One woman’s prince is another child’s neglectful father

On Thursday, Jenna’s post “One woman’s frog is another’s woman’s prince” lit up our blog and Facebook page with massive hits and fascinating feedback. She really struck a nerve.

Most of the feedback was from stepmoms, but her post was important for moms to read too.

We often forget that the men we divorced can indeed change, grow and actually be BETTER — with someone else.

I take no issue with that point.

Many stepmoms agreed that their husbands are 2.0 versions of their former selves — and that’s a happy thing for all parties involved.

I know my own ex is a much better match with Carol, the co-author of our book. They’ve even “passed up” the number of years he and I were married, and seem equally committed to each other.

But I did want to highlight one significant aspect of this Frog/Prince dialogue that I suspect some stepmoms may not realize.

In combing through the tangled conflict between stepmoms and divorced moms, it may look to you like there are scores of divorced moms out there who are simply holding on to old issues from the past — and that’s why they’re angry.

She just can’t let go. She’s emotionally stunted. She doesn’t have the maturity to release her judgments and resentments.

 

Maybe it’s even assumed that’s she’s still in love with her ex.

But in many cases, there’s actually something very different going on.

Not all, of course, but in many.

Jenna mentioned how, in a healthy marriage or relationship, the partners are happy to be “doing for each other.” This is why so many stepmoms step forward and do a lot of the parenting stuff for the dads.

Because they’re better at it. Because they love their husbands and are trying to make his life easier.

But let me tell you, there’s a very common refrain I hear among the majority of my divorced mom friends: the father’s involvement with his kids often drops dramatically when he remarries — especially if he has more children with his new partner.

He sees his children less.

He calls less.

He may not be able to “squeeze them in” to his busy calendar.

Outings or gatherings have to be compromised to accommodate new siblings or his wife’s preferences.

Meetings and get-togethers have to be changed, then changed again, then eventually forgotten.

The moms are the ones witnessing the fallout from this with their children.

They see and hear the child’s hurt feelings.

The children feel ignored, unloved, invisible.

And THAT is where a lot of the anger comes from in the moms.

It’s fresh anger.

It comes from new experiences of rejection for their child, piled on top of each other.

They are angry with their children’s fathers for not stepping up, for not even noticing that his children are hurt and feel neglected by him.

They see the negative impact upon their child’s self-esteem.

They fear for their daughter’s future romantic relationships, with the most important man in her life imprinting messages of emotional unavailability upon the child’s impressionable psyche.

Or dooming their sons to a lifetime of trying to “prove themselves” to a man who is forever facing the other direction.

Do the moms also have judgments and anger, their own resolved issues with their ex that are their responsibility to handle?

Of course!

But that still doesn’t negate my point about how so many dads seem to be falling short.

Now, to clarify…

In Jenna’s post — and in this one — we’re talking about several “slices” of the pie, several sub-populations:

  1. There are the dads who divorced and haven’t changed. They were disinterested, uninvolved fathers before and they still are.
  2. There are the dads who have become better partners and yet still practice a kind of hands-off approach to fatherhood.
  3. There are the dads who have become better partners AND better fathers.

I’m talking about the second group in this post.

As women, we often step up to the plate without even being asked.

 

And the stepmoms in this second group who fulfill some of the parenting duties for their husbands out of love and partnership are actually enabling some pretty unhealthy behavior – for the children’s sake — and for themselves.

And that’s why, when you do things for him as his partner, as moms we reject your kindnesses, your earnest involvement.

It may sound crazy and counter-productive to reject parenting help for our kids wherever we can get it, but moms are thinking, Don’t enable him. Don’t make it okay for him to continue to slack off!

Now, I know there are plenty of stepmoms out there who are trying to get their partners to be more involved as dads.

They’re doing what we moms used to do: cajole, bargain, inform, educate, “set up successes” to happen….

Sometimes, your efforts really do make a difference. Breakthroughs happen between a father and his kids and we thank you for doing this, out of love for your stepkids.

Seriously.

Thank you!

But in other ways, too many fathers get to kick back and let the women — both women — do all the grunt work of parenting. We hear from plenty of stepmoms out there in this kind of situation too. Sounds like it sucks.

Just had to get this off my chest.

I’m surrounded by so many single and remarried moms saying the same thing, it breaks my heart. And yet this scenario of “forgotten children” has become so commonplace that I’m not even surprised by it anymore.

When a dad does it differently, it really stands out.

So before you assume that the mom is once again harping on the past for some crazy, illogical reason, consider whether some of her anger is directed at the father of her children – for a valid reason.

Think of how you might feel if the children you now have with your husband became an afterthought in the future…..

Yes. These dual-families relationships are incredibly complicated, with so many demands on our time, attention and affection that it’s sometimes mind-boggling.

But an uninvolved father is a dad that is hurting his child’s feelings and harming their self-esteem and self-worth.

That’s what we’re mad about.

Thanks for reading.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

(Update: After seeing some of the comments on our Facebook page in response, I just wanted to add two points.

My intent here is not to “slam” men or the many fathers out there who are doing a great job. In addition to the kids, I’m also concerned about all the stepmoms out there who are putting their marriages at risk by continuing to fulfill roles that are leaving them depleted and resentful. They started out giving from the heart, but now they are expected to continue being the hands-on parent while the dad “coasts.” After a while, the stepmom feels trapped. Bad for everyone!

I also think there are gender issues that feed into this issue. As women, we’re “givers,” and we love jumping in and doing for others before they even ask! It can be a slippery slope….)

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

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Comments

  1. Dina McCausley says:

    *I’m* mad that the ex was a half-assed parent since the divorce (being just the FUN GUY and leaving the “duties” to his mother, ie. laundry, cleaning up after the kids, etc.), and now that *she* is around, he’s behaving like he’s this amazing dad ~ but the reality is, now *she* is doing the “duties”. How is this NOT seen as enabling? The kids see it too! No adult has to point anything out to them ~ both have quipped how dad sits around while *she* cleans up after everything (they haven’t even been together for a year, almost 9 months/4 days a month with her ‘knowing’ the kids), she organizes everything, she tells dad when to shower, etc. I mean, how long will she be doing this before she gets resentful of the kids (cause Lord knows, the ex can do no wrong).

    You know, if a mother acted like these men do, she’d be taken to task for it in a heartbeat.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Dina, sounds maddening. It’s like the old “I have *three* children” joke, when you only have two. She’s actively choosing this role though….

    And yes, I totally agree. If the scenario was reversed, the mom would be getting loads of grief. Just goes to show how strongly these roles are embedded in us, huh? :-)

  3. Elisette says:

    When we were first separated, my ex took the children to the family lake house with his mother. He asked at some point “What’s for dinner?” and my ex-MIL said “I don’t know, what’s for dinner?” She was driving home the point that he was responsible for his children, not anyone else. Awesome woman, that ex-MIL. I’m not sure how the dynamics work at his house, but he certainly isn’t offering any additional parenting outside of his regularly scheduled hours. Status quo for the marriage.

  4. I can totally understand this type of anger. This is valid to me. But I need help figuring out the moms that are very angry when the stepmom is a good and involved stepmom and dad has become a better partner AND BETTER MORE INVOLVED FATHER.

  5. Jennifer says:

    Elisette, good for her! That’s a mom who’s doing right by her grandkids….

    And not-so-wicked, I hear ya on that *other* kind of endless anger and there are a million possible reasons for it. How much time do you have?! For some moms, they genuinely *don’t* know how to move through the harder emotions, like grief, seething resentment, powerlessness, etc., so they just take it out on everybody else. For all you know, the mom is also reliving old issues having to do with abandonment and low self-worth that have absolutely nothing to do with anything in the present. Best you can do there is to focus on creating the healthiest environment you can for yourself and your family, and minimize the damage. It can happen with any role too — stepmoms, dads, stepdads. It’s one big party! (not)

  6. Thank you for putting this into words. This is EXACTLY what I am angry about!! He created 4 children, 3 different families with 3 different women and then left it to US to tear at each others throats. When he remarried I prayed and hoped he had changed, but it was obvious after about a year that yet again she was facilitating his involvement even when they had custody of our two. Now that he is divorcing again and I am custodial, the three oldest kids are once again invisible and I have no idea if he sees his 4th child he had with her. Five kids left in the fall out of this man who has really failed as a parent (he was a SD to latest wife’s child from a previous marriage) if he doesn’t have a woman to set up successes as you put it (great terminology btw, love it) To be honest now that SM is out of the picture and not running the show, the two we had together are now really confused and unsettled because they now see how little he actually cares to be involved.

    I understand not all divorced fathers act like this but I hear so much or so little of the negative surrounding the men in our stories that I almost felt alone in my anger. I’m not angry our marriage failed! I’m angry that in his eyes we have out of sight out of mind children who are suffering from his neglect!

  7. Carolyn says:

    I find it interesting that an ex-wife considers it her right to be angry at her ex-husband and especially at her children’s stepmother because he is not behaving in way that she considers appropriate. If a person comes in and pulls a bigger load in a relationship, yes she could very well be enabling her partners lack of involvement, but guess what, that is her choice and has nothing as all to do with the ex-wife, there is an “ex” in the word for a reason. I’ve watched Dr Phil a few times and the most interesting thing i’ve noticed him saying to his guests, is that the ex-wife/husband do not have a right to criticize or question their ex-partner’s parenting technique, basically it is not up to other partner to question how that person parents.

  8. There are so many different situations, but I can’t help thinking about mine. In our case, I’m better at giving the kids medications, taking care of bills, paperwork, etc…If left to my husband, it just wouldn’t get done b/c he’s busy with other things.These are not priorities to him. I’m sure to mom this can be frustrating as hell b/c when she inquires about something these things, it’s usually me that responds. BUT, at the same, can I (or her for that matter) go skateboarding with the kids? Am I going to build ramps and take them hunting and all that other “manly” stuff? No way! So in that case, I’m pretty sure mom could think he’s being a poor parent, but really he’s parenting in a way she or I can’t. And giving the kids something that, as women, most likely, we won’t.

  9. Elisette says:

    @Carolyn – I don’t think it’s a matter of questioning *how* the ex parents. I want the best for my kids, and when my ex puts in effort he can be a great parent. When he lets someone else take over (it was me, I’ve seen him do it with his mother, too) he is a crap parent. He dials it in. And my reaction when I see him failing to be the best parent he could be – it’s just utterly deflating, depressing, and outright sad for my children. It is not what they deserve. I certainly hope his affair partner doesn’t enable his behavior.

  10. Jennifer writes: “And yes, I totally agree. If the scenario was reversed, the mom would be getting loads of grief. Just goes to show how strongly these roles are embedded in us, huh? :-)”

    No, the roles are not embedded in us. But enough people hold to them that women are penalized harshly, and for life, if they don’t adhere to those roles. I don’t think it’s something to get cheerful about.

    When I had a child, I had no intention whatsoever of becoming the primary parent. I have work I love, I have friends I love, I have a life. I thought my husband and I were on the same page when it came to raising a child. We’d talked about it in plain English, and he talked as if this was what he wanted, too: to share, more or less equally, the work of family. And then — as so many women do — I had a child, and my husband decided his real calling was to go climb the ladder at work, and that my role — like it or not — would be to support him in that by taking care of much of his home and parenting work.

    He turned out not to be a stable guy, so when we divorced, I made sure I got primary custody. Is it what I would’ve wished for? No, but I made it work for me.

    If my ex’s gf wants to take over…well, in our case I’m not sure it’s such a bad idea. But certainly I’ve seen men dump the kids for the new woman. I was already out of the house by the time my parents divorced, but sure, I saw it happen in my own family. It had devastating consequences for my brother. For a long time we blamed the new wife, but really she was pretty go-along-get-along; my dad was just a putz about it, and she didn’t have kids and didn’t know the difference.

    These problems don’t end in adulthood, either. I just got email from a friend yesterday; his friend’s dad had asked him to quit his job and move his family halfway across the country to take over the family business, which the guy did, but on arrival the new wife informed him of a change of plans, and the dad and the new wife shut the door on the guy. He’s now living on Section 8 in an apartment with his wife and two little kids, trying desperately to restart. I hear from single moms who’re living with their widowed fathers, which means their kids have built-in grandpa time; grandpa meets a new gal, and suddenly the mom and child are homeless again. I’ve seen and heard it often enough that I scratch a guy off my list if I’m not getting bumped for his kid, or if he bumps the kid for me. His relationship with his kids has to come first, because they get one shot at childhood. And I won’t be party to his neglecting them, nor will I put a heavier burden on the mom who in the end has to be their backup and help them mend. Like she hasn’t got anything else to do.

    I think it might be well for new wives to step back and ask themselves what exactly they’re trying to do, and why, when they rush in to prop up a man’s relationship with his children. Scratch “I just want to help him” and more self-directed motives tend to come out. Regardless, I think the operative question is “Am I using these children in any way? Am I using my interactions with them to try to prove something about myself or my husband? Am I trying to communicate through them?” If there’s any hint of *yes* when you answer those questions honestly — then stop. Stop and don’t rationalize about how in the end it’s good for them yada yada. Just stop, no buts. It isn’t good for them. (No, it isn’t.) And really explore your parenting and your motives, and getting your needs met without the kids’ involvement, before you take another step with them.

  11. So what happens when the Dad IS engaged and wants to be with his child as much as possible…

    and the mother deliberately keeps her child from his father. Changes the unofficial custody schedule three times at the last minute before finally telling her ex-husband that she “just doesn’t think it’s a good idea” for her son to see his father… ever.

    Where’s the giving mother who sees how the distance is hurting her child then?

  12. BINGO!!! I think this hit the nail on the head.. I couldn’t have said it better myself..

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