Thank you to Cosmopolitan.com for contributing this guest post.
Sara McKenna’s son was 2 weeks old when she learned that her ex, Bode Miller, had filed for custody. McKenna had moved to New York to attend Columbia University two months earlier and gave birth to Samuel Bode Miller Jr. there. Unbeknownst to her, Miller had already filed for custody in California and sent the papers to McKenna’s house in California.
Though McKenna had filed for temporary custody in New York three days after Sam was born, a judge volleyed the case back to California, claiming that McKenna had displayed “unjustifiable conduct” according to the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, which allows courts to refuse jurisdiction if a parent took a child from one state to another improperly. The judge said that McKenna’s “appropriation of the child in-utero was irresponsible, irreprehensible.” An outraged women’s rights groups filed a joint “friend of the court” brief on McKenna’s behalf. In it, they state that the judge misinterpreted the UCCJEA, which applies to born children, not those still in-utero.
“It was unprecedented to have a judge basically accuse a woman of running off with her fetus,” Sonia Ossorio, the president of the National Organization for Women-New York City, said in a statement. “The constitution grants adults, including pregnant ones, their right to liberty. This never was just about a custody case, it’s about pregnant women’s rights.” The appeals court agreed, bouncing McKenna’s case back to Manhattan.
Here, McKenna shares her story with Cosmopolitan.
I was seven months pregnant when I moved from California to New York to go to Columbia University. I had no idea that move would cause an uproar around the world.
Two weeks after I graduated from high school, I joined the Marines. After training, I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, an hour north of San Diego. My mom had been diagnosed with a terminal illness when I was 15 and died when I was 19. I managed to get home just in time to say goodbye — I like to think she was waiting for me. I immediately returned to Camp Pendleton after her funeral. The Marines felt like my family by then.
After I finished my enlistment, I got hired with a fire department in San Diego. Things were going well: I was 26 and owned a house, a car, and a dog, but I didn’t have a boyfriend. I signed up with an exclusive matchmaker that required a rigorous screening. All the sites my friends used were more like hookup sites. I was not interested in that.
At the time, I was working 72 hours a week at the firehouse in addition to taking classes at a nearby college and working another part-time job. I didn’t have a lot of spare time to find interesting men to date. When the agency asked for my requirements, I said, “a nice guy to fall in love with.” The first guy was nice, but not my type. So I clarified — tall, athletic, blonde with blue eyes — and was set up with Bode.
We met for dinner in April 2012. You would have never known he was famous — he showed up in wrinkly jeans, a polo shirt and tennis shoes and lived on an old yacht in San Diego Harbor. We had a great time — I found his laid back-attitude refreshing. He made me laugh. We started dating, and on May 23, after he bought a new yacht, we flew to Florida to see it for a mini-vacation. I had just started taking the pill less than a month before — and soon learned it had been ineffective.
When I discovered I was pregnant, Bode was traveling. I asked him to come home early, so I could tell him in person. We met at his boat, and I told him that I wanted to keep the baby. I said he could be involved if he wanted to and that I would love it if he did. If he didn’t want any part of it, I said that I was going to do it on my own. I left in tears.
I knew early in my pregnancy I couldn’t continue working as a firefighter and be a single mom, so I decided to finish my college degree. I chose Columbia University — in addition to being an incredible school, they have breastfeeding rooms on campus and family support networks. When I learned that I could adjust my classes depending on Sam’s needs, I was sold. I texted Bode in November to let him know my plans to move. He never responded.
I moved to Manhattan in December and started school that January when I was eight months pregnant. I had always planned to do a natural birth but sensed something was wrong around Valentine’s Day, my due date. I finally told my doctor that I wanted a C-section, which happened on February 23. Sam was 10 pounds, and his umbilical cord was also wrapped around his neck — there was no way I could have delivered naturally safely. Sam needed oxygen immediately and was whisked away, which meant I didn’t get to see him for an hour. I was a wreck. But then they brought him in wrapped in a blue blanket and I just held him and kissed him for hours, totally enamored with this little blue-eyed angel.
I filed for temporary custody of Sam in New York when Sam was 3 days old. Two weeks later, Bode’s lawyer called to say he had already moved for default custody in California and I had 48 hours until the hearing. I hired a lawyer who was able to stop the order — but not the entire case. If he had not, Bode would have been granted full custody of our son. Bode had me “served” with paternity papers to my home address in San Diego, knowing I did not live there. Since I never responded to the paperwork, they used default custody as a tactic.
We went to New York Family Court that May. There, Bode’s lawyers accused me of “unjustifiable conduct” for moving while pregnant. I gave up my career as a firefighter, moved out of a house I had recently bought to attend Columbia University, one of the best schools in the country, for one very important 10-pound, blonde-haired reason: I felt it was the best thing I could do for Sam as a single mom.
Since Sam was born I’ve worked extremely hard to provide him with all his needs and wants. I work part-time at night in addition to going to school to make sure we have a decent life and food on the table. It’s exhausting but necessary. Everything Sam has, I have provided.
Unfortunately, the New York referee agreed with Bode’s lawyers, and she sent my custody case to California. On September 4, a judge ordered me to hand Sam over to Bode.
The day before Bode came for Sam, I wanted to stop time. I remember seeing the car pull up — and Bode getting out. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to say, “Please don’t take him! Let’s try to figure something out!” But I knew no matter what I said, Bode was going to take Sam. My heart felt like it was being ripped out as I watched Sam being taken away.
After Sam left, I emailed my dean and withdrew from school. I quit my job, too. I was a mess. I wasn’t able to sleep — when I did, I had nightmares. And then when I woke up, my life was a nightmare.
I realized a week later that being catatonic wasn’t helping matters. It certainly wasn’t bringing Sam back. So I pulled myself together and asked my dean if I could start school again. He let me. Then I focused on finding any custody case that could help me get Sam back. I was going to keep fighting. There were countless nights that I was up until 3 a.m. researching cases, and I’ve decided to pursue a degree in law to help anyone else who might experience this in the future.
My attorney challenged the New York ruling, and I went back to court again and again, including to the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division who overturned the referee’s ruling, sending the case back to New York. My attorney immediately petitioned the court to have Bode return Sam to me. The judge asked my lawyer, “Can she live another few days without her son?” My attorney told him, “She can survive, but is she living?”
During the period Sam was gone, Bode sent me a photo or two a week, but it wasn’t enough for me. I would look for photos of Sam on Instagram and Twitter and saw that Bode was calling him Nathaniel. That was really heartbreaking. Our son’s name is Samuel Bode Miller-McKenna. Calling him anything else is just confusing. There were also tons of photos of Bode’s wife holding Sam like he was her baby. That was very hard to bear.
My life stopped the moment they took Sam out of my arms, and it didn’t begin again until Bode handed him back to me. I was sitting in court when I heard Sam’s sweet little voice down the hall. As soon as I saw him, I reached out and said, “I missed you!” He put his arms out for me and said, “Mama!” We still had to deal with a court hearing that day, but I didn’t care. I could breathe again. I was whole. The next day was my birthday. I woke up next to Sam, and he started giggling — that was the best present I’ve ever received in my life. My hope is that Bode and I can work together to finally give Sam a stable life. That’s all I want for our son.
Since that first court case, a small army has rallied behind me, including the most amazing women’s rights groups and a few brilliant attorneys. I have also received countless letters, emails, and words of encouragement. It has been humbling to see so many people come to my aid. The only reason I have Sam back is because of good people who stepped up to help me, and for that I’m eternally grateful. I’m also hopeful that because of them, and this case, this will never happen to another woman again. This is an important precedent, and as painful as it has been to experience, my sincere hope is that the outcome means others will be spared that pain.
Image credit: Kathleen Kamphausen for Cosmopolitan.com