I have my kids in my physical custody over 95% of the time, and I make every effort to ensure that they get time with their dad whenever he’s available. Despite his busy work and travel schedule, my ex is very much a part of our children’s lives and he supports us financially. Our kids have a close relationship with their father and they have a mother who, while hauling ass to gain financial self-sufficiency, is very present and able to show up for them.
Mostly-solo-parenting, while a far cry from requiring me to bear total responsibility for my kids, comes with its own unique challenges. Now that my kids are teenagers, it’s a bit more manageable, but when they were younger, the unpredictability was very destabilizing for them.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
- When a parent is unpredictable or unavailable, the kids take it personally.
- The absentee parent tends to get the fun time, while the primary parent gets the grunt work.
- Plans change on a dime and the kids are stuck between keeping their routine and their pre-scheduled plans or capitalizing on an opportunity to be with their other parent.
- Co-parenting is very tricky with an absentee parent. Even if they care, they are out of the loop and not privy to what is really going on with their kids.
- For the primary care-giver, having an adult life is nearly impossible without some predictability. Dating? Fuggetaboutit.
Now that I’ve rattled off some of the difficulties, I’d like to highlight how we got through it and emphasize that our kids have a great relationship with both of us. And, as I mentioned, it is much easier now that the kids are old enough to articulate what they want and need. Teenagers, while they do require a ton of attention, are busy cultivating their own interests and are less seeking of approval and attention from parents.
Here are some of the things that got us through the most chaotic times-
- I listened. A lot. My kids were upset. They missed their dad. I didn’t try to talk them out of that or diminish their feelings. Again, Listen, listen, listen. We don’t always need to fix.
- I backed up my ex. I didn’t belabor the rationale behind his absence (whether it was justified or not, etc). I focused on the fact that it was what it was, and we all have the power to find joy and purpose in our own lives (yeah when my younger one was 6, I watered this down a bit). I still remind them all the time that their lives have value regardless of what anyone else might do or say (including me and their dad).
- I made sure they knew their father loved them. It can be very difficult for children to believe that they are loved by someone who is not present for them. I see that time in their childhood as a string of pearls — in the spaces between visits, it was my job to keep them connected to their dad. I wondered sometimes if that should be my responsibility, and some may argue that it wasn’t and isn’t. But, I can tell you the results speak for themselves. Our kids are secure in the knowledge that they are loved.
- There will be time. I often have reminded my kids that they will have their time with their dad. And that is exactly what is happening. The older they get, the more they are able to spend time with their dad, even if it is while he is working. As they have matured, it has gotten easier. I have assured them that if they stay connected to him, at some point, they will find the quality time together. Sometimes it takes many years for that to come to pass. It is happening in our situation way sooner than I anticipated.
- I had to reassure my ex that his kids loved him. Yes, it’s very difficult for the absentee parents too. All judgments aside, regardless of the reasons one parent is less available (even if it is lack of character), that person is suffering. If a parent is trying to maintain a relationship with their child, it needs to be encouraged, and sometimes they need to be cut a lot of slack (the obvious assholes and narcissists excluded). This is not to promote a lack of boundaries or to make excuses, but the reality is: if there is any way to have both parent and child feel loved and cared about, there is a better chance of the relationship flourishing and the kids growing into healthy, secure adults.
I must reiterate, this wasn’t easy. It still isn’t. I wanted a secure, predictable, intact family for my kids. When you are mostly solo, you need to do a lot of breathing and be very flexible. Sometimes I tried to wrestle control or lay down the law. Ultimately, for our family, the benefits of accommodating an unpredictable schedule and taking every day, week, month and year as it came, paid off.
As for my struggle to create my own life in the midst of chaos, I’m still working on it and employ a great deal of patience. My kids will be grown soon and that will be a whole different ball game. In the meantime, I keep juggling and breathing.