Thursday, August 13, 2009

The thing about a kid whose parents get divorced...

Dear Brooke,

My first wife and I divorced 7 years ago. We had a daughter together who is now 10. My ex-wife is very neurotic and controlling, which was one of the many issues that led up to our divorce. I get my daughter 3 weekends a month. Since I live close by, I can see her whenever I want.

Since my daughter is her mother's only child, they have a very close relationship. My daughter's mom is overly protective of her. My problem is I feel that my ex-wife is turning my daughter into her. Since my marriage ended, I have gone on to remarry (5 years ago) and have 2 more children. The ex is still single with a series of failed relationships behind her.

Some examples I have may be petty on my part. Let’s call my daughter Jane. Jane has her own cell phone. She feels the need to call her mom over any concerns or feelings she has while she is staying with me. This is something that her mom did / continues to do with her mom (my ex-mother-in-law). This can get extremely intrusive during dinner or family time.

Jane is slightly allergic to peanuts. Whenever we buy a cake for birthdays including hers, she will insist on reading the ingredients to make sure there are no peanuts in it or made in a factory that processed anything with peanuts. Then, she will proceed to take out her cell phone and call her mom and read the label to her and reconfirm that she shouldn't eat the cake. This was done yesterday for my birthday celebration that left me, my wife, and our guests uncomfortable.

Jane’s mother never cared much about her appearance. She would often throw on whatever clothes were clean and would fit. She could care less about having her hair styled, nails done, etc. This progressively got worse when we married. This attribute has been passed on to my daughter. Her clothes are clean, but atrocious in fit and style. We make attempts to get her nice clothes, but she doesn't want to wear them and refuses to take them home. We get hair products so she can do something other than "just brush it" or "throw it up." My wife is often embarrassed to be seen in public with her. She often sticks out when we are out as a family.

I am at my wit's end about this. I recently told Jane that I want to move away from where we live when she is 18; she'll be an adult going to college and my family and I will begin a new chapter in our lives. I let her know that she will always have a place with us, but I cross fingers hoping this doesn't happen for the above mentioned reasons. Sometimes, I feel like dropping her off at her mom's house and telling her that I can't deal with her anymore and getting on with my life, which would include moving up my plans to leave the area 7 to 8 years ahead of schedule.

Jane has unconditional love for me. Although I think about her everyday and worry for her, I don't think my love is as unconditional and I feel very guilty about it. My current wife dreads when Jane comes over because it is like having my ex-wife here, but she is a great sister to our daughters. Our older child counts down the days when Jane comes here and loves to play and hang out with her. Secretly, my wife and I count down the hours that I drop Jane off with her mom.

I think back to a time when things were much simpler in life 7 years ago; I was single it was just Jane and me on the weekends. There was no problem taking her as she was, unconditionally. Now, things are complicated and it takes every once of will power I have not to tell her I feel. Maybe I'm thinking too much into this whole thing. I hope and pray to myself that one day, Jane will rebel against her mom's influence; that she'll want to have a normal mother-daughter relationship rather than the pathological one I observe.

Thanks for "listening",

Frustrated Dad

Dear Frustrated Dad,

I really could write a response to so many different parts of your letter, it’s almost overwhelming for me to even attempt. I’m truly flattered and overjoyed that you wrote… because I think this will be an amazing lesson for so many people. Thank you for being the guinea pig… There is huge potential here for you to become unbelievably stronger after this… and a better dad. The truth is, this dynamic happens way more often than people realize.

OK, I’m just gonna go for it. I hope you're sitting. Digest this as you will…

It seems that the thing you dislike most about your daughter and being around her is that she reminds you of the past. She reminds you of the feelings you had when you were in your unhappy marriage. She reminds you of the life that you were so overjoyed to leave behind. But guess what… you don’t get to leave it fully behind…if you want to be an accountable, responsible adult that is.

You don’t get to fall out of love with the woman you made a child with, and then expect that child to be nothing like, have nothing to do with, or remind you nothing… of her mother. You are trying to say…’never mind, I want a do-over’, and my love, that’s just not part of the deal. You divorced your daughter’s mother, your daughter didn’t. She gets to remain connected. At whatever level she wants. That’s her mother.

At ten years old, three when her parents got divorced, it’s not her responsibility to be nothing like her mother. To not need her mother. It’s your responsibility, as an adult, and as her father… to learn to separate your feelings towards your first marriage, with the feelings you have towards your daughter. She doesn’t deserve to be the container for your past and the negative feelings you associate with it. She gets to be separate. She is not her mother, no matter how much she reminds you of her. She is not your first marriage, no matter how much she reminds you of it. She is a human being that you helped create. She is Jane.

Your opinion that she has “atrocious” clothing and makes your guests “uncomfortable” when calling her mother at dinner… Your wife’s “embarrassment” of your daughter or her particular hair style…well my darling dad… this is all about your judgment…in general, and of your past and of your ex. You don’t want your past creeping up into your nice pretty new package of a life. I know, harsh… I just care about ya too much to let you do this. You feel unhappy that your daughter “sticks out” when you are a family because, well, you don’t really see her as part of your new family, as part of your present life, do you? You look at her, and you see your ex. And that’s just not fair. Get it? I think you get it.

A moment for a breath, or an OMMM, or whatever you need… OK, moving on…

This is a kid who was three years old when her parents got divorced… so I’m going to give you a itsy bitsy mini lesson about what happens, when that happens…

The thing about a kid whose parents get divorced is that they are fractured. A kid whose parents get divorced is living on the fault line of an earthquake all the time. Like, all the time. They feel unsafe. They feel insecure. They wonder if they should have ever been born…after all, their parents want to move on, right?

Divorce rocks a kid’s world. And then, that’s what they know. They know things fall apart without understanding why. They know instability. They know going from family to family, house to house. They know what falling out of love looks like. They know not feeling like they really belong anywhere. They know that their parents, the people that made them, don’t love each other any more, and might not even like each other anymore. Ugh. What a crappy feeling.

What your daughter saw and understood about life, from a very early age is that, you can’t control it… no matter how hard you try, no matter how bad you want to. You can’t stop the earthquake. She always feels unsafe. Anything anyone can do to make her feel loved, welcome, secure, SAFE… she’ll take it. Even if it means latching onto mom or making sure there are no peanuts in the cake.

PS. There is NO divorce manual, so no one ever expected you to know all of this. That’s again, why I’m so glad you wrote. Go you, you trying-to-figure-it all-out-man, you. I feel proud of you already. And… there is major hope and possibility for good delicious change.

OK, let's recap (this was a long one)… First. Jane=Jane. Not past, not ex wife. Second. Jane’s mom=Jane’s mom. No matter what you think of her, she is still Jane’s mommy. Don’t take that mother-daughter bond away…please please please. It’s just too important- and yes, it will grow and change and develop as time passes. Three. Jane=a kid whose parents got divorced and when her dad fell out of love with her mom, he accidentally fell a little out of love with her, and on some level, she knows it. Yuck. And four. You= man with amazing potential to be a wonderful father to all your children. It’s time.

My advice: Has your daughter been in therapy since the divorce? She needs to be. She really does. Why? Because she needs help to process all of her feelings and all of her fractures so she can have a life where she feels safe and loved and knows how to have healthy relationships in her future.

And Sir Dad… I would love to see you in therapy also. Family therapy. Personal therapy. Why? Because it will help you make sense of it all. It will help you hold all of this confusion. It will help you see your daughter for who she is, and who she isn’t. It will help you become a more well rounded, whole, open, and understanding person who really gets it. It’s an investment and it’s worth it. Your wife should go too. She needs to get it also. Email me at and let me know the area where you live. I’ll help you get on the path of finding a therapist. Yes, it means that much to me.

Your family and all of its beautiful parts has such potential to be strong… functional… and a deep source of joy for all of you. I feel so blessed to be part of your journey. Now, go hug your daughter. Tight. Like, really tight.

Love love love.

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