Reading your column here on Father’s Day. I’m a father. I must tell you, you make some very cogent points. But, “cherish their mother?” I’m a guy that has been involved with a number of wives and one child, and I find that a lot of mothers these days are involved in parental alienation. The court doesn’t understand that a lot of these mothers are angry with these fathers, and they do everything they can to alienate the affections of these children. So there is a lot of that going on. You ask us to cherish these mothers. But if these mothers act (badly)? What are we to do? — R., Las Vegas
I confess I was presupposing a contiguous family — that is, a not-divorced family. My point was (and remains) primarily that children are watching us oh so closely. Your little boy is taking cues from you about how to respect and love a woman. Your little girl is taking cues from you about the sort of man she should someday look for, find and deserve.
But I was naive not to notice aloud that, in a world where half of the marriages end in divorce, there would, for many men, be layers of complexity around what it means to cherish their child’s mother. So what are the duties beholding men in relationship to ex-wives who are also the mothers of their children?
In most cases, people who are divorcing and divorced have a lot of pain between them. They have been hurt badly. They have lost respect. If nothing else, they are grieving. Despite what it might appear, I think most people take their marriage vows (when they make them) very seriously. It is consequential when those vows are reneged upon.
So, “cherishing their mother” in the common sense of holding her in esteem and affection is, in many cases, too much to ask. But perhaps there is another way to cherish her. If we are too disappointed, hurt and angry to cherish her, then can we not, for the sake of our children, move to cherish her role and keen importance as the mother of our children? And to act accordingly?
I think divorced fathers can do this. And should. Here are three rules:
1. Get out of the war zone
There is no excuse for your children ever to witness or overhear an open argument, fight or warfare between you and your ex. Ever. Never. Unless he/she surprises you at the drop-off with a baseball bat. Then you are justified in defending yourself. If your ex insists on picking fights in front of the kid(s), then close your mouth, steel your heart and walk away. Hang up the phone. The research is clear: The part of divorce that is singularly most damaging to children is you and the ex in open warfare.
2. Consistently champion your child’s relationship with your ex
Imagine your child as an adult. Act in such a way that, when an adult, your child will say, “My father was consistent in his message that my relationship with my mother was important, that the relationship deserved my respect and accountability and that he would always support me having the best possible relationship with her.”
3. Walk the tightrope between credibility and “not bashing” your ex
If your child(ren) come home reporting the mother “bashing” you, your response is nonreactive. More pained curiosity, then concern for the kids. Stockpile benign reflections: “Wow, she sounds pretty mad at me still,” and “I’m sorry you had to hear that.” Get them off the hook: “Hey, you don’t ever need to stand up for me, defend me or protect me. I’m gonna be OK.” If the ex is distorting truth or outright making things up, your reaction is a nonreactive curiosity/dismay: “I don’t think that’s right,” or “I’m really surprised to hear that,” or “I’ll talk to your mom about that.” In some cases, I have fathers literally walk kids through bank statements and check records or read them sections of the divorce decree and parenting agreement. Not then to say, “Your mother’s a liar,” but more to confirm for them the truth that is due them and to establish with them your consistent credibility. Then you give their mother a “place to fall:” “Your mom might have forgotten this. I’ll talk to her about it.”
At minimum, we can “cherish” our child’s mother (who is our ex) by relentlessly, sacrificially walking the high road with that mother. Even and especially if that ex is wicked, stupid and mean. You will never regret walking the high road with an ex. Your child’s chances of surviving and thriving after the divorce will be exponentially better for it.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.