rejected the attempts of her now-grown half-siblings to make friends with her. I assured him that he was a good father, a good person, someone who had made the best of a situation that had been caused, in part, by an infidelity to his marriage that he regreted even if he did not regret the child born of his indiscretion, whom he loved despite the strain between them.

My words were small, cold comfort.

I am not convinced that the judge had a right to lecture my client on morality. It seemed out of place -- mean-spirited, even. It seems to me that just as the law does not allow our elected representatives to legislate morality, neither should the law allow jurists to determine jurisprudential matters based upon purely moral precepts. While I don't necessarily disagree with the judge's admonishment, I do feel that -- as the late Leonard Hughes once said to a defendant who had just called me a honky b****, "while it might be true, it ain't your place to say".

Still, perhaps that judge's comments will germinate into continued, voluntary assistance by my client, whom I know to be an essentially conscientious person.

For me, the incident was more than just a reminder of the awesome and at times overwhelming burden of parental obligation. I came away with a sense of the complexity of human relations, something I had not forgotten, but on which I do not frequently focus as I move through each crowded day.

I am an optimist and an idealist. I often stand in the large common area of the Jackson County juvenile court and peer straight into the eyes of a parent whose child is in the system, searching for validation of my belief in the essential goodness of humanity. I give
money to many of the homeless people who stand on our streeet corners; except for a certain notorious gentleman who shall go unnamed but whose identity my Kansas City bretheren can guess, I even put coins into the cups of panhandlers on the Plaza. Though I have a quick temper when the safety of those whom I love is at issue, or when I feel that I have been mistreated, in all actuality, I am something of a pushover.

So, as the elevator closed on my client's somewhat dejected countenance, and sank one more floor to the exit for the chosen few -- employees, judges, officers and lawyers -- I found myself thinking, "This will all work out for the best. He'll give her money, or give money to her mother, even though he doesn't have to do it." Such an outcome, I told myself, would perhaps -- finally -- convince the girl that her father loved her -- because if he did not, why would he pay without a court order? Maybe, I told myself, as I hoisted my messenger bag on my shoulder and trudged to my car, maybe, just maybe, it would make up for everything out of which she feels cheated, including a greater share of her father's time and affection.

The dog is asleep. I don't see the boycat; and the girl cat has snuggled deeper into the space she's made amongst some of the fragile pieces in my angel collection, on the dusty surface of the bookshelf my great-grandfather made for my older sisters. I can't tell if it's still raining. I hear the steady clackety-clacking of the keys of my son's laptop from the dining room. It's quiet here in Brookside, and I am tired, the vaguely sleepy, somewhat sheepish and delicious kind of tired you feel from a day spent visiting with friends, puttering around your favorite bookstore, and pretending, without remorse, to clean the house.

Mugwumpishly tendered,


  1. Got here after reading your post via Dan. Enjoyed this one and only post. Wish there were more. You're a good writer.

  2. Lost sight of the site! Back on track. Thank you!!!!


The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.