In the ladies’ room of the county courthouse, my daughter Shelly collapsed in my arms and sobbed, mascara smearing her cheeks. “Mom, I have to go on the witness stand next, and I don’t think I can do it. I’m so scared.”
Oh, God, help me! I’m in way over my head.
I held Shelly in a tight embrace and stroked her back. “Honey, you can do this. I know it’s scary, but God is with you.” The pounding of my heart belied the level of calm in my voice. “You have nothing to be ashamed of. Ted’s the one who divorced you, or you’d still be married, right?”
I swiped at moisture forming in the corners of my own eyes, determined not to start crying. I’d shed enough tears over the previous thirty-six months to fill Crater Lake.
On the way to Black Friday sales three years earlier, Shelly broke news that upended my world.
“I never dreamed this would happen to me.” Her face crumpled into a wet mess. I pulled into a store’s parking lot so I could focus on listening to her anguished story. “A few weeks ago I found some ladies’ clothes in the trunk of Ted’s car,” Shelly continued. “When I asked him about them, he said he’d been cross-dressing for a while.”
My heart sank to the floorboards. “Oh, no! The last time we visited and I noticed Ted barely interacted with you and the kids, I knew something was wrong. But I never dreamed it was this. Sweetheart, I’m so sorry.”
Shelly nodded, sopped her tears, and then held up her hand. “Wait, Mom, there’s more. He says he wants to become a woman, and if I can’t live with that, he’ll start divorce proceedings.” She related how Ted had told their ten-year-old twins, Colette and Brian, that he’d felt trapped in a man’s body for a long time. “He painted me as the culprit for not supporting him in his decision to take female hormones. He even had his first name legally changed to Trudy. Mom, I feel so stupid! Why didn’t I see this coming?”
My heart constricted with grief. I took a deep breath. Lord, give me Divine wisdom, please.
Fairytale and nightmare
None of us could have foreseen this. When Ted and Shelly married twelve years prior, my husband, David, and I were elated. Graduates of the same Bible college and with many interests in common, they seemed the perfect match. Ted doted on Shelly, and both were attentive parents when the twins were born two years later. Then the fairytale ended.
Shortly after the twins’ second birthday, Shelly told us that Ted had started working additional hours and occasionally stayed out all night. The family rarely saw him, and when he was home, he sat at his computer for long periods, seldom talking to anyone.
Over the next seven years, Shelly read numerous Christian marriage books, went to several counselors, and fervently prayed over her marriage. But Ted became more distant and secretive until the day Shelly discovered his secret.
On that unforgettable Black Friday when Shelly told me of the impending divorce, we forgot all about shopping. “I have to move out,” she said. “Ted has become verbally abusive. And the kids are confused. I’m telling them what God’s Word says about male and female, but Ted contradicts everything I say.” She began to weep again.
As I tried to reassure her, a vibrant monarch butterfly flitted and dipped close to the windshield. That’s it, Lord. From now on, every time I see a butterfly, I’ll ask you to give Shelly a new life, as Jesus talked about in John 10.
I had no idea the long and arduous journey those prayers would take us on.
Shelly soon found a job as a waitress and located a cheap apartment for her and the kids. She had barely left the driveway after packing up her things when Ted moved another transgender man in with him. Six months later, Ted took the kids to see his mom and reveal to her that he was gay.
The battle for custody lasted three long years. Ted often missed court appearances. Shelly’s lawyer cancelled a date and failed to tell her. Week after week, at Ted’s insistence, the kids went back and forth between the two homes. Brian started defending his father, screaming at Shelly that she wasn’t a loving Christian if she refused to call Ted by his female name.
“This is a trial I would not wish on my worst enemy,” Shelly lamented. I felt the same. I had trouble sleeping and developed stomach issues. Each time Shelly experienced a setback, my faith took another beating. When will this end, Lord? Will Shelly ever have a normal family again? In my times of prayer I vacillated between blaming myself (Where did I go wrong?) and blaming God (When I prayed for a godly spouse for my daughter, why didn’t You answer?).
Although I gave Shelly my best words of encouragement, my own soul lay in a heap, bruised and confused. Every time she called, I braced myself for more bad news.
Pressures in parenting
After Ted, dressed as a woman, arrived at a church event to pick up Colette, one of the leaders scolded Shelly for not warning them that Ted was “so deep” into the gay lifestyle. Shelly was crushed that a Christian sister would find something to blame her for, instead of offering support in the face of Ted’s outrageous actions. At a Boy Scout meeting, a mom pulled Shelly aside and took her to task for not supporting Ted’s lifestyle.
From many sides, Shelly felt pressure to surrender her biblical values so that Ted could live the way he wanted with no accountability. She lost her appetite, couldn’t make decisions, and showed signs of depression.
But the kids were the ones who suffered most. When Ted planned a birthday party for the twins at his home, not one child showed up.
“Mom, it was so pitiful to see Colette crying, wondering why no one came to their party,” Shelly told me. “Brian tried to appear brave, but I could see the hurt in his eyes.” Then she added, “Ted makes the kids call him Mom. And I overheard Colette tell a church friend, ‘I don’t have a dad.’ I nearly lost it right then.”
I knew that Colette had reverted to baby talk and played with toys much too young for her. She also developed a form of ADHD. Shelly had to take Brian to a child psychologist for childhood PTSD.
I wept with Shelly for her lost dreams of a happy, whole family. And I kept praying for signs of a new life for her, even on days with no butterflies.
Battles and victories
As I stood in the courthouse ladies’ room reassuring my daughter of God’s love, I had to ask myself, Do I really believe what I’m telling Shelly? I decided in that moment that even if the judge didn’t rule in Shelly’s favor, it wouldn’t change God’s love for her. No court could overrule His grace and faithfulness to our family.
While David accompanied our daughter into the courtroom, I sat in the hallway and prayed. In another hour, they reappeared with Shelly’s lawyer. The judge had granted Shelly most of the custody time. Ted and his partner were allowed to have the kids two weekends a month. Shelly had petitioned the court to let her move near us — a five-hour drive across the state — but the judge denied that request. It was not the full victory we wanted. But it was a victory.
The battle did not end that day in court. I wonder if it ever will. But David and I remain faithful in our continual prayers for Shelly, the kids, and Ted. In spite of the grief he’s caused our family, I do not wish Ted any ill. I often pray for him and bless him, asking that he repent and return to the ways of the Lord.
Walking through this valley has forced me to examine my heart and my prayer habits. When I ask God for a certain outcome and it doesn’t happen, is my disappointment in Him justified? Is my faith based on my prayers, or is it grounded in the Father, whose love and wisdom supersede my requests?
I’m learning to rely on the Lord to send Shelly the help she needs in His own time and ways. From friendships to parenting help to money for a car when her old one died, God has proven faithful beyond our wildest dreams.
Shelly landed a new job this year, one that gives her more time with the twins. Brian is less antagonistic toward her. And I’m learning to trust God more. The butterfly prayers are working, not just for Shelly, but also for me. Thank God for His bottomless grace.
- Butterflies for Shelly - April 19, 2018