“Up in the Air” – Thoughts on Relocation and the Gift of Being Uncomfortable
One of the toughest cases in family law is the relocation (also called removal) case. I know this personally and professionally. Recently, a relocation case that I won in the trial court was affirmed on appeal. This was satisfying as a litigator – but it also made me reflect as a dad. So I thought I'd talk about it here.
After we divorced, Vanessa moved back to Texas with our son. She did this with my agreement – and no litigation was necessary. For almost nine months, I flew from Chicago to Houston a little more than every other weekend. Vanessa graciously let me stay in her home on these visits. I made A-List status on Southwest pretty quickly during that time and managed to become an “Executive Elite” with the rental car company.
I cried a lot during those months. Leaving Texas each weekend became an impossible and gut wrenching experience. I talked and did FaceTime with our son every day. But I missed out on a lot: those little moments in the kitchen, at bath time, and around the dinner table.
At a certain point, I decided that I could not keep it up. The strain and cost of travelling constantly built up. I resolved to relocate myself and take a chance and start over professionally in the Lone Star State. Luckily, I had some contacts in Houston and I was fortunate enough to join one of the top matrimonial law firms in the state.
During my time in Texas, life was good because I could really be a parent in a full-time capacity again. But it was tough from a professional standpoint. When you are a lawyer, what you do is very specific to where you do it because each state licenses its own attorneys. We lawyers also tend to practice in particular courts in our states. I was a Cook County divorce lawyer. Any of you who know Chicago can imagine what all that means. I was used to things working “the Chicago Way.” I had spent my entire legal career in one city and one law firm. And my Chicago law firm (where I had become a Partner) was a family for me.
But overnight, I became a Houston divorce lawyer (and no longer a Partner). I had never appeared before a Texas judge. It was a state with different divorce laws, different manners and habits, and different norms (on many levels). I was unknown to other attorneys – both in my firm and outside of it. With a nasally accent evocative of “Da’ Bears” skit from SNL - and a tendency to take the Lord’s Name in vain every 30 seconds – I felt like the proverbial stranger in a strange land. I felt immediately and constantly “different.” It was a very uncomfortable point in my life.
But it worked out. I made some very good friends very quickly. The nice thing about Texas is the hospitality of most of the people there. Work colleagues and others helped make me feel at home and get at least partially “Texanized.” Vanessa and I worked cooperatively and her parents and extended family all treated me with amazing consideration and generosity. After a while, I became more acclimated to work and life in Texas. Some of my best friends and colleagues are part of that Texas crew and we remain in contact now.
Then, life intervened again and brought us all back to Illinois. Not as a couple – but as a family. Our non-traditional, coparenting family. We each established homes within a few minutes of each other and triangulated for proximity to our son’s school. We each rejoined the law firms we had left when we moved. This fall, we all will have been back in Chicago for two years. Our son is thriving in school and is doing well athletically and socially. Things are not perfect – they never are. But on balance, I believe that Vanessa and I (individually and as parenting team) made the rights calls when we made them.
By my lights, it is important for the law to allow for relocation of a parent and child in certain circumstances. The vagaries of life being what they are, we need to have the flexibility in the law to deal with them as they arise. However, there are many partisans of post-divorce parenting who decry relocation in very harsh and hostile terms. Much of what these advocates say is true (although much of it isn’t if you unpack some of the social science research intelligently).
In any event, my personal and professional belief is that relocation (of someone else or yourself) can sometimes yield unexpected benefits. I personally do not regret agreeing to relocation. And I do not regret relocating myself. During divorce, and after it, we become transformed. Out of all of the pain and suffering and anger and sadness – sometimes there is a kind of peace and beauty that arises. Sometimes jumping in and taking a leap of faith (on your ex AND on yourself) can clarify a lot of things.
I walk through Hobby Airport now and look at those Southwest gates and think about all those flights and all those nights drinking a martini and having a steak at the Pappadeux before heading home to Chicago. I think about making the car rental selection a little game for me and our son. I think about how a little side trip to the HEB for snacks before the museum became an opportunity for mindfully being in the moment as a dad. Looking back with perspective now – I see things very differently than I did then.
Being a parent who is physically apart from your child is a hard thing. Those of you who are parents in military or other forms of service or employment know this. Those of you in a relocation scenario yourself know this. But we all have to go with the flow sometimes and just make things work – however imperfectly and temporarily. I spent a lot of time during that whole Texas period “up in the air” – literally and figuratively. It was an uncomfortable and unsettled period. But out of it – I think that my sense of gratitude and my attitude as a parent were all positively impacted. It is a truism that our most challenging and tough experiences are often the most instructive and transformative.
So often we fight against discomfort. We medicate it away. We eat it away. We anesthetize ourselves with work and TV and anything other than feeling the pain and residing with it a little. Coming back to Chicago didn’t make everything better. Life is still life. But I am grateful for my relocation experience because now, more than ever before, when life feels “up in the air” – I take a little time and think about the gifts that can flow out of the difficult.