Last week the custody battle between Sandra Bullock's husband, Jesse James, and James's ex-wife, Janine Lindemulder, exploded into public view as Lindemulder took to Good Morning America to make her case. It seems that while Lindemulder, a former adult film actress, was serving a six-month sentence for tax evasion, James won a temporary order granting full custody of their 5-year-old daughter Sunny. He now seeks to make it permanent, alleging that Lindemulder is an unfit mother and a drug addict, and that Lindemulder's husband is a convicted felon. So far, Lindemulder has passed a drug test, and the court has ordered that Lindemulder's husband stay away from the child.
If it seems it couldn't get uglier than airing very dirty laundry on national TV, you don't know family court battles, the nature of mom-stepmom antipathy, or the extent of our culture's love of a catfight--regardless of the players or the details. On GMA, Lindemulder asked of Bullock, "What would give her the right to take away my daughter?" and said that while she has made terrible decisions in the past, she's on the up and up, and "I am the best mother I can be."
Unfortunately, the well-being of a kindergartener hangs in the balance. In a letter to the court, Bullock said that she had decided not to have children of her own because it wouldn't be good for Sunny, and that Lindemulder's erratic behavior had necessitated her (Bullock) cutting back on her work commitments, never knowing what Lindemulder's or Sunny's state might be on a given day.
It all sounds pretty familiar to many who live in linked households with children post-divorce. As I researched, wrote, and promoted my book Stepmonster recently, I heard again and again from women with stepkids embroiled in custody battles. They truly felt their stepkids would be better parented by their husbands and themselves. And that their husband's exes were unfit mothers. I also saw stepmothers like Bullock who bent over backwards and sacrificed their own lives and happiness for the sake of stepchildren who benefited from but didn't necessarily appreciate it in the moment or even years later--and shouldn't be expected to. If Bullock is truly giving up having a child with James for Sunny's sake, she needs to see a therapist who understands remarriage with children stat--and start considering her own needs and desires, too.
As someone committed to telling the story of divorce and remarriage with children from the stepmother's point of view, I am surprised to find myself pitying Lindemulder, who is trying to reinvent herself as a tattoo artist, has asked that James help her pay for a better apartment--his allegation that she lives in a "low end home in a fairly undesireable neighborhood in Hollywood," part of his case against her, is one he could easily remedy--and has expressed interest in being a cooperative co-parent. She could be a manipulative, impossible, drug addict who is lying and putting her child in harm's way. In which case, she should and hopefully will lose custody.
She might also merely be manipulative and impossible. In which case, Bullock and James will, like everyone else, brace themselves for a crazy ride for the next dozen or so years. And suck it up rather than digging up dirt and mounting a campaign to discredit a little girl's mom. While there are no actual figures on the phenomenon, family court judges have commented that it is not unusual for a woman to be deemed an "unfit mother" by her ex-partner when she is merely enraged, unpredictable, and inconvenient for her ex-husband and his wife or partner to deal with.
There are millions of divorced dads out there who want to parent from the front lines-but James wasn't one of them for quite some time, it seems. According to several reports, James left Lindemulder when she was seven months pregnant with their child, and had virtually no contact with mother and child for two years after that.
Why is this story being framed in the media as a catfight between a porn star and a megawatt movie star, rather than a deadbeat dad who gets religion and decides to do the right thing in the eleventh hour? Why is Lindemulder being excoriated while James--just as tattoo-covered, in his third marriage, a guy who married a porn star and then left her very pregnant, apparently essentially abandoning his child for two years--is given a pass by the media? In divorce, in the media, and in family court, double standards and hypocrisy may trump the best interests of the child.