How to say - No, you must stay with me
May 28, 2012 7:15 PM   Subscribe

How to respond when elementary aged son asks to stay with Dad when it's Mom's weekend

My son's Dad and I split a year ago. My son and ex have always had a good relationship but now he has Dad's attention and affection in a way that has drawn them closer. Great, right? Problem is, the break up was horrible for me. Ex had affair with secretary which was emotionally devastating and we are still haggling over finances which is incredibly stressful because I was the one who sacrificed their career when our son was born. So, my ex is happy, healthy, and not worried about what his future holds. I, on the other hand, am in the process of trying to find a full-time job in a down economy after being out of the job market for seven years and still grappling with the emotions that accompany a betrayal of that magnitude. No question, Dad is more fun to be with at the moment. Also, I feel bound to admit Dad has a more laid back and easygoing personality than I do. Our custody is 65/35 (in my favor) and part of that is alternating weekends with our son. Over the past few weekends he has been with me, our son has stated, "I wish I was going back over to Dad's house," in a very dejected tone. I don't know how to respond to this. I can certainly understand the sentiment but it so cuts me to the bone that I don't know how to answer him like an adult. I'm looking for suggestions on how I can come up with an intelligent way to let the little guy know it's okay to want to be with Dad, but that we both love him and each want to spend time with him. (And, yes, I've said something similar to this to him but it doesn't seem to satisfy.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you put your energy into doing what is best for your son, he will, in the long run, realize that. Put aside your own feelings- every.single.time.... show your love.
posted by HuronBob at 7:24 PM on May 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

Maybe you could talk to him about what he does at Dad's and not necessarily replicate those things, but foster some of those same feelings. Maybe there is a way to bring Dad into his weekly life with you in an unobtrusive way. If your relationship with Dad is civil enough, maybe you could set aside a Thursday evening conference call with the three of you about how school is going, negotiating sports and other afterschool activities, etc. An administrative/logistics call, I guess. Nothing too emotionally fraught, just things to catch up on that will make the transition more seamless. And then let him call his dad every evening. (Likewise, he calls you every evening when he's at his dad's).
posted by elizeh at 7:27 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, that stings huh? How old is your son? I would say it is so incredibly par for the course that you shouldn't sweat it one bit. I don't know if it is any consolation but there is a good chance that your son will do the same thing to his dad at some point too.

How to answer him? Something like 'Well, this is our weekend to spend time together and next weekend you are with your dad. But we can certainly call your dad and say hi if you like.' Short and simple, with no subtext of guilt or hurt. (as hard as that seems)

You say dad is more fun at the moment, and, if he has less one on one time with his son he probably has more energy to be fun. And thats great, he and his son should have fun. But I hope you aren't leaving fun off the table cuz of the cruddy situation you are in. Not saying you should be SuperFunMom, but maybe just take stock...could you cheer up and lighten the mood a bit for your sons (and your!) sake? Life goes on.

One more is easy to imagine that everything is ShangriLa over at dads house. Birds chirp, they are constantly laughing and having great Father-Son Moments of a Grand Nature, etc, etc. But in reality, farts stink over there too.
posted by ian1977 at 7:28 PM on May 28, 2012 [24 favorites]

Have you asked him to explain exactly why? Because (depending on exactly how old he is and what he says the issue is) you may be able to bargain your way to a happier kind of weekend for both of you.

At age nine, for instance, the reason I wanted to spend more weekends with my mom was that she had air conditioning and let me have Coke and donuts for breakfast. At age 15 I was quite vocal about wanting my summers with my dad to be longer... because he gave me $5 a week for allowance and Mom paid me $.10 per minute for doing chores (at her rate of speed, not mine.)

I also really recommend that you try and find a way of compartmentalizing your "dealing with the crappiness of this legitimately crappy situation" in a way that keeps it as much out of your son's life as humanly possible. Therapy, meditations on the weekend days he's not there, a support group, writing really nasty letters to your ex and not sending them, etc. No kid should be much more than very vaguely aware of their parents' angst.

(Also, your ex may not be as fun to be around as you think. It could literally be a matter of the secretary gives your son lots of Oreo cookies and an X-Box to keep him busy, you know? That can be fought with meaningful trips to the park.)
posted by SMPA at 7:28 PM on May 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would suggest handling it the same way you would if he didn't want to go to bed on time. Mommy and Daddy made an agreement with the judge that we would take turns on the weekends. (Make it sound totally non-negotiable.) Next weekend is your turn to be at Daddy's house. This weekend you are with me. So, what do you want to play with toys or help Mommy in the kitchen."

It's Ok that this doesn't satisfy him - he probably doesn't like it when you say he can't have dessert right before supper. Instead focus on having some quality time with him every weekend. Not in competition with his Dad but just get out of the rut of homework and chores and make sure you do something together that will create good feeling and good memories for both of you.

Then make sure you have someone (another adult) you can talk to (vent !!) about all of this. It is easier to be that calm loving parent when you can blow steam safely away from him.
posted by metahawk at 7:30 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Others will have better answers from more personal experience, but based on my experience teaching, it's par for the course. It's not something other divorcing/divorced parents of school-age children aren't experiencing; it's part of a pretty normal set of reactions and attempts to control situations that have really gone out of control for the kid.And, frankly, it's probably your kid trying to manipulate you a little bit.

This is how things look to him now. Ten, fifteen years from now, when your son reflects on everything that's happened, probably with a bit more knowledge than you've shared at this point, his perspective will very likely change. In the meantime, I think it's probably best that you show no particular emotional response to this - maybe something like "Yeah, you and dad do some fun things, don't you. I'm really happy you still get to spend such good time with him." and leave it at that.
posted by Miko at 7:30 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am sorry you are going through this. I do not have personal experience, so please take this with a grain of salt.

It seems like Dad gets to be the weekend fun parent and you get to be weekday "do your homework and take your vitamins" parent. So of course when the weekend gets slow, or being parented by you gets overwhelming, he thinks of the easy out - Dad. Also, my 7yo can be manipulative in exactly that way when he wants things that he knows he's not getting. "Mom, I just noticed that ice cream is only $.50." "Mom, remember that girl I told you about who got a kindle fire for Christmas. I was just thinking about that." He's just testing. You never know unless you ask.

Also, I recommend for you a conscious effort to reestablish social ties that may have dwindled while you stayed home with your son. it's hard, I know, to make the outreach and get your body in motion when burrowing in at home seems easier, but it's really good for your mental health. You may also want to talk to your GP about anti-depressents; they really help some people through crises. And give you more energy to be fun mom when you want to be.

Good luck.
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 7:31 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

If life is a little easier for dad now and you could actually use time to get life, job, confidence etc together, I wonder whether maybe you should give your son what he thinks he wants and let him spend a few extra weekends there so it is closer to 50/50. That is, if dad is amenable.

Don't get me wrong. I think dad kind of sucks for betraying you, and I don't think it's fair for you to be at a disadvantage in the workforce now when you gave up a lot for your family/son. But you have put in the time to create a loving, stable relationship with your son, and that won't suddenly vanish if he spends a more equal amount of time with you both, plus you will have more time to spend on YOU, so really it is win/win.

The other thing you could do, if you think you are strong enough, is to gently probe his reasons when he says he wants to spend more time with dad. Is it because of cool toys dad has, or soe activity they do, or just that he doesn't spend as much time with him? Does dad enforce the same rules you do? Possibly you have your son during the week you are stuck with being the enforcer for homework etc, and dad may need to pick up some slack on weekends.

Anyway, good luck!
posted by onlyconnect at 7:32 PM on May 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think onlyconnect has a good point. If the split is 2/1 to you, this sets up a whole range of dynamics. For instance, if dad sees him less, then maybe he makes up for this when he does see your son. An informal 50/50 split might make more sense for a while.

I think the weekend thing is a red herring. Both weekdays and weekends have pros and cons for parenting. A weekend gig with a child is not all 'fun stuff'; it can be exhausting too, especially for single parents. Ideally, you should both do both.
posted by carter at 7:50 PM on May 28, 2012

This is experience as a teacher (with good relationships with my students) talking, but would it be possible to get the father on your side with this in terms of the messages you're sending? Maybe something like, "It's not possible for you to go to Dad's this weekend, because he's made plans thinking you'd be here" or having Dad inform your son that it simply isn't an option for him to go there when he's supposed to be with you? Imply that you'll reciprocate if the tables ever turn, and remind Dad (if necessary) that it doesn't benefit either of you if your son thinks he can play one of you against the other.

I'd also look at things you can do to make your weekends more attractive to your son. Maybe the fact that Dad is more laid back means you're a better planner than he is, and you have a better shot at giving your son certain experiences? If you can get him to say, "I want to go to the science center," that creates an emotional commitment for him spending time with you. Talk to him and see what he wants, and don't be afraid to give it to him if it will help him grow.
posted by alphanerd at 8:07 PM on May 28, 2012

Maybe get some help from your spouse? Get Dad to explain that his son needs to have time to have fun with Mom.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:10 PM on May 28, 2012

I was there, ex's affair and all, when my now-teenager was less than 3. Here's my best advice: keep your anger and hurt far far far away from your boy. Be flexible and positive about your ex in every way that your child sees, putting your child's needs first when it comes to custody stuff. My daughter still doesn't know why we split, and I plan that she never will. It might make ME feel better briefly (that stepmom of yours that lets you watch Tv all day? Let me tell you about HER! That dad who can do no wrong? I'll give you the truth!) but it would not be helpful to my daughter in any way at all. At all.

So, re visits-set boundaries but be flexible. Don't let him run from one parent to the other because he's mad or in trouble. However, maybe he can have breakfast with his dad one day of your weekend. Maybe he needs to see dad more during the week. For all that is holy, please dont either of you make him miss really special stuff (a visit with an uncle only in town for one day, a special father son cub scout event, whatever) because it falls on the "wrong" weekend. Work it out and sometimes give in, with a big old smile on your face because of all the fun you know he'll have. He will still be your son and love you like he loves no one else in the world. I promise.
posted by purenitrous at 8:21 PM on May 28, 2012 [20 favorites]

Hey there OP, I just wanted to extend some sympathy for you. Kids are so... naked about their desires and their inability to sugarcoat can get you down sometimes, I know.

But, you know, they don't have the emotional maturity to parse other people's needs, or often even their own in a constructive way. It can be awfully cold comfort, but doing what's right for your kid, it's the best long-term investment in a healthy relationship. As a child of divorce - albeit it somewhat older than your son, and a childcarer, let me throw some thoughts out, maybe you'll find them valuable, maybe not.

1) I had to stay with my dad two nights a week going forward from a young teen. And I typically didn't like it or want to go. I loved my dad; it had nothing to do with him and everything to do with logistics and what was convenient for my school life and life with my friends. I had fights with both parents at both locations and life was often hard for me whereever I was.

2) It was never negotiable, and it was very clear that like or not - I had to go to my dad's on certain dates. Setting a dialogue about it would have been bad. I think divorce in general can force a lot of adult discourses on a kids that they struggle valiantly to deal with, but are often incapable of. That was not a decision I need to take part in, it would have put unbearable guilt and responsibility on my shoulders, and expectations of time-sharing were eminently reasonable.

3) Both my parents to one degree or another expressed jealously and resentment of the other parent, and the other parent's behaviours regarding custodial arrangements - and anything else - to me. This was super-dooper shit. I loved both my parents, having one bad mouth the other in front of me, or make a bad charade of pretending not to bad mouth the other parent put me in a horrible position, made me feel like shit, and gave me very negative feelings about the divorce, the emotional maturity of my parents, and the prospect of spending lots of 1-on-1 time with them when things were especially fraught - at 13!!

To more directly answer your question, I think you should not engage too heavily with this dialogue. Your role in the divorce and emotional stake in spending time with your son will limit what you can healthily contribute to it. When your son complains, simply say, "Well, you get to spend next weekend with your dad, buddy. You can call him tonight and tell him about your day if you want."

Additionally, I know it's very hard, but try thinking of ways you can spice up weekends with you. They don't have to be expensive. Can he have a little friend come over? Can you go to the museum/park/etc? Down to the community pool? Help prepare lunches for the week?

Finally, perhaps in school holidays or something, consider if he could spend a little extra time with his dad. I know you probably hate his dad's guts right now, and feel he neither deserves to see him more, nor offers the support for it. But, this isn't about your relationship with your ex-husband's; it's about a little boy's relationship with his dad.

One more observation: As I got older, though I continued to love both my parents, I respected the one who was most flexible about the other parent's behaviour, the amount I saw them, etc. And I pitied the one who was more insecure, used me as an emotional sounding-board, and clung most zealously to any notion that they were number one. Don't be that second parent, and don't worry: you will get a job, weekends will be fun for your son (I would bet cash money he's expressed missing you when he's over at his dad's, too). This is a work in progress for all of you, and the best thing is you get the option to make it better all the time; there isn't a point-of-no-return for this. Your son loves you.
posted by smoke at 8:24 PM on May 28, 2012 [7 favorites]

I just want to chime back in and really support Purenitrous' comment. That is A+ parenting, right there.

The worst parts of my parents divorce was when I felt like a game piece to be used in part of broader battle, and when it was quite obvious that my parents were putting their needs (Freedom! At last!) above my needs at a very tender age.

If you put your son first (within reason), the rest will follow.
posted by smoke at 8:28 PM on May 28, 2012

OP, I was you 7 years ago- newly split, former sahm, needing to find a job etc. My ex was a jerk and did really unspeakable things. I had the opposite problem where my kids didn't always want to go to dad's and I needed to work on those weekends and it had to be a nonnegotiable- I just said that this is what the court said had to be done. Also as a child of a deadbeat dad- I really wanted my kids to have a relationship with their dad- my mom bad mouthed my father all over the place and I have really firm memories of feeling like she must have pushed him away- in my adult divorced world I know this isn't true- but I never wanted my girls to think I had anything to do with pushing their dad away. Now 7 years on, they know who their dad is- both good and bad. And I have an awesome career and a relationship that I never could have dreamed of in the early days after my split. Hang in there!
posted by momochan at 8:32 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Part-time dad here (well, not any more, but the memories linger).

Can you talk to your ex about this, not complaining but as parents with a common interest in good parenting of your child? If you can have this discussion, it will help to know that both of you are conscious of this issue and have a common approach to it (he probably gets something similar).

IDK you, your ex, or your child, but trust me even the nicest children can be manipulators from hell when they want to, or (more importantly) when they are allowed to. That means you have to stand firm, in the nicest possible way. The worst thing you can do is to accede to all his demands - that way lies the spoilt, manipulative brat.

Try and have something that he likes for your shared weekends - for mine (back in the day!) it was getting a video from the store - their pick - and watching it together.

In dealing with this know that things change - he may come to want to more or less time with his father, and the older he gets (and the more sports/hobbies/friends he has), the more likely this becomes. You will have to negotiate this with him and his father, so start thinking about this now. As mine went through their teens, visits became pretty irregular but they knew they could come over whenever they wanted.

In the meantime, you have to put first things first, doing the right thing by your son, keeping your relationship with him on a good footing, and making sure that (as far as you are able) that he doesn't feel like being in the middle of a war zone, or the subject of a tug-of-war.

Around all that you have to fit your new life. It sucks that it has turned out this way, and I feel for you.

Good luck with everything.

On preview, lots of good stuff above, especially purenitrous.
posted by GeeEmm at 8:47 PM on May 28, 2012

I don't know about divorced parents but I do know about kids who want to be somewhere else.

The script goes as follows:

Kiddo: I want to go to Dad's house now...
You (cheerfully): You're going back to Dad's house next weekend. This weekend you're with me and we're going to do X, Y and Z, then you'll be at school next week, and on Friday night you will be going to your Dad's.

If you repeat this script (you don't even have to vary your wording) every time it comes up, soon kid will get bored of asking.

Although I would be interested in why kiddo thinks Dad's house is so great, because if there's some activity there that kid would really benefit from doing reliably every week (maybe not coke and doughnuts for breakfast, but the football club or the dance class or whatever) then perhaps that needs some thinking over.
posted by emilyw at 1:30 AM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a child of divorce, like many here...

Most other things being equal, home life being stable, why not just let him go to Dad's this time if it's OK with Dad?

He loves you. You will spend plenty of time with him! You're his mom.

I think--I can't go back and relive my life, but I think--that flexibility will pay off in the long run. Based on the present dire state of my relationship with the letter-of-the-custody-agreement parent.
posted by skbw at 1:41 AM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

It depends on the kid, but I'm sure as a youth, I would have taken great delight in saying things like that to either of my parents, just to manipulate them or to signal my general dislike for their current attitudes toward me.

(And my little sister absolutely did these things to both of my parents- she had a friend from one of those "perfect" families, and she made it a point to alert my parents whenever they failed to meet her expectations for "cool parents".)

IE, it is possible "dad's" is more fun, but it's also possible he is just dipping his toes into "surly youth" territory.

More importantly, for your own sanity, try to shed yourself of even the concept of one parent's place being more fun than the other.
posted by gjc at 5:57 AM on May 29, 2012

Maybe you could do a more "Dad" think than a "Mom" thing with him every now and then. Could be as simple as going outside and playing catch; or spending half an hour on Mario Kart.
posted by spaltavian at 6:17 AM on May 29, 2012

Ex-divorce lawyer here. I don't know how old your son is (from your question, I'm guessing six or seven), but I saw enough cases where parents allowed their kids to dictate the contact arrangements and it never ended well. Young children don't know what's in their best interests and they also need to have structure in their lives - letting them make the decisions about when they see which parent puts too much pressure on a child - the don't want to upset either parent, and sometimes if they make the 'wrong' decision feel they can't change their mind again. I saw a lot of screwed-up kids whose parents had thought it a good idea to let the child dictate the contact and it never worked out well with young children.

I'd also hazard a guess that the last thing your ex wants is to have his son every weekend too - he's got his nice quasi-single life, and if he has a girlfriend around, she's not going to want to have your son there every weekend.

So, explain firmly to your son when he says he wishes he could go to his dad's that he'll see his dad next weekend, and plan some fun activities to do with him that'll make him want to spend more time with you.
posted by essexjan at 6:53 AM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also think, depending on the kid's age, that it's totally fair to say "Honey, I know that it hasn't been all video games and candy at my house right now, but it hurts my feelings when you say things like that. Things will get better soon." Letting your son know that a: you're human and have feelings too, and b: that this is a kind of crappy phase that will improve, isn't a bad thing.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:55 AM on May 29, 2012

I was the child in a situation remarkably similar to yours - dad cheated with a secretary, divorce was hellish for mom, and mom had full custody. My dad saw us every other weekend and on Wednesday nights. He was what my mom called "Disneyland dad," like it sounds like you feel about your ex. He got to do all the fun stuff with us while mom was making us do homework and clean our rooms.

It was fairly often that I tried to beg my way out of the custody arrangement. You're going to get this more and more as your son gets older, especially when he's a teenager and you say he can't do something, but he thinks dad will let him. Unfortunately this is part of the divorced parents game - kids are smart and will try to get their way, and when parents are separate, it's a lot easier to do.

Two things to think about, as someone who's been in the situation that your son is dealing with:
1) I spent a lot of time as a kid and even into adulthood thinking of myself as an object that one parent had ownership of. It's a pretty damn terrible feeling to feel like your parent doesn't really want to spend time with you, but just wants to have ownership of you so that the other parent can't. If you do choose not to let spend time with dad outside of the custody arrangement, "Because it's my time" is not a good way to put it.
2) Remember that this is also a high stress situation for your child. Kids are like sponges for emotion. Even if you think you're hiding your stress about the break-up very well, your son knows what's going on. For me, in times of high stress, I wanted to be with my dad, because he took me to baseball games and amusement parks and rightly or wrongly, unlike my mom, he didn't cry and scream and get upset about the divorce.

Good luck.
posted by anotheraccount at 7:06 AM on May 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

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