Xavier Legrand’s film “Custody,” which I watched this past weekend at the Chicago International Film Festival, centers around a custody battle in which two children, a boy who looks to be about 9 or 10 years old and a girl nearing her 18th birthday with one foot already out the door, feel threatened by their father. Their protestations fail to persuade a judge to avoid granting some degree of custody to the father.
We learn the father is a menace. He’s easily frustrated and feels insecure about his distance from his children. He takes his anger out on his children and essentially stalks his ex-wife. In the film’s conclusion, the boy is broken inside.
But in the film’s opening scene, the hearing to determine custody, there’s a degree of uncertainty about the parents’ respective parenting abilities. We get both parents’ perspectives (albeit mostly through their lawyers’ words) and we’re not sure whether the complaints about the father are valid. Not to mention, it seems rather unfair that a father would be all but barred from seeing his children.
But, of course, by the end, one can’t help but feel regret for even feeling a modicum of sympathy for the monster.
I wasn’t terribly surprised when my parents, in a nondescript Ann Arbor hotel room in the fall of 2015, announced their divorce, but I was still shaken. The informal discussion that followed clarified that I could spend my time with which parent I wanted to, that there would be no judgment.
I’ll give my parents all due credit: I’ve never really felt outward pressure from them to spend all my time with either in particular. Not to mention, since they divorced after I turned 18, I was not subject to the often-terrible proceedings of a custody battle. And I in no way mean to classify either my mother or father as in a similar camp as the father in “Custody.” But intra-marital disputes have a peculiar effect on children, and splitting the home into two separate circles of people exacerbates that tension, especially for children, regardless of intent.
It was easy at first. The realities of the suburban housing market trapped us in our house for about two years, but even then, it was easy to feel that my allegiance was being tested. Mom would work during the day and Dad would work in the evenings, so when I returned home from breaks, one half of each day would be dedicated to either parent. An invitation to join Mom or Dad to an event or to go to a museum or go out to dinner seemed like a ploy to monopolize my time, to breed loyalty.
When the house was sold and Dad moved to the city while Mom stayed in the suburbs, my ability to split my time between the two became more complicated. This was partly beneficial since Mom’s apartment had more room, and thus a room for me, staying in the suburbs made more logistical sense. But I hate the suburbs. Aside from the library’s large music collection and this one pizza place I eat at quite frequently, I find myself so restless in Northbrook. My friends have different breaks than me, and I’m often alone. Not that I know that many people in the city of Chicago either, but at least there’s a view and parks right outside.
When Mom and Dad lived together, even post-divorce, there was an appearance of responsibility for me to play an equal role in both of my parents’ lives. Now, I know Dad’s rental of a single apartment is mostly out of convenience and financial concerns — how am I supposed to not read some value, or lack thereof, into that decision?
This, I learned, is the cost of divorce: It’s not that your parents are not together, it’s that they’re separated. It’s that every interaction with either one of them is a reminder that you have to repeat the same information to the other, too, and pretend as if they were the one you called first.
Any bit of news they get from you about their former significant other is potentially an armament that serves to justify their decision, and you become complicit in their war. This is all a bit exaggerated; I doubt my parents consciously use me to air out their grievances against each other or to serve as a conduit to each other, so they don’t have to talk to each other, but it’s impossible to escape these feelings when you have to drive the pants that one parent mistakenly took from the house but waited to return them until you arrived so you wouldn’t have to see your ex.
The worst part — OK, not the worst, but perhaps the visibly irksome — is the assortment of old rugs and furniture that dots each parent’s new home. Our living room is in Mom’s. Our family room is in Dad’s. Visible reminders of a house that once was and a family that has been since split apart, ripped into pieces but sewn together to keep up the appearance that things are just as they were.
It’s not that I want the furniture to go away. I want it all back together.