Many times in my office I hear well-meaning but exasperated parents remark “But she only ever feeds them junk food!”, “They are up all night at my ex’s house and then I pay for it when they come home exhausted!” and “All he does is dump them over at the grandparents when they are in his care!”.
In the midst of divorce many parents will struggle with some of the parenting choices that their ex may make whilst the children are in their care, particularly so in marital breakdowns that are acrimonious and filled with conflict. These parents find themselves caught up in the helplessness of slamming their head against a brick wall as they try to reason, plead and argue with their ex that their parenting choices are less than favourable. Unfortunately, unless you have the type of relationship with your ex void of all bitterness and animosity (on both sides) and can rationally sit down and discuss parenting choices together, then forget it.
Your attempts to influence the behaviour of your ex will likely only result in an increased drive in the opposite direction just to further antagonise you.
This is an incredibly hard point for some parents to come to. When you hold your child with your partner for the first time both your hearts and minds are filled with the hopes and dreams of raising this tiny new life. You imagine what type of person they will become, what morals they will possess, what you will provide for them in terms of health and education, and from that moment you are 100% dedicated to raising your child in your way, on your terms. Together.
Fast forward to a marriage ending and a shared custody agreement in place. One of the hardest lessons in divorce is the very practical realisation that you no longer have complete control over how your child will be cared for and raised on a day-to-day basis. This is, at first, alarming to many parents, who adamantly fight against it. Cue the head-slamming-wall scenario. These parents spend copious amounts of time and energy shooting off well-intentioned (though quite painful) emails listing the other party’s faults and pleading with them to re-consider their behaviour in the best interest of their children. In the worst case scenario a desperate parent may attempt to go through a child in order to “educate” them so that they can resist the temptations of their father’s/mother’s junk food, x-box, or late bed times (an equally futile method!). Head slamming quickly escalates into anxiety, anger and maintained parental conflict. The truth is that unless current Court Orders state otherwise, a mother or father has the right to parent as they please when the children are in their care (albeit within the realms of legal behaviour!).
I akin this realisation for some parents to the start of a grieving process. Grieving the loss of that moment holding the newborn. Grieving the loss of complete control in how your child will be raised. It is important for parents to get to this state of acceptance, work through the grief and then free themselves of the impossible task of trying to influence their ex.
The result is finding a much calmer place from which you can focus of the parenting side of things whilst the children are in your care and a reduction in anxiety that comes from playing sleuth detective as you trying to uncover the details of child rearing whilst they are away from you.
Don’t get me wrong – the ideal separated relationship is one of effective co-parenting, mutual respect of opinion and open discussions around child rearing topics. Sadly, this is simply out of reach for some parents and recognising that you are unlikely (in the short term anyway) to have this kind of amicable relationship is important in deciding how you are to move forward. In turn, your children will benefit from a breather in the suffocating air of parental conflict, and be freed from the burden of having to answer, explain and justify the behaviour of one parent to the other.