I knew being a parent wouldn't be easy, but this is really hard.
May 2, 2012 1:35 PM   Subscribe

Help me be a better long-distance parent.

My son turned five this January, so he will start Kindergarten in August this year. He lives in North Carolina, I live in Vermont. I share legal custody with his mother. I am looking for resources, advice, thoughts, anything that might help me be a better long-distance parent and co-legal custodian. There are so many things that I thought would just be obvious when we lived together. I would see him every day and check in with him and go to his school and bring him to the doctor and etc. etc.

Now I am not sure how I can best be involved and make a difference in his life outside of visits. We visit twice weekly via Skype and he comes to visit a few times a year. I had a lot of trouble myself with the school system while growing up and am really thankful that my parents were around to make sure they always did the right thing. For the most part, I will trust my ex-wife to keep him safe and healthy, etc. but I am not confident in her ability to advocate on his behalf. She is likely to simply accept whatever any authority figures tell her, which from experience is not always the best course of action. Also, she and I have a very difficult relationship at this point, so I can't count on her to keep me involved in his life, in fact she seems to be navigating towards the opposite, but I am doing my best in that regard.
posted by doomtop to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, I already reached out to the principal of his school for next year and asked how I can be most involved. I am not sure if something similar is appropriate for a doctor? And I don't know if there are people he sees that I don't know about. I'm also not sure if it is appropriate for me to try to contact parents of his friends or what I would speak to them about. I kind of just want to be part of his life and know what is going on, but I am not always quite sure how and what is weird or would be normal for a parent in my position to do.
posted by doomtop at 1:43 PM on May 2, 2012

For the most part, I will trust my ex-wife to keep him safe and healthy, etc. but I am not confident in her ability to advocate on his behalf.

Don't rely on your child or your child's mother to keep you involved in the day-to-day. Even with separate parents who get along famously, there are day-to-day things that just don't occur to the custodial parent to share with the person who isn't physically there to respond to them. So contact the school in writing and ask to be added to their mailing list. They can send two progress reports, two letters to parents, two notes from teachers, etc. Be involved with your child's village and you won't lose touch with your child.

And do whatever you can to support his mother. Even if you don't get along right now ... especially since you're not getting along right now ... be steadfast, reliable, calm, and keep your child's well-being in the forefront of your mind at all times.

Another thing to consider is to not make all your visits with him contingent on his visiting you. If you want to be in his life, do everything you can to be in his life. Use your vacation to visit NC, stay with or near your ex, and let your son his life, his friends, his favorite park, his teeball game, etc. with you.
posted by headnsouth at 1:49 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

My partner shares long-distance custody with an ex, and I grew up with the same situation. The number one tip I have had for him is that in my experience, what has the negative effect on kids is not the mere fact of who lives where and what the specific logistic is. What affects them is how well or how poorly you fare at making them feel like a priority for you. For instance, a few months ago, my sister was having a crisis. I called both my parents and left identical messages. And Mom called me back right away. Dad? Nope. Four days later, I finally tracked him down and he had a bogus story about somehow missing my message, and that was it. And even though my sister and I are both adults now, that still stung.

It is a special challenge trying to stay involved from far away. But no matter who lives where, what the kid will remember is stuff like dad being the flake who never called him back. And you have the power not to be that guy.
posted by JoannaC at 1:57 PM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

but I am not confident in her ability to advocate on his behalf

Among the many bad things my divorced dad did was undermine everything anyone else did. My mother was brainless. My grandmother was overly indulgent. My teachers were harridans. They were all conspiring to make me worthless and weak. Worse, in my every-other-weekend visits, he would try to fix everything over the course of 48 hours with relentless criticism.

Of course, I never was able to figure out which end was up. Was my Dad a psycho? (Yes.) Was my mother brainless? (The man did have a point from time to time.) Was my grandmother overly indulgent? (Probably, but what was the model supposed to be? Nurse Ratched?)

Every Sunday night, I'd get dropped off thinking, "What the fuck just happened?"

I'm sure you're smarter than this.

But still -- recognize that your path is fraught with this particular danger. Don't undermine your ex-wife. Cajole and convince and persuade, but for heaven's sake, do it in private and never let the kid see you disagree. You visit via Skype and twice a year in person? Great. Tell him that everything he's doing is AWESOME. And if it's not, just change the conversation and show him new things that are awesome.

Be a cheerleader, not a critic in a balcony.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:13 PM on May 2, 2012 [10 favorites]

Another thing to consider is to not make all your visits with him contingent on his visiting you. If you want to be in his life, do everything you can to be in his life. Use your vacation to visit NC, stay with or near your ex, and let your son his life, his friends, his favorite park, his teeball game, etc. with you.

posted by headnsouth

I can't agree more. I could write a thesis of how the failure of my kids' dad to do this has fractured his relationship with them. He doesn't know the names of their friends, what they do after school, what they do on weekends, because he refuses to let them live their own lives when he (rarely) comes to visit them. They get shut in a motel room for the weekend with a pile of DVD's, and the kids have grown to resent it because they miss out on birthday parties, sports, and their regular weekend activities.

When they talk to him on the phone and try to tell him about something happening in their life, he cuts them off and tells them about something happening in his life. (Most recent example: my son was given an awesome billy kart, he rang his father to tell him, his father interrupted him to say that he was taking his girlfriends son interstate to go to a concert. Way to deflate a 10 year olds excitement, daddyo.)

So, be a part of his life, don't force him to only be a part of your life. And listen when he tells you about his life. Ask questions. Remember the name of his best friend and ask how Bob is doing, has he got the cast off his broken arm yet. Ask him how the rehearsals for the school concert are going. As he gets older you can ask how he went in that maths test, or tease him by asking if he has a girlfriend yet.

Do 'boy stuff' with him. Spud guns, billy karts, blow stuff up, even hunting if that's your thing. My son only gets to do 'boy stuff' when he stays with his best mate who lives out of town on a farm. Best mate's dad is the ultimate 'hey, let's get some wood and nails and make guns and play armies!' type of guy, and I value that male influence on my son immeasurably.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 2:37 PM on May 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think you and your son being able to interact via Skype will be really helpful. My parents split up when I was five, and although I wanted to stay in touch with my dad (and my mom was supportive of the idea at least in theory) it was just really hard to feel comfortable talking to him. Most 5-year-olds aren't big fans of talking on the phone, and when my dad and I did talk it took a long while to get "warmed up." Same with our once- or twice-a-year visits.

If your son does seem a little shy or uncomfortable when you all do talk, keep in mind that it's likely just a function of the situation and doesn't necessarily mean he's upset with you. Or, sometimes he may be upset about something else--maybe something about the transition to kindergarten--but may not have processed it enough to talk about it with the detail an older kid would. As much as you can be calm and even lighthearted when you talk to him, that'll help.

If you have parents, siblings, cousins etc. from "your side" of your son's family tree, you might encourage them to make extra efforts to stay involved in his life too. Not to an extent that would irritate your ex-wife, but things like sending birthday cards, or pictures from family gatherings that your son doesn't attend with a message like "Here is your cousin's goofy new haircut," or postcards if they go somewhere he might be interested in. (I realize your 5-year-old may not be a reader yet.)

There have been MeFi threads on online 2-player video games suitable for young kids--maybe not quite this young though. Depending on your son's school, there may be ways (website, Facebook, even Twitter) the classroom teachers communicate with parents that you could be part of. Not to say that "technology will solve all your problems!", but hopefully it really can make things easier.
posted by homelystar at 3:20 PM on May 2, 2012

It is great that you want to be a part of your son's life. The best gift you can give him right now is to make nice with his mother. She has the stress of having him full time. She does not need any extra stress from you. Send your support payments on time. Be where you are supposed to be, when you are supposed to be there. Ask her for updates (in a polite, friendly, non-court ordered way). Eat crow if you have to. This is for your son.

Always be available to talk to him on the phone.

He is at the age where getting mail is super cool. Send him a letter every week, on the same day.

Do not ask him what is going on in Mommy's life. Do not use him to get information about her. Do not react if he complains to you about unfair treatment from Mommy or the school- this will only encourage him to blow things out of proportion to get your attention.

I have my 3 children, full time, all the time, in La. Ex lives in Pa. He does not do any of the good things mentioned above. He does the bad things. My oldest son is in counseling because of him. The girls aren't far behind.

Let his mother handle the school system. Just because you had a rough time, doesn't mean your son will. He is not you.
posted by myselfasme at 3:29 PM on May 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure how to make this happen, but I have a good friend in a similar situation who found that playing online games with his daughter has been a huge help in keeping them in contact on a daily basis. They play together while the ex-wife makes dinner. They have headsets and talk, its actually pretty great.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 4:53 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry for stating the obvious, but is there a reason why you can't move closer? As a child of divorced parents I have always held a lot of resentment about the sheer distance between my home and where my dad choose to call home. I feel like he didn't make an effort to be as close to me (in distance) than he could have. Stuff like that does take a toll.
posted by katypickle at 7:52 PM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

I know the situation is that your ex-wife moved away from you with your son under false pretences, but I agree with katypickle that if you could move there, even though it uproots your life, it would be what is best for your son.

Co-parenting from afar tends to turn into more of an uncle-like relationship rather than dad-like. And with the difficulty of your ex-wife not wanting to collaborate with you it means you have to make the extra effort. Not fair, but it is what it is.

Realistically, getting paperwork from the school and doctors is not actually parenting or sustaining a relationship with your son, and if a distant parent of one of my children's friends contacted me I would feel weirded out. It would also be frustrating to get partial/outdated information, want to add your input, and naturally be shot down by your ex-wife who has a full picture of the situation. If you have any history of her feeling criticised by you in the past she will be on guard and defensive at pretty much anything you say.

A lot of parenting, especially when children are young, is just being there on the child's schedule, not the parent's. If my kids need a parent at 3 am, or right after school, or because they are nervous about going to school and need a hug and a special breakfast to make the day better then either myself or their father are there. Those needs just can't be scheduled or saved up for the next visit, and a phone call is not the same as physical presence to a child, especially one so young.

I'm sorry, the situation sicks, but you have to work with what you have been dealt.
posted by saucysault at 6:26 AM on May 4, 2012

I am going to have to dissent on the 'moving there is the only fair thing' opinion. That is just not always possible for some people, and I don't think it is fair to make the OP feel like a failure as a parent if he can't do that. Some people can't move because of a job situation---and if the other parent is not working or is only working part-time, or if they have to pay court-ordered support that requires them to earn a certain pay level, there may be little to nothing they can do about that. In my own partner's case, he has a serious chronic medical condition that needs careful monitoring. He can't simply pick up and move five hours away just because his ex chose unilaterally to do so. He has to be near a hospital with a certain level of expertise in his particular issue, and he has to be near the doctors who are handling his situation. Will his son sometimes be sad that Dad couldn't just pick up and come to a baseball game? Probably. But one day, his son will be also be an adult with his own responsibilities, and these things will be clearer to him.

As far as working with 'what has been dealt' goes, the other advice here is all good. And Skype is truly a godsend. Good luck to you!
posted by JoannaC at 2:44 PM on May 4, 2012

Always, without fail, say positive things when referring to your child's mother. When you skype with your son be ready with some good specific questions that get to the heart of what's goes on in his world. Take notes after Skype and be sure to follow up any important details in your next talk. Tell your son often that he's important to you and never tell him you're sad he's not with or in any way make him feel responsible for your emotional well being. Don't say things like "I'd love to but mommy says no." Always support her decisions when in your son's earshot, or if she's just plain crazy tell her you'd like to discuss it at a more appropriate time or say nothing. If she does something you feel will hurt your son write her a thoughtful email and include in it your appreciation for the time and energy she's devoting to raising your son and what you'd like to have her work on changing. Call his school and find out when parent teacher conferences are. make an appointment to meet with his teacher over the phone. Find out when any presentations, performances and important games will be, then do your best to be there for as many as you can. Take him fishing and rafting in the summer. Let your son know he can call you anytime he needs to talk with dad and give him a special ringtone so you won't miss his call. (make sure this works with his mom.) Support his mother by making support payments on time without any complaints or better yet with gratitude. Send your son random, thoughtful and useful gifts. Things his mom would have to buy like a baseball mitt or use the things he's talked to you about on your Skype calls as a guide. Tell your son you love him as big as the whole world. Find some great stories and use some of your Skype time to read to him. Ask him to read to you and to show you what he's been working on in school. Listen to all the things he says with your full love and attention. And remember life is long and you will always be his father and things change all the time. He loves you and looks to you to show him how a man is in the world. So be a good man with a solid purpose, clear focus, honest integrity, good humour and a strong masculine energy that women can trust and that is what he'll know, and that is what he'll be and you won't need to worry if his momma isn't sticking up for him, cause he'll be able to stick up for himself.
posted by canalien at 4:14 PM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

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