Even with the best intentions, and an agreement in place, sharing custody of kids after divorce can be stressful, and there are times when I feel powerless. For someone like me who is prone to control issues, it can be frustrating. I consider myself to be pretty fortunate that my ex-husband and I have an amicable relationship. It wasn’t always like this. Divorce is never pleasant, especially if you have small children. The judge awarded us joint custody; our schedule is every other week. We attended (separately) a court mandated co-parenting course and had to show the certificate of completion to the judge before the final decree was signed. I found it to be extremely helpful, but also feel a refresher course wouldn’t hurt either of us. For the most part, when we do speak, it’s about the kids, and it’s usually friendly. At times, however, I feel his viewpoints are colored by people in his life whose opinions significantly influence his thought process. Additionally, we are all subject to allowing the opinions of others to cause us to second guess ourselves as parents. My ex-husband often seems frustrated on how to relate to the kids at times, and issues of any depth usually require consultation with me, or someone close to him.
When my two kids, twelve and nine (almost thirteen and ten) are at his house, I have no control over what goes on over there. I get the occasional phone call from my twelve-year-old daughter, where she vents about her feelings.
If you have a lot in common with someone, and a similar communication style, it can make relationships much easier. I have that with our daughter. My ex has that with our son. Sports, especially football, are a HUGE part of my ex’s world, and he has relationships with people where that is the primary topic of conversation. My son and him talk sports constantly, and that is great. They have a connection, something in common, always something to talk about. It’s easy, it’s a no brainer. My son feels seen by him. Neither my daughter nor I are sports fans. I personally have an aversion to sports. The whistles, the yelling by sportscasters, the squeaking of the sneakers on the floor in basketball all trigger a feeling of unease in me, especially if the volume is turned up loud. My daughter doesn’t have the same aversion as I do, she just doesn’t have an interest. So that makes casual conversation with her dad difficult. She feels lonely over there.
She is also a big conversationalist, loves to ask big questions, and appreciates full answers. I am a huge believer in sharing feelings, open communication, and holding space to just listen. My son is a little less so, but if you engage him in conversation, he lights up and participates. My daughter also prefers to plan ahead. She likes it when things (drop-offs, pick-ups, etc.) are scheduled and the plan is communicated so she knows what to expect. I do my best to let her know about school pickup, and any other plans that involve her. She likes to be part of the plan; she likes to be able to rely on things going a certain way. Like me, she feels better knowing that things are planned out, confirmed, and if there is going to be a change, she needs a text message telling her. I see all these things as important, and as a guide for how best to parent my kids. I am NOT a perfect parent, but communicating with my kids, understanding their needs, and trying to accommodate them is a priority for me. I also see the importance of giving kids age appropriate responsibilities, which gives them a sense of autonomy.
I met with my ex at a coffee shop a few months ago to talk about boundaries my daughter needed to set with him regarding his drinking when she is in his care. She doesn’t feel safe, calm, and relaxed if she notices the obvious change in him when he drinks even just a “few beers”. Without going into too much detail, changes in his personality occur when even a small amount of alcohol enters his bloodstream, and this is upsetting to her. His voice changes. He gets louder. He turns on lights all over the house. He wanders from room to room. He becomes restless, and hyper, and this is unsettling to her, especially when it is close to bedtime on a school night. She also feels that our son gets very little discipline or redirection when he is with his dad, and that her brother has no responsibilities when they are with their dad. She feels like she is often put in the position of having to play the role of parent a lot of times. She tells me about it, and of course, I feel the need to be her advocate.
The conversation my ex and I had at the coffee shop was calm, I came into it with a true desire to help. I felt it was well received, and that progress would be made. He thanked me for my help but inevitably nothing changed. My daughter feels hopeless with respect to her relationship with her dad. She feels she is not heard or valued. She doesn’t feel she has an advocate in that house, so I get phone calls about it from her. I also get calls from my ex about how to deal with certain subjects with her. I try to be helpful, ask questions, and give him suggestions. Ultimately, he has to make an effort to understand her instead of placing unrealistic expectations on her based on his opinion of how things should be.
I have scheduled a series of therapy sessions with a counselor she has seen before and likes. My hope is she can learn some tools so she can communicate her feelings to her dad and keep her emotions in check when doing so. That’s a tall order for any thirteen-year-old girl, but I can’t control things that go on over there. I can only make sure she has the tools she needs to feel as though she is an active participant in her life and her relationships, not just a passive observer. She is not a victim. She is well taken care of and not abused, but her sense of calm and feelings of being valued are disrupted every other week.
Our son has mentioned similar concerns about his dad’s drinking. He would prefer that his father stop drinking altogether. But given the level of connection he shares with his dad and the lack of boundaries and expectations placed on him when they are together, he’s relatively content with the status quo. He is attached to his father, and that is a good thing. Although, I am not so sure the lack of boundaries is healthy.
In short, my daughter feels her dad highly favors her brother over her. She feels she is always “getting yelled at” by her dad when she tries to set boundaries with her brother. She is a pre-teen, so I know her hormones are out of whack, but my son has confessed to me in the past that he pushes her buttons for no other reason than to get a reaction out of her. They ARE brother and sister, after all.
I know that my ex LOVES both kids very much. He truly wants peace and a healthy relationship with our daughter, but that takes work. It takes focus. It takes slowing down and listening. I don’t know whether or not he sees that or if he is even able to see it. Some of the reasons our marriage ended was because of our difference in communication styles, a complete lack of intimacy (sexual and otherwise) and a genuine lack of willingness to evolve as a couple. Our several attempts at marriage counseling were painfully unsuccessful. You can go to couples’ therapy, but if both parties aren’t willing to engage, and do the homework, and open up outside of the sessions, it is a red flag that the relationship is unsalvageable. If one partner is continually stonewalling, there is little hope for the marriage. Knowing all of this gives me some insight into the challenges both he and our daughter face in navigating their relationship.
So, what can I do? What is MY part? What can I actually control? When my kids are with me, I can provide what they need. I can communicate with them about what we can all do to coexist with each other. I can set clear expectations, encourage them to communicate what makes them feel valued, and define what we will and won’t tolerate. They know they are loved and heard. They are allowed space if they need it, and a hug if they need one. They feel safe bringing up anything with me, and they know I am here for them, but also know when mommy needs space. My maternal instincts make me want to fix things for them if they are hurting or sad, and through modern technology they are just a text, call, or FaceTime away. But I can’t change the dynamic over there. I can’t make him what he’s not. No one can. If you want a good relationship with your kid, you gotta work for it. It’s not the kid’s responsibility to guide the relationship, it’s the parent’s. But if the feeling exists that “if they’d just _____, things would be easier”, that’s unrealistic. It can also cause self-esteem issues because they feel as though they are somehow not enough as they are. (I speak from experience with my own father.)
I’m not condemning anyone here. I can only speak of my own experiences and the insights they have given me. My ex-husband is doing the best he can with the tools he has. Like I said, I am NOT a perfect parent. I lose my temper at times, which I am learning to control. I am not a strict disciplinarian. I cuss around my kids. And I am inconsistent with mealtimes, menus, and nutrition. I have issues with neatness and order and kids tend to create disorder, so I am learning to be a little more relaxed. I have two young adult step kids I am learning to navigate relationships with, and I fail at times, but at the end of the day, ALL four kids know they are cared about, and if they need me, my advice, or just a warm hug, they have it.
Divorce is hard. If you are having trouble navigating relationships with your ex, your current partner, your kids, or your step kids I would love the opportunity to walk through that with you. As a coach, I can help you design how you want to feel within your relationships, help you find what CAN be accomplished, and identify steps to overcome obstacles you have control over (and ones you don’t have control over). A coach doesn’t give advice. I guide you as you discover your abilities, identify personal habits that may be inhibiting your sense of control over your life, and work to eliminate self-limiting thoughts and behaviors. I offer tools, exercises, and insights you can use to improve your life. I am very passionate about evolution, connection, personal growth, and developing healthy habits. Book an initial thirty-minute consultation, it’s free!
You can’t change other people. But you can change your lens. You can change your reactions. You can set personal boundaries and enforce them. You are in control of your life. If you feel stuck, or that you’ve somehow lost that sense of control over your own life, let’s work together to get it!!