Updated: Jul 11, 2018
It only happened once. Just one time, and it was a good one - the fight. I was furious with my ex for the way he allowed his girlfriend to speak to me when I was picking the kids up from his house. She was rude and disrespectful and seemed to think it was appropriate for her to step into our co-parenting arrangement. And the more he defended her the angrier I became. I was shaking as I yelled that I would never have allowed anyone I was dating to speak to him like that. My voice was almost incoherent and I could barely hold the phone to my ear. It was at least 20 minutes into the conversation before I realized that my usually loud and bustling house was deathly silent. My kids had retreated into their rooms in response to my yelling. It was like a bucket of cold water. What must they be thinking? I promised myself that they would never see me like that again -- ever. And they didn't.
Single parenting is overwhelming. The stress, the finances, the worries about the future, and the day to day grind all take their toll. In addition, for many single parents, this was not how we planned to raise our kids, and the ever-present grief, anger, disappointment and shame at how things worked out can show up as anger toward our child's other parent. If the other parent is uncooperative, or if there is conflict around money, custody or visitation, it is easy to forget that this was someone we once cared for, and it is easy to now see the other parent as as sum of all his or her flaws - and nothing more. If our child resembles the other parent, we may find ourselves with a daily reminder of everything that went wrong, is going wrong, and could possibly go wrong in the future with that ex.
The problem with seeing your ex as purely a flawed human being is that your child understands pretty quickly that he or she is half your ex's. Even in cases of adoption or same gender unions, where the ex is not biologically related to your child, your child may not have gone through the same process of emotionally separating and distancing that you and your ex did, and still may identify very closely with the other parent. For that reason, however you characterize you ex bears the silent message to your child... "and you are at least half that, too." Half-trifling, half-dishonest, half-lazy, half-....whatever.
Child therapists have found that extreme parental conflict, whether silent or aggressive, often results in child mental health issues and poor parenting practices. So what to do if the ex really is trifling, dishonest and lazy? Should we lie to our kids and pretend everything is perfect? Absolutely not. But every parent is responsible for protecting his or her child's self-esteem or, at the very least, not damaging it. Here are some ways to keep your child healthy and honor your ex - even if he or she does not deserve it:
Make your own peace with the way the relationship turned out. While anger and disappointment may still flare, if years have gone by and you still find these emotions to be constant companions, it's time to get some help. Join a group for single parents or see a therapist. The healthier you are, the healthier your children will be and the better you will parent.
When you need to vent about your ex (and we all need to do this at some point!) find someone besides your child to vent to, and do it out of his earshot. Your child does not need to hear exactly how you feel about your ex. Children eventually form their own opinions of their parents, including you. Take the high road so that your children will not resent you for saying mean things about the other parent.
Try to remember the good things you once saw in your ex. If they don't come easily to you, sit down with paper and pencil and try to recall and write them down. This list is what you will need to call on when you are tired, angry, or frustrated, and all you can think of are the negative traits. Over time, mention these positive traits about the other parent, especially when you see the same traits in your child. Your child needs to know that she has these good traits too. Besides, if your ex is all bad, what does it tell your child about you -- that you got involved with him or her to begin with?
When the other parent is uncooperative, does not follow through or disappoints in any way, talk with your child about the other parent's behavior and not his or her character. For example, you might say, "Your Dad didn't show up today as he promised. I know that was very disappointing. We will have to find out what happened." instead of, "Your father is so inconsiderate and undependable. He never does what he says he will." If your child is angry with the other parent, listen sympathetically, but don't feed the fire -- the tables could turn at any time.
Understand that children will often love parents who do not seem to deserve their love. That's just the way it is. Even if the other parent is not around or was abusive to you or the child, your child may still have strong feelings of love for that parent. Encourage your child to love the other parent, while maintaining realistic expectations for what that parent will or will not do.
Find ways to help your child celebrate the other parent on birthdays, Father's/Mother's Day, etc. Help your child buy or make a gift or a card. Make sure your child calls to send best wishes. Do it even if the other parent does not reciprocate. This teaches your child that it is possible to disagree with someone and yet honor who they are as a person. This will be a valuable lesson later in life, and your child will remember which parent taught it.
If you and your ex are engaged in a legal conflict, explain the legal procedure to your child in an age-appropriate, unemotional, and business-like way. Reassure your child that she is still loved completely by both parents, but that the adults in the situation need to go through this process to come to an agreement. Remind your child of times when she needed someone else to help mediate a disagreement and show her how well conflicts can be settled.
Finally, support your child in navigating life between two parents. This is NOT easy, and children often feel torn and guilty for loving two parents who don't love each other. Don't make your child choose sides. Help him explore his own feelings without your influence. Encourage your child to embrace the best of both sides of him (use that list in #3!) and reassure him that he is 100% wonderful, 100% smart, and 100%...fill in the blanks.