Sharing custody, but the kid only wants to be with me.
July 21, 2014 10:34 PM   Subscribe

I share custody (50/50, week on - week off) of my eight-year-old with her dad, and have since he and I split up over three years ago. Lately she's been spending all of her time at his house crying for me. Since she can't point to any tangible problems to fix, I don't know what to do. Snowflake details inside.

She only started doing this in the past three to six months (sorry, having trouble remember exactly when it began, because at first I wasn't worried). For the first six months after we split up, she missed whichever parent she wasn't with, but after that she seemed to settle into the routine comfortably enough.

Lately, though, she starts clinging to me extra hard about two days before it's time to go to her dad's house, and once she's over there, she spends at least the first three days at his house crying for up to an hour at a time about missing me. When I ask her if there's something that she doesn't like about daddy's house, she can't tell me anything definite. She just says it's "lonely there" (he lives alone; at my house there's my fiance and our eight pets of various species), that I have better tv (true dat, and an iPad with Netflix too), and that maybe "girls just want to be with girls." Since none of these are things that he or I can fix, I don't really know what to do.

I'm not really worried about neglect or physical danger, though his parenting does seem a bit... distracted at times. I do suspect that he has chronic, untreated depression. She's a very emotionally sensitive child, and I can imagine that being around him all the time would bum her out. Again, not much I can do about that either.

So, I'm not even sure what I'm asking but... is there anything I'm not seeing that I should be doing to help her?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have a 9 year old in this same living situation although things are going well for us.

The one thing I wondered about was, can you change up the days so it's not such a long stretch? We do Mon/Tue/Wed at mine and Thurs/Fri at his and then alternate weekends. It looks like this:

Week 1 - Sat arvo/Sun/Mon/Tue/Wed with Mum - Thurs/Fri/Sat morn with dad
Week 2 - Sun night/Mon/Tue/Wed with mum - Thurs/Fri/Sat/Sun with dad

It seems to work out fairly well, and it's not a whole week break.

Can dad get a pet? Or maybe a friend to come and stay on a weekend night sometimes?
What about dad getting netflix or wifi so she can connect.

Can she text you or call on her own terms (her own phone)?

Sorry she's having a tough time, but I think trying to work this out without reducing his time with her is the right way to go. If it works out that you have to do that eventually, then you can say you truly exhausted all the options.
posted by Youremyworld at 10:44 PM on July 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

First, talk to him. Let him know you aren't working on custody anything, you're just concerned. She may need more activities and may not be able to verbalize that ell to her dad.

The other thing is maybe the time could be broken up differently, same number of days but shorter visits.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:44 PM on July 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Maybe you should talk to him about some schedule changes. When my kids are having a hard time, either me of us will alter the schedule or provide access in other ways. It might mean one of us goes over for a walk or to help with homework (not in the home). Maybe a week on/off is too hard on your daughter and a 4/4 schedule would work better. Or maybe a week with a couple of dates or Skype sessions (you can even play a board game over Skype). I've changed my kids' schedules a few times over the years and we will also change them as needed.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:44 PM on July 21, 2014

Have you asked him why he thinks she's not happy there? Have you or she asked him why he would insist on her being there if she's not happy there? In my opinion visitation shouldn't solely depend on what each parent, sometimes selfishly, should also depend on what is good for the child and makes the child happy and fulfilled. A child is not a possession but she probably feels that's how she's being treated, with absolutely no control over her situation and feeling powerless and helpless. I would suggest you find a way for her to be able to have a little more say in her own life.
posted by Dansaman at 10:45 PM on July 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

I don't think this really requires much of a mystery. She's closer to you, she prefers a busier household, there isn't necessarily anything wrong with his place but it's enough that she likes being with you better. I don't think the fact that she feels lonely is so much the problem as the fact that she doesn't have the skills built up yet to actually cope with lonely times. It's like being bored--which may be related. People for all of history have found doing nothing to be boring, so they've invented things to do during boring times. But if you haven't had any practice coming up with your own activities, then being bored is just the worst thing ever. If she's always got people around and pets and TV to watch, does she know how to keep herself occupied without those things?
posted by Sequence at 10:56 PM on July 21, 2014 [29 favorites]

Um, OK so I'm not a parent so maybe this is terrible advice, but are there some games or toys or other special treat that she really loves and could you have it available to her only at her dad's house? You mention that your daughter says the entertainment options at your place are better and that you have pets. At around that age I remember that kind of thing being very important to me and being incredibly excited to go anywhere where I could play with animals, or play computer games or Nintendo. It might be a bit over the top to e.g. have her dad get a pet but I don't see any reason why you couldn't encourage him to stock up on entertainment options she's most excited about, or even just give them to him to keep at his place.
posted by phoenixy at 11:27 PM on July 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

If this is something you feel you can discuss with her dad I would start there. Is there an activity that could correlate to his time with her? In other words, dad takes her to her weekly swim lesson/music class/trip to the library. It would be an activity, make her more excited about visiting, and perhaps create some nice memories for her about her dad, other than he's sort of boring and mopey. Heck, it might be the jump start he needs to actually do something with her, especially if he's a bit depressed. Or, heck, maybe he just doesn't even know what sort of activities to do. If no activities are possible I would seriously consider a low maintenance pet for his place. I am not one to talk as I do not have anything more complicated than fish, but I was thinking of something like a guinea pig. A creature that has needs and can be loved on. Now, perhaps this pet could stay with dad, but if you think that is a problem, perhaps the guinea pig could travel with your daughter.
posted by dawg-proud at 11:30 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, and actual owners of guinea pigs (and the like), if this is a terrible idea, please chime in, I do realize a pet is a commitment and should not be taken lightly.
posted by dawg-proud at 11:32 PM on July 21, 2014

How would you feel if you were forced to switch houses every other week? I know that I would hate it. Talk to dad and see if visitation can't be adjusted until she is a bit older. It's nothing against him or his rights, it's just basic human need. You may want to reassure him that you will not be seeking more child support, as that seems to be the driving force behind the 50/50 custody plan.
posted by myselfasme at 12:11 AM on July 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

My parents split when I was 7 years old. Weeks were spent with mom and stepdad, weekends were spent with Dad.

Looking back, my dad was severely, chronically depressed. We never relished going to visit my dad because all we did was sit around. We never got to play with our friends on the weekends, never got to relax at 'home', nor spend our time off from school with our mom.

All these things, I'd like to think, would have been more tolerable - and maybe even a growing experience - if my dad weren't depressed. I used to refer to the weekends as 'going to the coffin'. It wasn't all horrible, and sure there were some fun times, but I lamented that my life wasn't 'normal' like my friends.

Years later my dad had a stroke and we had to move him into an assisted living facility. Once my older sister took over his medical decisions, the docs started him on an antidepressant. I remember my brother saying he hoped it didn't work, because it would be sad to know that one little pill (or equivalent of treatment back then thereof) could have made a whole lifetime of a difference for everyone involved. When you have depression, it doesn't just affect you. It affects everyone around you - especially your children. The antidepressants worked, and indeed it's a mixed bag of emotions to see him FINALLY happy, yet knowing that a lifetime of happiness passed him by - and in doing so affected me and my siblings as well.

The takeaway is that if you suspect your ex is depressed, his depression could be affecting your child. Find a way to address it.
posted by matty at 12:31 AM on July 22, 2014 [22 favorites]

She's grown to a stage where the past custody agreement no longer suits her.

Talk to her dad, and then her, and come to an agreement she enjoys more.

Nthing this are looooong stretches to be away from wherever she considers "home base" for interests, friends, and personal possessions.

She's growing up. It's time to accommodate this, the way you buy her new clothes and shoes when she outgrows the old ones.

In this case, she's outgrown the custody arrangements. Arrange new ones that accommodate her growth.
posted by jbenben at 12:34 AM on July 22, 2014 [8 favorites]

I think you should talk to her dad about it, and try to come up with some ways to help her bond with him more. I don't think she needs a lot of fun video games or something, and I don't think rearranging the schedule so she sees him less is the solution either. I think she needs to spend better time with him.

I don't know what you mean when you say he seems distracted as a parent, but it sounds like a real problem. That's something you need to talk to him about. For some reason, he is not really connecting with this kid. He needs to share his interests with her, and/or figure out how to share hers. I'd be kind of amazed if he can't get Netflix or something set up at his place. Watching movies together could help a lot. They can play board games and stuff, or they can read stories together.

I know very little about this guy, but I feel bad for him. I wouldn't be surprised if he is really depressed. When you were describing your house vs. his, it formed a (perhaps inaccurate) picture in my mind of the stereotypical bitter, lonely divorced dad. You talk about your house full of pets, your new fiance, your superior TV set-up (suggesting to me that you're more financially successful than your ex.) Jesus, I envy you! Maybe his life is going better than it sounds, but from your description it sounds like your house is a real party, compared to how he's doing. His daughter shouldn't be crying at the prospect of spending time with him!

To be clear: it sounds like this is a problem on his end, and you don't seem to be doing anything wrong. It sounds like she feels love at your house, and visiting him is just a chore. If his depression is driving his kid away then he needs to know that, and fast. He's got to reach out and find a way to show her how much he means to her. If you can do anything to help him do that, please do it for the sake of your kid. Kick his butt, if you have to. As a child of divorce, I can tell you: a dad matters.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:53 AM on July 22, 2014 [10 favorites]

"Going to Dad's" sounds a little like solitary confinement. I'd be crying too. She's lucky to have your house, because some kids live like that all the time, and it's awful.

Could she somehow be in charge of planning activities for Dad's place?

Alternatively, is he doing all his errands and so forth in the times she's not there? Maybe if he saved laundry, trips to the grocery store, etc. for her visits it would make the time feel more active. (I used to *love* going to the grocery store or especially the hardware store with my Dad).
posted by amtho at 3:43 AM on July 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would get a meeting with a parenting co-ordinatator. That he hasn't responded as an adult after several months of his child being upset means he just doesn't have the skills right now to be a custodial parent. A co-ordinator can make suggestions that aren't emotionally fraught (like they would be from you), including reducing his custodial time. I'm sorry this situation sucks all around and the one person who can do anything about it is ignoring it. I am not sure what hemisphere you are in, but can she go to camp? Does she have friends visiting her, or can she visit them?
posted by saucysault at 4:01 AM on July 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'd call Dad and discuss the types of things that he does with your daughter. If he's just sitting around and she's there too....that's not okay.

Also, she may be missing all sorts of social stuff to be with him, birthday parties, movie excursions, because all of her school friends are on your side of town.

Perhaps you can invite your Ex to come hang out with y'all at your place, so that he can get time with your daughter, while she gets to be in her milieu and see her friends, etc.

Also, he may not be all that thrilled with having a crying kid on his hands, so a change in the custody arrangement may suit him as well.

Perhaps it would work better if he came over, picked her up and took her on a 'date' in the middle of the week. It may be that shorter visits may work for them both. Or better yet, he could move closer to where you are and she can decide with her schedule what works when it's time to see Dad.

It sucks but it involves talking to your Ex and re-making the visitation agreement because stressing your daughter out for the sake of visitation isn't really in her best interest.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:55 AM on July 22, 2014

Did your ex-husband confirm that she is crying for up to an hour for three days at his house, or is this only coming from her? Another possibility no one is raising is that this may have nothing to do with being at her dad's. You mention that you are living with your fiancé. How many months ago did you get engaged? Is it possible that as the wedding gets closer, your daughter is starting to worry that things are going to be changing at home with you, and the clinginess is a a reflection of not wanting to find things slipping out of her control while she's not there? She could be worried about everything from her relationship with your fiance changing when he becomes a "real" stepdad, to you changing after becoming his wife, to new kids coming who will replace her in your affections. Saying that girls should be together sounds like a clue to me.

Meanwhile, as far as entertainment goes, is there a reason she can't watch Netflix on a computer at her dad's house using your account? You can create her a login of her own. That's a super easy fix that can at least make one of the issues go away.
posted by Mchelly at 5:30 AM on July 22, 2014 [12 favorites]

I know you and her Dad are divorced and you've moved on with your life, but I think it would be very beneficial for your daughter if you spoke to him directly about this. One of my biggest motivators for keeping on top of my own depression and taking medication when I needed it was because my family depended on me. I don't like myself very much when I'm depressed, but I love them, you know?

So maybe you can motivate him to get some help if you tell him his daughter is having a rough time and he realizes his depression is also affecting his daughter. I realize this is going to be touchy, and you should know he is likely to be defensive. The way you approach it is important; if he feels like he is being accused of being a bad Dad, that won't help anything. Try to remember depression is an illness and he is likely struggling himself.

Also! Take a look at your daughter's room at his place, make sure she has special Dad's place stuff there to make her feel comfortable. I know that my husband would not think about little touches I would, like extra comfy pillows on the bed, stocking up on the special snacks she likes, etc., because that stuff isn't really on his radar, but for goodness sake, why can't she get Netflix at her Dad's? Can you let her take the iPad over? Or rent some redbox movies, or Netflix titles, and let her take them over to watch there? Does she even have some favorite movies of her own to watch there? DVD players are cheap these days; hell, I would shell out for one myself and give it to a Dad if I thought it would make her happy.

A pet for Dad's would be a great idea, too, if he's amenable. I am not a big fan of short-lived, almost disposable pets like hamsters and guinea pigs, being a cat person myself, but if you have nine pets, maybe you have some little dudes in cages. Does she take care of any of them? Can she take one over to Dad's with her? Caring for a pet means she is less lonely. And, honestly, having a pet gives Her depressed Dad another reason for him to get up in the morning; pets need us. The two of them could go pick a pet out together, even, and it would be a wonderful bonding moment.
posted by misha at 7:12 AM on July 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Just to be the voice of reason regarding small animal pets: that would be a very bad idea! As a former guinea pig owner who currently owns a cat, they are much more work than the cat. Cleaning a guinea pig cage every week is a chore for an adult and I don't think a possibly absent or depressed Dad and an 8 year old could keep on top if that. They also need fresh veggies every day and lots of attention. What happens to the pet when your daughter goes home on your week? It would be pretty traumatizing for the pet to die or be neglected in the weeks inbetween.
Also as someone who works with kids I would highly recommend talking with the dad individually about what is happening if you haven't already. If your information is only coming for your daughter perhaps she is exaggerating in order to stay home more often. That might not be a bad Idea if your ex is feeling depressed but better to get the full story first.
posted by ruhroh at 7:23 AM on July 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Help her pack things to do while she is there. Ask her what she would like to take? Ask her what would make time at Dads more fun? Can she take your iPad or a tablet or something? Making sure she brings it back or can Dad afford to buy her one to have there, give her your log in & she's got access to cable on demand & netflix? Load it up with videos & games. Arrange for play dates or birthdays etc while she is there and have him take her, that's a parents job & he is one of her parents.

Is your ex husband telling you she is bored & crying or is she? My SIL had a basically the opposite problem with visitations & my nephew. He would trot off each week apparently as happy as could be to spend time with his Dad, it was only when he started acting out & she took him to a therapist that it came out he was terrified of his Dad & hated going, he just thought he had to be happy about it because his Mum was saying how nice it would be to spend time with his Dad (trying to do the right thing & encourage co-parenting). If you have no doubts about his parenting, except for being depressed, be sure you are not seeing reflections of how you feel in your daughters behavior?

If you are communicating well with your ex and he raised this problems with you, then some of the other suggestions for shorter visits or maybe dinner dates with Dad might be a good compromise.
posted by wwax at 7:48 AM on July 22, 2014

This sounds a bit like me, when I was that age. I only saw my dad on weekends but I usually dreaded it because there was NOTHING to do! We hardly ever went out, if we did it was likely to a restaurant. I was kind of there in the background. I was bored out of my mind and miserable. And I'm an only child, who was always good at entertaining myself. But if you don't have the same stuff at each house it becomes difficult. Even TV gets really boring when it's all you do.

So, my point is, does her Dad make an effort to do things with her? Even sit and watch her favourite show? Does he partake in her hobbies? Do they go to the library? Aquarium? Ride bikes? Do they do anything when she is there? What is he doing to try to make the situation better? Does he know she feels lonely there?

Another suggestion which may or may not apply: A friend of mine who recently divorced was having issues with his daughter feeling comfortable at his new place. So he decorated his apartment with her art work. It's actually super cool, he has a large drawing of hers framed over the couch, a wall of photos of just the two of them, and they got a small fish tank and named all the fish together. He also let her decorate her room, whatever colour paint and she got to pick out the art work and what not. These things made a huge difference in her comfort level at his place, she now feels like it's her place too.
posted by sadtomato at 9:40 AM on July 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

In the interest of full disclosure: I am not a parent. I have never been divorced. My parents are still married after 40-some-odd years (though I don't think they're right for each other and it's not my business). The only significant experience I have with divorce is that my wife's parents got divorced long before I met her; both remarried and now live in different states, and it's amazing to me how amicable they are to each other, especially regarding Doing Things For The Kids, especially given that I know the bitter circumstances behind the divorce and don't think I could be nearly as civil if it ever happened to me.

That all said...

Do you trust your daughter enough to have her take that iPad with Netflix over to Dad's house? At least that is something to do.

With Netflix you can now set up your own queues and passwords for different family members, so if you don't trust her with the iPad she could at least log in at a computer at Dad's house or log in if he's got a compatible TV or Blue Ray player that can connect to Netflix. (I realize this may be a trust issue with your ex-husband using your Netflix account when your daughter is not there.)

Also, Redbox is $1.25 a night and if you sign up for text messages you very often get rent-one-get-one-free, 75c off a rental, or even free rental codes texted to you.

Is it reasonable to adjust the custody arrangement so that your daughter sees you for shorter stretches, for example maybe Sunday to Wednesday with Mom and Thursday to Saturday with Dad? I realize this may not be do-able if you live in different states, many hours away, or even in different school districts. If you can swing it, though, this would reduce the duration of the times that your daughter is away from you.

I think other commenters suggesting you get a pet for Dad's house are giving very bad advice. Do NOT get a pet to live at Dad's house UNLESS you are 100% sure that your ex-husband is 100% OK with that and fully prepared to take on ALL pet-related chores and expenses in the likely case that your daughter doesn't do them and also for the time she's not at his house. Otherwise this could be cause for further resentment between you and your ex (I don't know how you guys get along currently.)

I'm an only child, I had no pets growing up, and the house was always quiet and I had to make my own fun. My wife, on the other hand, has two sisters and a brother, and always had lots of pets. It was a HUGE adjustment for me, when we first started seeing each other, to deal with all the noise and constant activity in her mom's house; it would overwhelm me and stress me out. On the other hand, my wife complains of being very bored when we are visiting my parents.

In our own house, we have lots of pets now, and it was an adjustment for me to get used to the constant noise and activity of having pets (don't get me wrong; I love the dogs, but it was a lifestyle change that took a while to get used to).

Thus, I can understand from your daughter's perspective that it's an adjustment to go from your house where there is noise, TV, pets, and constant activity to Quiet Dad's House. Am I correct in assuming that the constant noise, TV, and pets was how it was when you and your ex were still living together? Then it's an even bigger adjustment. For me, it was resolved by time and experience, and probably for a child it will take less time. However, perhaps a better solution is getting your ex to do more activities with your daughter (as mentioned, even as simple as sitting with her to watch a favorite TV show or movie of hers)? That's something you can talk to him about. You know what your daughter says about what happens (or, more accurately, doesn't happen) at Dad's house. What has your ex-husband said about it?

I know that I have a very tough time interacting with children; I don't know what to do, but I suspect I would get the hang of it pretty quickly if I had children of my own. It just seems like common sense to try and get involved with them; even from remembering my own childhood where I was bored out of my gourd at family gatherings because all the grown-ups just talked among themselves and ate and largely ignored me. (But then, I made my own fun.) I too would not think of things like decorating her room that previous commenters have mentioned -- maybe that's a gender difference, or maybe that's because I tend to be very utilitarian in general and don't think decoration is all that useful.

Yes, your daughter needs to learn how to make her own fun and how to entertain herself when things get boring -- this is a useful life skill. However, she shouldn't have to do that for the entire week at Dad's. There's got to be some way for him to get involved in some activities with her for at least part of the week.

I'm rambling; my novel of a comment is not going anywhere and likely isn't very helpful. So, I'll end it here.
posted by tckma at 11:28 AM on July 22, 2014

Does she have her own space at the house? Visitation with my father was always difficult, but made more so by the fact that I had a single shelf to keep stuff while I was there.
posted by wnissen at 11:45 AM on July 22, 2014

What does she say when you ask her 'why'? Based on the school's training on 'stranger danger,' my son was worried about going to his Dad's for a while, because he considered Dad's roommate a stranger. Kids at that age can easily get mixed up ideas. Or, there may be a stressor at school, or, she may be worried about you, or, basically any number of things. Talk to her. Be flexible about arrangements. Make sure Dad's house is welcoming and secure, etc.
posted by theora55 at 12:30 PM on July 22, 2014

I started feeling very similarly to your kid when I was about this age going through weekend visits. For me, it was the realisation that he didn't actually want me to be there or care that I was there that did it - you say she's very emotionally sensitive, which I was too - could be something she's picking up on? It didn't really matter what I did there, whether there was stuff to do, just the sheer overwhelming feeling that I could cease to exist and he wouldn't notice was almost unbearable. Of course, YMMV.
posted by london explorer girl at 3:32 AM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

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