“I had bit my tongue so many times I was surprised that I wasn’t constantly bleeding profusely from the mouth. I endured constant criticism of my parenting skills while my ex-husband swooped in like ‘Uncle Daddy.’”
Below, an anonymous Friend of Co-Parenting 101 offers an honest and revealing account of her struggle to honor her children’s right to have a relationship with their father, regardless of his failings. Read on to find out how she made the transition from a place of bitterness to become The Bigger Co-Parent:
I didn’t learn to be the bigger parent until about a year after my divorce. I clearly remember arguing with my ex-husband over the phone over a variety of topics, then hanging up and mindlessly muttering some colorful expletive within earshot of my son and daughter. My best friend would tell me to be the bigger person, to which I would reply, “It’s hard to be the bigger person when you’re only 5’1”!”
Then someone said to me, “Every time you speak negatively about their father, you’re insulting half of their DNA.” Wow. Those words hit me like a ton of bricks. I never quite thought about it like that before. When he walked out, in my brain he walked out on all three of us and the kids were somehow magically 100% mine. I was so wrapped up in my own hurt and disbelief that it didn’t occur to me that they would still identify with him or that they’d still want to be with someone who proved time and time again that being a father was an inconvenience. I wasn’t thinking about what the kids needed deep down in their hearts.
Then I met Jeff. Jeff is the kind of man that makes you want to be a better person. From the very beginning, he shared his life’s philosophy of “unconditional love”. He encouraged me to extend that to my ex-husband, not only to heal my heart, but to set a good example for the kids. Jeff modeled his philosophy on numerous occasions with several people in his life that objected to our relationship (we have a child together and have chosen to remain unmarried). In his particular case, love (and cooler heads) always wins out.
I decided to change my tune and I started speaking more diplomatically about my ex-husband. He continued to try to engage me in arguments, but I wouldn’t play. In a fit of anger he said, “The kids are going to figure out what a piece of shit you are” to which I replied, “I guess they will.”
I didn’t say anything bad about him when continued to disappoint the kids. I held my head high when he told our son lies about why our relationship ended. And I sat in silence when he attempted to bully me as he had done daily during our marriage. The hits kept coming and I didn’t take the bait as I had so many times before. I just kept inviting him to recitals, swim meets, birthday parties and holiday celebrations. We (Jeff and I) continued to show him that no matter how much he bad mouthed me, we were still going to include him in the family. It wasn’t easy for me; most of the time I just wanted him to leave, so Jeff would “run interference” for me. But, he was there and the kids really seemed to enjoy everyone getting along.
Two very difficult years went by. I had bit my tongue so many times I was surprised that I wasn’t constantly bleeding profusely from the mouth. I endured constant criticism of my parenting skills while my ex-husband swooped in like “Uncle Daddy.” He took the kids for four hours every Monday night (complaining the whole time that he had to drive my son to swim practice and that the gas was too expensive) and once a month from Friday at 5 P.M. until Saturday morning at 9 A.M. His actual physical responsibility ranked low (and he only ranks high on paying his child support on time because I had his wages garnished) while I functioned as a full-time parent struggling to meet all their needs, plus the needs of my new baby and 2 (every other week) stepdaughters. I did it seamlessly, while stifling my “out loud” voice that wanted to scream “I wish your dad would step up to the plate!” in front of the kids.
Then during a late night conversation, my 14-year-old son said that while he loved his dad, he knew that he was a liar and a bully. In the four years since we had split, my son had figured out the pattern of his father’s behavior but it didn’t really come to light until I had decided to step back, shut my mouth and be the bigger person . The focus for my son suddenly shifted from trying to get mom and dad to stop fighting to figuring out that his dad had an excuse for every one of his weekends that he decided to not to take him and his sister (often times he’d say he didn’t have enough money for gas, but we’d see him around town, dressed up and ready to roll), and that he had an arsenal of tall tales for things like why our marriage ended. My son started putting the pieces together on his own and my ex-husband’s prediction of “The kids are going to figure out what a piece of shit you are”, backfired. Suddenly he was exposed and he did it on his own. Now that my son has a deeper view of his father’s personality, I have to remind him of his dad’s more redeeming qualities and point him into the direction of some positive male role models (like his stepfather, his swim coach). It’s hard to be 14 and in the midst of self-discovery and realize that your dad isn’t the stand up guy you were hoping he was.
I continue to work on being the bigger person and it’s a daily struggle but I have to maintain my momentum because I have a 7-year old daughter who thinks the sun rises and sets on her dad’s head. Jeff has to remind me almost daily that unconditional love and positive words about my ex-husband will pay off in the end, because no child wants to hear anything bad about their parents. He’s modeled that to his daughters from the beginning and his 7-year old recently said to her 9-year old sister, “Did you notice that Dad never talks bad about anyone ever?” Kids do pay attention.
Deesha Philyaw and Michael Thomas are the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based founders of CoParenting101.org and co-authors of the forthcoming book Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Children Thrive After Divorce (New Harbinger, 2013). They are the divorced parents of two daughters.