Talking About the Other Parent

February 12th, 2013 posted by Chas Ridley

Mom & son

Single parents have, in my perhaps biased view, one of the greatest gifts in the world — the chance to bring their children up the way they want to, without having to negotiate every step of the way with another person. For, no matter how much love exists between parents, it’s unlikely that any couple will agree on every aspect of child-rearing. One of the tough aspects, though, is the often-seen lack of supportiveness from the other parent. Often called “the ex,” reduced to nameless oblivion, that other parent is still a part of your child’s life. A part of his or her heritage. Alive or not, nearby or never seen, your child will notice how you speak of his or her other parent. We don’t have to get along with our exes. We don’t have to tell the world they’re the most wonderful creatures who ever lived. What we must do, however, is to remember half our child’s genes came from this other person. And we love that child. In a very real sense, that means we love a part of that ex-member of the family, too. There’s no way I would have said to my children, when they were young, anything even close to what I thought about the father who left the state, paid child support only sporadically, and didn’t stay in touch with them. They knew when he sent money and when he didn’t, and felt unsupported by his lack of consistency in that regard. We never starved, but the extra dollars would have eased our lives in those early years. Yet I said to them he surely loved them. He was, after all, someone I had cared for enough to be partners in bringing these children to life. I couldn’t possibly tell them he was someone terrible. He is a part of them — to this day. He didn’t bother to return their phone calls, and I would reassure them that he must love them. How could he not? I saw them every day and knew how totally lovable they were (and still are). I didn’t know why he didn’t call back, and that’s what I said to them. But I added what I hoped was true, that I was certain in his own way he loved them. I hoped someday he’d show it in a way that was meaningful to each of them.

He would make promises and then, apparently, forget he had made them. “I’ll call you next week.”

“I’ll come visit again over the summer.”

“I’ll fly you kids up to see me over Easter week.” Yet he didn’t call again until way later. The temptation was there to think and speak spiteful things, and I’m certainly no angel who sees only the good in everyone. But the children needed to know their mother had the sense to give them a good father. No matter the stretch for me, I tried to be sure they grew up knowing he’d been a good man and that he surely must love them. Now that they’re grown, he shows them off. He brags about them to people. It’s as if he, too, realizes he had something to do with who they are. He hadn’t as much to do with the way they turned out as if he had participated in their lives, but they are related. Some people, I know, have less stressful relationships with their exes, and I’m sure that’s easier on the children. Yet even those folks need to watch what they say. Children are so very literal. A throw-away remark about “that jerk” that’s made in adult jest can bruise a child’s heart. And they’ll be bruised enough in life without our help. Something that helped me was making a list of the things I had loved about their father. There were days when I’d look at that list and think it must be fiction. Other days, though, it would make me smile, remembering the young man I had loved. Remembering the hopes we shared for a life together, feeling sad for our combined lack of knowledge for how to build that life. I wouldn’t go back. Couldn’t, anyhow. But I hope to be able to tell my grandchildren, as they grow up, stories of their grandfather that are free of the irritation that plagued me when I was a single mother whose ex-husband was out of the state but not quite out of our lives. I like to think I’ll be able to remember enough good times that they’ll understand ours was a family built of love, even if it didn’t fit the storybooks.

Copyright 1999, Chas Ridley.

about the author Chas Ridley is a writer, talker and listener, mother of six, whose nomad heart and feet have taken her to live in many parts of the U.S.

She maintains an internet presence through her Chas’ HotBooks website and participation in a select few discussion groups. She also writes two brief, thought-provoking e-mail essays per week, eLessons and bLessons, designed to keep readers on their mental toes and perhaps stretch their minds a bit.

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