Five-year-old son not ready to 'choose' between parents


I read your (Oct. 26) column. My 5-year-old would rather live with his father than with me, and it's killing me. I'm his mother, he should want to be with me. He regurgitates every detail of my boyfriend's visit to his father, who I recently left. My ex is very hurt and bitter about me moving on before the divorce (is) final. I'm very angry and hurt that my husband won't let me have full custody, and because we are sharing custody, my son would rather be with him. Do I say, "Don't let the door hit ya on the way out" to a 5-year-old? How can I not be hurt that he is choosing Dad over me? I feel like I'm being punished for rejecting my husband; now my son is rejecting me. So, now I'm wrought with guilt and sadness at a time where I'm supposed to be starting over, as I leave a marriage that I was not happy in. -- M.F., Las Vegas

First, I know you are suffering. The most justifiable divorce is hell. They go downhill from there.

Second, the column you cite was about confronting divorced parents who abdicate parental power to their children regarding their dating lives and marital future.

And third, if my teenage children ever dared to hold me hostage with the threat of going to live exclusively with their mom, I would indeed tell them not to "let the door hit you on the way out."

A 5-year-old caught in the tragedy of divorce is another matter entirely.

I have a word limit here, M.F. Which means I'm going to sound harsher and more pointed than I'd prefer.

"I'm his mother. He should want to be with me."

Tell me you're kidding. A 5-year-old's stated "wants" in normal circumstances -- which divorce is not -- pale in importance to his needs. And what your boy needs is equal access to a healthy mother and a healthy father. He should want to be with you? It's not about you, M.F. Or his father.

No 5-year-old should be allowed to "choose" where he's going to live.

You complain that your son "regurgitates" to his father about your boyfriend's visits? M.F., expecting a 5-year-old to maintain confidentialities between his divorced parents is naïve. Binding them in such promises is terrible. Quality divorced child rearing means accepting the consequence that neither parent can expect to maintain preferred boundaries of privacy/anonymity. You are raising children together. You are therefore obliged to share your lives to some unavoidable degree.

I have no opinion about you moving on before the divorce papers are final. But, had you asked, I would have done all in my power to convince you not to introduce your new relationship to your 5-year-old. Divorced parents confuse and make anxious their minor children with new dating/love relationships. It creates dreadful conflicts of loyalty.

"I'm very angry and hurt that my husband won't let me have full custody (of the child) ..."

Shaking my head here in dismay, M.F. I would think you would be hurt and angry if he did let you! Hurt and angry to think you'd married a man capable of making a baby and then diminishing or abdicating the irreplaceable and not-repeatable experience of fathering.

" ... and because we are sharing custody, my son would rather be with him (than with me)."

Your son's stated preference is not because you are sharing custody. Could be as simple and normal as a stage in the boy's life. It's really normal from birth to 18 for children to pass through stages of particular affinity toward one parent over the other.

"How can I not be hurt that he is choosing Dad over me?"

He's 5. He's too young to definitely be choosing anything. And who suggested you shouldn't be hurt? Of course you're hurt. Divorced parenting contains tragedy on its best days. It hurts.

" ... now my son is rejecting me."

He's 5. He's too young to be rejecting anything.

"So, now I'm wrought with guilt and sadness at a time where I'm supposed to be starting over ..."

Starting over after a divorce includes being wrought with some guilt and sadness. That is, if you respect yourself at all.

M.F., don't wait. Find the resources -- counseling, literature, support groups -- and develop a plan for becoming a quality divorced single-parent. Because, if this question is any indication, you're lost in a ton of pain and it's going to cost you credibility with your son.

Originally published in View News, Nov. 11, 2008