I thought that being in a bad marriage with arguing, lack of connection, and no communication was going to be the worst point in my life, but it has been trumped by co-parenting with my unreasonable ex.
My ex and I divorced earlier this year and since then, he has done nothing but make my life a living hell. Our kids are five and sevem years old, and they really need a routine, sleep, healthy food, and to have a sense of structure in their lives. My ex flies by the seat of his pants, has the kids eat pizza and Chinese take out all the time, is consistently late to drop them at school and to pick them up, and never puts them to bed on time.
They are exhausted and burned out after their visits with him, and of course I have to spend at least two days just dealing with the aftermath of their visits (e.g., catching them up on homework, sleep, etc). Nothing I say has any impact and my ex accuses me of being controlling and crazy.
I’m sorry you’re going through this difficult time, and I empathize with you. Many parents, especially mothers, worry about the effects of lack of structure on their children, and prioritize sleep, nutrition, and stable routines above all else. It is rare in my personal or professional experience to see a dad who is as obsessed with baby sleep schedules as a mom. Further, your divorce is recent, and research indicates that divorce is the second highest known stressor, after death of a spouse.
And you’re sharing custody, so you’re also still acclimating to not having your kids with you all the time. To think of your kids as unsafe or neglected in any way will obviously exacerbate your sadness and anxiety about not being with them.
However, it does not seem like your ex is necessarily doing anything neglectful or dangerous, although he may fit the common “Disneyland Dad” stereotype. There is far more data on the negative effects on children of high conflict between divorced parents than on the effects of eating pizza three times a week, or not doing second grade homework. Being exposed to conflict in any form, even just overhearing your ex’s voice through the phone calling you “crazy” is very bad for your kids.
And it’s unlikely you’re able to completely shield them from what you think about their dad’s parenting style. Frequently, in counseling, I speak with parents who are convinced that they are hiding negative emotions from their children, but the children themselves say they are fully aware of these feelings.
Kids who see their parents arguing, or who sense tension between their parents, are caught in a very bad position. They often feel that they must ally with one parent or the other, and feel guilty about spending time with one parent and leaving the other. They take on responsibility for the conflict and often assume it centers on them and their bad behavior.
Kids exposed to frequent conflict also are much likelier to have emotional and behavioral problems themselves. You owe it to your kids to try to accept that your ex’s way of parenting is just that, his way, and although you don’t personally agree with it, it seems unlikely that arguing with him is going to change much. So you have two choices:
1. Your ex keeps doing what he’s doing and your kids are also exposed to conflict about it, or,
2. Your ex keeps doing what he’s doing and your kids are exposed to no conflict about it.
Number two seems like the clear winner, although it is no easy task and will certainly take self-awareness and restraint. I have many clients whose parents divorced, and none of them ever have complained about being fed Chinese take-out or going to bed late. They do, however, have long-lasting feelings of sadness, anger, and bitterness if they felt they were caught in a no-win situation, had to choose sides, or ended up having no relationship with one parent at the behest of the other.
I know this isn’t happening now, but your kids are still young. They may soon realize how upset you are at the arrangement and start protesting going to Dad’s house in order to keep you happy. This would be winning the sleep, regular routine, and food battle, but losing the kids-having-two-healthy-parental-relationships war.
I encourage you to keep doing what you’re doing in terms of stability, routine, healthy meals, regular bedtimes, and so forth, but to just completely ignore what your ex does with the kids, unless it is either abusive or truly dangerous.
When you see your ex during drop-offs, see if you can try hard to visualize him as the fun guy that your kids love, and who is probably trying to be a good father in his own way. He’s probably also reeling from the divorce just as you are, even if it doesn’t seem like it.
Focusing on his positives as a dad can help you paste a smile on your face and say, “have a great weekend.” He may fall over from the shock of your new Zen approach, but when he recovers, he may even go so far as to smile back. And, long term, if he doesn’t feel constantly attacked and criticized, he may begin to respect your perspective more on parenting decisions. (But don’t hold your breath.)
A last note: There is a possibility that your ex will agree to see a counselor that specializes in co-parenting after divorce, even if only to get someone else to agree with him that you’re “crazy and controlling” (and the joke will be on him, since the counselor will likely try to compromise and won’t “agree” with either one of you). Whether or not he consents to trying this, you yourself would likely benefit from seeing a therapist to explore and process the anger and grief over your divorce and subsequent parenting and co-parenting challenges.