Q: My husband’s ex just moved back to our town from Washington, D.C. He has children with her, ages 13 and 15. She wants to keep the order the same, which is that the kids can see their dad whenever they feel like it, and as the stepparent I don’t think that’s fair. I want my husband to change the order, but it’s like he’s afraid of something and doesn’t reach out. She has made her husband “the father” and does not include mine. The kids get sick or hurt and we only know because of Facebook. Advice? What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: Good ex-etiquette rule No. 4 is “Parents make the rules, bonusparents uphold them.” In other words, good ex-etiquette means the parents talk to each other, figure out their custody agreement and then you as the bonusparent (stepparent) support what they decide. The only time this is impractical is when bonusparents have children of their own and rules are already in place. Then it’s an intricate dance to integrate both families’ rules into a working bonusfamily unit. Bottom line: Stay out of Dad’s custody agreement. The more you bug him, the more it is going to affect your relationship with him. If he’s not involved, it’s on him. It’s simply not your call.
That’s not the only red flag. There are too many to discuss in this limited space – however an important one is this: You said mom has made her husband, “dad.” I don’t know how the current custody plan was decided, however, the most common practice allows the person who was determined to be the primary caregiver the right to move with the children. If that’s what happened and mom was allowed to move, it’s her obligation as a parent to support as much time as possible with dad, in the best interest of the children. However, more times than not, that’s not what happens.
We are raised to believe that the best “family” is one with a mom, a dad, and children. If there is a breakup, some try to replace their children’s parent with their new partner, doing their best to sabotage the child-bioparent relationship. They move away, prevent parenting time, even start calling the noncustodial parent by their first name and their new partner Dad or Mom. That is about the worst ex-etiquette possible. Parents break up with each other and look for new partners, but kids don’t break up with their parents and look for a new mom or dad. In cases when the child/parent relationship has been undermined, as a child gets older, he or she often opts to live with the parent they didn’t get to know and then find out that the custodial parent set it all in motion. Then the child becomes estranged from the original custodial parent – and that one is a difficult one to undo.
So, now that mom and the kids have moved closer, this is Dad’s chance to get in there and be a dad. Although older kids often like an open-ended schedule, it may be best to start out with a set schedule so dad and kids can plan and expect set time together. Then, as time moves on and their relationship becomes less fragile, everyone, including mom, might be more open to a more casual schedule.
Finally, when parents learn important things only by reading Facebook, it means mom and dad are not talking. That’s very easy to remedy. Pick up the phone!
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com. Reach her at: