When The Father Of Your Children Is Your Enemy

by Shannon Lell
Originally Published: 
co-parenting with a narcissist
aslysun / Shutterstock

Four short years ago, after putting my then-toddler to bed, I would spend 15 minutes putting my living room back together. Each toy had a place—a spot where we could easily find it the next day. We had a collection of five wooden peg puzzles. Every day my daughter dumped each of these peg puzzles onto the floor, and every night I reassembled them—letters, numbers, animals, shapes—all to their rightful slots.

My reasoning for doing this nightly chore was sound and simple. If the toys and puzzles didn’t make it back to their respective places, how would we ever know where to find them? How would she learn her letters if the alphabet was strewn across the living room and missing crucial vowels?

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I also had these ideas of what she should be eating: organic! And how much she should be sleeping: 12 hours plus two naps (at least 40 minutes long!). I read the parenting books on what to expect. I was a teensy bit neurotic.

But if there was one thing important to me in life, it was being good mother. I took it very seriously, and I believed by making these “rules,” I was teaching my daughter the things she needed to know in life to be successful.

Oh, how so much can change in four years.

I know now that it wasn’t about being able to put back together all the pieces to the small world my daughter lived in every day. It was about control. My need to make order out of what I could because there was so much that was out of order inside of me, in my life.

What I couldn’t say back then, even to myself, was that I was incredibly unhappy in my marriage. Today, it’s been two years since I decided to file for divorce, and nine months since it’s been final.

In the beginning, after the papers were served, my ex-husband and I had to live in the same home for over a month. There were no other options until we could make our first court appearance. He refused to leave, and I had nowhere to go. For me, it felt like living in one of those terrifying adult haunted houses they create in abandoned warehouses at Halloween time. He’d walk around the corner, and I’d jump. I’d shake as soon as he pulled into the driveway. Every sound took on a new meaning.

During this time, my ex would blast Aloe Blacc’s hit song, “The Man,” on repeat from the basement (which is where he was staying while I stayed upstairs). It’s an arrogant song. The refrain goes like this: “Girl you can tell everybody, yeah you can tell everybody, go ahead and tell everybody, I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the man.” He’d play this song over and over on high volume and dance with our children.

One night he said to me, “You dropped a nuclear bomb, and now it’s war.” And it has been ever since.

I tried to compromise out of the gate. I sent pleading text messages for us to work together for the children’s sake. It all fell on deaf ears—angry, vengeful, hate-filled ears.

I gave so much at mediation that my attorney told me in good conscience that he couldn’t let me do it, because it was too much. I didn’t care. I wanted it over. But it didn’t matter. The more I gave, the more my ex-husband wanted, and after nine hours, we walked away headed to trial.

Four days of trial in the cold and rainy December. Eight weeks until a verdict. It didn’t go as he was expecting. He and his attorney devised a legal strategy where he would not have to pay child support and leave me financially struggling. It didn’t work, and I’ve been paying the price for that verdict ever since.

Despite specific court orders, most of the time he won’t let me talk to my children while they are with him, which is 50 percent of the time. We have a court-appointed parenting coach who monitors our correspondence because he refuses to communicate well and without insults. He won’t look at me in person, let alone speak. Needless to say, it remains a high-conflict situation—two years later.

The other night the kids and I were playing a game with friends. We were supposed to use one word to describe someone. We asked all our kids to describe their parents. My daughter described me as “writer.” When my friend asked my daughter to describe her father, she said, “Hates Mommy the most!” Obviously, she didn’t get the memo on one word, but I wasn’t expecting those four.

Four years. Four years and I cannot, no matter how hard I try, put the pieces of my daughter’s small world back together again.

This quote rings in my ears. It rings because it’s true. And now, to be the best mother to my children doesn’t include strict bedtimes or organic produce—it has to do with letting go and rising above.

I know the Bible verses. I have read the New Age wisdom. I know how to meditate and focus on the present moment. I am a committed yogi. I understand the philosophies behind faith and trust and all that. Practicing these things has helped and continues to help me tremendously.

But. But.

My heart can’t make sense of the fact that the other half of my children’s parental structure has sworn himself as my enemy. A man I spent 13 years sleeping next to, decorating Christmas trees with, going on vacations, cooking meals for, the only family member to watch me give birth is now someone who takes a large, if silent, amount of joy in any suffering I should endure, the mother of his children.

It is beyond platitudes. And it has been the deepest struggle of my life. This dynamic has challenged everything I have ever believed about humanity, parenting and the way the world works, because there are just no easy answers to anything anymore. Just signing my daughter up for gymnastics takes heroic measures of negotiation and planning.

But I do it. And I would do it all over again if I had to. I would do anything to give my children a safe home free of oppression and dehumanization, a home where everyone is respected, heard, and free to be vulnerable without fearing it will be used to manipulate them one day.

Parenting, marriage, life—none of it is simple under the most ideal of circumstances. But co-parenting with a narcissist is an extraordinary situation. It has taken more strength than I ever knew I possessed. It has forced me to slay my ego, blow up my pride, and shatter my sense of control. And I now realize that was the real war all along.

So every day, instead of putting the puzzles back together, I gather myself. If I have failed, I resolve to try harder. If I have had a good day, I make sure I’m grateful. And I do it all over the next day. Again, and again, and again, because if I didn’t, how would I know where to find the important things when I need them? Faith, hope, gratitude, forgiveness…love.

Because these are the real things which make me a good mother.

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