Divorced Dads Struggle with Visitation
Fathers’ Rights: Divorced Dads Have Tough Time with Weekend Visitation
For many children, the standard visitation model — every other weekend and a few hours on Wednesday — means that every few days they leave their home for a new one, where different rules, standard and expectations apply. For many children, this transition is a challenge.
“It does not have to be as bad as it often is,” says Marjorie Engel, retired president of the Stepfamily Association of America. “The biggest thing is the attitude of the parents,” Engel says. “They need to continue to co-parent even if they have different roles. There has to be communication between the parents.”
According to Engel, “an ideal back and forth would include a checklist of items the children need and a conversation beforehand to make sure each parent understand that ‘hey, our son has decided not to cut his hair anymore’ or ‘he is taking this kind of medicine at this dose.'” While Engel believes the rules need not be the same in each, parents should keep badmouthing to themselves. “There will be times when the parents are still angry at each other,” she says, and encourages parents not to let that anger influence their children.
“That is easier said than done,” says Elisa Cooper of Seattle, Washington. Cooper is a child of divorce who is now the stepmother to a nine-year-old boy who stays with their family every other week for one night and selected holidays. “It’s two nights a month and only 26 nights a year. That’s just not enough time,” Cooper says. When her stepson does come to the house, things are not always good.
“We have our good weekends and our bad weekends,” says Cooper, who adds that the bad weekends are compounded by the things the child’s mother often says about his father and also by the guilt she gives him about leaving her overnight. “Often he will get into our car crying about something his mother said or did to him right before he was dropped off. It takes him a day to unwind from the emotional battery,” says Cooper. “Then by the time he has relaxed, it’s time to go again and he starts to get angry and he closes down and whines about having to leave and he asks, ‘Why can’t I have more time with my Daddy?'”
According to Cooper’s husband, Sean, things have changed somewhat over time. “In the beginning, he would cry and tell me he didn’t want to leave,” he says. “Later, he became distant when it became time to go drop him off. He would withdraw into himself and not talk about an hour before we had to drop him off. Now I can get small conversations going with him during our drive, but he is still distant.”
Cooper knows firsthand how difficult things can be for children shuttling between two homes. But she saw how parents who generally get along can influence their children’s experience of the divorce and the back and forth. “[My mother] worked hard, sacrificed and provided for us and still allowed us a relationship with our father,” says Cooper whose father eventually moved to Los Angeles, several hundred miles away from his children.
“The transition was difficult,” she says. “I cried, my sister cried, my brother cried. It was awful. My mom encouraged us to write to him. We talked to him on the phone. Being able to look forward to his visits was comforting.” It was that encouragement that Cooper credits with helping to form the bond she now shares with her father. She worries that her stepson will not have that same opportunity.
“My husband doesn’t want to be the proverbial ‘Disneyland Dad’ and have to bribe the child with expensive activities,” Cooper says. “Because of the limited amount of time that they can be together, that their bond is not very strong. And the mother doesn’t encourage the relationship at all.” The fight has worn the Coopers down. “We have gone to court and we have had to spend thousands just for his right for the every other weekend access to this kid,” Cooper says. “We’re honestly done, it’s so tiring.”
For families like the Coopers, where there is so much animosity, Engel says she would recommend the help of a third party — a therapist, counselor or clergyman — who could help sort out some of the difficulties and find common ground. “But even with professional help, there are some ground rules,” says Engel.
First, one must make sure the professional is experienced in the kind of family dynamics with which the family is dealing. And, of course, each parent must be willing to try. This is something Jason Willord of Wyoming says would never work with his ex-wife. “My children are painfully aware that their mom and dad do not communicate well,” he says. “But I try not to involve them beyond that.”
For Willord, his relationship with his two sons, ages six and eight, is complicated by the distance. His children live in Washington D.C. while he lives in Wyoming now and lived in California before. In order to see his children, Willord flies across the country, picks them up and flies them home, which is very taxing and also very expensive, as Willord picks up 75 percent of the tab for each visit, according to the divorce decree. And it is never enough time.
“More visitation would have been better for the children, they appear to have a fair amount of father hunger when they are with me and the oldest in particular is very clingy during visits, especially the short, week-long ones,” Willord says. “I think that shifting between two worlds for them is very difficult…different houses, different rules, and their mother’s faith is very different from mine.”
When the boys come to visit, Willord and his wife and their new baby son try to incorporate them into their lives as much as possible. “Still, it is hard for them,” he says. “Each time they come, the boys spend about four days just adjusting to the change. If they’re here for a week, they don’t really settle in at all. For the middle couple of weeks, things are like they never left until about four days before they go back to their mother, when the fact that they have to go back to their mother soon and leave me looms large in the minds.”
Additionally, the visits are packed with action and a flurry of activity; something that Willord says can feel artificial. “If they were to live here all the time, there wouldn’t be a drive to pack as much ‘quality time’ into just a few days,” he says. “But they don’t live here all the time, so when they show up, my household tends to revolve around them more than I would like.”
“For children of divorce, not all is bad,” says Engel. “They have the opportunity to see how two homes function. And children are far more flexible than we give them credit for, she says. Kids just go with the flow,” Engel says. “Even if the child eats nothing but marshmallows for three days each visit, they will survive.”
At Willord’s house, his sons are exposed to a more religious home, a home where the parents are happily married and make all of their own organic meals. Additionally, he lives in a quiet neighborhood that is unlike the urban area in which his children are growing up.
“They’re able to ride their bicycles around, something that they can’t do at their mother’s house,” says Willord. “Two years ago, I taught the oldest how to ride a bicycle, and last summer taught his little brother how to as well. I also taught them both how to tie their shoes during summer visits, and last summer we launched model rockets together.”
For Willord, modeling a healthy family is one of the most important parts of his visits with his children. “At home, I try very hard to have a family dinner together each night, and I also read Bible stories to them and read two books to them before bedtime. We also do bedtime prayers.”
Despite the remaining animosity between Willord and his ex-spouse, he has managed to create a meaningful relationship with his children. “And that has been worth the expense and time of fighting for it,” he says. In many ways, Willord accepts that he is not able to control what happens to his sons when they are with their mother. “That makes the transition much easier,” according to Engel.
“Parents have to realize that when the child is not with you, you cannot control what happens,” Engel says. “Neither parent has any say over what the other parent does unless it is harmful to the child.”
According to Engel, “As long as parents communicate, do not make their children feel guilty and get help when they need it, divorce does not have to be so painful. Kids will survive a lot,” she says.
About the author: Sasha Brown-Worsham is a freelance writer in Boston, Massachusetts who has written for the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Technology Review, Babble.com and many other publications.