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Protecting Myself & My Baby Legally (While Staying Friends with My Ex)

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I’m now 34 weeks pregnant, and I have been wanting to write a post about legal advice for single moms. It was very difficult for me to find good information on this when I first got pregnant, and I thought it would be helpful to others, but one of the reasons it’s difficult to find this advice, according to my friend who is an attorney, is because the laws regarding custody, child support, and parental rights vary so much from state to state.  This was pretty much confirmed to be me by another mom who had been single and pregnant when she had her daughter and had moved to a different state later after her daughter was born. The language and rules of the courts are different between the two states and pretty confusing.  Decisions she made when her daughter was born affected things later in another state that she couldn’t have known about.

After this enlightening conversation, I spoke to a judge in my home state, where my daughter would be born, about how I should proceed and asked him lots of questions about what kind of decisions would affect my rights, etc…  I asked him what I needed to do to file for child support (here in Mississippi, it involves an office visit, a DNA test, and $1,000). I asked him how much child support my daughter was entitled to (I got some baseline numbers, but different things affect the total outcome that a judge will decide). I asked him what things could negatively affect my outcome in court, or if I had any risk of being deemed an unfit parent (I don’t). I asked him if giving my child my or my ex’s last name would affect our parental rights (it doesn’t here, but it does in some states). Once it was done, it was a huge weight off my shoulders. I was now armed with all the information I needed. So that’s the basic advice you should take. Reach out to a legal professional in your state before you give birth and get the answers you need. Find out how much it will cost. Find out who you need to contact, what your responsibilities are, and make the best choices for your child and yourself.

The thing is, as important as it was, all of this stuff was very scary to me. I wanted to put it off. I was afraid of what my ex would think. Talking to a lawyer felt, and I hate to admit this, but it felt mean. However, I was also afraid that my ex would get legal advice himself and I would be left defenseless. It isn’t easy to talk about these things. I know from plenty of divorced parents that the bickering over child support and custody can go on a long time and get really ugly. But it was so important to me that my daughter be protected, that she would be provided for, that she would have what she needed in life, and that I do my job as her mom to make sure that happened. I spent a lot of time trying to find the right way to talk to my ex about all these things.

Staying friends with him has been one of my big priorities since I found out I was pregnant. Just because he and I weren’t together, didn’t mean we couldn’t both be adults about it. “Staying friends” is really an oversimplification of what I wanted. What I really wanted was for us to both be good parents and I felt a lot of responsibility to do my part in keeping us together on that goal. Of course I dreaded things getting ugly between us.  I didn’t want conflict or confusion or our selfishness to take precedent over our daughter’s needs. I also didn’t want whatever was happening in our relationship to affect her negatively.  

It helped of course, that I knew my ex was a good guy. I’m not just saying that and I know not everybody has the same experience, but I had a lot of evidence. For one thing, he’s a teacher, somebody you can almost always count on to have good values and to care about kids. He had good relationships with his family. He was well-educated, and when we were together, he treated me very well. Our break-up wasn’t an ugly one. Even though we disagreed with each other about a lot of things, he was kind and patient with me, helpful, and when he did make a mistake he apologized. I wouldn’t necessarily tell everybody who is single and pregnant to give their ex the same benefit of the doubt that I did. You have to make up your own mind, but for me it seemed possible that we could somehow do this together, even if we weren’t together.

It took some time for him to get on the same page about the pregnancy as me, but eventually my ex and I got to the same place. He wanted to be a good father as much as I wanted to be a good mother so we made a commitment to try our best to do that. I can’t speak for him, but here are some things I did to keep the peace that I hope are helpful to you.  In fact, I think they’re things that even moms who are preparing for a new baby with a partner or husband can do.

1.  I got advice from another mom who had been single and pregnant like me. Listening to my friend’s experience of having a baby with her ex was incredibly helpful. She went through many of the same emotions, had many of the same hopes and fears, and knew exactly what I was feeling. She had lots of wisdom gained over the years since she had her daughter. It’s my experience that when something rings of truth, you will instinctively know it, and shortly after, things will happen to confirm that truth. That’s what it was like to listen to her, and then to others, like the judge, and divorced parents I know. It gave me confidence that I was doing the right thing for my baby.

2.  I was patient with my ex. Being vulnerable and pregnant (and in my case, a thousand miles away from my ex) made this very difficult. My family didn’t know him, so I spent a lot of time defending him when what I really wanted to do a lot of times was hide in my room and ignore the situation, but I didn’t have much control over what happened. I could only control the choices I made, and I didn’t want to shut him out, even when I was confused or upset. Giving my ex this kind of time to process his emotions always turned out to be the right decision. Not everybody handles things the same way. I’m a very proactive, make a list, do your research and then make a decision type of person. My ex takes his time more. Letting him do his thing helped us avoid a lot of arguments and let them be discussions where we could compromise and come to mutual agreements.

3.  I stood my ground on things that were important to me. It’s so tempting to try and play nice. We women are often taught to be accommodating and selfless about our emotions, but the easiest way around that temptation for me, was to put my daughter first. Once I did that, it was a lot easier to speak up for what I wanted, because I could speak on behalf of what was best for my daughter. That’s one of the biggest responsibilities you have as a mom if you ask me, speaking up for what you want and need because your wants and needs being met, are important to the well-being of your child.  

4.  I communicated in ways that felt safe. Sometimes things between us would get heated on the phone, so I would take my time and write an e-mail instead, something I could look over and give thought to. The gift of e-mail is that if you take your time, you can say exactly what you want to say without being hurtful.  You can take back an accusation before you hit send. You can reassess. You can plan. You can think about what your goal was. I might be feeling frustrated, but my goal was never to hurt his feelings.

5.  I let him know I appreciated it when he was helpful.  I’m somebody who sadly needs a lot of credit for the good stuff I do. I know I shouldn’t, but it helps me out to get positive feedback, so I try to extend that to others when it’s due.  

It feels like my delivery is just around the corner, but because of all this, I feel prepared. My ex has been exceptionally sweet and committed to being a good dad. He knows where I stand and what’s important to me. He’s going to be a part of her birth and her life. Time will tell what else he and I need to do to keep this up. Nothing about the future is certain. Who knows what our lives will look like when our daughter is 5, 10, or 20 years old. I hope we live up to the challenge, but at least for now I know that she’s going to have a loving mom and dad, despite our non-traditional life and I feel good that I’ve done everything I could to make it work.

Photo: Getty