Many of you already know what has been going on in my family for the past year and a half. When my daughter moved out of my house in February 2013, I never could have imagined that this is where I would be in 18 months. Anyone who hears this story thinks it’s crazy, and no one can believe that this case saw the inside of a courtroom. But it did. And I lost. And now I don’t know what else to do except to tell my story and hope and pray that there is someone who can help me, someone who can help me make sense of what has happened to the child I raised, a victim of “the age of entitlement.”
I wanted to begin by telling the story of a struggling 20-year-old college student, who worked full-time to put herself through college with no help from her parents. I am not talking about my daughter, Caitlyn, I am talking about myself. I was only a few months older than Caitlyn is now, living in an apartment, working full-time and attending college full-time, when I found out I was pregnant. From that very first moment, my life changed. My priorities changed. I was going to be a mother, and this child would come first, no matter what.
Within three years, I would be a soon-to-be divorced single mother. I worked hard to provide a home for Caitlyn and me, and to make sure she would never go without, despite the fact that I still had not finished college. Every week, I crammed a full-time job into 3 days, so that I only worked while Caitlyn was with her father. I spent the weekdays with Caitlyn, attending Gymboree, Mommy and Me, visiting art museums, parks, and aquariums. When she was old enough to start preschool, I returned to college part-time, taking out student loans (which eventually totaled $40K, and I am still paying for). When she started kindergarten, we opted to pay for a Catholic school because we wanted her to have the best, and we didn’t feel that the public schools in our area were good enough.
When I remarried in 2002, Caitlyn walked me down the aisle and came with my husband and I on our honeymoon. We worked hard to move into a better town where she could transition to the public schools. She was a part of our family in every aspect. She came on family trips to Disney and annual family vacations to Sea Isle City. She has been on excursions to Baltimore, Washington DC, and Boston. She has been with us as a family to Phillies games, Eagles games, and Notre Dame Football games.
Caitlyn became involved in various activities once she was school aged. She participated in dance, track, soccer, cheerleading, softball, basketball, pottery classes, voice lessons, and piano lessons. Once she was old enough, we found a summer camp that specialized in drama and music. She attended this camp for 8 summers, and also joined their show choir. My ex-husband and I were not one of those divorced couples who had to keep going back into court to decide who would pay for all of these activities. We put our differences aside and did what was best for Caitlyn. We were parents first, and we made sure she had everything she wanted and needed.
I can say with certainty that Caitlyn was a child who needed strict rules and guidance. Early on in high school, Caitlyn went to the beach for a day with one her friends. Caitlyn and her friend lied to the friends parents about “walking on the boardwalk” and instead went to a hotel room with a group of boys where they drank until Caitlyn blacked out. I realized then that I had to be stricter about where Caitlyn went and how long she could be out.
Having grown up with two alcoholic parents, I feared that the genetic disposition may have skipped me and went to my daughter. This fear rose again when at 17, Caitlyn and her friend snuck alcoholic drinks from the kitchen of our shore house when we were on vacation. And again, when at 18 she was driving with a half-full bottle of rum in her trunk. I was even more concerned when she admitted to smoking pot and driving home afterwards, telling me it “wasn’t a big deal because she wasn’t really high.”
When these things happened, my ex-husband and I again put aside any differences we had to do what we thought was best for Caitlyn. I continued to be firm about curfews and checking in with me, and we put her in counseling and attended family sessions with her. We were worried about what would happen if she went away to college. We agreed that attending community college while living at home was the best choice, and we worked out an agreement to pay for this education in full (again, without involving the courts… we were able to come to an agreement on our own.)
I came up with the idea of the Disney College Program. I thought it would be a great opportunity for Caitlyn to prove to us that she was ready to go away to school. I advocated for Caitlyn and convinced my ex-husband that this would be a good experience for her, even though she would only be able to take 2 classes that semester. The Disney parent information brochure made it very clear that interns under 21 would be placed in “Under 21” dorms where alcohol would be prohibited. Caitlyn’s father and I put out a great deal of money for this program. I purchased luggage, linens, and kitchen supplies and paid her first month’s rent. He bought her airfare and flew her down, and provided a hotel room for the first night until she could move in. Imagine our horror when after only 3 weeks, she was kicked out of the program for underage drinking (although at first she lied to us about why she was kicked out, claiming she was sleeping while her roommate had a party. Turns out, Caitlyn had the party and her own roommates reported her). Once again, we feared for Caitlyn and her future. It was time for some “tough love.”
We came up with a plan for Caitlyn when she came home. This plan included a full-time job, household chores, a curfew, and for her to register for 3 summer classes to make up for the wasted semester. The only part of our plan that she had a problem with was the 3 summer classes. She chose to move out of my house instead of following the rules we established. She packed her things, and moved into her paternal grandparent’s house.
I was very clear with Caitlyn about what this would mean for her – her father would no longer be required to pay child support, I would no longer have the money to help her pay for college, etc. More than once, I told her that she could come home. She didn’t want to. She wanted to live without any rules, with basically no contact with either of her parents or their families, and she wanted her father and I to pay for it. Within a few months of living at her grandparents, Caitlyn retained a lawyer and sued her father and me for college contribution (and a new car.) After over a year of court appearances, certifications, and family mediation, the Family Court in New Jersey found in her favor. We have been ordered to pay the balance of her tuition at Temple – approximately $16,000 per year. The court did not seem to care that she applied to only one school, or that she left community college without finishing her Associates Degree, or that we told her repeatedly that we simply cannot afford out-of-state tuition. Her bill is due in one week. In one week, I am supposed to come up with my share of $16,000 (my ex-husband is responsible for his portion as well) for an adult who has no relationship with me, my husband, or her brothers. Caitlyn has not been to my home since the day she left (in February 2013) despite the fact that I have continued to invite her to family functions, send her cards, gifts, poems, pictures, etc. She doesn’t want a family; she wants money. And the courts have told her that this is completely acceptable.
I have been following Caitlyn’s activity for the past year and a half via Twitter and Instagram, as that is the only way I can be apprised of what she is doing. I am worried that she still has not learned her lesson about alcohol consumption, as prior to turning 21 last week, she often posted about tailgating at concerts and college parties, and once again I find myself fearful for her future. While suing me to pay for her tuition, she purchased a brand new car. She posts pictures of her manicures and new outfits from high-end retail shops. She got a tattoo. She complains about her professors. She complains about her job. She has learned that there are no consequences for her actions. She has learned that if she doesn’t get her way, she can sue. I am worried that without any parental guidance, she will continue on this path that I know will not end well for her.
Although Caitlyn may think she won, no one won this court case. This is a family that has already lost so much. I have lost my child. We lost the moment Caitlyn’s grandparents helped her hire a lawyer to sue her parents, instead of telling her to come home and work it out. These are people who have undermined my parental decisions repeatedly throughout the past 20 years, despite the fact that the only reason they even have a relationship with Caitlyn is because of me. Because I put Caitlyn first, and allowed her to continue to visit with her grandparents despite my ex-husband’s objections. My reward for being the bigger person is having them pay for my child to sue me.
I worry about what to tell my two young sons. Will they get the message that when they are 18 or 19, they can move out, refuse to follow any of my rules, have no relationship with me, and still expect me to support them financially?
I want to help support Caitlyn, not just financially, but in every way a mother supports her child. I want to continue to be a parent to her. I want to let her know that a parent establishes household rules to protect her children, and that a parent has a right to expect that those rules are followed. I love my daughter, and want only what is best for her. The court system may think that it acted in her best interest, but it simply fed into this “age of entitlement” and I am fearful for the future for not just Caitlyn, but for all of our children.