“He just left he didn’t tell anyone he was leaving!!!!!”
That was the frantic text I received from my then-15-year-old daughter last year, after her father left her alone in the hospital where she was being treated for infection stemming from a tongue piercing – a piercing she got the day I left the country on a business trip, weeks before Governor Cuomo signed into law a bill that makes such piercings illegal without parental consent.
That my ex would leave his teenage daughter in the hospital by herself illustrates why my ex-husband and I are not co-parents.
Co-parenting – two people setting aside their personal differences and focusing on the best interests of their children – is the ideal for separated and divorced parents. I believe strongly in this ideal. Yet I’ve never had anything closely resembling a co-parenting relationship with my ex. I’ve made several attempts. But every time I’ve tried, my children have wound up hurt, disappointed, or both.
Our marriage was marred by abuse – physical, verbal and emotional. My ex kept his hands off the kids, but spewed invective about me to them every chance he got. I was awarded sole physical custody. He was granted supervised visitation. He resented being under a supervision order, so he refused to comply with it. The resulting standoff meant he didn’t see his kids for three years after our divorce.
Meanwhile, as the kids got older, they wanted a relationship with their father, regardless of court orders. My daughter missed her dad. My son didn’t really know his dad, but missed the idea of a dad. To him, “dad” meant his friends’ loving, involved fathers. He wanted what they had.
“You should try to work something out with him. Kids need their father,” my friends said.
“Supervised visitation was a mistake. A man doesn’t like being told what to do or how to act around his kids,” one male friend advised.
I decided to take their advice. Nearly five years after our divorce, outside the purview of the courts, I worked out a visitation schedule with my ex where we alternated weekends. For me, having every other weekend free was paradise. For my then-10-year-old son, the weekend visits were a disaster. Neither of my kids has ever told me exactly what happened between my son and his father. All I know is that my ex and my son did not get along.
Three months in, my ex told me he couldn’t take the kids anymore. “Good,” my son said. He told me he hated his father and wanted nothing to do with him. My daughter stayed in touch with her father even after the alternate weekends ended. “I’ll be home late because Dad is picking me up from school and taking me to get something to eat,” she would text me.
Eventually, my ex acknowledged to me that he and my son had issues to work out. He began taking my son out after school as well, in an effort to get to know him better. It wasn’t alternate weekends, but it was a start.
One day, when my ex came to pick up my son, my boyfriend came to the door. Immediately, our fragile cooperation shattered. Within minutes after seeing another man in my home, my ex texted my daughter that I had slept with the Harvard football team while I was in law school (needless to say, not true) and called my boyfriend, a man he doesn’t know (who happens to have a college degree), an “uneducated handyman.”
I reminded myself to put my own feelings aside for the sake of my kids’ right to see their father. Then my ex texted my son he would need to get a DNA test to determine if he’s really his father. That ended it for me. I blocked my ex from calling my son’s cell phone – not because of my feelings, but to protect my son from his father’s emotionally abusive tirades. My daughter lashed out at her dad for what he said to her brother, then stopped calling him.
Thus, by the time my daughter wound up in the hospital, my children hadn’t been in contact with their father for about two months. But my daughter needed a parent to sign the hospital admission papers and to consent to removal of the piercing. I wasn’t there, so she called her father.
He came. He signed the forms. And then he left her in the hospital. Alone.
My son wants nothing to do with the man who has denied him. In apparent retaliation, my ex no longer calls his son on his birthday, and no longer asks to speak to his son when he calls my daughter. My daughter hears from her dad occasionally – usually, on her birthday and at Christmas. The rest of the year, she’s learned not to expect to see or hear from him. She wants a more consistent relationship with him, but fears she cannot count on him.
I have no such fear. I know I can’t count on him. When my ex left his daughter alone in the hospital, I learned that I am not just a single mother. I am a solo mom. I’ve accepted that I bear sole responsibility for parenting my children. It’s a blessing and a curse. If my ex weren’t their father, my kids wouldn’t be here.
Still, I feel personally responsible for choosing to procreate with someone who turned out to be a less than ideal dad. I don’t regret the birth of my children for one minute. But I do wish I’d chosen a more loving and involved father for my children.
If my kids want to see their father, they can. If my ex wants to see his kids, and they want to see him, I’m fine with it. If they don’t want to, I will not force them to. I can’t force my children to reconcile with their father, any more than I can force him to be the type of father I believe my children deserve. One of the toughest parts of being a parent is knowing that you are powerless to shield your child from most hurts; the best you can do is give them a soft landing from the fall.
At this point in my children’s lives, the issue is not co-parenting. The real issue is the tough journey that lies ahead for each of them as they work — or don’t — on reconciling with their father; as they deal with their feelings about all the moments in their lives he has missed. I read essays from other writers about coming to terms with their absent fathers, searching for cues that may help my children do the same. But that is not my journey. I only hope the landing for them is as soft and smooth as can be.