I was 12 years into my relationship when I realized it was a sham. I should have remembered that every fairy tale has at least one dark character to keep the storyline strong — it’s just usually not the prince.

I had married my teenage sweetheart, the guy who taught me to dream huge and never take no for an answer. The guy with a wide smile and easy laugh who wholeheartedly supported me through every last one of my whims, be it yoga or pottery or photography or chicken raising or exploring the Amazon. The guy who was our three kids’ dedicated soccer coach, who himself was a ridiculously talented team player out on the field. The guy who would arrange his work schedule to make sure he could be the room dad at every single elementary school party, who would be there to help decorate our mansion of a house with balloons and glitter for every elaborate birthday party, and who would be there to help pick up after.

I had married the guy who consulted high-profile clients on asset protection while ‘investing’ their money…right into his own bank account. The guy who could charm the living daylights out of any stranger with his charisma and ‘wholesomeness’, all the while coldly screwing over members of his immediate family, including his beloved grandfather. The guy who drained the entirety of his best friend’s savings account. The guy who cowered, hiding in the pool house when people looking for their money and/or revenge showed up at the front door. The guy who got arrested for fraud and actually convinced me it was all a big misunderstanding. The guy who solicited escorts on Craigslist, but whose awesome excuse was that he was really looking to buy drugs and he didn’t know where else to buy them. The guy who when I wept in bed one night over a recent miscarriage, ordered me to go cry in the bathroom because I was interfering with his sleep.

While he lost his integrity, I yearned for more. The life I had found myself in reflected in no way the passion-filled, exotic life I had wanted for myself when I was younger. I turned my back for a few years and somehow ended up a suburban soccer mom, whose pathetic daily highlight was driving my teal minivan for a grande latte to help push me through the afternoon. I was supposed to be Lara Croft when I grew up, dammit. Not sure where or when exactly I veered off the track.

I didn’t know much, but I knew intuitively that the only way to take care of my kids was to start to take care of me. A wildly unhappy, unfulfilled mom is not exactly a solid pillar of familial foundation. So I bought one way tickets for the family to Argentina…as you do. I desperately needed to feel alive, I needed to feel authentic. I urgently needed to feel like dreams still mattered, and I needed to hit the reset button on our situation. Not one to give up easily, I gave my husband the option to come along, invited him to distance himself from who he had become, to breathe fresh air and start to get his shit, our shit, together.

Yeah, that didn’t work. While I felt a spark within me grow while clumsily trying to live off the land in Patagonia, fascinated by the beautiful sounds of Castellano and thriving in a culture where strangers hugged me, really hugged me, multiple times a day, he continued to spiral downward. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a pile of lies regarding his relationship with a certain redheaded Couchsurfer I had graciously offered to host. Enough was finally enough, and the kids and I headed north to Mendoza, the only place in Argentina where we had a contact who would take us in. He followed us. Let the violence begin…

Fast forward nine months, and I went from ‘thriving’ to ‘barely surviving.’ When his parents offered to fly the kids back to the states for a few weeks so they could visit with extended family that they hadn’t seen in two years, I saw it as much-needed break for the kiddos from the drama. I could not shake a feeling deep inside of me, though, of fear. I expressed my concern to my own family that something about this trip did not sit right with me. My parents were obviously thrilled at the chance to see their grandkids, so they did their best to convince me that everything was fine. Meanwhile, the kids were busy making plans to go go-karting with their cousins, to go clothes shopping with their aunt, to go apple picking with my mom on her birthday — there was definite momentum and enthusiasm that would be difficult to burst. At my core, I am an optimist. I ordered myself to be driven by love, not fear.

A lot of good that naïve, new-agey advice did me when the day before their return flight, my husband, without saying a word, got on a plane and, once stateside, informed me and the kids that they were never coming back. It was all part of a very calculated plan that played off my trust and simple desire for the kids to be able to see their family.

Fuck.

I’ve never felt so helpless in my life as when I realized I did not have enough money to buy a flight (deepest thanks from the bottom of my heart, dearest friend Ariel, for making a flight confirmation magically appear in my inbox). I left everything behind in Argentina and got on a plane to Michigan where I stayed for months, in which time I did my best to sort out this disaster.

I almost want to applaud my husband for his skilled acting in this time period. He somehow managed to convince me, my family, and everyone involved that he had calmed down and that now he was genuinely wanting to do what was in the best interest of the kids. That he deserved to be happy and so did I, and that he never wanted to make the kids choose — so the kids could spend half the time with him in Michigan, and half the time with me in Argentina. We could make this a win-win and go about our separate lives peacefully. I deeply wanted fair, I wanted calm…so I stupidly bought that plan hook, line, and sinker.

I went back to Argentina where I had a new house in the countryside and a horse named Amor. I was remodeling the house to the kids liking — a whimsical room painted with clouds for daydreamer Noah, a diva princess room for Ava, and a galactic, black hole, blow-your-mind room for my quirky Stella. You’re a little smarter than me and probably know where this is going. The kids never arrived. The only thing that did get to Argentina was a timely box decorated on the outside with ‘Happy Birthday’ messages that contained nothing more for me than divorce papers from him demanding 100% physical and legal custody. Back to Michigan.

Our first court date was a few months out, and in that time he would not let me see the kids. As in, at all. I never imagined it was possible to fall so far from my previous position as a full-time, stay-at-home mom. My stomach sank when I started doing my homework and I realized how well-prepared he was for this divorce. He knew full well what boxes needed to get checked off when it came time to decide who got custody. Since the kids had been living with him for six months, he had ‘established’ physical custody in the eyes of the court, and it unfortunately did not matter how shadily he had acted to get them to the states. From a court point of view, he brought American kids back to the homeland. He had the kids enrolled in school, going to the Christian Reformed church in town, he now had legitimate, decent income, and he had a family support structure nearby. I had chickens and pieced-together freelance travel writing gigs in a ‘third-world’ country 10,000-km away from the nearest family member, and my ‘religion’ didn’t go much further than playing some songs on full volume in Sanskrit while wholeheartedly believing in karma. I had consciously done everything I could to make it so that my life could no longer fit cutely into little boxes, and that decision was now coming back to bite me in the ass.

It was time to get back to the basics. Love over fear. Love over fear. Love over fear. I stubbornly refused to give that idea up. I would not give up my dreams. I would not settle for a mediocre life that was not to my liking. I would not let myself be destroyed by a vengeful man. I would not let my kids grow up believing that dark is more powerful than light. I would not be a victim. I would show my kids firsthand that there is no force in this universe that can stop a one-pointed, laser beam intention rooted in love, and that, yes, karma IS a bitch (and so is their mom when anyone tries to mess with her kids).

It took a year, a year in which my days of acting like a warrior were balanced by nights crumpled up at the foot of my bed sobbing my eyes out. A year in which I felt like a hostage in the US, scared beyond belief knowing that it was all too likely that I could get some custody, but that my parenting time would have to be in the US where the judge had jurisdiction to enforce his court orders. Goodbye, dreams of Lara Croft adventurey-ness, goodbye cloud bedroom, goodbye dream job as a writer specializing in Argentina, goodbye comforting feeling that I finally found someplace that I really, really belonged.

One emotionally, mentally trying year after I landed in the US, the kids and I were on a plane back to Argentina, with full custody and court permission to live or travel anywhere we wanted in the world.

Let this be a lesson to everyone still with me here, reading this: Do not settle for anything less than your wildest dreams. Do not ever manage your life from a place of fear. Do not allow others to dictate what your life will ultimately look like.

There will be forces that appear in your path that will try to hold you down, that will try to make you feel smaller and more limited than what you really are. Know that it’s okay to cry a little at night if you must…as long as every morning you get up, you look those forces straight in the eye and you tell them in an unwavering voice to go to hell.

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