Ask Scary Mommy is Scary Mommy’s advice column, where our team of “experts” answers all the questions you have about life, love, body image, friends, parenting, and anything else that’s confusing you.
This week: What do you do when you and your ex have very different versions of the “right” way to parent? Have your own questions? Email email@example.com
Dear Scary Mommy,
My ex and I split up when our son, who is now eight, was a toddler. He has never been a part of our son’s day-to-day life; he’d take him a few hours a week. And now he lives out of state. But I’ve noticed that in certain areas, he tries to parent with authority, even though he doesn’t have the grounds to. Our son is a “picky” eater, and it doesn’t bother me, but his father tries to force him to eat things he knows he doesn’t like or won’t eat, for no real reason other than he can. My son recently told me that his dad won’t even get him an ice cream after his Happy Meal, which is something we always do.
Additionally, he’s trying to parent in a way I don’t, which he knows. My son and I are extremely close and for a lot of reasons, don’t spend a lot of time apart. When we went to visit him over the summer, he wouldn’t allow our son to spend the night with me if he was feeling homesick, claiming he needs to “toughen up.” I do not subscribe to such thoughts and tried to fight back, but it was futile and made my son upset with me. How do I tell him to back off and stick to being the Disney dad?
I suspect your ex knows he isn’t spending enough time with your son, and to “make up for it” in his mind — instead of just enjoying the time he does spend — he’s over-parenting. Cramming it all in, so to speak. He wants your son to view him as the parental figure he really isn’t, so he talks a big game when they’re together, trying to establish some authority. When in all actuality, it would be far more beneficial for your son if he could just relax when he’s with his dad, and they could just get to know each other.
Here’s the bad news: your ex’s parenting isn’t something you can control.
Is he going about it the wrong way? Absolutely. Is it annoying as all hell? Oh, for sure. But is he entitled to parent in his own way, as long as it isn’t straight-up abusive? Unfortunately, yes.
You can try to speak privately with your ex about your concerns, if it makes you feel better, but remember that he’s far less likely to take those concerns into account if you come from a place of animosity. Broach the subject during a time when you’re getting along, and frame it as a co-parenting strategy (“this is what’s working for me right now with Kevin”) versus an authoritative I-know-best attitude (“this is what you should be doing.”) As good as it would feel to just tell him what’s what, it’s not likely to get you anywhere; he’ll just be resentful and do what he wants anyway.
The very best thing you can do for your son is to maintain consistency in your own home. Explain to him that the rules and expectations might be different when he’s with his dad, and that’s okay … even if you choke on the words a little. Those differences won’t be as upsetting to him if he knows (or at least thinks) that you aren’t upset by them.
You have to pick your battles with your ex, and consider whether they’re worth a blowup that could potentially impact your son in a negative way. Focus on being the best parent that you can be during your time with your son, and – though I know it’s easier said than done — try to make peace with the fact that your ex is going to do things differently.
Divorce and family law attorney Laura A. Wasser, Esq. puts it best: “If you cannot adjust and adapt to the daily trials and tribulations, you are short-changing your child and yourself,” she says. “Remind yourself why you procreated with your ex in the first place, and try to see the good in them — even when it’s tough. Then, think about how happy you are that your interactions with this person are limited to those that involve your offspring. Do your best to get through them with grace and strength of character.”
Kids are nothing if not adaptable and resilient, and your son will learn to adjust to the differences in parenting style, especially if he knows that accepting his dad’s rules isn’t making you upset; you don’t want him to feel like he’s betraying your wishes in some way by listening to his father. Your son’s peace is worth more than anything else in this equation, and if he doesn’t feel caught in a parental tug-of-war over who knows best, he won’t feel as anxious about spending time with his dad.
The high road is a hard one to take, and acceptance is a bitter pill to swallow. But focus on the things you can control — i.e., the environment you are creating for your son in your home — and be secretly thankful he’s not with his dad too much.