Popularity Contests

A constant struggle that many divorced parents face is the perceived popularity contest. There is a good chance that if you’re a single dad with custody, mom has some serious issues. In much of the U.S. for a father to get custody, mom needs to be missing more than half her brain or have some sort of serious drug problem. Of course there are lots of other reason a father can have custody, but this is an issue I see frequently that single dads have to deal with — as the more stable parent, you have to deal with a mom who is destructively liberal.

For example, there is homework time, there are rules, there are consequences for bad choices. These things are not variable, and most single fathers I know are excellent at providing the structure and discipline kids need.

Then, they go to mom’s. All hell breaks loose. No homework is done. Sleep schedule is disrupted. Then they come back and you have to clean up the mess. If you say anything, anything at all, you are being “controlling.” Even if your kid is about to be held back a grade because they aren’t doing homework at mom’s, you’re just being some kind of horrible jerk. Mom’s house is “fun.” Mom lets the kids do whatever they want. Then they come back to your place and there are all these stupid rules. You’re a jerk and mom is cool.

Here’s the deal: different people have different levels of “having it together.” Is she being destructive to your child and ruining their life? Short term, probably. But truthfully in most cases if she had her act together, the kids wouldn’t be living with you.

The bottom line is that you’re not the person to say anything at all about it. You’re just not the guy. She already probably doesn’t like you. She almost certainly resents the fact that that you have the kids. On some level she’s either aware that she’s screwing up and is unable to fix it OR she’s oblivious to the fact that she’s screwing up and has no idea “why you’re so mad at her.”

As a single dad with custody you do the grunt work. You help them with their homework, take them to the doctor, and make sure they are generally doing well. Mom wants them on holidays and special times. She wants her time with them to be one big party.

Short term your kids are going to think you’re a jerk and mom is cool. They won’t appreciate what you are doing for them for decades. Once again, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Here are some guidelines that may or may not help, because honestly, there is nothing good about this sort of situation:

  • Sometimes mom has issues with keeping a job, or in one case I know, fighting cancer. Whatever that other thing is, her attention is wrapped up in that. I know a guy who’s ex was diagnosed cancer recently after “being tired all the time” for a few years. She’s going to get chemo and it will be a rough road. In a case like this there isn’t much you can do or say. Sometimes you’re just stuck in a bad situation. As long as the kids can survive their time with mom and are old enough to take care of themselves when she can’t, you kinda have to let them go. I know one dad who sends several pounds of health snacks, because some weekends that’s all the kids get. In the case of the mom with cancer, there’s a good chance she will recover, but if she doesn’t, at least dad made sure the kids had time with mom, which will be irreplaceable when they are older. Yeah, the kids didn’t get to their homework and mom ordered pizza both nights. They also stayed up super late because mom got tired and went to bed at 8pm. As I said, I know of several situations like this. It’s unfortunately common. Remember, one of your jobs as custodial parent is to ensure the kids have a relationship with their mom.
  • Sometimes mom needs help with the kids. Grandma and grandpa or stable friends can be a great help on rough weekends. Kids younger than 11 can be responsible with a cell phone, and in case where there are issues, having one is not a luxury. Being able to call “Aunt Sally” when mom doesn’t have it together is a wonderful thing.
  • In many cases mom has them ever other weekend and one weeknight. Any destructive activities should be curtailed during that time so that she can focus on her kids. Drunken parties and worse are certainly cause for concern. There is no reason for anyone to engage in these activities around the kids. This can’t be allowed to happen much, and there is a line, which once crossed, must involve the authorities.
  • Talk with your attorney before you violate a Court order. If you don’t have an attorney, talk with Child Protective Services before you violate a Court order and make sure you are doing so under their direction. You are really damned if you do and damned if you don’t. And a situation like this will redefine that phrase for you. Remember, if you violate a Court order, there is an excellent chance you will be facing an angry jerk of a judge just for trying to protect your kids.
  • It’s very easy to get into a “he said, she said.” Child Protective Services is often staffed by the incompetent. However, if you have custody, there is an excellent chance that mom is already on their radar. There is also an excellent chance that no matter who you talk to, the police, CPS and perhaps even the judge, the abuse you are observing doesn’t rise, in their eyes, to a level where anything needs to be done about it. There are lots of dads in this position. The more you howl and scream, the worse you look. Keep a journal. File your complaints. Have emergency and contingency plans. Remember, most Courts are stacked in favor of mom and if you begin infringing on their time with mom, you are likely to lose custody, which will make an already bad situation much worse. There is a special corner in the hottest part of hell for parents who abuse or neglect their kids.
  • One of the options you will be presented with is supervised visitation for mom. This is not a fun road to travel. It is often best to find a visitation supervisor you can both agree on, like the parents of your ex. However, the Court orders regarding this sort of visitation must be adhered to, and the grandparents must be on board with this program. The next level below this, when supervised visitation by family and friends fails, is a supervised visitation center. This is super awkward in a lot of cases. Don’t make it any worse by saying anything about it. It’s already rough on your kids.
  • Sometimes things are bad enough that your kids don’t want to go over to mom’s. They will tell you so and will tell you why. You’ve already done all you can do legally. The Courts now expect you to follow their orders. Unless the kids are in immediate threat of physical harm, you have to drop them off and make them go. Different states have ages at which enforcement of visitation by the custodial parent is no longer required. For this you need to consult an attorney.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, the kids can very easily come back from mom’s having eaten nothing but candy all weekend. They may have played video games for 19 hours straight. You don’t let them do these things. They have school work to do for Monday and it’s now 6pm on Sunday night. They are tired from lack of sleep. They are on a sugar high. They want to KEEP playing video games. They are out of control. They don’t like you, or anyone else at that moment. Well now doesn’t this just suck? You can do exactly zero about this under the law. Mom won’t listen because this is her “parenting style.” She’s going to let the universe raise her children. There is a very good chance that exploding on your kids won’t help as much as you think it will. Calmly informing them that THEIR obligation to finish their homework has nothing at all to do with you or mom. And think about this: MAYBE the fact that you’re micromanaging them on their work (which may be good with really little kids) is keeping them from being responsible students. After all, life itself is full of barriers and distractions. The only way we achieve success is by overcoming these using self-discipline. Get the kids used to managing their own school work at your place. Get them used to getting work done, and keeping track of their assignments themselves, with nudges from you only as needed. Them reward them heavily for being self-starters. This will bleed over to mom’s house and into their real lives as adults.
  • Having a meeting with both parents and teachers at school can be a great help. You know when the kids are with you and when their work is done. If they are “always tired’ Thursday morning after being at mom’s on Wednesday night and not getting to bed until 2am, then maybe the teachers can say something about it. Remember, anyone but you. Absolutely anyone.
  • Unless your kids are sociopaths, they are going to welcome a certain amount of discipline and rules. The difference between mom’s house and dad’s house can be a very abrupt and upsetting change, so keep that in mind. Also remember that it is your job as a parent to ensure your kids have SELF discipline. As my father once said, “Good character is behaving well when no one is watching.” That is where you want your kids to be. They need to grow up. You need to be able to trust them and they need to be able to trust themselves.
  • Mom’s place may be more fun. It may be hell on earth that is just barely together enough to support life. Either way, it’s her place, not yours. Your kids are going to spend the bulk of their time out of your immediate control. The sooner they learn to deal with the world around them, the better off they will be. Yes, it sucks. Nothing sucks worse. But it is what it is.
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