Q. My husband and I share custody of his two young daughters. I also have kids from my prior relationship—one is in middle school and the other in high school. My husband’s daughters see their mother every other weekend, so she doesn’t have much influence on them. Every time my husband’s children come home from their mother’s house they are terrible. It takes me days to straighten them out. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. You do know there are all sorts of red flags in your question and I think you’re operating under some major misconceptions.
First, and this will sound sexist, but it’s an observation, not a judgment, derived from years of experience working with parents attempting to co-parent and the court system. When a father has primary custody of his “young” daughters, something went on before the break-up that you’re not mentioning or possibly overlooking. It could be anything from mom being an executive and traveling to drugs and alcohol, but something is up. I’m not saying that mothers are better parents than fathers, so please don’t write me about my observation, but the truth is, most courts grant mothers, in particular, at least 50% custody unless she has openly consented otherwise or there has been a problem. Knowing that, I suspect these kids have dealt with some big things before you came into the picture.
Next, you and your husband don’t share custody of his children. He shares custody with their mother. Granted you play a huge part in their lives and it sounds as if you have taken on the mother role when they are with you, but dad is dad and mom is mom. Thinking otherwise inadvertently forces the kids to take sides.
Which brings us to the next red flag–everyone in these children’s lives influence their attitudes, behavior, and psychological health. If you truly don’t believe their mother has an influence on them, you’re mistaken. If she didn’t, you wouldn’t have so much trouble getting them organized when they return. Any child who goes back and forth between their parents faces questions about allegiance and betrayal—and it’s increased if they like their parents’ new partner.
“If I love her (you), will it make my mom think I don’t love her?” And, so they are resentful and unruly when they return.
To make matters worse, you may be subtly negating their mother’s importance and that makes the kids question their allegiance—not to their mother, but to you. Even saying something like, “Why is your mother always so late?” put the kids on notice. As a result, it’s difficult for them to readjust when they return home.
Finally, unless you have a plan for how you are going to handle the constant inter-twinings of children going back and forth between parents, you’re going to face transition problems—and the first person to consult if the girls are acting up is their mother. It would not be uncommon for her to want to upset the apple cart at your house if she feels like she is on the outside looking in. What are you, dad, and mom doing to work together and keep her in the loop? The more information she has, the more cooperative she will be, and the kids transition will be easier as a result. “That’s putting the kids first,” and that’s good ex-etiquette.
Ex-Etiquette®, runs in countless newspapers and websites all over the world. It is written by Dr. Jann Blackstone, who specializes in child custody, divorce, and stepfamily mediation. Dr. Jann is the author of seven books on divorce, remarriage, and co-parenting, specifically, Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce and Separation, and other Ex-etiquette books. Dr. Blackstone is also the founder of Bonus Families,501 c3 non-profit organization dedicated to peaceful coexistence between divorced or separated parents and their combined families.