WTF?! I have been a single mom for five years, after a nasty divorce during which my husband took off with what turns out was his longtime girlfriend and managed to successfully hide nearly all of his income. Our daughters, now 9 and 11, live primarily with me, visiting their dad just every-other-weekend (the girlfriend is no longer on the scene). The are delightful people– bright, fun and talented in their own ways. I am responsible for them 90 percent financially, 80 percent when it comes to logistics and time, and emotionally …. well, that’s where things get dicey.
My daughters are 9 and 11 and they adore their father. “Dad days” are always full of amusement parks, beach trips, movies and mall exploits. All fun, all the time. With me? It’s a lot of homework, shuttling to ballet and soccer and violin, and an exhausted mom trying to get her act together.
My pubescent kids are moody, teenagery and, frankly, manipulative. When we have an argument, the first thing they say is: “I like staying with dad better!” or “Dad would let me do that,” or “I love daddy more than you.” My relationship with my ex is polite, but certainly not warm.
I try not to take these jabs personally, but how can I not!? In the heat of a fight with them I have come THIS close to telling them what a douche their dad is, but thankfully I stop myself. But I already feel so deflated trying to raise these kids essentially on my own, only to have them take me for full granted and pit their affections for their dad against me. HELP!
Devastated in Dayton
Your letter resonated with me personally. Recently my son, 4 , went through a particularly dramatic bout of moody fits (not once but on two separate occasions he took a full glass of freshly blended smoothie, looked me stone-cold in the eye and dumped the entire contents right. on. the. table.). I asked my daughter, 6: “Does Lucas do this at Daddy’s house?” to which she replied, “No. He thinks Daddy is a better parent than you.”
Cue the sound of my heart shattering while black smoke whistled as it blasted from my ears.
There are two things going on here. One is that you must manage your relationship with your kids. They cannot speak to you like that. They are entitled to feel how they feel, and you must respect how they feel, but they are not allowed to intentionally try to hurt anyone’s feelings. And that is what they are doing: Trying to hurt you.
They’re kids. They are not malicious or demented people. But they are indeed trying what they can to manipulate the situation, push your boundaries and buttons and get an emotional upper hand here. As the parent you must maintain your upper hand.
Here is what you can say:
“You are entitled to feel however you feel. Sometimes you will have more loving feelings for Dad than you do for me, band that is totally normal. But you must always, no matter what, think about the person you are speaking to when you express yourself. And I will be honest with you: my feelings are really hurt by what you said. I forgive you, but I am sad about it.”
But that is not enough. This is a tough time, and you must work very hard to keep your family dynamic in synch at this stage of your girls’ lives. You have a lot going on, you’re overwhelmed and under-supported and you see your girls slipping away from you. That is scary as shit, it makes you anxious and reactive and that only drives them away.
This is what I suggest. Start talking to your girls. Really talking to them. You are only the parent you are. But not “only” – because that suggest that you are sub-par. You are enough mom for them. More than enough. So first you must focus, value and appreciate all that you do for your kids. Despite all odds you have created a stable, loving home led by a hard-working committed parent who clearly adores her children. This is more than many, many people in this world know. And that your kids have turned out so well thus far is a testament to your doing something right.
But until you own this as truth your kids will not. They sense your guilt and resentment and play it like that cheap kid-size fiddle you paid too much for. The more you let go of any sense of inadequacy about your parenting, the less room your kids will have to squeeze in there and exploit it.
But there is something else at play, and that is you want to know how to inform your kids about how you perceive their father. This is tricky, but it is necessary. I never advocate for sugar-coating or lying. You owe it to all parties involved to share with your daughters your true feelings and understanding of events surrounding your marriage and divorce. The question is the how and the when.
I would start with explaining why you are stressed out. Be honest. Check what you are saying. Make sure it is from your heart, and not in any way intended to manipulate their feelings or revenge your ex-husband. Start with how you feel.
“I know I can be really grumpy and I am working on that. My job has been really stressful and taking care of you guys and the house can be a lot of work to do by myself! I wish we had more time and money to do expensive stuff on the weekend, but I don’t have that at the moment. Instead I chose to spend extra money on things like sports and music lessons, or fixing things around the house. Let’s brainstorm some really fun things to do every Saturday morning that don’t cost a lot of money.”
That is a start. Kids get it. You will not have one conversation about this. With your children you will have many, many conversations about your marriage, divorce and relationship with their dad And, of course, he will be having his own conversations with them. Their feelings about both of you, their perception of your family and history will likely change throughout their lives. You cannot control it. But you can be honest and vulnerable about your feelings. And when you are vulnerable — really, truly vulnerable — people automatically trust you.
Which brings me to the last script I will offer for your discussions with your daughters, and that is this: “I love you and I love our life together, and it is the most important thing in the world that we have a good relationship. I’m not a perfect mother, and you’re not a perfect daughter. But we love each other and we have to commit to working on our relationship. Can you do that with me?”
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.