This weekend, moms across America will be biting their tongues not to diss their exes when their kids visit their dads for Father's Day. And it will not be easy.
One friend wanted to say to her son as he left clutching his Batman backpack, "Have a good time and remind that no-good father of yours that he's late with the house payments."
An internal debate raged in her head as she looked at her son, with his wide saucer-like eyes brimming with anticipation. She knew that Father's Day is one of those rare holidays where she had real leverage. Aside from the large group of "DADicated" fathers who want to be with their children as often as possible, the invisible ones suddenly want to appear to validate their fatherly virtue. Therefore, she could demand the check in return for releasing his offspring.
But one look at her son zapped that idea because deep down in some pool of perspective, she realized that her son needed and wanted to be with his father and not feel guilty about it. Money issues should be between the parents -- not the child. Maturity won this round.
Another friend of mine is seething at the injustice that her ex could just leave the family -- for another woman -- and still have the privilege of having his children be with him.
"The reason Father's Day is so hard for me is that I feel as though I've been cropped out of the family picture," she said. "My ex-husband is now a stranger to me and he still has a relationship with my children. It feels really weird and upsetting." Furthermore, she added, "after seeing him, if I ask anything about his life , of if he asked about me, they get uncomfortable. Why should they be surprised that I'd be curious about someone who I lived with for 15 years?"
Considering that 21.5 million children live with only one parent, according to U.S. Census data, it is not only the mothers but also many fathers who will be required to muster some restraint this weekend. After all, they now have their children in their midst to discuss their disagreements too. With divorces costing an average between $20,000-40,000, and alimony payments often straining their budgets and lives, there's a lot to be annoyed about. My friend David Simon, who was a writer for Mad About You, puts it this way.
"It is our purest intention to hold to our word when we declare that we won't say anything bad about our exes," he said. "But the problem is the minute you see your kid -- especially if your kid looks like your ex -- you suddenly lose all control of your tongue. You can't help it. After all the court fighting over alimony and child visitation, a huge part of me is just like Jean Reno in The Professional when it comes to taking out my ex. I am a trained divorce assassin. You see? Even saying that is SO mean. I'm a very peaceful, sweetheart of a guy -- until I catch the scent of a woman who used to have my last name. Your kids suddenly go from being your beloved angels to deadly power of suggestions. Plus we're baby boomers who want to be our kids' friends so we naturally gossip with them. Then we don't keep our mouths shut when we should. Our conscious good hearted sides really truly want peace -- but peace like Bush wants peace in Iraq. Peace on our terms with lots of oil. So in the end, I think you have to come to some kind of amicable resolution. You have to find some way to love her and let her go at the same time. And until you do that, then maybe you'll keep your mouth shut when your kids come for Father's Day."
Dr. Mark Banschick, a Katonah, New York based child and adolescent psychiatrist, points out that this day is also emotionally loaded because "the child is clearly aligned with the father," which activates a competitiveness.
"Everyone in divorce feels wronged in some way," he said. "However, your children are entitled to form their own relationship with their parent independent of your hurt, anger or disappointment. If a parent poisons this dialogue, their child will resent them later for dissing the other parent."
Acknowledging that this requires "an immense amount of maturity at a time when life can feel the most raw," Banschick suggests that the parent must have faith in the goodness of their own relationship and encourage the connection to the father.
I've also had enough experience covering divorce to know that the child will eventually make their own judgments over time and learn that one can love a parent and not like aspects about them. But the primal urge to love both parents should not be suppressed. And if you're looking for brownie points, the child will love the parent who gives them the opportunity to make their own character judgments without interference or brainwashing.
As Jeannette Lofas, the president and founder of Stepfamily Foundation, explains, the child's self-love is dependent on holding each parent in respect. This is why she shares this poem written by a young boy named Donny to warring parents in the hopes of showing them the damage of bad-mouthing each other.
My Mom says my Dad's no good.
My Dad says my Mom's no good,
I guess I must be no good.
That poem should resonate with every parent this Father's Day and encourage them to keep their mouth shut. However, you have permission to diss about your ex to your friends.