I knew having and raising a baby by myself would be hard. Really hard.
But what I didn’t anticipate was that the hardest thing of all would be dealing with my daughter’s father, especially in the early days. Harder than the physical exhaustion common to all single mothers, harder than having no hugs at the end of the day, harder than the financial worries.
And that’s despite the fact that that we probably get on better than most parents in our situation.
Dealing with the ‘other parent’ is nearly always difficult – at least in the initial years. There are the inevitable disagreements over things like discipline, constant niggles about access, and a thousand-and-one worries to keep you awake at night.
Not to mention the pain of whatever drove you apart in the first place and your incredible, heart-rending love and concern for the little ones in the middle of it all.
But according to the experts, it doesn’t have to be that way. The key is to put the children first.
Anne Malcolm, a senior counsellor with Relationship Services, says parents must put aside their own pain in order to do what’s best for the children. And let’s face it, although it might suit you if your ex fell off the planet, it’s healthy for your children to enjoy a loving relationship with him or her if at all possible.
“It’s vital parents realise their own relationship may be over, but that they’ll always be Mum and Dad,” says Malcolm. “They have to find a way to talk things through – to make decisions and compromises for the good of the kids.”
Talking things through may sound simplistic, but it’s no mean feat for those whose situation is so intense they communicate only through their lawyers.
Malcolm suggests an excellent way to begin is to hold discussions with a counsellor present – an impartial third-party to listen, mediate and make suggestions.
There are so many issues that need to be talked through if you are to make the best of the situation for the children’s sake.
Malcolm says one of the most common problem areas is differing values and boundaries. She advises parents to work towards agreeing on ‘rules.’
“It’s extremely helpful for the children if parents can be united on things such as bedtime, TV programmes, homework or table manners, for example.”
Discipline should also be as across-the-board as possible. If Mum says no TV for a week because of a misdemeanour, then there’s no TV at Dad’s that week either.
When you can’t agree on something, it’s a matter of asking yourself if what the other person wants will affect the child’s health or safety.
“If the answer is no,” says Malcolm, “ then it comes down to accepting that you have to compromise, even though you might hate it, hate it, hate it.”
Gary Richmond, author of Successful Single Parenting, says the greatest gift single parents can give their children is to show respect to the other parent and co-operate if at all possible.
“If you try and fail, at least your conscience will be clear. You will have acted in the best interests of your children.”
He suggests you make a decision never to put down or demean the other person in front of your children. Don’t involve them in what is essentially an adult conversation.
He also advocates deferring to the talents and knowledge of the other parent. For example, if your son asks how ships float, and your ex is an engineering-type, say “why don’t you ask your Dad some more about that, he’s bound to know.”
Custodial parents can also keep the other parent up to date with the child’s development and achievements – sending a quick email or popping some artwork in the post.
At this point some readers are snorting: “What? That jerk? He ran off with a near-child, has no values at all and I’m supposed to communicate with him and encourage his parenting?”
Yup, that’s what the experts say. It’s hard, especially when you are resentful and angry after a devastating divorce. And for women who have been by themselves from pregnancy, it’s hard to ‘give’ your child to a man who has, at best, a very limited bond with him or her.
Of course, every situation is unique. Some ex-partners will be impossible to deal with no matter how hard you try. And much – or even all – of this will not apply where there is any suggestion of violence or abuse. Safety is paramount.
But where it’s a case of grownups no longer getting along, it’s worth thinking about the effects of that relationship on your children. It’s easy to do what’s best for me in regard to the ex, not what’s best for my child. But the pay-off for making a real effort is in happy, well-adjusted children.
A girlfriend from Wellington, who is sharing custody of her three children,
recently gave me food for thought:
She said: “I do lots of little things which are hard for me, but which make it easier for the children and for their Dad. And sometimes I choose not to rock the boat in order to keep the peace, even when I’d be justified in yelling and screaming at him.
“Then, at the end of the day, I know I have acted with integrity and risen above the temptation to be really nasty. That’s important to me – and it creates something which is far better for the kids.”
Free Counselling is Available
If you’re finding it hard to communicate with your ex, then be aware that any separated parents can get six free counselling sessions with Relationship Services. The idea is to stop problems from spiralling downward, thus avoiding a court case.
These sessions can be used to sort out differences over discipline, schooling, step-family problems – anything at all. The counsellor acts as an impartial third-party to facilitate the discussion and to offer suggestions.
To get the sessions free, contact the Family Court. You do not need to have had previous custody dealings with the court.
Or, if you choose to pay for the counselling yourselves, you can contact Relationship Services directly.
Family Court of New Zealand
The official website of the Family Court has a wealth of information, as well as down-loadable forms and publications for your convenience.
Relationship Services is a non-government, not-for-profit agency which provides skilled counselling and education services throughout New Zealand. You can read more about their services and contact details in our article Relationship Services.