I want to share this article from Peace not PAS. It’s a thoughtful analysis of the case of parental alienation provoked by Angelina Jolie with respect to her children with Brad Pitt. It does pose many questions that I have myself observed not in my shared parenting scenario but in other situations close to me.
I have to say that one of the most threatening aspects of our divorce was the prospect that some other woman might someday claim parental rights – even mommy rights – over my child. To me being a mom was and still is the most important contribution I will ever make to this world. How can I bear the thought of that being taken from me? I agonized over this possibility as Bob began to embark on new relationships. Of course at the time, it didn’t even occur to me that Bob was facing this issue already since I went straight from our marriage into a four-year relationship with another man. Shit this stuff is really painful to write about.
I feel Bob’s pain as I type this and the fears I had for our child at that time all over again. I wish I could have stepped back from the moment to observe the situation with empathy at the time and consider our options a bit more. But now nearly 19 years removed from these events, while recognizing I didn’t handle them in a way that would leave me with the most resolved emotions, I do accept that it still all had to happen as it did.
As explained in Chapter 10, the first lady that Bob dated seemed pretty shallow to me. She had big boobs (something I lacked and which Bob desired) and she seemed to care for Bob. But I had this nagging feeling that she was going to turn into some evil bitch from hell one day. The thought that this might happen in front of my only son terrified me. Bob really didn’t seem to wait very long before he introduced this woman to Ian either which I thought was completely inappropriate, unnecessary, and risky. What if Ian liked her and then Bob ended it? Ian would be hurt. What if she was careless? Could Ian get hurt in her care? After all, she was not a mom. What if she physically or mentally abused my son? All of us know at least one person who experienced this from a step-parent, boyfriend, or girlfriend of a parent. That would be all she wrote. I’d have to kill her. Then I’d go to prison and my life would be over.
Also in Chapter 10, I covered that I chose to wait six months to introduce my first post-marriage boyfriend to Ian. I didn’t want a constant parade of potential step-parents being put in front of our son. I wanted to be careful. I wanted Ian to see that his mom was using good judgment and that I intended to protect him. And I wanted to find out more about this person before putting my son at risk. I really wanted to feel like Bob was exercising the same caution. But all I kept fearing was that he would rush to reestablish the comfort he enjoyed being in a relationship. Bob just never was much of a loner. He liked being part of a couple. I, on the other hand, enjoy solitude and only wanted to be part of a couple to the extent that it enhanced my otherwise happy loner existence. This all sounds very ironic to me now since I’m the one that went straight into another relationship; but honestly I really didn’t want to do that. I wanted to take time to be on my own. Yet, I needed a ticket out of my current situation and going into another relationship, in some twisted way, seemed to justify me asking for a divorce. After all, I had been telling Bob for years that we were headed for divorce and he would tell me I was stupid or just respond sarcastically, “Yeah, right.” If I had taken up with another man, he had to believe it was happening for real and accept it, right? Geez, I sure did find the most painful way to make my point.
Anyway, Bob continued to date this woman for a bit and I continued going to therapy, reflecting frequently on her advice to me that if I believed Bob was a good dad, I’d just have to trust him. I had to accept it and put my trust in knowing he would continue to be a good father. Fortunately in my case, I really did believe above all else that Bob would protect our son from any harm – either physical or mental. He himself had grown up in a situation where his father really didn’t afford him the same concern and I knew Bob would never let that be the behavior his son saw him exhibit. So with that I released my fears about that first woman and those that followed.
I continued to date “the other man” who also had a daughter a couple years older than Ian. She and I met fairy soon after that relationship began. That was her father’s choice and given his odd situation with his daughter’s mom, I can understand why he made this choice. The couple had an excessively tumultuous relationship with restraining orders, an eight-year long custody battle, withheld visitation, and one instance in which she fled the state illegally with the child moving the two of them to Maryland. The father had to hire a private investigator to track them down and force her to return with the daughter to Ohio. What a mess! So dad had been through a lot to remain in his daughter’s life and I think he really just wanted her to see a man and woman together who were not fighting.
I got along with the daughter well and she seemed to enjoy my company. After about six months, we felt it was time everyone met. The daughter and Ian. Ian and the boyfriend. Ian was only six years old at the time. So I didn’t want to make this some big life changing event – at least not in his young mind. I just wanted all of us to get together and have a nice time. I figured Ian and the daughter might play and get to know each other and Ian might at least become semi-comfortable with the presence of another man around me. So I planned a gathering of my closest friends to play cards and invited the boyfriend and his daughter to join us. I asked our friends to make it seem like nothing more than a bunch of friends getting together at mom’s house with a chance for Ian to meet a new playmate.
Everyone arrived around seven or so and we had a lovely time playing cards while the kids played. And played. And played. In fact, it seemed these two were long lost relatives so glad to finally reconnect. They really were like best friends immediately. All my friends noticed and commented on how natural they seemed to be together and how much fun they were having – pretty much oblivious to the existence of anyone else. Finally, the friends left and it was just the four of us. The boyfriend and I watched a movie on the couch in the living room while the kids continued to play in the next room. The kids had the time of their lives playing with action figures together and giggling their heads off. The night was a success and a relief. Now we could all spend time together and maybe even become a spinoff version of our family.
Meanwhile, Bob dated a few women here and there and then after about 2 years, he met a new redhed. Her name was Brandi and yes she also had big boobs. But she also seemed to have substance. I could tell she cared deeply for Bob and had patience for some of his antics that I simply lacked. She also had an obvious maternal instinct of her own and clicked well with Ian. I’m so glad that Bob dumped the first girl with big boobs and kept looking until he found Brandi. We are all better off with her in our family’s corner.
When I typed this title into my book outline, I really wasn’t sure what I was going to specifically write here and even as the words hit the page, I’m not sure where they will take me. So let me start with this as I think it demonstrates the point…
When Bob’s wife planned his 50th birthday party, she of course included me and Brian in the celebration. I contemplated whether or not to go for about a half second as I considered seeing all the old softball friends and their wives whom I really hadn’t encountered much in the preceding 17 years. But just as I’ve always done, I considered the fact that what they thought wasn’t as important as the fact that Brandi wanted us to be there. Plus, I relished another opportunity to spend time with my son and my beloved ex-in-laws. So I easily put my brief hesitation aside.
When I arrived at the party, it must have taken me twenty minutes to make it through the venue out to the back patio where the celebration was actually being held as I was greeted by countless members of Bob’s family and friend group who made me feel right at home with all of them. Honestly, it was so genuine and well beyond an obligatory “hello” or “how have you been?”, but rather, real interest in talking with me and knowing how my life as going. I hope I returned the feelings of acceptance and interest in them that they afforded me. It was so comforting to feel so loved by those who for so long I felt I had fallen out of grace with when I left Bob. See it is one thing to celebrate your child together and for everyone to focus on that. But when the “ex” shows up at the former spouse’s birthday party, it is because they want to be there, not because it is expected due to parental responsibility. And it’s true. I really did want to be there and I really did enjoy it.
As I made my way to the patio, I came upon a poster board full of photos throughout Bob’s life that Brand had created. Ahead of the event, she had asked me for some snapshots that pre-dated her and I had a supplied her with a stack. I wasn’t sure how she would feel about including them. So I told her use what she felt comfortable with and left it at that. I included pictures that Bob’s mom had given me of Bob when he was in high school and pictures of him with Ian when he was a baby, toddler, and preschooler – all which predated Brandi. I also chose to include one other picture that probably was the most controversial choice if you were an outsider to our special relationship. It was a picture of Bob and me together after a softball game when I was about seven months pregnant. We both looked so happy and young and Bob had his hand on my pregnant belly. I really didn’t know if Brandi would be willing to put this one in the collection she created for public viewing.
As I scanned the board, I didn’t really look specifically for this picture because I had convinced myself to have no expectation and to harbor no judgment either way she went with that. But then my eyes locked on it and I was filled with joy when I saw that this particular image made the board. See, not only did it represent the happiest time of our marriage and of course the impending birth of our only son, who is amazing, but it also was us in the element in which we had enjoyed so much fun with friends celebrating softball wins at the local pub after the game. I had lost all those friends in the divorce if you will and many of them were there that night. Having that picture on the board made me somehow feel even more like a part of the celebration – a key orchestrator in the creation of our family 2.0 and a genuine friend… still! I probably spent more time talking with Bob’s friends that night than I had even when we were all hanging out at the pub after all those games. I was no longer a person separate from the group who was just tagging along. I was a member of the group… for that night at least.
As the party progressed, Bob asked that someone “take a picture of his modern family” and grabbed both Brandi and I to pose with him. It was a really cool feeling and a proud moment for both of us. I just love my real modern family!
One way in which divorced couples may not consider they will continue to be tied is through their finances. “What?” you say. Why is that? Simple. If you have kids together, whatever your ex-spouse and you achieve or don’t achieve financially will impact your child’s life. So if you think your times of fighting about money are over, they probably aren’t. And even if you don’t fight about them, your spouse’s choices will affect your choices and vice versa whether you like it or not.
For some, this plays out in the forms of failed child support payments or the inability (or maybe even unwillingness) to pay half on basic expenses such as childcare, school supplies, clothing, etc. For most of Ian’s youth, this wasn’t the case for us. Bob and I were both gainfully employed… most of the time. And we were both very generous with our son and interested in him having a balanced experience at both homes. However, there were a couple of occasions where each of us made choices that impacted both of our financial pictures.
When it came to celebrating Ian’s birthday, Bob and I traded off on this responsibility just like any other. One year I planned and paid for the kid party, and the next year Bob did. And when the special birthdays came up, we joined forces. This would sometimes mean going in on a nice gift together that we agreed on. And sometimes it meant we would have a party at one of our houses and invite the other parent and their family to attend. Of course, since none of my family” lived close, for me, this consisted of close friends and my boyfriend and his children. We each welcomed the other and their family into our home as we would any other friend, again able to put aside our otherwise competitive nature.
On Ian’s 18th birthday, we decided to play a little practical joke on him and jointly packed his car with tons of balloons. We both took turns writing funny sayings in washable car ink all over his car. Really, we had entirely too much fun with the whole thing. And when Ian saw the sayings, there was no doubt in his mind who wrote what as we both have our own unique flavor of humor.
When it came to our birthdays, we also honored each other and kept things on positive footing by taking Ian to shop for gifts for each other and giving him the money to pay for them without hesitation. This may sound easy enough. But I don’t think it is all that normal among divorced couples. In fact, none of the other divorced people I knew either bought for the other parent or had gifts bought for them. I guess they just couldn’t get passed themselves. But for me, it was important for Ian to have the opportunity to buy his dad a gift of his choosing and get to see the joy on his face when he opened it. I couldn’t take that from him. It wasn’t my place. And I always tried not to let our divorce dictate how my son interacted with his father. If we had stayed married, I would have expected Ian to want to give his father a gift. So in divorce, this expectation was no different.
Another thing that we always made sure was possible was for our child to spend the day with the parent enjoying the birthday. Again, this seems obvious and logical, doesn’t it? But surprisingly, I’ve seen way too many parents who don’t even consider ensuring this simple courtesy – either planning a vacation or other activity that inhibits the child from spending time with their parent on their birthday. There is simply no excuse for this childish and thoughtless behavior as far as I’m concerned. For me, it is also important that the child learn to honor their parent’s special day. It is important they learn to not only receive but to give. The world does not in fact revolve around them. They best learn that now so as not to be devastated by disappointment later. Or worse yet, grow up not knowing how to be generous and giving of themselves to others.
We did the same for each other on Mother’s Day and Father’s day. I didn’t even consider scheduling something that would interfere with Ian spending time with his father on Father’s day and I received the same treatment in return.
If you’ve read my chapter on Practicing the Golden Rule, this is what I’m talking about. If you always keep in mind how you would want to be treated, you will not stray from appropriate choices in matters of co-parenting. Remember, you get what you give. It is the universal law!
Enjoying the holidays has probably been the biggest challenge for me. As moms (and maybe dads feel this way too), we feel it is our duty to create family traditions. Yet that is very difficult to do when you’ve agreed to alternate holidays. At best, your tradition is either only executed in alternating years or you carry it out on a different day from year to year. While this may work fine for you and your child or children, it is hard to pull off when considering the broader family. Grandma and Pappa may always host Thanksgiving at their house. A particular holiday event may only take place on Christmas Eve each year.
Even more complicating is when there are multiple divorces, remarriages, step-children, and even pets that have to be worked into the equation. So my best advice is to not get too caught up in your own feelings. This will just drive you crazy and honestly… it isn’t just about YOU! Hell this is the case even if you’re not divorced.
Of course, Bob and I were divorced. Bob’s parents were divorced – and both remarried. Bob eventually got remarried, and his wife’s mom got remarried. Bob’s sister was married but her husband’s family was from another town 2 hours from here. My parents were still married but lived in Texas. In fact, none of my relatives lived in town. This actually ended up being a Godsend of sorts. Sure it was tough not having them close by and I hated that we couldn’t share more of our lives with them. But had they too been local, it would have just been one more difficult choice to have to make when it came to dividing up our time.
When Ian was between 6 and 14 years old, I mostly conceded Thanksgiving to Bob and his family. It was just too sad for me to make dinner for just Ian and I and it didn’t seem right to keep him from enjoying a big family gathering that Bob could provide. So I would do something else. I’d have probably been better off in these years before Brian, had I went to volunteer at a homeless shelter or elderly home. I don’t know why I didn’t do that other than to say I think I just got caught up wallowing in my own despair. Instead, I usually met up at a bar on Thanksgiving evening with friends trying to escape the family scene.
I remember once Ian called me and asked what I think may have been the saddest question a child could ever ask a parent… “How can a son not see his mom on Thanksgiving?” It was just awful. Yep, there was that half Bob said I’d miss. It’s in my eardrum right now thrashing at my heart. Seriously, what a waste all that self-pity was! If you end up alone on the holidays, don’t do what I did. Do something that involves you giving your time and energy to someone else’s needs. I think you’ll feel a whole lot better.
When I finally started seeing Brian seriously, we began alternating Thanksgiving. Of course, this introduced more complications – Brian’s kids, their mom’s wishes, her new husband, and her parents’ schedule. Ian is now 24 and we still haven’t really conquered Thanksgiving successfully. Given that I consider Thanksgiving the quintessential family holiday, it just comes preloaded with anxiety year after year. Still, alternating seems like the kindest choice for all involved.
One other thing I would caution against in the case of holidays is giving the kids TOO MUCH control in deciding how their holiday time is spent. It isn’t all about them either! Certainly strive to make it fair and not too frantic to enjoy. But seriously, burdening a child with the decision of who to spend time with and how much and who to pick between is more unfair. Make it your burden to figure out. Not theirs. Be the adults. Be fair to yourself too. Being a martyr doesn’t serve your or your children’s interest. After all, they want to spend time with you… unless of course you’re an abusive asshole, in which case, you should lose all rights to ever see your kids until you decide to be a decent human being.
Holidays are supposed to be a time for joy, fun, and celebration. But when you are divorced with kids, it is a minefield of anxiety. How do you get it right? How do you build traditions when you constantly have to consider the forces outside your home? How do you balance what your child wants with what you want to experience as a parent? I can only speak for myself. But I didn’t work on getting pregnant for 2 years only to miss all the significant memories in my son’s life. My dreams of building that vast photo album of costumes and pictures with Santa didn’t end with my divorce. I know there are people who let these things go. But honestly, I just don’t relate to this type of parenting existence. I couldn’t let Bob’s prophecy of “You’re going to miss half of his life” come to fruition.
So not unlike the tangled web we had to maneuver to pull off family vacations, we once again had to exhibit selflessness, flexibility, and compassion to provide the best holiday experiences to our boy while still getting to enjoy being his parents.
Don’t be Haunted by Halloween Missteps
The first key to a Happy Halloween whether you are divorced or still married is to let your child pick their own costume. It’s one of the few things they can control. So let them have it. Pick one costume that they will want to wear to both parent’s house. That way there is one experience – not only for them but for the two parents and everyone else around them as well! Remember, your parents are building a photo album as well.
Now you might be saying to yourself, “Well of course you let the kid pick their costume. What crazy control freak would deny a child such a rite of passage?” But I can tell you first hand with another couple that I know that this is not the case. In the ongoing obsession to control every aspect of every experience her children have, one parent I know always picks what the kids will wear. The outcome of course is that IF the kids are allowed out of her sight for a millisecond, they strip down the costume to the point that you can’t even tell what they are dressed as. Take that you control freak mother! Happy now?
Beyond the costume, I’d say the more tricky part (pardon the pun) for us was how to deal with the logistics of trick or treat. And in our case, we lived very close making it a little easier. Still, will they go to both neighborhoods? Will they just do one? Is there time for both? Will they have anyone to go with in both neighborhoods at different times? What do they want to do? What if I don’t get to see my child in his costume this year? Oh hell! This part sucks. Looking back, I guess we did “ok” with this one but I think we could have done better.
Ian did pick his costumes OF COURSE and also which neighborhood to start in. But the other parent always wanted to be part of it and so Ian would have to stop halfway through the first neighborhood to switch houses. Of course, he didn’t get to go with the other kids in the second neighborhood because they had started way earlier and were either done or on an entirely different part of the neighborhood. I think in some years he picked one or the other neighborhood but still had to make time to share his costume with each parent. As parents and the “adults”, we should have made all this inconvenience more our affair and let him just enjoy the experience in one location or the other. Of course, being the true Libra sun sign that he is, Ian probably felt obligated to give each parent and friend-group equal time anyway. So I’m not sure that he would have chosen any differently. But looking back, I feel we should have done more to relieve him of this burden.
So as you finalize your plans for this year’s trick-or-treating, do everything you can to remember this is a memory for your child first and you second. Be flexible and considerate. And expect to do more than your friends who are married have to just to create the same level of kid-parent experience.