I wish I could say it was the day I mixed the colors and whites together in the laundry and all of our white socks and underwear had a tinge of blue on them.
I wish I could say it was the week I was too tired to cook dinner, leaving us to eat fast food every single night and experiencing the eventual financial and nutritional consequences for the rest of the month.
I even wish I could say it was when my sweet toddler boy suffered from several seizures a day – sometimes more than 50 – and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
But it wasn’t.
It was the day I learned that my family was under investigation by Child Protective Services, because of a choice I made.
The year my ex-husband and I decided to separate was a contradiction of sorts. We had just bought our dream house. The kids were attending an elite private school. He was studying for the Sergeant’s exam and was expecting a promotion at work within a year. Our eldest, who was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was 2, had been seizure free for almost 2 years. Life was good.
In a matter of six months, I saw my marriage dwindle before my very eyes. Within nine months, I had to accept that the best education for the kids was a public school education. And within a year, CPS was investigating me for child neglect.
The children were 4, 6, and 7 years old. Jada was preparing to go to kindergarten, and CJ and Tyra were moving toward the 1st and 2nd grades. One of the first things I learned while parenting multiple children who are so close in age is that when one gets sick, usually we all get sick. That sickness can sometimes take up to two weeks to run its course through the whole family. There was one particular day when CJ had been diagnosed with bronchitis and strep throat. Tyra had a minor sinus infection, and at that moment Jada (who was in a phase where she was really only concerned with magical pixie fairies) was fine.
I stayed home from work to nurse CJ and Tyra back to health and try to disinfect the house of germs so the illnesses wouldn’t worsen. That morning while Jada was getting ready for preschool, the nurse at the doctor’s office called to tell me that they decided to call in another prescription for CJ and it should be ready within an hour. The timing was perfect enough for me finish getting Jada ready, drop her off at school, pick up CJ’s medicine – all within a 5-mile radius of my house and return home. Since CJ and Tyra were sick, they rode in the car, half asleep with me.
After running our morning errands, getting the medicine and returning home, it was evident CJ was suffering. His forehead was hot, he was lethargic, and he complained of a headache. I cajoled him into eating, gave him his medicine and told him to get back in the bed. While Tyra was sick, she didn’t feel nearly as bad as he did, so she watched TV and played by herself quietly.
After seeing that the two kids were settled and occupied, I decided to take a shower. I explained my plans to six-year-old Tyra who asked, “If you take a shower, who’s going to be the babysitter?” I looked into her big, brown, inquisitive eyes and said, “You are mommy’s big girl. And you are the babysitter while I’m in the shower. If CJ wakes up, or you start to feel bad, come and get me, the bathroom door is open, okay?”
And like any mom of littles, I took a quick shower. Long enough to make sure I was clean, and short enough to be back in the living room before the next commercial break. The day progressed, the illnesses waned, and by the end of the week everyone was back in school.
In kindergarten circle time on the first day back, Tyra was asked about her illness and whether or not she felt better. Her reply was innocent. “I’m all better because I’m a big girl and I’m healthy.” And then she said these words. “I was the babysitter and I took care of CJ to help him get better too.” Even though I wasn’t there in person, I can imagine the eyebrow-raising among the two teachers in the room. When Tyra was further questioned about her babysitting activities at age 6 and where I was, she simply said, “Mommy was gone.”
As I’ve replayed this in my mind several times over the past 10 years, and as I’ve known the conversations teachers really have about the things children say in the classroom, I know how this situation escalated so quickly. The school knew we were going through a divorce. CJ’s first-grade teacher called us in a few weeks before for a parent conference because the divorce was making him overly emotional in class and his crying was a distraction. My ex-husband’s work schedule as a police officer made it difficult for him to volunteer at school events, even when we were “happily” married, but since we announced our plans to separate, we began to receive notices regarding the school’s concern for his lack of participation. The two kindergarten teachers initiated a conversation with the head of school, who then had a meeting with the first-grade teachers, and the decision was made to call Child Protective Services for an investigation on the grounds of child neglect.
The investigation began with individual interviews with the children and visits to monitor their behavior at school. Additionally, they found out the name of Jada’s preschool, visited her, and interviewed her teachers. All of this occurred and the investigation was in full swing before my ex-husband and I were ever notified. When CPS attempted to contact the kids’ father, he didn’t answer nor did he return the calls. The case had probably been open 3-4 weeks before my children told me what was going on. One Saturday morning the kids and I took a visit to the doughnut shop for breakfast. CJ asked me about the people “who help families.” I was a little confused, but didn’t think much of it, because he could have easily been talking about police officers or firefighters. My sweet precocious boy looked into my eyes and then said, “But mom, why did they want to know if I felt safe with you?”
The rest of that particular Saturday was a blur. I asked and prodded and asked more questions that led me to the conclusion of the reality of our current situation. I called my soon to be ex-husband in a panic to see if he knew anything and the reply I got from his was, “They called me but I thought it was about one of your students, so I never called them back.” I sent inquisitive emails to the school’s administration about the visits and observations of my children, and finally, to get direct answers, I called the 1-800 reporting hotline myself.
I got the answers I needed from that phone call. I was able to talk to the caseworker in charge of the investigation and her supervisor. I sought legal counsel. I get it…teachers have a duty to report even the slightest issues…but from the school to CPS, our case was handled WRONG.
The next few months were filled with meetings, phone interviews, and hours of creating and pouring over documentation proving that I was a “fit” parent. In the end, the final argument in our CPS case came down to two things: 1. The girls’ hair, and 2. The fact that I always seemed tired, exhausted, and at times scatterbrained when I picked up the kids from school at the end of the day.
In 2007, natural hair wasn’t quite yet an in-thing and as a matter of fact, the afro puffs that the girls wore were frowned upon and seen as a distraction by their schools (because other children wanted to squeeze them…a lot.) In one meeting at the CPS office, I was encouraged to get the girls’ hair relaxed so they could look more like the princesses they admired. And of course, they knew which princesses my daughters admired because occasional interrogation and classroom observations teach you so much about the life of a kindergartner.
As far as my exhaustion was concerned, I was a newly-single mother of three who worked outside of the home as an educator. I hadn’t had a full night’s sleep since 1999, and even that was questionable. The statement on the final report was written as such, “While the mother appears to have a very healthy and loving relationship with the children, she is obviously going through something right now and it is visible at evening pickup.”
If I had a quarter for every time a mom appears to be “visibly going through something,” I’d be a millionaire right now.
The story ended without much more than a slap on my hand from CPS with a mandated promise from me to “do better” as a mother. In reality, it taught me so much more about life and family and faith and trust and priorities.
Until I went through that experience, I knew I had faults. But I didn’t think I had faults as a mother. My divorce quickly revealed I wasn’t a perfect wife, but no one could tell me I wasn’t a perfect mother.
Reality #1: No one is a perfect mother. Even Mary lost Jesus for a couple days when He was a little boy. As a society, we need to stop mom-shaming. Like yesterday.
Reality #2: You will not have a true encounter with God until you realize He is the only person you can talk to without fear of condemnation. At the time I only shared our experiences with a couple of people. I did have to provide character references as part of the investigation and even though 10 people I loved dearly wrote beautiful statements attesting to my outstanding parenting abilities, only two out of ten did not question whether or not CPS was right to launch the investigation. I felt condemned when those who claimed to love me but followed up with statements such as “But you know you know you will have to straighten their hair at some point,” and “Even though you have thyroid disease you should not be taking antidepressants,” and “We’ll vouch for you this time, but if there’s another incident we honestly can’t say we can attest to your character.”
Reality #3: The easiest way to get your priorities in order is to be questioned by some sort of government authority about them. That road trip we took summer 2008 was a direct result of this CPS case. It was necessary for me to leave Dallas, visit my family, and decide on what my priorities were. The outcome was better than I could have ever imagined, and more importantly, it was aligned with God’s will. To read the blog I started when we were on that road trip, click here.
Reality #4: Sometimes God will instruct you to do things that don’t make sense. You must have crazy faith, obey Him, and know that it will all work out in the end. When we returned to Dallas from that road trip, I accepted the fact that I was a mom first. I needed to have a presence in any school my kids attended, and I needed to shift my life’s focus to them. During that season, my kids were my only calling. I resigned from my full-time job, committed to working part-time, free-lance, and temporary gigs that would allow me to pay the bills, and if it wasn’t related to CJ, Tyra, and Jada, I wouldn’t do it. At the time and to a lot of people, none of it made sense. My friendships suffered, my dating life was non-existent, I had no clue what this meant for our future, and I had a hard time trusting people. But I did it operating in crazy faith, shifting my trust to God, and hoping that He would make the necessary provisions. He did just that and more.
So why share? And definitely, why now? Because the Holy Spirit led me to. If any part of this story can help any mom realize it’s totally okay not to be perfect, my job here is done. Cheers to imperfection!