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"Why did the chicken cross the road?" It's the proverbial bad joke that's been part of the English lexicon since its publication in the 1847 issue of The Knickerbocker, a New York monthly publication. And yet, as a simplistic metaphor, it's surprisingly profound and applicable to the lasting effects of trauma. Trauma is incapacitating. It holds us hostage to the past, to a false belief system that had we behaved differently, we could have controlled future outcomes. And as a result, we become the chickens who stand on the curb. We see life across the street. We wish to cross and embrace that life but we're too busy looking over back.


When family court terminated my custodial rights as a mother in 2001, I became that chicken. I couldn't move forward. I couldn't recapture what I'd lost. So, I spent days in a no-win, never-ending, downward spiral. I fantasized about leaving my husband, about taking a small studio apartment near my biological children, who were now living four hours and two states away. I thought about running away. I thought about dying in my sleep. Not only had I lost a tangible relationship with my children; I had lost an ability to trust--institutions, social workers, lawyers, men, the love between a mother and a child, and most of all, myself.

Married a second time and mother to eight stepchildren, I couldn't parent. In flawed logic, I reasoned that the family court had made their decision based on evidence they'd gathered, evidence that proved my unfitness. Despite the fact that testimony is purposely skewed in trials for the purpose of winning. There was no question that I had made occasional mistakes in putting my needs ahead of my children's. There was no mistake that I loved my children with every fiber of my being. But, the ability I had to maintain intellectual reason had departed with my custodial rights. I had lost my children. Ergo, I was unfit.

In a spiral of depression and self loathing, I wondered why my husband would ever trust me to care for his children. Fearful that he might lose me, my husband threatened to leave me if I couldn't engage in life. We fought. I cried. He accused. I acquiesed. And then I became pregnant. Though I knew intuitively that he'd never follow through on his threats, and that he only wished to shake me from this stupor of grief and self loathing, I still obsessed that he or the family court system would take away my future unborn child. I scheduled an appointment at an abortion clinic. It seemed reasonable, almost selfless to sacrifice my unborn child's life, than to lose her to the family court system or to a life without both parents.

All in all, I was a mess. While I should have been under the care of a therapist, I didn't trust the profession. The forensic psychologist appointed by the family court system, while he recommended custody be awarded to my husband and I, he also suggested, under cross examination that it was possible I had narcissistic tendencies. In a joke on the stand, the prosecution asked him a rhetorical question--"what woman marries a man with eight children? Answer: A narcissist who wants more people to adore her." Obviously she's never raised a teenager, let alone six who get their periods the same time each month.


"Betrayal trauma," a result of people or institutions betraying us, is a term coined by Jennifer Freyd, a researcher and editor of Journal of Trauma & Dissociation. While the syndrome is common among children of abuse, it can occur in anyone who has been violated or betrayed. For women who are victims of the family court system and/or of abusive spouses who ultimately win custody of their children, the trauma doesn't end with the court's decision. According to Talia Carner, activist and author of "Puppet Child" and "China Doll," many mothers who lose custody of their children never truly recover. Mothering is a most instinctual behavior and it's in our hard wiring to protect and care for our children. Even women who commit infanticide, in some disturbed state of mind, believe they're protecting and preserving their children by killing them. Talia Carner further indicates that mothers who re-establish a relationship with their lost children can mitigate some of the trauma. But, ultimately they're never the same. We're never the same. I can attest to that.

The night before the abortion, I canceled the procedure.  To this day, I can't be sure of the sudden change of heart, although I suspect my fear of never having another child was greater than my fear of losing a child. Though I had gone through bloodwork, internal exams, and an ultrasound that confirmed the fetus' age to be younger than eight weeks, a later ultrasound dated the fetus at thirteen weeks. Whether by serendipity or fate, I'm convinced my daughter was meant to be here. And what is absolutely clear, is that my daughter, now eight, has been a type of therapy. She has an uncanny sense of compassion, senses the pain of others, and according to her teachers, is an old soul who taps into the pulse of suffering and takes it upon herself to repair those around her. As she has grown, as she takes baby steps, I do too. Through her, I have learned to trust, have learned to mother, and have learned to let go of past hurts.

She has become the glue that binds my husband and I together. Her tentacles of love branch out. Where there was bitterness and division, she has bridged a gap between past and future families. And her smile and presence have given me the strength to birth other successes. While I couldn't talk about the trauma or write about it, I could extend myself to other women who had lost children through death or miscarriage. It was easier to sense their pain and to extend compassion than to focus on my own.

 At 44, I gave birth to another child, a boy. While my daughter had become a bandaid for internal wounds, my son became the cherry on top of an emotional sundae. Little by little, I stopped turning around, stopped watching over my shoulder.

I'm on the other side of the road now and don't spend a lot of time looking back. While I've said before that I'm not the same as I was, I'm not in the toilet either. In 2006, I gave birth to  a masters degree. In 2008, I gave birth to a writing program. In 2009, I began teaching english skills to minority teens in an impoverished neighborhood in New York state. The kids, who came from the barrio, frequently from poverty-stricken immigrant families, from gang-riddled neighborhoods, foster care, welfare had little vision for themselves. I began to see them as my kids too. I talked to them. I nurtured them. I yelled at them when they made excuses, and I worked hard to give them a sense of hope and vision for themselves.This July, I turn 50 and feel a sense of urgency to accomplish, to make a difference in my students' lives, to write about the trauma that derailed me. It's easier now. My readers tell me that my writings while detached are visceral. And when I write about painful traumas like the custody hearing, it doesn't hurt in the same way. It's from a perspect of comfort, wisdom, and confidence.  A month ago, I posted an essay entitled, "Permission." Focused on the worst thing I ever lost, it gave me a platform and permission to talk about the pain, on mine and my children's behalf. The outpouring from readers surprised me. When one suffers from trauma, it's a lonely experience and it's easy to perceive that no one else can empathisize or has. Women wrote to me about losing custody, about the voice in my essay that echoed their experiences and feelings. It was gratifying.

And as for the proverbial chicken crossed the road joke, I have a somewhat lame yet apropos amendment. "Why did the children cross the road? So she wouldn't stay a chicken." 

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Betrayal Trauma

Dear Merle,

Thank you for sharing your personal story of trauma and recovery, of loss and triumph.

Although I never lost custody of my children, I had experienced the wrath of a pompuous family court judge who lorded over me. As a result, I now realize that what I felt was that "betrayal trauma" you describe, albeit probably in a much reduced dosage than you did, having lost custody of your children.

I recovered relatively quickly under the love and nurturing of my husband, Ron, and went on to achieve more than most women ever do. Most women do not have the resources and resourcefulness that you and I possess.

I applaud your rising from the ashes of despair to become a mother to so many children who need you and who can benefit from your generosity.

Keep up the good work,

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Dear Merle ...

... a terrible story with a happy middle, and I hope, ending. It's amazing the strength we can come up with when we're poised at the edge, and how quickly things can turn around if we just wait it out.

I trust your story gives hope to others.

All the best,