Over the years, I have seen an unexpected, undiscussed side effect of divorce.
I’m not a big fan of divorce — but then, nobody is. With very specific rare exceptions, nobody goes into a marriage thinking, “I can always get a divorce.” Divorce is incredibly painful, and it wrecks the self esteem of both parties, not to mention their faith in the future. Not to mention the children. Nobody chooses it.
Sometimes it’s the right choice though.
In each case, I believe it was the right decision. All of us felt we were in danger in our marriages and that our children were also in danger (emotionally if not physically).
All of us were awarded custody.
But a funny thing happened on the way to adulthood: a majority of our children ended up returning to their fathers to live.
Now that they are in their late twenties and thirties, it’s their fathers they are close to — despite the fact that we divorced the men specifically to protect our children.
I’ve come to believe it is the result of a phenomenon I am calling The Mystique of the Non-Custodial Parent.
The custodial parent has to deal with all the normal friction that happens between a parent and child. It’s the custodial parent who battles over bedtime and baths. It’s the custodial parent who forces the kid to school when he doesn’t like the teacher, and grounds him when he doesn’t do his homework. And it’s the custodial parent who tells the daughter her first boyfriend is bad news and she must break up with him.
The non-custodial parent, on the other hand, misses the daily interactions and tries to make up for them by cramming all the missed fun and love into whatever time they have. Nobody tries to cram in all the drudgery and fighting that comes with sharing a home 24-7.
The Sunday father takes his son to the zoo — and skips his customary Sunday afternoon nap. The weekend Dad takes his daughter camping instead of making her mow the lawn and clean the toilets.
And he showers his children with gifts. Not necessarily to buy their love, but simply because it’s such a joy to make a child smile, especially to a parent who doesn’t get the morning smiles and goodnight kisses on a regular basis.
Plus, he has more money to spend (the custodial parent typically experiences a 52 percent drop in family income).
Over the years, I suspect the child begins to think of the custodial parent as the mean parent, and the non-custodial parent as the nice one.
Hence, the mystique: the fun-loving, gift-giving dad versus the scolding, punishing mother. Even worse, the successful father as opposed to the loser mother, especially if she sacrificed her career to be a stay-at-home mom.
And yes, I’ve used sexist language — primarily because it usually is the mother who gets custody (especially in cases involving domestic abuse), and the father who gets the money and the mystique.
But I personally know examples where the father got custody — and the mother received the mystique benefits. And sure enough, in those cases, the child is now closer to the mother. That is, the child chose the non-custodial parent.
It’s a terrifying concept: as a mother, I pour everything I am and have into my children, but I know they will probably leave me in favor of the man I tried to protect them from. Even worse, they may try to convince my children from a subsequent marriage to go with them. And regardless, they will definitely take my grandchildren with them.
Let me put this more clearly: if my children choose the ex over me, I may never know my grandchildren.
I don’t know of a way to avoid falling victim to the mystique once you’ve hooked up with the wrong guy and conceived, especially if you are afraid he might hurt the children.
As a loving parent, you have to try to protect them — even if you know those same actions will probably drive them from you in the long run.
Besides, if you don’t leave? The children will resent that you didn’t save them from abuse.
Damned if you do … yanno.
But not knowing how to avoid the trap certainly won’t stop me from giving advice! At least, the best advice I’ve got.
It turns out your choice of the man who will father your children is much more important than you ever dreamed. Sure, you can always divorce him if he turns out to be an abusive prick — but if he’s fathered children with you, you’ll be living with him every day for the rest of your life.
Even if you never see him again, he contributed half the genetic material your children carry, and it will pop up in surprising ways: the way your son carries his chin or the stubborn illogic in how your daughter argues. And if he’s still in contact with them, he’ll be teaching them his worldview just as rigorously as you’re teaching yours.
So be very careful who you sleep with. No method of contraceptive is a hundred percent fail proof except abstinence.
Choose nice guys over exciting guys — and if you find nice guys too boring, get therapy.
Seriously. Get therapy.
“Bad boys” aren’t called “bad” as a joke. They are bad for you, and if you’re attracted to them, you probably have some deeply buried, self destructive behaviors.
Educate yourself about abuse especially. Learn to recognize what is and what is not abuse (and be aware that batterers will often accuse you of being abusive as pre-emptive strike). Be aware of the early signs of abuse (chauvinism, attempts to control you, name calling, criticism, etc.).
Know that if he ever hits you, even once, for any reason — it’s abuse.
Well, OK, fine. If you’re holding a gun to his head and threatening to kill him? Then it’s self-defense. But it pretty much has to be that extreme.
And if you’re dating someone who exhibits these behaviors? RUN!
Run fast and far. No matter how cute he is or how much your parents love him or even how much you love him. Run. It will never get better. It only gets worse.
For All Parents
First, foremost, and last: do not use your children as weapons. You’ll be tempted, but don’t do it. Weapons get broken when they are used in battle.
And that means, among other things, don’t bash the ex. And don’t try to instruct the children on how to behave when they’re in the ex’s home.
For Custodial Parents
Let go of the outcome. You cannot control what your children do as adults, and they are going to do things that hurt you immensely. Accept that.
While you have them, try to teach them to be honorable, people with integrity. Teach them kindness and tolerance (even tolerance of the ex, painful as that may be).
And then let them go if they want to leave. If you try to cling to them, you will lose them forever. If you let them go, it’s possible they will return some day.
For Non-Custodial Parents
Don’t be a Santa Claus dad. That sets up your children for failure because it gives a false view of parenthood. That sets up your grandchildren for failure!
Resist the temptation to always be having fun. Children need stability most of all. Do spend time with them, but spend it doing normal parenting tasks: chores, homework, discipline — and yes, an occasional camping trip or zoo outing.
Be kind to your ex. I know you don’t want to be kind to her. I know you’re furious at her. I know you resent having to send her money, but trust me: you’re in much better financial straits that she is.
But being kind isn’t about her. It’s about your kids. You are a role model for them. You are teaching them what it means to be a man.
If you are kind, even to your ex, you will teach your son to be a kind man, setting him up for marital joy instead of another generation of divorce. You will teach your daughter that she deserves to be treated well by men, that she should never settle for someone who belittles her and hurts her.
You have enormous sway over your children — even if you only see them for six weeks during the summer and every other Christmas. They watch you, as they try to figure out the world.
If you act in bitterness and resentment, manipulating your ex, encouraging rebellion, and telling your children all of her faults (real or perceived), your children will become bitter, controlling and lonely adults.
But if you act with honor and integrity, treating even your ex with respect, your children can become well-adjusted, happily married adults.
Is your revenge really worth damaging your children and limiting their future?