It’s been almost seven years since my divorce. At that time my children were both in diapers, my son was still devouring bottles, and each needed one if not two naps everyday. Thankfully, as of this post, neither has been rushed to an emergency room, the Heimlich maneuver has yet to be employed, and Child Services doesn’t know where I live. I still tuck them in bed every night they’re with me and Martha Stewart would be proud of my culinary prowess as we enjoy a home cooked meal around an actual table, together. But if you were to eaves drop on some conversations between the Jap and I, especially in the early days, you’d have thought my kids were being abducted every other weekend by the world’s vilest super-villain with a penchant for poor hygiene, running with knives, and shoving pennies in electrical outlets. My parenting aptitude have and remain under constant surveillance and screw-ups still are quickly and passionately noted.
If there is one element of divorce that proves more difficult than all others it’s co-parenting. This is largely because neither you nor your ex has to listen to or do anything you tell the other and this is made even more enjoyable when you’d prefer to stab them in the neck with a led pencil. If your kids are at their dads and he wants to ram soda and Pixy Stixs down their throats at 2am on a school night there’s very little you can do to change that.
All divorced moms have been through the following drill, the kids come back to your house and begin recounting their weekend at dads and by the end of the conversation you’re white knuckled with steam coming out your ears and fire burning in your eyes. But you don’t who to be more angry with, him for being so stupid or you for saying ‘yes’ in the first place.
Disagreements naturally occur between any parents but add in a helping of heightened emotions and frustrations, a dash disrespect and animosity with a side of occasionally wishing the others demise and we now have a Molotov cocktail ready to ignite at the slightest provocation. And more often than not this powder keg’s fuse is lit courtesy of an ex-husbands thoughtless and irresponsible behavior.
These parenting snafus could be trivial like allowing little Suzie stay up past her bedtime on a school night or more serious as letting your 12-year old watch R-rated movies. Regardless of the specific incident the main point is their dad is parenting in a way you don’t agree with and you feel something must be done about it. The standard reaction in these situations is to immediately dial his phone, send a text, email, or even pile the kids in the car and head over to his place all so you can let him know what’s what. And his normal response to your knee-jerk reaction is to ignore, belittle, criticize, or go ballistic on you for ever questioning his fatherhood skills, all of which might lead to his next child support check mistakenly getting lost in the mail. Don’t ask me how I know.
While it’s easy to say divorced parents should simply put their differences aside for the sake of the children it’s a lot more difficult to put into action. Old wounds remained unhealed, emotions are unusually intense, and egos often get bruised and the natural course of action is to make the source feel as much pain as they caused you – ‘playing nice’ isn’t an article in divorce settlement agreements.
So how does a single mom talk to her kid’s father about these sensitive topics without causing her life more difficulties and stress than it already has?
The first thing to understand is all men are toddlers – who shave. And like two year olds we get upset quickly and our feelings are often hurt at the slightest indiscretion. And contrary to what you’re told men are very sensitive creatures who don’t want anyone telling us what to do which includes directions and we certainly don’t appreciate being told we’re a bad parent by our ex wife. And because we persistently think we’re smarter and wiser than we really, rarely will we admit when we’re screwing up. So here’s a couple of things to consider the next time you want to offer unsolicited parenting advice to your Mr.-Sensitive-Cry-baby-ex-husband.
- He’s not you – this may come as a shock but he isn’t going to do things your way and who’s to say your way is always right? You shouldn’t expect him to handle kid situations in the exact same manner you would. Plus he needs to establish his own presence and influence in their lives and not limited to what you think is correct.
- Remember he’s fragile – His ego is like a delicate flower and the slightest pressure will bruise and damage it. That doesn’t mean you walk on eggshells but you should seriously consider the approach before you go postal on him. Coming out with guns blazing usually means you’ll get shot at also.
- Make it about the issue, not the person – Try to frame potentially tense conversations without direct use of the word ‘YOU’. That pronoun is like a dagger of unfiltered accusation. Make the focus about the behavior and not about him personally. Instead of saying “Why do you let the kids stay up late?” maybe try “Are the kids staying up late when they are over?”
- Have few expectations – It is a mistake to believe that his parenting flaws will suddenly correct themselves because you’ve now pointed them out. Odds are he’ll continue to do what he has been doing for a while – just because he can.
- Keep it open – Twenty years of management has taught me that open-ended conversations around tense subjects usually results in the other person selling himself on your solution. Something like “Cindy has been asking me to stay up past midnight on school nights, are you having the same issue?”
- Know when to fall on the sword – Not every issue is going to be a life-threatening crisis. Believe me I understand the attraction that comes in lighting the ex up but divorce is business and part of good business is knowing when to say something and when to keep our mouth shut. If you bring up every trifling offense he commits then you’ll just come across as the nagging ex-wife who is never taken seriously.
- Let him make mistakes – Most men learn by doing which means we’re going to make mistakes. You’re not momma so stop trying to be. If it doesn’t involve a physical, emotional, or mental safety issue then sometimes it’s just better to give him some rope and pour yourself another glass of Merlot.
- Take a breather – if you get nothing else from this post please remember this. If something just has to be said at least wait 24 hours before doing it. Abraham Lincoln had a habit of writing scathing letters to his Generals during the Civil War complaining about how bad of a job they were doing. He would then place the letter in his desk drawer to mail the next day. He routinely destroyed the nasty grams the following morning because it didn’t see as serious after a night’s rest. Lashing out in an emotional state is never a good idea.
It should go without saying that if the children are in danger then appropriate legal steps should be taken. However, the vast majority of co-parenting disagreements blow up into huge issues because the parents make them big. Regardless of what you think most men will listen to your advice and even tolerate your criticism – we just need to be talked to in our language.