How long should a mother take responsibility for a father’s job?
Anytime I write about the challenges of being a single mom (which happens to include dealing with a difficult ex), I get comments from folks warning me to make sure I am not alienating my daughter from her dad. To be honest, those comments annoy me, because there’s the whole level of obviously, I am not trying to keep my ex away from our daughter.
I am, however, determined to do right by my kid. And often, that means enforcing healthy boundaries with her father. After all, when someone shows repeatedly that they are unwilling to put themselves out for their kid, I don’t believe it’s healthy to keep catering to that parent.
It sets a bad precedent, and it teaches your child that they shouldn’t honor themselves. Or that they should take whatever crap a loved one sends them.
Our kid deserves better.
Over time, I’ve realized that this is a much bigger issue than any breakdown between me and my ex. What makes me so irritated is the way our culture expects me as a single mother to facilitate my ex’s relationship with our daughter.
As if he can’t rise to the occasion of fatherhood himself. Frankly, that’s bullshit.
My daughter’s dad already had three sons before we ever met. He was a parent for 10 years before I became pregnant with our daughter. I find it laughable that just because I am a single mom, people believe that it’s my job to ensure that he and our kid enjoy a healthy connection.
When our daughter was two-and-a-half, she and I moved from the Twin Cities down to Tennessee to live within 30 minutes of her dad. I still had my qualms about his ability to coparent or speak to me with even a modicum of respect, but I chose to try it out.
It was important to me that my daughter could know her father, so there was a time where I took on that responsibility for their relationship. I updated him about everything. Encouraged him to spend more time with her. Made our kid beyond accessible.
And when we first moved down here, I worked from home as a writer for a social media marketing agency. I had apprehension about getting my work done, and he claimed he wanted to have her over frequently, so I agreed to plenty of visits.
Now, ideally, they would have been mostly daytime visits. Or, a single night. I felt that it was only right to allow our daughter time to get used to being at his house.
But he and his wife were unwilling to try such a schedule. If she came over, they wanted to keep her for days at a time. As it happened, her dad had moved further out, so he didn’t want to drive the hour each way too often (and I didn’t have a car back then).
It bothered me that my ex and his wife wouldn’t even consider the fact that our daughter wasn’t used to staying with them yet and that it would have been kinder and gentler to warm her up to overnights.
But I made the concession, and for a while, she stayed at her dad’s house every other week. Sometimes for three days, sometimes for four, and sometimes for the whole week.
That schedule was “okay” at first. It was hard for me, but I told myself that she needed a solid relationship with them and that I deserved a break. After all, I’d been a single mom for nearly three years with virtually zero overnights away from our daughter.
Eventually, I had a change of heart around the length and frequency of those visits because she began to push back. Our daughter would cry when it was time to say goodbye and yell, “I want mommy!” My ex and his wife tried to get her to call her stepmom mommy, as if that was going to help.
While I knew I had to separate my feelings about there being a stepmom from what was good for our kid, I saw them just bulldoze their wants over her needs.
On one occasion, the four of us tried to go out to dinner--my ex, his wife, our daughter, and me. Unfortunately, my ex suggested that we have dinner to talk about visitation and scheduling after they brought our daughter back to me.
But nobody could get our child to calm down when she saw me. She didn’t want to be at the restaurant. She cried that she wanted to be at home with me. We had to leave before ordering, and I could see that his wife was in tears because my daughter was crying for me and didn’t want her stepmom to console her.
It was very natural and developmentally appropriate kid stuff. I don’t know what my ex and his wife expected. As the primary caretaker, I had that primary bond. It didn’t mean they couldn’t develop strong bonds with her too.
But it did mean that they had to be more patient and deliberate about forging that bond.
So, I said we needed to step back and I needed our daughter at home with me more often. The way things had turned out, my ex was working through most of the time our kid spent there anyway. I didn’t like the idea of sending my daughter away to be raised by her stepmom when the whole point had been for her to get to know her dad.
We scaled back on visits, but my ex and his wife were not happy. On more than one occasion they accused me of being petty or trying to keep them apart when I was trying to honor our daughter’s emotional needs.
As I began to work less on the social media work and more on my personal blogging, it made sense to keep our daughter home with me. I never doubted that our child loved her dad and stepmom. I knew she loved her half brothers and stepsisters too. (And still does.)
But I repeatedly saw my ex and his wife make decisions that suited them more than they suited her. And her comfort level with them seemed to reflect that.
To this day, I typically have to urge my daughter to spend a couple of nights at their house. I sent a Barbie Dreamhouse and a bunch of other toys over there to make it more appealing. I encourage the visits to happen when her siblings are there because she then enjoys her time more.
Ironically, I never have to convince her to hang out with his mom. Asking if she wants to go to Nana’s has always received a yes. Her dad gets a no at least 70% of the time.
It’s not that her dad’s home is a bad place, but it’s not her place. She has repeatedly expressed that it’s not as comfortable for her there. She doesn’t feel like it’s home. And she’s a lot less comfortable voicing her needs over there with them.
It seems that our daughter feels more free to be herself with me or with her Nana. And if my ex wants to foster a deeper bond with her, it’s up to him to do the work to make it happen.
Yet it never ceases to amaze me that this is highly controversial. Social norms suggest that I am supposed to be the parent who makes sure that they develop a strong bond.
Over time, I have come to accept that there is a significant values gap between me and my ex. Shortly after she and I moved down here, my daughter's dad informed me that he and his wife would like to move across the country to Oregon or Seattle. He told me it would happen within five years, because then his three sons would mostly be out of high school and they wouldn’t need him anymore. Okay, that’s a mindboggling statement in and of itself.
But what about our daughter? With the timeframe he suggested, our daughter will be eight years old. It’s strange to me that he hasn’t considered how moving across the country just because he wants to might not be the best for any of his kids. Including an eight year old daughter.
Personally, I can’t wrap my head around that kind of decision. I am from Minnesota. It’s not like I moved down to Tennessee because I love it. I did it so our daughter can know her dad and his side of the family. I stay for that, and the affordable rent.
But life with kids is hard because it’s not all about you. That’s why having children isn’t something to take lightly. It can’t be about you fulfilling your own wishes because that selfishness is felt by your kids. And if you don’t give your kids the time, attention, and consideration they need they are going to carry that baggage with them into adulthood.
When I say there’s a value gap, that’s what I’m talking about. I am never going to be a perfect parent, but I do try to make my decisions with my daughter in mind. I think about how my choices are going to impact her later down the line.
This values gap is a social problem too. Not just an issue with my ex. We all expect mothers to put everything on the line for their kids, right? If I attend a field trip for my daughter, if I take her on a plane, if I sign her up for soccer or ballet, or I take the day off work when she’s sick… these are all very ordinary, everyday things for a mother to do. This is what society expects of us to do.
So, I do everything for my daughter.
In nearly six years, her dad has never bought her clothes, taken her to get a flu shot, or gotten her into the dentist. He’s never asked what we should do for her birthday, and he’s never suggested any real quality time activity.
And our society doesn’t expect him to do any of those things. In fact, if he does a single thing above the basics of keeping her alive, he will go down in history as an amazing father. And if I have the audacity to give my daughter a choice to see him or not, I will get raked over the coals for parent alienation. People freak out and insist that a child cannot possibly voice her own legitimate needs.
I beg to differ.
See, I used to buy into the hype that I had to facilitate a healthy relationship between my ex and our daughter. I seriously thought I owed him that. As if anything short of making their bond happen was pure pettiness on my part.
I’ve heard all of the insults you can imagine. People like to say that I’m just mad he doesn’t want to be with me, so I’m trying to keep his kid from him. Meanwhile, I don’t want to be with him because I don’t like the way he treats his kids.
A parent’s behavior doesn’t have to be flat-out abusive before it can be selfish or unhealthy. There are plenty of bad moves before you cross the line and enter abuse territory. But kids will still carry baggage from the unhealthy shit too.
I once thought I could protect my daughter from having daddy issues by facilitating a healthy relationship with her dad despite our messy breakup. But there is nothing I can do to make him choose healthy behavior. I can’t force their relationship to happen and I sure as heck can’t make it healthy.
And if I do try to take responsibility and facilitate the whole thing? I think that’s going to give her daddy issues. Because as much as I don’t owe him a relationship with our daughter, she doesn’t owe him one either.
He is the father, she is the child. I’m not okay with teaching her to take half-assed shit from him just because that’s all he will give. The way our fathers treat us seems to inform the way we expect to be treated by others.
My dad treated me like garbage and it made me think that I was garbage. It never taught me how to tell somebody no.
It’s not me or my daughter who need to rise to the occasion and develop a solid bond with her dad. It’s on him. I do all of the daily work to not just keep her alive, but to raise her well, and to build a healthy attachment. Besides, I moved us across the country to make parenting accessible for him and to give him the opportunity to be a good father.
That is more than enough responsibility for a single mom. It’s long past time for him to take responsibility for himself.
These days, our daughter doesn't see her dad a lot despite living just 30 minutes away. He doesn't offer to have her over very often, and on a few rare cases that I've needed a babysitter, he was too busy with plans to attend a party or go on a date.
Life became a lot simpler when I quit pushing or hoping for him to show up.
As women who happen to be mothers, we spend an awful lot of time asking how we can help others. How we can make the world a better place for our kids. In general, we are master facilitators and planners because who else is going to do the work?
Last year, I remember asking a fellow writer, Scott Gilman, how women can help men better understand feminist issues like #metoo and the crux of his answer stuck with me big-time. Scott essentially said that’s not our job. That we have enough on our plates than to worry how to educate grown men.
Grown men should be educating themselves and each other. Grown women do not need to carry that burden.
It’s the same thing with parenting. I am not a petty woman for expecting my daughter’s dad to do his own self-work. Our child is not some plaything for him to take out and dust off whenever he wants to feel better about himself.
If he really wants to feel like a great dad, then he needs to put in the effort to build a healthy bond with our daughter. But that takes time and energy. It means doing things and being there even when you don’t feel like it.
You know, it requires conscious parenting. And that’s not something our culture ever expects from men. So, maybe that’s partly why it’s so hard for my ex.
Even so, a child doesn’t deserve to pay for her parents' shortcomings. Children shouldn’t have to fill in the gaps for their dads.
That’s why she gets to decide how often she wants to visit with her dad. Because I’m not raising a voiceless daughter who’s expected to settle for scraps of attention.
I am raising a healthy and whole daughter who knows she’s got choices, and I’m sure not going to apologize for that.