Dear Dr. Jann: My ex-husband and I share the kids’ time equally — a week with us and a week with him. Their dad has remarried and the kids love her. Although they are typically very affectionate, I’ve noticed that they start to pull away from me about a day or so before they go back to their dad’s. I think they feel in the middle of all this and I don’t know what to do to help them.
Dr. Jann: The good news is it sounds like the kids love everyone — so much so, they feel guilty. Unfortunately, when kids like their bonus parents it can test their allegiance to their parents, and in order to cope with the back and forth they learn to compartmentalize their feelings.
You are probably right — they do become more distant a day or so before they return to dad’s. They are trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings—including their own. I bet dad and bonus mom see the same thing when they are ready to return to you.
Old school divorce and remarriage dictated that bioparents and bonus parents (moms and bonus moms/dads and bonus dads) rarely talked, but it’s obvious that you both live with the boys at different times and are performing similar tasks. This puts you in direct competition with each other and if you don’t adopt a new attitude, the kids will continue to be stuck right in the middle.
Although it may sound unconventional, the first thing you both do is give the kids permission to care for both of you. Don’t ask them too many questions that puts them in the middle, and when they start to tell you about the fun things they do at dad’s, don’t have an attitude — they will detect even the smallest comment and it will set them back again.
It’s also time to talk to each other and coordinate efforts. I’m not saying go shopping together, but don’t be afraid to compare notes about the kids and establish ground rules about your responsibilities and let the kids see you positively problem solving together. Then they will relax.