Dear Dr. Jann: I’m a working divorced mother who shares my children with my ex-husband. He and his new wife are very smug and promote the “traditional family” over my single lifestyle. You know, mom at home, dad at work. I work, and I work hard, and because of that they act like they are a “real family” and my life style is second best. Now my kids think they don’t have a family with me, only with dad. What are some ways I can I show them that we are a family too?
Dr. Jann: First thing? Stop comparing. It’s not your house or dad’s house. It’s your house AND dad’s house. Your kids have two homes—and they are members of both families. If you want well-balanced secure children, raise them to understand that neither home is better than the other. They are just different.
A good way to drive that point home is to casually initiate a conversation about the different types of families your kids might know. Working moms, working dads, foster families, bonus families, families who have adopted children or do their friends have half-siblings? Sometimes the grandparents are the primary caregivers. The configuration doesn’t matter. “Family” is a state of mind.
Teach your children what you want them to know about family, not fight about which lifestyle is better. Even if you think that dad and his wife talk poorly about you, take the high road. Badmouthing will make it difficult for your children to comfortably go back and forth–and although you don’t openly say, “Choose me!” that’s what you’re asking them to do when you openly compare.
Making it difficult to go back and forth when your kids HAVE to do it–there’s a court order–is emotionally abusive. Their allegiance is tested each time they leave one hone and go to the other. Parents who openly support each other’s lifestyle, making sure their kids love and respect both of them and are invested in the kids liking to be at both homes are raising strong accepting individuals.
If your children are gravitating to one home or the other, that’s a red flag something is wrong. That means the parents are not on the same page and it’s time to sit down, openly compare notes, and together look for ways to make both homes comfortable for the kids.
Child rearing doesn’t end with your four walls. If you have kids, it’s always a joint effort, whether both parents live together, or not. Set the example.