A Personal Essay From Tamika Fuller…Fighting For My Daughter: Power, Wealth, And Hip-Hop
I walked into that courtroom believing that no one would take a child from a good mother; I walked out knowing that, in some cases, money is greater than motherhood and being good isn’t always good enough. It wasn’t until I began to do the research that I realized that the stigma attached to a mother losing custody of her child, the stigma I attached to myself, is not based in fact. According to author and researcher Phyllis Chesler, “For more than 5,000 years, men (fathers) were legally entitled to sole custody of their children. Women (mothers) were obliged to bear, to rear, and economically support children. Mothers were never legally entitled to custody of their own children.”
In her book, Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody, Chesler found that 70 percent of fathers who fight for custody win, regardless of the father’s character or even if he’s an active part of the child’s life. The perception of mothers who retain custody of their children is flawed. They don’t all have their children because the courts decided that they were the better parent, but rather, the fathers didn’t fight for custody. So when a father does fight for custody, male patriarchal privilege rears its ugly head. He’s rewarded for being the rare unicorn that wants to raise his child so much that he goes to court.
Now, place those statistics and that history and situate them in Hip-Hop loving Atlanta where Chris is a favorite son. Throw in my less than ideal financial state and accusations that I had abandoned my first child, and I never stood a chance.
Let’s be clear: I never left my eldest daughter. I got pregnant with her when I was a senior in high school. She was raised by my family for a few years, as is the case in many families who pull together in times of need. In many African-American homes, there is still very much a village mentality when it comes to rearing children. The support system and love my child received is immeasurable. Still, I was placed in the position of having to defend myself when I have been a present, involved, and loving mother for more than a decade. My oldest daughter and I are in a great place, but Chris and his attorneys made it seem as if I dropped her off on someone’s doorstep and never worried about her again.
And it worked. His strategy to malign me in order to gain custody of our child, which was only done to avoid having to report his finances and pay me adequate child support (like he does for all his other children), was malicious and cruel. But it worked. They didn’t focus on my life with my daughter and the round-the-clock care I provided for her. They didn’t focus on the breastfeeding (which had to end because the stress of this situation severely affected my milk supply). They didn’t focus on the love. Instead, they dredged up and manipulated the facts of my past to make me look like a degenerate. The irony here is that he suggested that my older daughter was psychologically damaged because of my absence, but here he is, trying to make me absent in the life of our daughter.
I was a product of a blended household, and I know the psychological damage that can come with that paradigm. According to some statistics, step-children face a dismal upbringing. They may have to battle jealousy and other negative emotions, step-sibling rivalries, as well as parental guilt. Of course, there are also examples of emotionally healthy and thriving blended families, but my fear has always been that my daughter will experience trauma.
Unfortunately, my custody situation with my daughter’s wealthy and powerful father, and the court system that loves him is not unique. Tameka Raymond had to go through it with her famous ex-husband and father of two of her children, R&B singer Usher Raymond. Royce Reed had to go through it with her child’s father, NBA player Dwight Howard. Pilar Sanders lost custody of her three children in favor of her ex-husband, NFL legend Deion Sanders.
There is a favoritism shown to wealthy, male celebrities. If they even pretend to act like they care, even if the evidence clearly shows otherwise, they’re rewarded. Their lies are excused, and their past mistakes are viewed as growth while mistakes made by “regular” women many years ago are weapons used against them.
Norma Mitchell, ex-wife of R&B singer Tyrese has been locked in legal disputes with him over the custody arrangement for their daughter. Something she said recently really resonated with me: “A lot of men with money and more power, especially with passive women, are using the legal system to abuse these women. Then they can point the finger and say, ‘Look at her, she’s crazy,’ because one day you just explode and can’t take it anymore.”
I feel that’s exactly what happened to me. He used the legal system as revenge, to spite me. This man never visited our daughter, never called to inquire about her well-being, and never even sent her a gift until the court battle began. You want me to believe that a man who turned down an invitation to witness the birth of our daughter has unexpectedly developed such deep-rooted paternal feelings that he feels compelled to take her out of my arms at night for 20 days out of the month? Even more callous, he knows I cry myself to sleep without her in my bed at night, the pain of her absence overwhelming. I try to call just to hear her voice, but he directs my calls to voicemail. He warned me that he would resent me for not having the abortion, and that’s what I saw in that courtroom. I didn’t see a man who loved his child so much that he wanted custody. I saw a man who hated his child’s mother so much that he would take custody away from her.
This experience almost destroyed me, but I won’t let that happen. I also never want another woman to feel as alone and hunted as I’ve felt throughout this process, so I am starting a foundation for mothers who are in similar situations. I want to provide support for women who are pregnant and aren’t receiving help from the father of their child. I also plan to provide resources that will educate women on how to have a safe and healthy pregnancy while under seemingly insurmountable stress. My organization will guide low-income mothers to financial assistance as well. When this journey first started, I was only advocating for myself, now I feel compelled to provide a voice for the voiceless.
Regardless of what a judge decides, having less money than the father does not mean that a mother cannot adequately care for her child. And we should not be penalized for not being wealthy in a misogynistic society that is financially hostile toward women. I want women out there who are going through this or who will go through this to understand that I hear you. I am you.
Many people in comment sections and blogs have attempted to paint me as a jealous villain intent on destroying his relationship with his new wife, which could not be further from the truth. I am genuinely happy for them. But surely his wife understands that I want the opportunity to parent my daughter every day as she will get to do with hers.
In a perfect world, we could co-parent amicably. This is not the path that I would have chosen, but I am not giving up my daughter without a fight. Infants should not be taken from their birth mothers when they are fit and able to provide for them. I may not be able to supply my daughter with private jets and other high-end luxuries, but she will have everything that she needs.
Most importantly, she will have me. The mother who anticipated her every kick, who nursed her at her breast, who prays for her every night. She will have the mother who dreamed about her arrival and who has loved her wildly since she was still a stardust.
And there is no price tag that a court can place on that.
To learn more about the plans I have for my organization or if you’re a pregnant or new mom who wants to share your custody story with me, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re all in this together.
To donate to my GoFundMe campaign, click here.