The way my ex thinks is the embodiment of the phrase “it’s the thought that counts”. He really wants to give them what he’s promised, whether he can actualize it or not, and in his mind, that's what matters.
Did you ever give a gift, but it didn’t get there in time? The receiver had a card but no present? The thought was there…but you just weren’t able to deliver the gift in time?
If that’s ever happened to you, I suspect that the recipient of the gift was grateful that you’d thought about them anyway. And I’m sure that eventually, the gift showed up.
But what if it didn’t? What if the thought was there and the recipient knew that you really wanted to give a gift to them, but you never followed through? Does it have the same meaning?
For my ex’s fortieth birthday, his mother did just that. She showed up with a card that had a catalog photo of a grandfather clock in it. She said she’d ordered the clock already and it would arrive soon, but it just didn’t get there in time. My ex was touched that his mother had thought to buy him such an expensive gift.
Except she hadn’t.
Not only did the clock never materialize, but after the day of his party, it was never mentioned again. By either my ex or his mother. I asked my then husband about it a few weeks later, six months later, and then again on his next birthday. Each time my ex dismissively said he was sure it was coming. But it never came. And that wasn’t the only time it happened. Gifts were weird with his family.
I was reminded of this incident recently when my kids came home from their dad’s custody time excited that their dad was going to redecorate their rooms. They had extensive plans. They’d already looked through the IKEA catalog and picked out new beds, new furniture, and a new desk. They were excited about an upcoming trip to IKEA to get more ideas. The trip was supposed to allow them to measure everything and make sure it would fit in their rooms.
Except the trip never came.
There were excuses–“we had practice…we’ll go next time we’re at dad’s.” And desperation, “I know we didn’t go this time, but I’m sure he’s just waiting for next weekend.” And eventually, after about a month of excuse after excuse, they just stopped talking about it. I’m sure they were embarrassed. And disappointed.
In hindsight–it makes a lot more sense to me that my ex would present these grandiose ideas and never follow through. He doesn’t equate follow-through with love–because his parents never followed through. To him, the idea that he’d want to give the children something means more than the actual gift. He doesn’t understand that the children are hurt by his broken promises because he doesn’t understand that that’s what they are...broken promises
But this is a problem. Because my ex isn’t the children’s only parent. For a full 50% of the time, they can expect that if their parent promises something, it will happen. Whether it’s a material object or a trip, if I promise something, I will fulfill my promise. And on the very rare occasion I promise something I can’t deliver, I explain the actual reason why. No excuses.
I’m sure this is very confusing for the children. I know it was very confusing for me when I was a part of his family. The way he thinks is the embodiment of the phrase “it’s the thought that counts”. He really wants to give them what he’s promised, whether he can actualize it or not, and in his mind, that's what matters. The IKEA trip isn't the first time that he's done it either. He's promised summer trips to theme parks, overnights at the indoor water park. So unlike my ex, who appears to have never had a parent he could depend on to follow through consistently, my children see both sides.
So how do I validate the children’s feelings about it without disparaging their father? I generally work around this in 3 ways:
1. Set a good example: I don’t stop being me. I continue to deliver on my promises so they understand that they have a parent they depend on. I hope they also learn to emulate my behavior as it has a positive result.
2. Teach about consequences: I try to get my children to understand that a consequence of this type of behavior is that someone might be hurt. If there's an event like this, I try to get them to acknowledge their feelings honestly with their father. I don't necessarily think that it will have any impact on his behavior, but I think it's important for their feelings to be heard.
3. I promote honesty: When my eldest got caught signing his own homework, I praised him for telling me the truth. I told him that I could forgive the mistake (but I didn’t want to see it again), but that I didn’t want him to lie to me because that leads me not to trust him.
I need my children to understand that this is a part of their father's personality that neither the children nor my ex has control over. Most of all, I don't want this part of his personality to take away from their sense of security. I really do want them to know that their father loves them because I believe he does, but he shows it in a different way. And I really want them to know that they can trust me to always be on their side. I want to raise them to be honest people. I’m hoping by demonstrating proper behavior and showing them love that I’ll be able to get it done.