Lesson from my most memorable case: Being a parent is hard work, and it is ‘heart’ work

By Tonya Graser Smith

With Father’s Day approaching I’ve been reflecting on my most memorable case.

It was years ago, but it has stuck with me. And I guess it’s because it was the first time in my career I saw one of my clients go to bat for his child full force – no regrets, no take-backs, no giving up, even when I told him he may lose and would spend a large amount of time and money while doing so. But he knew in his heart he had to do this hard work for his child to have an opportunity to prevail with better opportunities.

A custody case that shaped me as a lawyer and a parent

My most memorable case was a custody case I had when I was a brand-new lawyer. I represented a dad who had one little boy. This boy was in early elementary school and had been in his mom’s custody since he was a toddler. He got to see his dad on some weekends and a few holidays. Then his dad’s job moved Dad more than five hours away. Dad still saw his son after moving, because he drove all that way for each and every weekend and holiday custody time.

Meanwhile, this little boy was not having a good start to elementary school. In kindergarten and first grade, he was often in the principal’s office for hitting and punching other kids and even throwing a desk. And no surprise, this boy had poor grades in every subject, too.

The dad came to me and said, “We have to change custody.” I knew it would be tough – and told him so. And not only would it be difficult, but a long road ahead as custody changes and custody trials do not happen quickly.

We began with a temporary custody hearing, and I will never forget what the judge said. She said, “I’m going to make a really big change in this boy’s life in the hope that it makes things better, because they can’t get any worse.” She gave temporary custody to the dad, effective immediately. The little boy would immediately leave his home in North Carolina, move to a new state, start a new school and live with a parent whom he had not lived with full time since he was a toddler. The little boy was enraged and in tears upon learning the news. But I also remember Dad calmly picking him up and kindly talking to him, because Dad knew they would both be okay.

About six to nine months later, we went back for the permanent custody trial. During this time, the dad tutored his son and brought in additional tutors. The little boy started getting Bs and Cs and was no longer having angry outbursts that his mom herself had said she couldn’t handle. It wasn’t that the mom was a bad mom. The boy just needed something different. Dad was able to emotionally support the little boy and help the little boy maintain a positive relationship with his mom.

His dad obtained permanent custody. He didn’t just hire me; he put in the work. Dad worked, cooked, cleaned, tutored, and I don’t think had too much time for himself at times.  But Dad did all of this hard work with his whole heart, and his little boy knew it and felt it every day.

Remarkable, life-changing outcome for the little boy and me

It was remarkable. You always have to have conversations with your client about how you don’t know if you can get what they’re asking for or all that they are asking for. And it was the sheer persistence and dedication of this parent – and not any magical legal techniques of my own — that won the day and got this child into a better situation. It taught me as a parent to always be an advocate for my children and to never back down when I know what was right for them. It taught me to have guts parenting when sometimes I do not feel like I have any guts.

If you are going through a soul-crushing divorce or dealing with many of other unplanned life changes, I encourage you to do the hard work that is “heart” work. Advocate for yourself.  Advocate for your child. Advocate for your friends. If you know something can be better, don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. You may change your own life. You may change someone else’s life.

I learned to always trust that my clients know what is best for their families and to push my clients to never give up on themselves. I am better attorney and parent because of my client – that dad who did the hard work that is “heart” work.