Rarely when fathers seek full custody of a child are the facts so stacked against the mother as in the case between "Monster Garage" star Jesse James and his ex-wife, porn star Janine Lindemulder. The couple are battling in court for custody of 5-year-old daughter Sunny. Not only is Lindemulder a porn star, which is a career that one can argue has negative moral and lifestyle implications on a child's upbringing, but she is married to a felon and has an alleged drug problem. James on the other hand is married to Sandra Bullock, who has been called "America's sweetheart."
I guess it won't surprise you that few fathers get full custody. The ones who even attempt it usually have an arsenal of evidence. According to the Association of Matrimonial Lawyers, the majority of cases are now joint custody.
Bullock and James have had sole custody of 5-year-old Sunny for the past six months since Lindemulder was in jail -- yes, jail -- for tax evasion.
Now Lindemulder has gone from the courts to the court of public opinion by appearing on ABC's Good Morning America and throwing what I'm calling the divorce equivalent of the "shot heard around the world" in accusing Sandra Bullock of being an interloping stepmother who is trying to "take away my daughter." Give me a break. This shot will backfire and be a rallying cry for stepmothers to finally be freed from the tyranny of the stereotype that they can't be loving, wise, and sincerely devoted parents in a child's life.
"What would give her the right to take away my daughter?" Lindemulder asked, even though she admitted Bullock is a good stepmother to Sunny. "This is my daughter. I'm the best mother I can be."
Hmmm, the best mother she can be is not enough. Especially when she is married to Jeremy Aikman, who as E! reported, has several previous state and federal convictions involving alcohol, guns and the manufacturing of narcotics.
While I counsel many women who are anguished when their kids see their ex's new wife -- who may have broken up the marriage -- little media attention is given to the agony of the father who is often helpless when his kids are with another man.
"We see this all the time where the ex-wife lives with a crazy harmful boyfriend who can't see his own kids because the court has prohibited him because he may have been convicted of drugs or abuse and yet he can live with another father's kid," says Glenn Sacks, the executive director of "Fathers & Families." "I've seen many fathers try to bring this to the courts' attention and the courts don't want to hear it."
Furthermore, Sacks reveals how many concerned stepmothers -- who love their stepchildren -- also call the organization inquiring about their rights to be more involved with their stepchildren. "Some stepmothers," he says, "have been more of a mother than the biological mother but have no standing legally in the system."
As a stepmother and a mother, as well as a divorce coach, this is murky territory that must be navigated with delicacy. Again, the litmus test must be the best interests of the child. This is not an issue of who has more money or status. It is an issue of safety. Judges, lawyers, psychiatrists and the public realize the benefits of both parents in a child's life. But when the issue is safety and a child's welfare, sometimes parents have no choice but to go to the courts as hard of a choice and road that may be.
Sunny will always love her biological mother. That is a primal impulse. Stepmothers have to earn love. And the heart is elastic enough for children to love many people in different ways.
Are there some stepmothers who are callous and disinterested? You bet. But many aren't. Especially the ones who don't have children of their own and who pour so much of their love into these relationships -- and don't often get rewarded.
Sandra Bullock also diffused Lindemulder's emotional bomb that she tried to detonate in a letter to the custody judge.
"I am aware that Janine has claimed many times that my desire to have Sunny was because I could not have children of my own," Bullock writes in a letter obtained by ABC News. "As difficult as that is for me to hear, and write, it couldn't be farther from the truth."
Instead, she claims it was Lindemulder's life choices that led to the decision for her not to have kids of her own. According to the E! report, she and James "realized that due to the instability in Sunny's life, bringing another child into the world at this time would not be in Sunny's best interest."
That shows devotion on Bullock's part -- but maybe not wisdom. Having your own child -- or adopting one -- gives you certain rights that you can't obtain as a stepmother.
I also know that many men in second marriages will get married and don't want any more kids, and that is a Faustian choice wives have to make. In fact, I wrote a piece called, "Honey, I'll Marry You But No Kids" for the New York Times on this subject years ago. It has only become more true as the years have passed.
Is the fact that Lindemulder is a porn star reason for a judge to not grant custody? "Being a porn star does not mean you lose your children," says famed divorce attorney Raoul Felder. "That is a very thin reed on which to hang a change of custody."
But courts will look at other lifestyle decisions that cumulatively paint a picture of family life for a child.
Adds Deborah Mecklinger, a lawyer and divorce coach, "If she was a porn star between the hours of 9-5, it wouldn't matter. On the other hand, there are other pieces here that impact stability, predictability and continuity of care." Let's see: felon husband, alleged drug use, porn star.
Don't you think that Sunny, as well as the other kids -- Chandler and Jesse Jr. -- benefit by being in Sandra Bullock and Jesse James' care?
"I know the term 'stepmother' carries many connotations, one of them being a 'glorified babysitter,'" Bullock wrote. " "My commitment and responsibility to Sunny, and Chandler and Jesse Jr., goes beyond that. We are FULLY prepared to accept the responsibility and make Sunny's transition as healthy as possible if full custody should be awarded to Jesse...We are here, and know we may have a tough road ahead of us but we have built a strong and stable foundation, which makes us ready for anything."
I think as a culture we're ready to acknowledge that many stepmothers are great mothers too -- as tough as that may be for some Moms to accept. And some Moms are no saints and the child may be better off with the father.
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