How Do I Compete When My Ex Is The “Fun” One?
MOLLY: This question came from a reader in Michigan. She added that her girlfriend has her son all week and is “responsible for taking him to all his extracurriculars, doing homework, bathing… His two weekends a month that he’s with his Dad are spent lying on the couch eating pizza and playing Wii. On the occasion that the son gets to choose who he wants to be with, guess who he chooses? And it breaks her heart. What can she do?”
Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): I can see why she would feel resentful. The famous term for that is the “Disneyland Dad,” where the part-time parent provides all the fun, none of the discipline, and none of the regulation of the child’s life. It’s hard to fault a child for being seduced by short-term stays in a rule-less utopia over the daily grind of school, hygiene, homework, chores, activities, etc.
Even though the child states now that he prefers to be with the father, as time goes by, most children intuitively recognize where they receive the best care and flourish in a more structured environment. Kids do know this deep inside and they will prefer it for the long run even while they may enjoy letting it all go during the short periods spent with the other parent. Unfortunately, though, this attitude can feel hurtful to the primary parent who is doing the majority of the care.
Perhaps the Mom could ease her own work load with the child and try to build in time where they actually have fun together. A visit to a park or the zoo or even just out for ice cream can break up the regular routine and add fun to regular life. She could choose to let somethings go sometimes and not worry quite so much about the work that has to be done.
MOLLY: It’s hard though, don’t I know it! Between bathing and school and homework and activities, our days with kids are jam packed, and I have a husband to help me get everything done.
MOM: Yes it’s true, it is but you don’t want it quite as lopsided as this family is. The truth is she has absolutely no control over what goes on in the ex-husband’s household. She can ask him to help out with the reading and some of the other kinds of chores but she can’t make him follow her household’s routine. If he chooses not to, he won’t. She can only regulate what goes on in her own house. While there are certainly normal, every day things that have to go on in a child’s life, it’s probably worth letting the house get a little messy and if that’s what needs to be sacrificed in the name of having some fun time with your kid.
MOLLY: Should she talk to her son about how she doesn’t always want to be the enforcer parent?
MOM: Yes, she can talk about how that makes her feel and she can ask how it feels to him. It sounds like he says, “Oh, Dad is just the greatest dad in the world.” I don’t know how long that will last but I think that she should really program in her own life some space where she lets herself have a good time with her kid.
MOLLY: Where they do some fun things!
MOM: Yeah, that’s the only thing she has any real control over. If the beds don’t get made, for example, I think it’s not such a big deal in the broader scope of life.
MOLLY: Of course she also has to remember not to talk badly about the dad (which in this case is probably pretty tough).
MOM: Right, that would be extremely important not to bad-talk him to the kid, and I can see how it might be easy to do because she probably feels pretty resentful. However, it’s best not to bad-talk an absent parent because it will just boomerang back when kid becomes defensive of the father.
MOLLY: Is there anything long-term she needs to think about?
MOM: There are some things that are out of her control in the long term. Her son may grow up and identify with his father, and that may be how he considers his role when he himself is a father. Of course, that’s not going to go over big with his partner.
So, yes, there could be some long-term consequences. It’s hard to know how he’s going to view his mother when he grows up. As he matures, he can look back and realize that his mother is the one who kept him going in all the kinds of everyday issues that have to go on in life. However, he may really hold fast to patterning himself after his father. His maturity, level of insight, and the life experiences he has with his father while growing up will determine what kind of father he himself will be.
The girlfriend who wrote the plea, can support her partner with encouragement and support for the hard work it takes to be a responsible parent. Maybe she could help the mom have her own fun on her free weekends while the boy is with his father so that she, too, faces the next week recharged and ready to enjoy the time she has with her child.