He's driving me nuts! Co-parent edition
June 23, 2014 2:55 PM   Subscribe

The person in question is my significant other’s ex, I’ll call Steve. We share custody of the kids (3 under 12 years). Their separation agreement calls for the responsibility/decision making for the kids to be shared 50/50. The kids go back and forth between houses. In reality, we do much more than our share. A recent conflict has left me searching for a new outlook on Steve. I’m tired of being frustrated and angry with his behavior and attitude. I need to find some peace.

The details: Steve is educated, bright, 30-something from an upper-middle class background, employed in a stable job with a good income. He owns a vehicle and lives in nice part of the city. While covering the basics of everyday childcare (feeding them, helping with homework, taking them to school), Steve has a history of being reluctant to take on ad hoc tasks such as schedule or take them to appointments, haircuts, baths, back to school shopping, school field trip prep, registering or take them to sports or activities. He won’t take initiative to do these things, and if asked he sometimes agrees, but often doesn’t follow through (though I suspect he means to, he is just terribly disorganized). The result - we manage that sort of work.

The specific incident: The children, as children do, have grown throughout the school year and Steve hasn’t removed too-small clothing from their wardrobes, or purchased larger sized clothing. The kids, when he dresses them, have been wearing clothes that are clearly too small. That puts the onus on us get larger clothes, and weed out / reallocate small clothes. We asked Steve to participate in updating their wardrobes. He blew up. His position, as best as I can understand it, is that he adds value in other ways, and can’t be held responsible to participate (while also claiming that he does buy them clothes, but that they ‘go somewhere’). He went on to bemoan his lot in life, saying he is too busy, that he does 50% of the childcare work and demanding to be recognized as such, and painting himself as a victim.

Steve struggles with keeping up with life tasks – which I have some of sympathy for. His entitlement and unreasonableness drive me crazy. I wouldn’t mind picking up some of his slack if he didn’t demand recognition for every instance where he does a little something more than his usual routine (while maintaining all the while that he contributes 50%). I recognize he isn’t going to change. I have to do the work of making peace with how he is. I have tried a pity approach, but it isn’t working for me. What perspective do you use to not be frustrated by those who play the victim, or don’t pull their weight?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If Steve is single, you may put on the perspective that he's seeing you two as twice the amount of resources that he has (time and maybe money), so he's doing 2X the work (in his eyes). It might not be the case in reality, but it might help to give another perspective to things.
posted by xingcat at 2:59 PM on June 23, 2014 [9 favorites]

Sometimes it is easier if one party takes over the decision making. Can he pay $x per school year or whatever and you buy the clothing with increasing help from the kids as they get older?
posted by travelwithcats at 3:02 PM on June 23, 2014 [27 favorites]

What perspective do you use to not be frustrated by those who play the victim, or don’t pull their weight?

At some point, you sort of just have to accept that things are they way they are and work around the damage. With my ex, I had to decide between having constant battles over this crap, or just doing what needs to be done and moving on.

In the end, I took the flag it and move on approach. Yes, it would be objectively better if Steve and my ex weren't asshats. However, my job was to provide my child with the best of all possible childhoods and so, you sort of have to work with what you've got.

Also - you're the step-parent ? Tread carefully, man.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:06 PM on June 23, 2014 [30 favorites]

All these things seem minor and I think you should ignore. I would say suck it up and keep the peace for the kids sake.
In my house I have the kids bathe 2x a week. Her house is every night no matter what. I am sure that she thinks I am doing things "wrong". If the tag says a size too small but the kids say they are comfortable, they wear it. I think she doesn't approve. But we are terrific parents and every decision we make is based around them.

These are issues don't seem important. I think that keeping the peace is more important for the children than "being right".

Good luck.
posted by beccaj at 3:08 PM on June 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

I also vote "path of least resistance" here.

You can't make him change. You can't make him feel bad. You have no control over his behavior. The only important thing here is that the kids get to wear clothes that fit.

Words are generally free. Tell him that you know he's terribly busy and you know sorting clothes is time consuming, so you'll sort their clothes if he'll send loads of them back in a trash bag (this may take several rounds to get their current clothes sorted) and you'll send back the good stuff, and then going forward he just sends the old stuff over to you and pays a part of the new clothing costs.

Give him the recognition, it doesn't cost you anything. Roll your eyes SO HARD as you do it, as long as the kids don't see. Use honey to get the end result you want and don't worry so much about trying to force him to do it exactly as you choose.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:09 PM on June 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

Even when there are two committed, loving parents living with their children, the allocation of parenting is often not 50-50. Sometimes it is 70-30, and perhaps, at times, the 30% parent is doing her/his best.

We might be inclined to judge the 30% parent harshly, but there are so many variables, is it worth it? I agree that the best bet is to tolerate and accept Steve's contributions as the best he can offer at this time.
posted by elf27 at 3:14 PM on June 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

My SO's ex is like this, they have a nearly-adult son who is a joy but is dealing with some mental health issues that make his life a little high maintenance. My SOs ex has created an entire fiction in her head about how (after my SO decided to go for custody two years ago in order to make sure his son had a stable home life) she's being kept away from her son and usually hinging on specific narrowband issues when the larger issues are ones she is unwilling to budge on and is totally unreasonable on. Example: she has a sort of marginal existence living with her boyfriend. She wants to see her son at my SO's place and stay there overnight when he goes to visit me claiming that she doesn't think it's okay to leave the kid alone overnight (not what his doctors say but whatever). She's been told she can hang out with her son basically any time he does not have a medical appointment but it can't be at my SOs house. She has decided to focus on this "I can't stay overnight at my ex's house" as the hill she wants to die on, conveniently ignoring the fact that she barely sees her son at this point.

So, I outline this only to say, I have been there and I am sorry, it sucks. What helped us the most was

1. therapy for the SO so I wasn't the dumping ground for "My ex is fucking crazy" venting all the time
2. boundaries, good ones, and sometimes spelling out in crystal clear fashion what the agreements do and do not mean
3. taking one for the team (where "the team" is Team Kid) and just doing what's right for the kid and saving the big battles for stuff that really matters. It can be "unfair" but keeping the peace is sometimes better than nickle and diming this

Above all you and your SO need to be on Team You Guys about whatever you decide to do. I was annoyed for a long time because I thought my SO was too blase about a situation that I thought was really problematic (or expecting me to shoulder some of the burden for the dumb shit she'd dump in our laps) and I got much more calm about things when I realized that he was committed to not making her nonsense into our problem. You guys don't have to buy Steve's bullshit but just quietly agree that it's bullshit and find ways to make sure the kids have what they need and give him simple to follow "You need to buy the kids their winter coats and boots" type of instructions. If he wants to blow up he can do it to a dead phone line or to an empty room. Totally not okay.

So sometimes you have to ask yourself "Do I want to be right, or do I want to solve the problem" it seems like minimizing the drama that this guy brings might be worth spending some money on clothes but ask yourselves what the real problem is that you are trying to solve and see how you can go about doing that.
posted by jessamyn at 3:15 PM on June 23, 2014 [21 favorites]

I'll just say that things he fails to do that are things that many dads in traditional marriages don't do-I bet if he was still with the mother of his children, he wouldn't do these things. Many, many dads don't ever schedule a doctor's appointment or care about their children's clothes or take them school shopping. In other words, I think it's not so much about about custody shit as it is about gender shit. My ex doesn't do this stuff and it's just not the hill I want to die on, I've decided-he's a good dad in general and we get along well, so I choose to let it go. There are so many awful custody situations out there that I choose to be grateful for the stuff that goes well and leave it there whenever possible.
posted by purenitrous at 3:17 PM on June 23, 2014 [43 favorites]

First of all, you need to step-back. This is between Steve and your partner. You're just there to support your partner. If Steve sees you as a threat, it's no good, ever.

Steve's a flake. Make your peace with it. If you want, have your partner sit down with him to do this stuff:

"Steve the kid's clothes are too small. Bring all the old shit over here, with a check for X and I'll see that they get new gear."

As for the rest of it, I find that sometimes it's just easier to do it than to stress and moan and feel ripped off.

Remember, your partner picked him, so at one time she thought he hung the moon.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:21 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Following on from purenitrous's excellent point, I wonder whether it would help if you were to write out a list of all of the things that you do that you don't think he does and you don't think he is aware of. It definitely does sound like the type of labor you're describing is traditional "women's work", which, traditionally, is often invisible to those who have enough privilege to be able to ignore it. It's not just work regarding children, and I don't think it's primarily an issue about divorce/ex relationships - lots of married men think that the dish fairy comes after they go to bed to wash up, or that the house gets magically vacuumed, etc. I think that it might help if you would make all the invisible labor that you do visible, because he honestly might not be aware of it (not that that justifies his negligence, but it may explain it). You should decide in advance whether you want him to step up to doing his 50% share, or whether you'd be happy with him giving you full responsibility for that work and forking over his share of the funds.
posted by ClaireBear at 3:24 PM on June 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh, hey, Steve is my ex, basically. And a lot of peoples', sadly. I think my last straw was about ten years ago. I sent him a dental bill for our child and asked him to split it with me, which was part of our parenting plan (shared medical expenses). He sent me a check for $14, which was his calculated cost for what half of a co-pay would be if we had insurance, which neither of us did at the time. (No, this does not make any kind of sense.)

The lightbulb went on: someone needs to raise this child, and raise her well, and fuck the small shit. I stopped expecting anything from him financially and started seeing myself (financially) as a single parent, and it helped immensely. When you and your partner get involved with changing the parenting plan is when the child is in some kind of real danger. Otherwise this guy, either through cluelessness or fecklessness, will keep pushing your buttons.

Sometimes when my partner and I get stressed out about bio-dad, he keeps it in perspective and says, "Well, if he was a great guy, we wouldn't be together."

I often bit my tongue until it bled until eventually my daughter got old enough to connect the dots when I said things like, "Honey, are you sure you want to wear your favorite dress to your dad's? I know you get sad when things disappear there and you cannot wear them again." She sees her dad's foibles now and we all work around them. It's better than a bunch of fighting all the time.

I could tell you the later part of this story that involves going back to court for 2.5 years and changing the parenting plan...but that's outside the scope of this ask. All I can say is, do what you can to keep the peace as long as the child is not being harmed.
posted by Lardmitten at 3:32 PM on June 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

What perspective do you use to not be frustrated by those who play the victim, or don’t pull their weight?

I assume that everyone is doing their best. Steve isn't purposely being a dick and not buying his kids clothes. He most likely has his own issues that you know nothing about. He probably misses not having his kids with him all the time. He may see you as a rival for the kids' affections. He has his own struggles, his own pain.

Try to view him with kindness.

And go get the kids more clothes.
posted by kinetic at 4:02 PM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Look, if your SO's ex- is mostly a good parent, doesn't sabotage you and SO, and is just bad at dealing with the operational issues of scheduling, shopping, clothes, you have no idea how much worse it could be. My ex- never paid the minimal amount of support mandated, and is generally judgement-proof. I bought all the clothes, washed them when they came back dirty, etc. I made appointments, and often my ex- would blow them off, so I paid a fortune in music lessons my son didn't get to. He went out of his way to sabotage me as a parent, and the person who paid the price is our son. I got screwed financially, but was expecting that, and once I was free of my ex-, the sabotage was something to manage, but it really damaged my relationship with my son for a while, and contributed a lot to my son having a really difficult adolescence. That part is something I have to struggle to forgive.

Appreciate what your SO's ex- does right. Apply the Shamu method; might work. Then just be the best possible step-parent you can be. Step-parent is a thankless job. You have a lot of the responsibility, not as much authority, and not much recognition. Sorry about that. I worked hard to encourage my son to be close to his Dad, to share information, and to involve his Dad, because it was best for our son. My son is doing well now, is deeply grateful for my parenting, and has an inkling of what an ass his Dad is. If his stepMom had been nicer, she'd be getting the love and affection of this nice young man, even though she and ex- split. Your stepkids will understand what you did for them, especially if you do it quietly.
posted by theora55 at 4:20 PM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some perspective.

My SIL is in court, in Australia, pretty much as I type this fighting desperately for custody of her son and visitation rights for her daughter. Her ex, my brother, is a sociopath he sells drugs to make money, he is also a meth addict. One of his "customers" was so horrified that he contacted my SIL to tell her that his current fun headfucky thing to do to my 13 year old niece is to make her dance for the customers that come in and talk about how sexy she looks and laugh as she squirms and cries. He is slowly crushing her spirit like he destroyed my SILs.

He doesn't want custody of his son, he hates his son because he has learning difficulties, he is trying for full custody of both to punish my SIL because she has found a new man and is starting to be happy. My SIL would love to have the main worry she has with her ex to be buying some clothes for her kids.

It's all about how you look at it, pick the hill you want to die on. Ask him to chip in some bucks and buy the damn clothes.
posted by wwax at 4:34 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you get him to agree to take on more of the routine stuff in exchange for you handling all the irregular stuff, since he seems incapable of doing the latter competently?
posted by Jacqueline at 4:35 PM on June 23, 2014

My partner was a nanny who's very close to some of the kids she took care of, so I ended up deeply intertwined in their lives and now I'm very close to them (they're adults now). And they've got a total fuck-up dad (the break-up happened before either of us got involved in their lives).

Really, it would be great for him to pull his shit together and pitch in, but it ain't going to happen. All we can do is pity him, and work within his constraints to make sure that the kids get the best experience possible. In our case, it's viewing him as though he's developmentally disabled, not expecting more from him than we would anyone else with profound issues, and working forward with that view.
posted by straw at 4:44 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can understand how frustrating this must be but I have to say it's not unusual. My husband has never bought our kids' clothes and I think he's only taken them to the doctor once. I don't think this in any way makes him a bad dad because he does other things, makes the money, handles the bills and plans holidays etc - things that aren't my strong point and require sitting down time which I don't have with a toddler and a baby needing constant attention.

What I would do if I were you is play to your Ex's strengths. Split the responsibility according to what you're good at. You'll shop for clothes if he pays for x, or you'll buy the clothes if he takes child to little league or whatever. Set up a joint calendar which sends reminders that morning if you have to which takes care of the disorganised part, so then you know if he still doesn't take X to little league, he's not disorganised, he's passive aggressive which is a whole nother issue...

But basically I would sit down with him and work together to split the tasks according to what you can each handle and then arrange reminders/automatic transfers of money to cover costs etc. Automate as much as you can to manage his flakiness and take it from there.
posted by Jubey at 4:55 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

If anything, try to remember that Steve's behavior clarifies exactly why your partner is with you and no longer with Steve, yes? Every time Steve is an asshat, your partner gets a little reassurance that they made the absolute right choice in leaving Steve and being with you. In other words, he's making you look good.

(I know that is not a terribly enlightened view, but when he's really bugging you, it might help).

Do whatever the kids need; assume Steve is going to be an obstacle and a flake, and go around him when you have to, for their sakes. It's not their fault that their dad is an asshat. And I'm sure you know better than to badmouth him around them, or possibly even around your spouse (who may feel judged for having ever picked him) so go out with non-mutual, discreet friends when you need to blow off steam about whatever he last did. And then go back to being the guy who is Better Than Steve for your partner.

Also remember that once the kids are grown, he won't be so much of a problem for you guys anymore. Plan a personal celebration of what you and partner will do when the youngest turns 18 and custody is moot: Trip to Hawaii? Nice jewelry? Moving further away from wherever Steve is?

My brother had a bitter divorce but had to stay in the same tiny town and share custody of his two kids with his ex. He often ran into her and the guy she cheated on him with (and then married) at the grocery store. The minute his youngest went off to college, he got a one-bedroom apartment 50 miles away and bought himself a new car, to make up for all those years of keeping his mouth shut and playing nice for the kids' sake.
posted by emjaybee at 5:57 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Every time that Steve whines, plays the victim, or falls short of any of his duties, mentally thank him for being such a waste. Because, if he were a better man, she wouldn't have left him, and you would not have a wife and 3 wonderful children to care for. Don't try to change him. His failure only makes you look better. You really ought to buy the guy a beer or something because, he set the standard so low, you look like superman.
posted by myselfasme at 6:39 PM on June 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

This would drive me crazy, too, but the responsibility for sorting it out is with your ex, not you. There are some good practical ideas above, but it is your ex who should take the lead on negotiating and implementing them. Have you talked to her about this, and if so, is she willing to make it an issue?

It might help to think of the extra tasks as an opportunity to do something good for your partner, rather than a way of letting Steve "off the hook." You are the one modelling great behaviour to those kids, too, and that is something they will recognize and appreciate as they get older. Look at it this way: Steve is giving you the opportunity to shine here.

On preview, what myselfasme said.
posted by rpfields at 11:37 PM on June 23, 2014

I used to have my ex gather up all the kids clothes twice a year and bring them to my house. I'd sort though them, and replace what needed to be replaced and then divvy them up again. It was the easiest way to handle keeping things even. He didn't buy the clothes but he paid his share of them. Things still shifted back and forth but on the whole it worked.
posted by Sukey Says at 4:49 PM on June 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

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