When Your Biggest Parenting Critic Is Your Ex-Husband

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The latest condescending, sarcastic, and judgmental comment I received about a parenting choice was: “I’m sure that chocolate milk goes great with the donuts you pack in her lunch.” Pretty obnoxious, right? Who would be so contemptuous about your decision to pack your first-grader a couple of powdered donuts in her lunch? It might also surprise you that I receive this kind of judgmental comments near weekly. Other choices I’ve been chided about include (but are not limited to): screen time, extracurricular activities, and clothing choices. You might wonder why I haven’t cut this person out of my life. Who needs this abuse, right?

Well, I did cut them out of my life over two years ago when we divorced. But sadly, I am forced to read his emails because he has 50% custody of our children. We even have a court-ordered parenting coach who works with us to improve communication. And yet, the abuse persists.

This is the reality of co-parenting with a narcissist.

As parents, we are bombarded with contradictory messaging about how we are supposed to raise our children. There are strong opinions on everything from circumcision to college applications. Thankfully, we are also bombarded with messages on how to ignore these things and trust our instincts. But show me a mother who doesn’t fret over the idea that they might be screwing their child up for life, and I’ll show you a two-headed unicorn. Parenting is a job shot through with doubt like the Swissiest of Swiss cheese.

Anyone with more than one child can attest to the reality that each one—no matter the consistency of nature and nurture—is as different as a snowflake is from a hail pebble. Both are made of ice, but one will land lightly on your tongue while the other will give your car cellulite. Adjusting your parenting techniques takes a bit of practice, instincts, and an open mind. Criticism leads to self-doubt which only serves to undermine our decisions.

Usually, that criticism comes in the form of clickbait headlines and other manufactured online drama. Sometimes, it can come from a careless neighbor, or friend, or even parent. And a lot of the time, we feed our own self-doubt with a constant stream of negative internal feedback. But the other parent? The other person responsible for the success and failure of your children is supposed to be your support, your cheerleader, the one who stands by you through all the major and minor decisions involved in raising your children. When the world is telling you you’re a horrible parent, the other half of your parenting contract should do the exact opposite if for no other reason than to assist in raising healthy, happy, well-adjusted children because, in the end, you are on the same team—Team Healthy Children.

This is not the case when you’re parenting with an abuser, narcissist, or controlling monster. In their eyes, the swim goggles you buy will always be the wrong ones, the winter coat won’t be wintery enough, the movies you watch will forever be inappropriate, and the chocolate milk will never be a good complement to the donuts you packed because you know they are her favorite.

But I should probably thank my abusive ex-husband. Although he will never approve of a single decision I make as the mother of our children—a mother who sacrificed her body to birth and breastfeed, who gave up so much to stay home while they were young, who constantly puts herself on the back-burner just to make sure they have a good birthday/Christmas/summer—all his vitriol has caused me to become fully anesthetized to criticism of any kind about my parenting choices.

Strangers want to give me the stink-eye for taking my 4-year-old to see Star Wars on a school night? Puhlease. Another parent at preschool does that passive-aggressive thing and says your son is so “lively” when he’s crawling up your leg. Psshh. I had to wrack my brain to even give that example because I am just not fazed anymore by the judgments of others when it comes to my parenting.

And I have my own judgmental ex-husband to thank. If I can learn to let the contempt from my children’s father roll off my back like rain (and I’m still learning), anyone else’s is just white noise. Because the one person on this planet who is supposed to be on the same team of raising our children into happy, healthy adults is not only off the team, but actively working to make sure I fail at this whole game. Because of that, I am forced to be better than I might have been. I am forced to shut out the noise of the constant competitive, manufactured controversy which lurks beyond every scroll of my smartphone and every week at dance practice.

I have learned to silence my own inner critic who is wont to tell me I’m screwing up when I know I’m doing my very best. Yes, I am stronger, more confident because I have to be. I can’t afford to lower my head because I’m the only one on their team who gives a damn how this all plays out.

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