Monday, February 12, 2007

Dismaying Story #113: For the Sake of the Children

Dear Andrew,

I am the mother to a 4 year old brilliant little boy. His father and I have been separated since he was about 10 months old, and since then it has just been the two of us.

About six months ago I started a new job. Upon starting this new job, a co-worker asked what it was like being a single parent as his wife of 18 years had just left him with their three children. He has custody of the children. They are in the process of working out a visitation schedule, but she never showed up for the last scheduled visit.

Over the next few months we became best friends and somewhere along the way we fell in love. This man makes me feel like no other has. He does not try to change me and I do not try to change him. We really complement each other.

The problem I have is with his children. His ex-wife picked up and left without saying so much as a word. She left behind a 2 year old, 7 year old and 14 year old. I do not know her side of the story so I try to stay out of it as much as possible, but every time that I am around I can hear their pain. I listen to the youngest as he wakes in the middle of the night wanting her to comfort him. I see the 7 year old act out in anger, and listen to the words that he says to me. I read what the 14 year old girl writes -- how she misses her and wants her mom to be there.

I know I cannot fill her shoes. I cannot take away their pain although I wish I could. The question that it raises for me is this:

He says his marriage was dragging him down. It was unhealthy for him and essentially for his children. He claims even if I was not in the picture they would never have the conversation that would possibly bring them back together. But I know that with me in the picture, this conversation will never have the chance to take place. If I was not there it might. Even though it was not something that he wanted for himself, should it be something to sacrifice for the sake of the children?

For the last 4 months I have been known as a friend to their father. I felt more comfortable with that especially in their situation. About a month ago we sat down with the oldest and explained what was going on. She greeted it very warmly telling me that she wanted her father to be happy. The seven year old has become quite attached to me, but as his buddy, not his father's girlfriend. The two year old however does not seem to be warming up to it that much, which I can not blame him for. My son has met Chris and his children. The kids really enjoy their play time.

I just want to make sure that my presence right now is not going to do any more damage to them. They are such good kids but are in so much pain. I know Chris is looking out for the best interest of his children, but I do understand where his emotional state could cloud his judgment.

I love this man with all that I am. I do not need him in my life -- even better than that I want him here. This is a choice for me. I just want to make sure that I am making the right choice for all involved.

Signed, Concerned for the Kids

Dear Concerned for the Kids,

First off I should say this is one of the most heartwarming questions I have received. Your question boils down to, "Should I sacrifice myself for the sake of others?" I can tell you are a caring and giving person, and you should feel good about that.

You are asking if you should remove yourself from his life so there would be one less potential impediment to him getting back together with his wife, just on the slim chance that might happen someday.

He says his marriage was troubled, and that the situation was not good for the children. She left him and he ended up with full custody of the children. He has given no indication that he would like to get back together with his ex-wife, nor have there been any moves to get the two of them even talking about something like that.

I understand your idea. You see the children suffering. They want their mother back, AND they want to live in a happy, well-adjusted household. You wonder if they got their mother back, maybe there would be a chance for the functional household to happen as well.

Here's my problem with that vision. They already tried that. The mother, father, and three children were already together, for quite some time ... and it didn't work. I don't know why, and you say you try not to go there, but the result of that 18-year experience was that she left. Now she doesn’t show up for scheduled visits with the children, which is another sign that there are issues.

I think you have to trust your boyfriend's instincts on this one. If he thought another go with their mother would work out, wouldn't he say so? If a possible reconciliation was in the wind -- if you had heard some hint of that -- then your reasoning for stepping aside might have some validity. That's not the case, though.

If the two of them were to get back together again, it would thrust the children back into a broken home. There is a good chance that would lessen their quality of life rather than improve it. Again, you and I both have to rely on their father's instincts on this one. He thinks they are better off now. As difficult as this transition is on the children, hopefully they are on their way to a more stable, less emotional home life than they knew previously. It is not always better to stay together for the sake of the children.

Suppose the two of them reconciled ... and then separated again. You have to admit a reconciliation would be tenuous. What kind of emotional roller coaster would that be for the children?

All in all, your idea of stepping aside so the mother might return doesn't seem to hold water.

HOWEVER ... you still might want to proceed with caution.

You met this man just after his wife left. He had very little time to deal with the issues in his own mind before you came on the scene. The same is true of the children. They were only beginning their grieving and adjusting process when you showed up.

In a situation like that, I can see how having you on the scene is an extra element for the kids to have to deal with. It's hard to deal with Mom leaving, and also difficult to deal with the idea of Dad being with someone else. Even if Mom never comes back, your presence may add to their emotional burden, at least in the short term. His priority right now should be his children. They are hurting, and badly. His love life with you should take second chair to doing whatever it takes to help the children through this time.

On the other hand, having a warm, giving, stable female presence might be a help for them. You mentioned that at least two of his children have given you positive feedback. You can judge whether your presence is, on balance, positive or negative for the children. (And I mean independently of the issue of their mother potentially returning.)

In summary, you are right to think of the children's interests first. Their mother's return, however, may not automatically be in their best interest.

Good luck with your situation. I hope everyone involved makes the adjustments as well as is possible.

All the best,


  1. I am the grown (41 year old) child of parents who divorced when I was eleven. Both my parents behaved abominably with little regard for the emotional well-being of my brother and me. My mother moved my stepfather into the house immediately after moving my father out and we were expected to recognize him as a parent. There was a great deal of abuse--physical and emotional--which my mother knew about. She is still married to this man today and as a mother myself, it's taken me longer to forgive her than it has the abuser. My father immediately began dating and girlfriends became a common part of the landscape during our visits with him. Our resulting emotional problems were disregarded and resented.

    My husband comes from a similar situation with badly behaved parents and a stepfather who beat his mother. We both came out of these homes with emotional scars and we've worked very hard to give our children something better--roots, security, love and moral compasses. We have been happily married for 19 years. So I know from whence I speak when I caution you on rushing into this (which doesn't sound like what you're doing, by the way).

    My hat is off to you for recognizing your role in these children's lives and being concerned about your effect on them. No, I do not think you need to step aside in hopes of a reconcilation. There are clearly issues afoot here that will make this nearly impossible. However, as Andrew said, move with care and an awareness of the tenuousness of your situation. For now I would encourage you remain the children's friend--reach out to them and spend time with them as you would nieces and nephews, but avoid falling into the roll of a mother for now. With this man's life in the state of flux that it's in, everything is quite unstable. I would be hesitant to parent these children unless I was sure I was going to be a permanent fixture.

    One more thing--some therapy for all involved wouldn't hurt. Someone neutral who can guide these children through this territory could aid in the healing process and spot potentially long-term damage.

    I hope all that makes sense--you sound like you're moving in the right direction on the whole. Best of luck.

  2. Anonymous1:07 PM

    This is so sad and so sweet at the same time. This lady clearly is a woman who cares about people. I wonder though, does the boyfriend see that his children are hurting over their split up? Has he considered putting the children into some kind of talk therapy?

  3. Amen to all, Andrew. My husband and I met shortly after we both started the divorce process. We were fortunate in that we were separated by 300 miles. We had no choice but to take it slowly. That lasted for nearly three years, and I relocated. Still, we maintained separate homes and lives.

    We introduced the kids to the idea slowly. My kids had the worst transition, given that their father was choosing to try alienating them from me (it backfired and they don't talk to him very much now). But in the end, all four kids - his and mine - are happy. It's been ten years. We got married two years ago and his kids and mine have expressed to us just what you describe - they are happy to have stability and one of them actually said she was glad to have a family back.

    It can work, and no, Mom doesn't have to come back into the picture in order for it to happen. Sometimes broken families are broken for very good reasons. I can't agree more with your advice to this lady. She's noble, but she's doing it for the wrong reasons.

  4. i second the -- kids and dad should be in therapy recommendation!

    when my ex-hubby left -- my kids started acting out and being a single mom and not having lots of money, i used their school's practically free counseling program -- it was the best move i ever made. most counselors do work on a sliding-scale -- the good ones are there to help not rake in the money!

    one important thing i learned was to never talk-down their father -- as he was half of them and that would make them feel like of of them was bad...excellent advice!

  5. My parents split up when I was 14 - to put it bluntly, I went completely mental for about a year. Unfortunately, some emotional distress in the kids is unavoidable. However, it's 5 years later, I'm 19 now and have time to mature and reflect, and if anything... I actually wish my parents had divorced SOONER!