Jimmy and Michael came running into the kitchen where their mother, Andrea, stood chopping vegetables. They were out of breath and full of excitement after their weekend with Dad. “Whoa, guys! Slow down.” Andrea was happy to see the joy on their faces but she was dreading finding out what placed it there this time. “Seems like you guys had a good time with Dad?” “Oh boy we did!” exclaimed Jimmy. He droned on about their fun-filled time. Andrea wanted to be supportive of the boys having a good relationship with James but she was worried that he wasn’t being a parent. It seems their time was filled with entertainment; waterparks, ballgames, horseback riding and nothing more. She asked, “Did you guys get your homework done? Michael, you have a paper due tomorrow and you were going to get your father to help you finish it up.” Michael sighed, “Dad said we could do it when we got back home.” Andrea bit back her frustration. “Well, dinner will be ready soon.” Andrea resumed her chopping. Was she out of line to expect her ex-husband and his new wife to be responsible and actually parent when the kids are with them?! With James it was always pizza for dinner, movie nights, monster-truck rallies and such. Whenever she brought it up to him, he would respond with, “I only get them 2 weekends and 3 days out of the month!" As if that excused his lax parenting. “Count to ten, Andrea”, she said to herself. “And, whatever you do, don’t call him again!”
We typically think that the custodial parent, usually Mom, has the toughest time with post-divorce parenting. Generally speaking, it is that parent who makes sure the child/ren is/are doing homework, getting regular physical check-ups, going to the dentist, eating right and growing up to be a productive member of the community. It is that parent who faces mounds of laundry, late night shopping trips to pick up an item needed for a school project due in the morning, and making sure the child has a ride to his/her after-school activities. It is that parent who uses much needed vacation time to care for a sick child, calms fears, soothes hurt feelings and tries to make up for the absence of the non-custodial parent. On top of that, he/she usually gets the lions’ share of parenting accomplished while holding down a full-time+ job. That parent can barely breathe, much less have fun!
However, when we step back and take a nondiscriminatory look... okay, let’s really call a spade a spade, a non-accusatory look at all of the dynamics of step-family life, we will begin to understand that the non-custodial parent has a pretty hard time of it as well. We may assume the NC parent has more freedom because they don’t have the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting but we can’t forget the emotional chains which hold that parent for that very same reason. No decent parent wants to be without their child and they certainly don’t want to leave all the parenting responsibility to the other parent.
As Jeannette Lofas writes in her book, Living In Step, “…the majority of parents without custody have assumed an extremely difficult and often painful role. Feelings of loss, powerlessness, frustration, guilt and loneliness abound. Often this parent finds him or herself making accommodation after accommodation, after accommodation…Loss of custody, say many parents, is the beginning of the loss of control.” It is the loss of continuity. But, it is not the loss of emotional connection. Which can make things very hard for the parent who is not present.
I’m sure just about every stepmom reading this right now has seen the movie, “Stepmother” with Susan Sarandon as “Mom” and Julia Roberts in the titular role. Susan Sarandon’s character is terminally ill and near death. She wants to get to know Julia Robert’s character because she wants to know the woman who will complete the job of raising her children. In one brutally honest scene the two women are talking after a pretty heated argument. Robert’s character shares her fear that she will be at the daughter’s wedding, helping her get dressed and telling her how beautiful she is and all the daughter will be thinking is, “I wish my mom was here.” Sarandon’s character responds, “And my fear is she won’t.”
All children are literally a part of their parents, and not just genetically. There is something visceral, emotional, spiritual, which binds a child to their parent’s heart forever. The thought of not being an integral part of a child’s daily life is distressing to most parents. The potential for being replaced in their affection is unacceptable. This type of emotional pain is as stressful, albeit in a different way, as the practical aspects of daily parenting. The non-custodial parent wants the continuity of relationship and significance in his/her child’s life but is often denied. A number of NC parents have a very real fear that an “out of sight, out of mind” element will enter their relationship with their child/ren and they will become less important.
Fear is a tyrant. It drives you to do things you would not consider under any other circumstances. Fear of losing a child’s affection can create a roadblock to stepfamily success I call, “Disneyland Parenting”. The non-custodial parent, who has already loss so much, and fears more loss, especially popularity and love of the child, will vie for the child’s approval over the other parent, and any present stepparent, through indulgent, entertainment-based parenting. Since most non-custodial parents are dads, chances are, someone reading this is married to or has an ex which is a Disneyland Dad.
Disneyland Dads reason they do not want to waste the limited time they have with their children on homework, doctor’s appointments and the like. Or, they may not have dealt with guilt over the divorce so they cover it with candy, movies and Mickey. Or, it can be any number of reasons justifying using this dysfunctional coping mechanism. Non-custodial Dads sometimes feel pressure to have a good time, all the time. One of the things I admired about my husband is that he had not fallen into this trap. He had lots of fun with his children but he made sure homework was done and helped them with it, took them to dentist appointments, practices and lessons and remained a balanced parent.
A parent is not a circus ringmaster. Parents are charged with the enormous responsibility of shaping another person who will impact and influence a wide-range of people and circumstances in society. We need more kind, settled, validated people released into society. For that to happen, children need parents to parent, whether or not that parent is in the home on a full-time basis.
Relationships, real parent-child relationships, are not built on horseback rides, canoe trips and ball games. They are built on the consistent exhibition of love, care, discipline and mutual enjoyment of each other. Children need a balance of play and order in both homes. Too much play and the child will grow up entitled, underachieving, and rudderless. Too much structure and the child will be joyless, rigid, and unimaginative.
I know I’m preaching to the choir, and you didn’t click on the link to this article to hear what you already know. And hopefully, you didn’t come looking for ammunition. You clicked for answers. At minimum, a suggestion to help you get going in the right direction.
The detour around the havoc Disneyland Parenting can create is a sound co-parenting strategy. We cannot control what goes on in the other parent’s home, nor should we, but we can work together to ensure the child is getting the best of balanced parenting from both parents and stepparents. Mom, Dad, and, if they are present, Step-dad and Step-mom, comprise the parenting team with both Mom and Dad taking the lead roles. You need to support each other in order to raise healthy children. Without calling your Ex on the carpet, or pointing out to your husband, he’s being a Disneyland Dad, encourage your child's NC Parent to stay involved with the coarser aspects of parenting.
Children are smart. They see what it takes to run a home and raise a family. At minimum, bio-parents, if physically able, need to be involved in basic activities, like parent-teacher conferences. They need to know you care enough to show up not just for the fun stuff but the tough stuff too. This helps them feel as if their achievements are important to you. They need rules and chores in both homes. This helps them feel they are an integral part of each home, which they are, and not just guests who need to be entertained. And it helps all parents to maintain their sense of parental authority.
Most important, be there for your child. And make it easy for all parents to do the same. Everyone will win. Then you all can go to Disneyland.
To Your Stepmothering Success