What, if any, contact should my children have with their absent mother?
July 24, 2013 4:43 PM   Subscribe

My ex-wife suddenly vanished over 2 years ago to her native Asian country, leaving behind a son (then 1, now 3) and daughter (then 6, now 8). Contact was intermittent (sometimes once a week and sometimes every three months). I asked her to commit to a regularly scheduled call and she refused to do so. I also found the phone calls to be borderline abusive to my daughter (the daughter would ask, "Mommy when are you coming back," and the mother would reply, "When are you going to come see me?" which caused the daughter to feel responsible for her absence - or the Skype video chats where the daughter would have the camera on but the mother refused to do so). I have since cut off contact with the mother in order to protect my daughter, though wonder if it is the correct decision.

During the divorce, I sought counseling and the therapist told me she likely had Borderline Personality Disorder. I would describe her as a present and caring mother up until the time she left, though any type of adversity would set her off into some kind of destructive episode. During the divorce I was appalled at her willingness to start destructive arguments in front of the children simply because she knew it bothered me. In other words, she would hurt the children in order to hurt me.

My daughter was heartbroken by the loss of her mother and it probably took her a year to get out of the funk it caused. She still asks where her mother is and when she will see or talk to her again. I feel she has lost most tangible memory and bond with her mother, and now she simply associates it with something that is missing in her life. My son, who is now 3, presumably has no memory of her whatsoever.

I took my daughter to counseling earlier this year for several sessions. She is an incredibly bright girl and loves to talk, write and sing. The therapist said that because she is such a good communicator, he doesn't believe this will cause issues in her life, but instead just be a normal point of adversity that everyone has. After a few sessions of both one-on-one therapy with her and three-way discussions including me, it was advised that she did not need therapy.

I think in the short term the no-contact is the correct decision, but I wonder how it will affect my long term relationship with my children. My fear is that someday the mother will somehow return to their lives and tell them that I cut her off and manipulated the situation to keep her out of our lives, and that they will believe her. That said, even if I did let her speak with them she would likely do that upon her hypothetical return anyways.

I also fear that maybe I lack the overall moral authority to block children from speaking with a parent. However, some of the things she said have truly affected my daughter for days or weeks and I feel it's in the best interest of my daughter's happiness that they not speak - if I am entitled to make such a decision. Also, a parent can't really "parent" over a crappy phone connection once a month.

So the question is... should I allow her to contact the kids, even though it will likely leave them feeling hurt and abandoned?
posted by b_thinky to Human Relations (45 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
How does your daughter feel about the idea of talking to her mom on the phone, despite the hurt?
posted by HMSSM at 4:49 PM on July 24, 2013

Your daughter is old enough to work with you and a counselor to decide what contact she wants with her mother. A counselor can help you communicate her true feelings about her mother and contact with her mother.

My biological mother has Borderline Personality Disorder also. My parents divorced when I was 15, and I have chosen to cut her out of my life completely when I was 16. I am now 23 and never looked back.

Do NOT force them to speak to their mother. It's probably not the best thing in the long haul to have communication, from my experience. YMMV. Even as young as 8 I knew things with my "mother" were not normal and I didn't want to be around her. My dad is also a mefite and can attest to this as well.

As they get older they can also make stronger decisions. Support them in whatever choices they make now. If your children want her to contact them, then support that. If they want to never speak to her, support that too and make it happen.

I think a good inbetween option right now can be email (or letters). Your daughter especially is old enough that you can read emails together. Skype and phone are too much pressure. It's hard for a child to turn down a phone call - remember when your parents wanted you to talk to grandma? - but it can be much easier to take some time to decide if she wants to read or respond to an email.

Memail me if you want more detailed info on how I dealt with it. I was an 8-year old girl dealing with the same type of parent.
posted by Crystalinne at 4:56 PM on July 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: She would generally want to speak with her. She clings to the memory of her mother even though she told me that she is aware that she has been abandoned (when comparing to a friend whose mother died, she said "At least she wasn't abandoned."). After the calls, she usually cries and is in a crappy mood for a day or two.
posted by b_thinky at 4:57 PM on July 24, 2013

She's their mother. You are indeed cutting her off and keeping her out of their lives.

Yes, you should allow contact. She hasn't actually said anything abusive to them that you have cited. (It isn't abusive for a mom to suggest her child might visit her. Manipulative, sure, but not abusive.) And you should be ready to listen to what your kids say afterward without commenting negatively about their mother to them.

I wouldn't force contact either, of course. If either child doesn't want to talk to her at some point, you have no obligation to require it.
posted by bearwife at 4:57 PM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you're the one initiating and insisting upon the contact. I don't know that you're under any such obligation. Calls like this could easily be more distressing than helpful. Depending on how your daughter feels about the calls (which I agree is important), you could consider just letting this go as a goal of yours. Presumably you want to avoid hurt and later psychological issues; you might do just as well achieving that goal by not calling as by calling. Your daughter could certainly have your permission to initiate a call in the future, when she wants to, if she wants to; and her mother can talk to her when she wants to, as long as she is not doing damage. But it would probably be a relief not to have this strict-sounding ritual governing that interaction.

Your daughter has a right to feel sad, and I think it would help to acknowledge that to her. Her mother's not able to care for her right now. It is too bad, and not fair. It's something you wish weren't the case. All these things are okay to say and will give her permission to feel and to communicate, too.

I wonder, is there a support group around you for people whose partners/family members have mental health issues? Just seems like you could use some guidance about how to manage these interactions, and those communities - where families are dealing with mental illnesses, addictions, etc - have plenty of experience with it.
posted by Miko at 5:01 PM on July 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: @bearwife: I asked her to commit to a weekly Saturday morning call, which originally she agreed to and then failed to fulfill. I feel it's hurtful to my daughter to expect a call and then not get it. If she had called regularly and dependably, she would have a relationship with them.

Also, despite the time difference, she knows what time it is here. She will call me only during work/school hours or at some crazy hour like 3am demanding to speak with her knowing full well our daughter is unavailable at the moment.

How am I to manage this situation?

She told my daughter that I killed my father-in-law (who died of cancer). I found that abusive.
posted by b_thinky at 5:05 PM on July 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I will reiterate. Email. You can also review an email prior to it going to your daughter. Phone calls allow for too much that is out of control. (Or tell her to leave a voicemail.)
posted by Crystalinne at 5:06 PM on July 24, 2013 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: I should note that my counselor told me it sounded like she had BPD without actually meeting her. I read a couple books on it (when I was still trying to save my marriage) and it did seem to apply to her. However, this hasn't been formally diagnosed.
posted by b_thinky at 5:07 PM on July 24, 2013

A sticky wicket indeed with no black or white answer, only shades of grey. I would not make the decision based on the hypothetical that their mom may one day claim you cut them out. I think the decision should be based SOLELY on what you believe is in the best interests of your two children. I think one productive way to go about making the decision would be to involve a third party such as the therapist. Also, know that whatever decision you make today can be changed tomorrow or any day in the future.

Not knowing 99% of what you know about the situation, I would err on the side of allowing contact. To me, sooner or later the crazy always comes out and your daughter is old enough to recognize that on her own. My children and I still call my father every Sunday, but we all recognize he is insane in his own way and move on. I think it is better to find out the truth about your parents yourself than have it told to you secondhand even if that is from the other parent. I think it is important for you to be very supportive of your children to let them know they were not abandoned, but are actually very much loved by the active and present parent, you.

Good luck to you and your children. This is a long term issue that regardless of what decisions are made is going to be subject to a second guess. Don't second guess.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:07 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

OK, telling your daughter you kiled her dad and not making scheduled calls is very hurtful.

So, when I deal with borderlines, which I do a lot, I set very firm boundaries and don't move from them. I'd suggest you explain to your ex that it's Saturday morning, on time, or nothing. If she calls at other times, repeat this and hang up. If she misses a call, explain you won't be arranging to be there or have your kids there for the next 3 Saturdays. I'd set similar boundaries on letters/emails.

But, mentally ill mom or not, don't take the contact decision away from your kids. Explain the rules to the kids too, and then adhere to them absolutely. It's a lot easier, I think, for your daughter to understand that you are aiming to assure predictable, reliable contact with her mom. And if your daughter wonders why her mom can't provide that, I'd just say that mommy may have some health challenges.
posted by bearwife at 5:12 PM on July 24, 2013 [12 favorites]

I have since cut off contact with the mother in order to protect my daughter, though wonder if it is the correct decision.

It's not. Her relationship with her children will be whatever she can offer. It's not enough, it will never be enough, and your children will carry that burden. That's just how it is. You can mitigate that through compassion and counseling, but you can't undo the fact of who you chose to have children with. It's not your role to control your ex-wife through mandated schedules, it's your role to facilitate your children's relationship with their mother in the healthiest way possible.

She told my daughter that I killed my father-in-law (who died of cancer). I found that abusive.

Therapy. There is nothing more important for a child living in a world of fighting parents than an impartial adult who they can talk to about anything and everything.

In other words, she would hurt the children in order to hurt me.

And you are using access to the children to punish her. You need to separate your feelings for your ex-wife from your children's need for their mother. No matter your reasoning for keeping their mother from them, doing so will hurt them.
posted by headnsouth at 5:13 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

One option would be to return to counseling, this time with the specific goal of...ah, what Crystalinne just typed. Yes, on preview, if she does want to speak with her, your job here is to help manage the contact and guide your kid through it.

I completely empathise with wanting to avoid something that will "likely leave them feeling hurt and abandoned." But they have already been hurt and abandoned; this is the reality.

If the pattern of contact is difficult for your daughter, ask Mom to write letters, buy a cheap phone that's only for her calls and only have it on during reasonable calling hours, find a way to ameliorate the situation instead of blocking it.

One person I know who was abandoned by a parent noted that 'it would have been easier if [parent] had just died.' It's a horrible thing when a parent chooses to walk. It is the child who should have as much agency as possible -- "Support them in whatever choices they make now" is really the best advice for this. You are allowed to be annoyed about having to pick up the pieces after bad Skype sessions, but I don't know that a permanent ban is appropriate here. As has been said, your daughter will figure out the score and make her own choices.
posted by kmennie at 5:19 PM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

If this is once a month, I would go with letters and/or emails. Not only does it keep everything in writing but it also keeps a little distance there (which, I think would be good for everyone) whilst also maintaining a possibly calmer connection (and possibly be more special for your daughter, regardless of her connection with her mother in the future - phone calls where everyone's upset, not so much).
posted by heyjude at 5:21 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's not your role to control your ex-wife through mandated schedules,

Child of divorced (not amicably) parents here, and yes, yes it is the role of the custodial parent to set boundaries, especially when the kids are really young and can't set them themselves. Non-custodial parent doesn't get to unilaterally decide when they see or talk to the kids; that has to be negotiated and agreed upon. Non-custodial parent doesn't get to be the one to decide that calling at 3 am is okay.

I was out of contact with my dad for several years (I was older than your daughter) because of some...stuff. My mom explained to me, in an age-appropriate way, why I wasn't going to be visiting him for the foreseeable future, and there was a year or two where there were no phone calls or letters, either. I look back on this and feel glad - glad that she protected me, and glad that she talked to me as openly as she could about why, and she managed to do all of that without making my dad into a monster. This is a hard thing you're going to have to negotiate, and some things may work sometimes, or for a while, but not for always. Keep your therapist's number on speed dial, and I'd say you (all of you) could do worse than have a regular monthly-ish check-in session.
posted by rtha at 5:41 PM on July 24, 2013 [61 favorites]

I was abandoned by a parent who never contacted me. While contact with a mentally ill parent may be painful, please trust me that the alternative is worse. Because, when there is no contact at all, the child is free to use his or her imagination to construct a sort of "fantasy alternative parent" which sounds nice in theory but can lead to all sorts of issues down the line.

In my experience, as the child, hurtful but realistic contact would have been much better than no contact at all.

(And, yeah, therapy. Contact + therapy.)
posted by anastasiav at 5:58 PM on July 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Child of divorced (not amicably) parents here, and yes, yes it is the role of the custodial parent to set boundaries,

Boundaries yes, but insisting on once a week or nothing at all is not a boundary, it's controlling the other parent and using access to the child to do so. We are only hearing one parent's POV here and he's already backed down from a BPD diagnosis of his ex-wife. He also says his long-term fear is for his relationship with his children. Not for his children's well being but for how best to manage the result of his ex-wife's eventual access to them.

There is nothing to indicate that there's anything abusive here - "when are you going to come see me?" is not abusive, and if making your kid feel guilty were abusive then every mother I've known since my own childhood and through raising my own children would have lost custody, including me.

Non-custodial parent doesn't get to be the one to decide that calling at 3 am is okay.

Absolutely 100% agree. So don't answer the phone at 3am, that's what voicemail is for.

On more than just the phone calls, this is a situation that would benefit from the ongoing support of impartial adults (therapists for children and for dad).
posted by headnsouth at 6:04 PM on July 24, 2013

Yeah, my dad abandoned us when I was 12. We went years without talking, and then suddenly when I was in my early 20s, he started an email correspondence. It feels weird to talk to him now - in some ways, he knows me, but there's so much history that we don't share. Had we kept in touch at least a little bit, he'd know these things without needing to be told. It's rather awkward to have a new, fragile relationship that is fraught with "you might not remember this, but..." type disclosures. I mean, regardless of whether he does remember, it's uncomfortable to remind him because I feel as though the subtext is "I assume that you don't remember this because you are a shitty father."

It's been rather difficult for me to get past the feeling I had when I was 12 that he just didn't want me, and didn't care about talking to me. If we'd been in regular but infrequent contact, I might feel differently now.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 6:05 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Either way is going to be painful for your daughter, and I understand the impulse to cut contact, but I agree with the suggestion of email contact. This option protects your daughter because it gives you the ability to screen the messages, but it doesn't involve telling her she can't talk to her mom at all.

I know you say that your daughter's therapist thinks she doesn't need to be in therapy right now, and it sounds like she's a smart and resilient kid. Rather than having her continue therapy, would it be possible for her to get a female mentor through something like Big Brothers/Big Sisters? I'm imagining someone who could take on a role that is explicitly and obviously not a replacement of her mom, but nevertheless a positive female role model who could spend time with her doing some of the things she's missing out on because of her mom's absence. No amount of mentoring from a kind adult is going to take away the hurt her mom is causing, but having a "Big Sister" or similar mentor could be really valuable emotional support.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:06 PM on July 24, 2013 [7 favorites]

My first reaction is, I would continue to let my kids interact with their mother in a controlled, supervised way. Certainly not 3 AM phone calls. Emails or letters make sense, or perhaps phone calls over a speaker phone where you can jump in if needed.

Your daughter wants and needs her mother in her life. She can't have that, but I think it is better to let her try to maintain some connection, even though you know it will hurt. My guess is this the best way for your daughter to understand the reality of who her mother is, and be in a position to decide what relationship, if any, she wants to maintain as she gets older. However:

> However, some of the things she said have truly affected my daughter for days or weeks

sounds troubling. I wouldn't let my ex be sadistic and cruel to my daughter, if that's what contact with Mommy typically meant. If it was "bad enough" I would stop it altogether.

> I also fear that maybe I lack the overall moral authority to block children from speaking with a parent.

I think you do have that authority. Not to be used capriciously, but clearly you're taking this seriously. Not only do you have the authority, but if your ex is really so vicious that your kids can't interact with her at all, you have the responsibility to take the decision out of your daughter's hands. You can't push this kind of choice onto the shoulders of an 8 year old.

Upon reflection, email sounds better and better.

My condolences, this is an awful thing to deal with.
posted by mattu at 6:11 PM on July 24, 2013 [8 favorites]

Don't allow contact. Get a lawyer to make it so. The mother is abusive.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:19 PM on July 24, 2013 [9 favorites]

You need a narrative for your children. Mommy was sick and wanted to o to her native country (BPD is an illness). Mommy was very confused, and wanted to be on her own. She misses you, and she loves you. You can initiate calls on the 1st Sunday of every month, or something like that. Email your ex-, tell her when the call will be, remind her the day before, and initiate the call. Tell your children that it will probably make them sad and make them miss Mommy to talk to her, but that it's their opportunity to see Mommy.

If you prevent your children from contact with their Mom, I think there's a good chance they'll resent you a lot some day.

I got great advice from a friend when I got divorced. What kind of people do you want your kids to be? If you want them to grow up honoring their parents, then teach them to honor their Mom by being in touch, sending cards and pictures, and behaving respectfully to her. They'll also learn how to deal with conflict. Starting a fund for a someday visit would be good, when they're old enough to not get too torn between you, and would give them a goal. Encourage them to love her and know that she loves them, but may not be able to express it in a healthy way.

You have the kids all the time. You can control when she's able to contact them. You can supervise the calls or perhaps have the calls supervised by a therapist. You can deal with her crazy messages. If you open a healthy path for her to contact them, she may be less aggressive.
posted by theora55 at 7:00 PM on July 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Child of a messy divorce here. My parents' marriage was your basic cautionary tale. Dad left one day (I was older than your kids) and I never heard from or of him again. I don't know what I would have done if he'd tried to stay in contact (I still occasionally have nightmares where I'm forced to live with him again). I can't be sure Mom would have backed me up if I'd tried to refuse to see or talk to him (as I surely would have done), because she would never hear a word against him.

I guess my point is that this is going to be different for every family situation. I was old enough to know what a piece of work my father was, and if at some point in the future he tries to blame his behavior on my mother I'll know better. If you have a good, strong, honest relationship with your kids you'll improve your chances that they'll know better, too.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:38 PM on July 24, 2013

Response by poster: Just to be clear, my primary concern is absolutely the well-being of my kids. Also, the mother likely has BPD, but if not she has some kind of mental illness.

I have never said anything bad about her to the children. I have offered to mail letters, pictures, etc but she does not give us her address. Or her phone number. I am not trying to control her or punish her via the kids. I want my kids to have 2 good parents. Maybe I need to let go of that ideal.

I like the idea of email contact, or maybe a once monthly call. Then again, a parent doesn't parent once a month or by phone or email only. Email maybe the best path as phone calls are difficult to time. As the single parent I have to work as well as coordinate and attend all the kids activities. There is rarely a moment we can stand around waiting for the phone to ring and take a meaningful call.
posted by b_thinky at 7:41 PM on July 24, 2013

> I also fear that maybe I lack the overall moral authority to block children from speaking with a parent.

Moral authority is a social construct and situational and so on. If she was physically abusive, you'd understand what to do in that situation. There are certainly situations where your moral authority and obligation to protect kick in.

Whether this is one of them may need to be determined.

if I am entitled to make such a decision.

You're entitled to make such a decision. If not you, then who?

Whether blocking contact is the correct decision and is healthy for the kids is a different matter.

I'd consult with a therapist to be sure you're doing the right thing, be it blocking contact or insisting on (screened) email, or monitored and scheduled phone call for now.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:55 PM on July 24, 2013

Then again, a parent doesn't parent once a month or by phone or email only.

I am dating a guy with an (almost grown) kid who was younger when we met. The kid's mom is problematic in similar ways to the way you describe your ex. I'm not sure if you have any experience with the sort of AA "This problem is bigger than me and I can't control it" way of looking at things, but it might be helpful for you here. When you said this above...

My fear is that someday the mother will somehow return to their lives and tell them that I cut her off and manipulated the situation to keep her out of our lives, and that they will believe her.

I think you should cut to the chase. She probably will do that (either return or blame or something wretched). Your daughter, however, will probably not believe her. Kids are smart and understand how this stuff works.

In short: you have to give up resenting your ex for being a bad parent or not parenting or even doing the sort of "grade my report card" stuff here where you add up the ways in which she is bad and show her badness. That's over and done with. She does not have to prove she is a bad parent, she has already done the Bad Parent Trifecta and is done. All you are trying to do is help her to not have a terrible relationship with your daughter by being supportive of your daughter and by modeling good boundaries. Therapy for you will help with this.

This will also happen in part by you keeping her lousiness from being your daughter's problem and part by trying to facilitate (even though it is not your job and your ex sucks and this situation sucks) reasonable communication with the two of them. Part of this will be by you having better boundaries with your ex, rigid ones. There should be no way your ex can communicate with you at 3 am, ever. She is not an active parent, you are not co-parenting. Block her number, turn off your phone, set her ringtone to silent or do whatever you have to do.

Explain to her, in writing, what the boundaries and guidelines are for communication with you and for communication with your daughter (within whatever is legally allowed/proscibed) and don't argue about it just tell her that is how it is. Don't fight about it just tell her how it is if she complains.

There is rarely a moment we can stand around waiting for the phone to ring and take a meaningful call.

This is a completely reasonable reason to have such boundaries. Phone calls are Saturday at X o'clock (or whatever) and we'll be available for 30 minutes and then will be not-available. If she can't get it together then she can't get it together, but you are trying and your daughter will see that. She will also see that her mother is not trying or is sick or is otherwise not handling this. Be available to talk to your daughter about her interactions with her mom, but I'd refrain from not only commenting but also the judging. It can eat away at you because when you look and say "that was bad" you can also hope that it might be better, or assess and look for improvement/change or think of things you could have done differently. This is bigger than you can control and you mostly just need to give this problem an outline of how much you're going to let it impact your life and move forward being the best parent you know how. I'm sorry, I know it's terribly hard.
posted by jessamyn at 7:58 PM on July 24, 2013 [17 favorites]

I think it's time for you to have a frank conversation with your daughter. She is old enough to understand that although mom loves her, mom has an illness. That illness makes her say and do things that are hurtful, like not calling when she says she will. We can never expect this to change, and it doesn't mean that mom loves her any less. If she wants to be in contact with mom, she needs to understand that mom wont be reliable and that talking to mom might make her sad. This is normal and it sucks, but this is the best mom can do. If she decides that she doesn't want to or can't handle that right now, that's totally ok too. But mom loves her, and she gets to decide whether she talks to mom.

And you need to set boundaries about when you'll take calls. Stop trying to lock mom into a schedule, expecting calls at specified times, or expecting "parenting" as you see it. It isn't going to happen. The best you can really hope for is a friendship of sorts.
posted by windykites at 8:02 PM on July 24, 2013 [15 favorites]

I meant, being sad is normal, not this relationship is normal.
posted by windykites at 8:06 PM on July 24, 2013

My mom likely has BPD. I haven't spoken with her in almost 20 years.

You should start telling your daughter the truth, and windykites, just above, has it EXACTLY right. Also, jessamyn.

Your kids are not OK, and I don't know what your therapist is on about. They will feel the repercussions of being abused and abandoned for the rest of their lives in new and special ways through every stage of life. Prepare them by teaching them emotional skills to get themselves through tough times. Teach them it's OK to visit a therapist now and them, for an emotional "tune up," or just to check in. Give them resources and strategies that will last a lifetime.


And about your ex wife...

I've never done any research or scientific study, but every person I've ever known with BPD or NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder)was severely traumatized as a child in some profound way. Usually sexual abuse, to be honest.

Your wife doesn't feel safe and has likely never known true safety. Those who are most intimate with her are seen as her enemies, because that's what her subconscious learned as a child - that people who are intimate with you will eventually deeply and savagely hurt you.

I often say I would not wish my mother's inner life on my worst enemy, just to give you an idea of the type of understanding from you towards your ex wife I'm advocating here.
posted by jbenben at 9:37 PM on July 24, 2013 [7 favorites]

It sounds like you are doing your very very best for your children and that you are a good and caring and loving parent. No matter what, this is a great and wonderful gift to give to your children.

I have done a lot of thinking about this issue, because my child's (and my) situation has many analogies to yours. I've had many of the same thoughts over the years that you are expressing. Briefly, here are some of my own thoughts on this.

First, no matter what, there is going to be pain and loss that our children feel from having a parent ''disappear'' like this, no matter what the reason. We can't protect them from these feelings--they are real and they are theirs to have. I feel that my child is going to need help to work things out as time goes by, and all I can do is make sure that it's clear that these are normal feelings and that it's okay to have them, and to provide healthy ways for these feelings to be expressed. Maybe/hopefully your therapist is right and your daughter doesn't need any more therapy right now. That doesn't mean she won't later, and normalizing therapy for her is great, as jbenben points out.

Many are expressing above the real negative consequences of keeping the parent away, but enabling intermittent and random contact has its own negative consequences for the kid. There really is no winning--our kids are going to have to work this stuff through, and we just need to do what we think is best for them, and for ourselves.
posted by gubenuj at 9:52 PM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

And you are using access to the children to punish her.

I don't know how someone comes to that conclusion from anything you've said. You seem to be a parent who is putting the best interests of his children first.
posted by Dansaman at 10:08 PM on July 24, 2013 [19 favorites]

I feel that you should organise a specified call time and additional email contact for your ex-wife to use. Ask your daughter's opinion about this and let her know that she's advocating for her little brother too. If I were an 8 year old I'd also want to know that I can reverse or modify my decision at any time.

Maybe it would be a good idea to support your children with appropriate strategies to deal with the calls/lack of calls. This might involve working out how to begin the call on a positive note with things your children want to share "Mom, I went to the zoo and I got an A for my book report!"

This way your daughter and son can try at least try to lead the discussion and be in control at the beginning of the call.

Would the therapist be able to help your daughter in role-playing ways to respond when her mother is difficult and manipulative? Your ex-wife is going to be a challenge to deal with forever and giving your children a toolbox of appropriate strategies and responses will not only help them now but as they grow.
posted by pipstar at 1:16 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just to be clear, my primary concern is absolutely the well-being of my kids. Also, the mother likely has BPD, but if not she has some kind of mental illness.

When your kids grow up, it is far better for them to remember that dad wanted and tried to get them in touch with their mother who is mentally ill, than to bar mom from contact.

Maybe she's unreliable, but she's a human being and she's unwell and can't fulfill your expectations of the perfect mother you feel your kids are entitled to. But few people can be the perfect parents, and you made the decision to have children with his woman. No matter what, you all are still a family, and you have to accept that their mom isn't well and isn't perfect, and that pain is going to be part of their life.

Your kids will understand how ill your wife was when they get older, and that's what counts.

Also, is the sole reason for calling her BPD based on your narratives to your therapist?
posted by discopolo at 5:01 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Your kids will understand how ill your wife was he they get older, and that's what counts"

I was raised by an unmedicated BPD mother (my father was absent). A very good step-father made my life bearable. You are incorrect about what counts. What counts is the torture of abuse that a child has to navigate through in life. It does not help to realize that the mentally ill parent is sick. The board or spatula or other beating implement counts. The role of being responsible for all the bad things in your mother's life counts. Learning that no matter how hard you want it and how hard you try you can't be perfect enough to make your mother happy counts. I could go on and on here.

Absolutely insulate your children from this woman. If you decide to allow some kind of contact you must monitor it assiduously. She is sick. That is a horrible thing for here. Don't allow it to be a horrible thing for your daughter.
posted by txmon at 6:31 AM on July 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

You absolutely have the moral authority -- and the duty -- to do whatever it is you need to do to protect your children. Your ex-wife will be doing no parenting any time soon. She abandoned your family. It is manipulative for her to respond to her daughter -- who cannot understand where or why her mother has gone -- with "well, when are you going to visit me?" And frankly, I would not take your children to her country for fear that she will be able to establish parental rights there that would prevent you from taking them home.

This is a bad situation where no decision you make will save your children from all harm. You need to make the best decision you can under the circumstances with the knowledge that years from now with benefit of hindsight you may decide it was sub-optimal. Or even if it was optimal, your daughter may still bear some resentment at times.

If I were to offer advice, I would suggest talking to a family lawyer about whether you have the right to be granted sole custody. If your daughter wants to talk to her mother, I would suggest you offer her a regulated, mediated channel as suggested many times above. If she won't agree, no contact with the children.
posted by rocketpup at 6:59 AM on July 25, 2013

Personally, I would schedule calls with your ex by email, and not tell the kids in advance so they're not devastated when she fails to call.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:11 AM on July 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

If I were to offer advice, I would suggest talking to a family lawyer about whether you have the right to be granted sole custody.

It certainly couldn't hurt to have a chat with a lawyer about what the possible ramifications of the situation could be. It's probably what we would have done if we'd been in a more stable situation back when I was a kid.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:54 AM on July 25, 2013

Any good therapist will say "I can't diagnose her by word of mouth." As someone who has had therapists offer that disclaimer and then note similarities between someone else's behaviors (as described by me) and potential diagnoses, I've come to see how fallible those diagnoses are. The therapist is seeing your wife through a very narrow keyhole. Don't take the diagnosis seriously. We in this thread should not be taking the diagnosis at face value. The abandonment alone speaks volumes, but I'd leave it at that.
posted by salvia at 9:02 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

* former wife, sorry
posted by salvia at 9:13 AM on July 25, 2013

I think there are good arguments both in favor of and against there being any contact between your ex-wife and the children. Your protective stance seems absolutely appropriate and necessary, but the conundrum is how do you protect your children against abusive or otherwise harmful communication while at the same time protecting them against feeling abandoned, unloved, bewildered, scared, rejected, etc. by their mother's absence. I think ultimately only you can make that determination because you are the only one who knows the mother and who knows the children deeply. Hopefully the suggestions and personal stories that others have shared here will give you some reference points that will help you make the determination that only you can make.
posted by Dansaman at 9:32 AM on July 25, 2013

Mod note: folks please stick to answering the question asked and not general critiques of AskMe or others' answers. MeTa is available for you. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:03 AM on July 25, 2013

Chiming in to address this:

My fear is that someday the mother will somehow return to their lives and tell them that I cut her off and manipulated the situation to keep her out of our lives, and that they will believe her.

One way you could potentially defend yourself against a "he said, she said" situation later in life is to take the time now, and throughout the future, to document it. And not in something easily forge-able like a word-processing file - get an old-fashioned marble composition notebook, and document the contacts (even the inappropriate ones) in your handwriting, with the date. For example:
"6/24/13 - Ms.Thinky called at 3 AM. Children were asleep. I informed Ms.Thinky that she could reach them tomorrow at 3 PM instead."
"7/1/13 - Ms.Thinky called at 5PM. Allowed her to speak with son and daughter. Daughter got upset when Ms.Thinky asked her when daughter would come visit."

This would take some discipline and consistency on your part, but would be evidence that would be difficult for your children or your wife to refute, once the children are older. At teenage level or older, they would be able to see your side of the story very clearly with this record.

If you go this route, I also recommend that you keep a digital backup copy as well. Scan or photograph the pages as you fill them.
posted by Ardea alba at 12:42 PM on July 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

Have you seen a therapist? I mean one for you individually, not a family therapist or your daughter's therapist. I think finding your own impartial adult to talk to about your fears, anxieties, concerns, hopes, etc. could be really helpful. You can delve into the more intricate details that you can't really get into online. This would hopefully lead you to a clear decision, and more importantly, help you feel comfortable and confident with that decision.
posted by melissasaurus at 1:49 PM on July 25, 2013

Once, a long time ago, I had fears similar to yours, for similar reasons. Suffice to say: now my daughter is 20, and very easily sees the reality of her situation. She is generous enough to care for her unbalanced parent, and self-preserving enough to set clear boundaries and call out the bullshit, when it is relevant.
The route here wasn't easy, and I've sought professional help and help from family several times on the way. But in retrospect, I could have been much more relaxed - some of the problems, if not all, were caused by my own fears rather than real issues. (Meaning that it was real that my ex did crazy stuff, but not that my child was in any way confused in her priorities by the crazy).
posted by mumimor at 2:34 PM on July 25, 2013

I think a journal that you keep now will be helpful to your daughter later in life, as she reconstructs the narrative as an adolescent and adult. Especially, but not solely, if your ex wife re-establishes contact, or comes asking for money down the line. Even as a memorandum of her young family getting through this bewildering time, your daughter may get value from it later.

Windykites also has it in spades. You need to be honest with your daughter and tell her her mom is sick and therefore unpredictable and unreliable. Reiterate with her often that it's not daughter's fault and that mom loves her, but that her sickness causes her to act in unacceptable ways.

As far as communication permission goes, I think you should provide your ex with available times for her to Skype. Don't tell the kids, so they won't be disappointed if she doesn't call. If she does call, ask them if they want to talk to her; don't force them. Be present in the room for the conversation. Step in if it gets nutty (accusing you of murdering your ex FIL???) And let your daughter know that if she wants to email your ex, she can use your account.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:44 PM on July 26, 2013

My husband's biological father has Bi-Polar disorder, and spent much of his children's youth as a spendthrift alcoholic that was in and out of mental institutions and marriages. (His parents divorced when he was four.)

Medication has improved over the years, he's worked hard, and their relationship now is pretty good. He credits MUCH of this to his mother - who never said anything bad about their father: he is who he is, and everyone has to learn to draw lots of boundaries here: including you, and including your kids. There was still lots of hurt, and she spent a lot of time picking up the pieces after a missed access visit etc. but it cuts down on the drama, the gossip, the crap. She was an actively practicing Buddhist through much of this time. But Dad eventually pulled himself together (more or less), all four boys now have a decent relationship with their father and know where to draw boundaries, and the two parents can be polite to each other at weddings and whatnot.

My parents divorced as well, and there's no mental illness or anything particularly horrible that happened... but they can't be anywhere NEAR each other, and our relationships with our parents were strained for a long time because my sister was cut off from our Dad for awhile, and my Mom spent years spewing toxic gossip about our Dad. It was awful. I live overseas, and it's hard to spend "fair" amounts of time with each parent since they are totally separate entities who both want to spend time with me AND with "all of us together".

So: no judgements, no "comments", no snipy remarks about her. She's ill, she's unreliable - you're gonna have to let them get hurt, learn to draw boundaries, and draw their own conclusions about her.

This sucks. Hang in there!
posted by jrobin276 at 8:33 PM on August 11, 2013

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