Becoming the Default Parent after Divorce


Before my child was born, I spent most of my waking hours thinking about the things I was working on.  I was in graduate school at the time, and I did not really “turn off” when I left school and work to come home for family time. When my youngest daughter was born, however, I determined to make a change. My wife, at the time, and I decided in advance to put off childcare for the first year, and take turns keeping our daughter during the day. One hitch in the plan though: my sweet infant daughter absolutely refused to take a bottle. As exhausted parents of a new baby, we capitulated. After a couple of months, we took the plunge, and my daughter stayed with me at home for the day while her mom went to work at a new job.  It was bottle or bust. Her mom left for work, and all was well. Before long, hunger set in, and after 2-3 hours of screaming and angrily spitting out the bottle, I started to worry about dehydration and distress, and made the call. The 45-minute drive with my wailing infant was a life experience I will never forget. And that was it.  From that point on, I took a secondary role in caring for my kiddo. For the next several years, I took to checking out a lot in terms of caring for my daughter when her mom was around. I rationalized this behavior to myself by saying that her mom was “better” at it, that it was “more natural” for her. Now I know that all of that was bogus. Parenting is hard work.

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That is not to say that I did not have a great relationship with my little girl. There were so many special moments in which my daughter and I had fun together, and where we had formative experiences together. When she was 2, I put her on the back of my bicycle in a seat and scared the daylights out of her. At age 4, she helped me paint the outside of the house.  I had a hand in her everyday life, especially the fun parts, but serious parenting duties typically defaulted to her mother.

When my daughter was 5, her mom and I got a divorce.  Suddenly, I had 7 days out of every 14 in which I was the only parent in the house with a very confused little girl. While married, on most nights my wife handled the nighttime routines: dinner, bath, story, and bedtime, but now my daughter and I had to figure out how to work through the inevitable differences that arose from me taking care of things rather than her mother.  Since I had been leaving the hard stuff to her mom, my daughter really had no reason to believe I knew what I was doing. I had no experience handling the violent meltdowns and tantrums that arose from being pushed too far away from her comfort zone. This led to months of trying different approaches to build trust, and when those failed, trying more things.  I read every piece of parenting material that I could find. I consulted my counselor and friends and family. I journaled frequently, searching for patterns. Two years later, we have developed a strong emotional bond and sense of trust. I decided to share what I have learned through my experiences, in order to help other parents out there that go suddenly from the understudy to the leading role. Here are a few lessons, in no particular order.

Meet your child where they are.

Obviously, our children have their own desires, needs, and personalities. My daughter is a picky eater, and before the divorce, her mom and I did not force her to eat things that she did not like. After the divorce, I decided that she needed to eat more vegetables. This led to battles of will between the two of us, and I learned that although my goal was a positive one, trying to accomplish it through coercion and force only led to unhappiness and distance. I learned that by giving her control of the outcome of a set of positive choices was the way to success. That is, I didn’t decide that on a particular day we would have green beans. Instead, before starting dinner I offered the choice of green beans or salad. If she did not want either, then I offered her the chance to suggest another green vegetable. After the positive choice, I gave her lots and lots of positive feedback about making healthy choices. Two years later, she still does not love vegetables, but she understands that they are a necessary part of a healthy diet. It was a long, gradual process that transitioned her to this point.

Always keep your cool.

When you have a co-parent on the premises, you can tag out when you start to lose your temper. There were many occasions after the divorce in which my daughter would have a tantrum, and I would tell her that this behavior was not acceptable. This would amplify the tantrum, and the resulting cycle led over and over to me losing my temper and shouting at her. After several months of this, I recognized the cycle, and started to work on positive behaviors to change it. First, I learned to recognize when my daughter was amping up, and to begin calming myself immediately with deep breaths and detaching my emotions from her behavior. This is not easy, and I am still learning to do it fully. Secondly, I learned to recognize my own breaking point, and remove myself to calm down before I lost my temper. When my child would throw a tantrum at home, I would tell her calmly (often with the last ounce of my patience) that I needed to take a break to calm myself, and then go in the other room and practice calming breaths. Third, in public, I could not remove myself, so I learned to redirect her focus, even briefly, until she could calm enough to finish our task at hand. Finally, when everything else failed, I learned to beat a hasty retreat to avoid losing my temper with her. At first, I was afraid that I was “letting her win” and “spoiling her.” This thinking espouses the power struggle that I was trying to get away from. When you are building a trusting and secure relationship with your kiddo, losing your temper only sets that goal back.

Get Some Help

Many of these realizations are due to a kind and patient counselor that my daughter and I have been seeing regularly for the past two years. When you are in the middle of conflicts and relationship building with your child, every tough situation can seem like a catastrophe. Counselors provide long term perspective on your experiences. In addition, meetings with the counselor alone (without my daughter) have given me insight into my daughter’s unspoken feelings. For example, she communicated to her counselor that she really feared disappointing me, when her behavior at the time indicated that she was not the slightest bit concerned with that possibility. As a result, I began telling her each day how proud I was of her for various things, which drew us closer together. I also learned strategies for softening transitions that were the source of so many of our fights. My daughter often threw a tantrum when screen time was over. Her counselor and I worked out a strategy with my daughter that led to a much less intense response when it was time to transition away from screens.

Shower Them With Affection

One thing that the counselor told me on our intake visit was that touch is the foundation of attachment. I realized that I often went the entire day without spontaneously hugging and snuggling with my daughter. With that in mind, I began to consciously shower my daughter with affection at every available opportunity. I hold her hand on the way to school in the mornings. I grab her for a quick squeeze whenever she comes close. Even though it was not exactly natural, she has responded in a big way to this type of affection. In fact, where she never before would seek out a hug from others, she has learned to do this of her own accord. I like to think that it’s because it makes her feel good to be hugged, and so she wants to pass that on. Showing her physical affection fills her emotional reservoir, which helps her to face the struggles of the day. It makes me feel pretty great, too.

Always Be On Their Side

Your child is going to do things that you do not like, sometimes hurting others (including you) and even themselves. This is not because they are “bad,” but because they made a bad choice due to exhaustion, anxiety, peer pressure and other stressors that we all face. In that state of isolation, they need to know that we love them, regardless of their behavior. This is not communicated through shame and blame. I am not suggesting a lack of accountability, but rather that addressing the behavior requires you to understand their motivations, and truly understanding them requires you to be on their side. If you first communicate love and understanding, and then move on to address the behavior in a loving and firm way, discipline can be an opportunity to draw them closer to you, rather than pushing them away into the penalty box.

In summary, being the default parent requires an agility that I didn’t know I possessed.  You have to be able to be firm and gentle at the same time, always communicating love above all, even when you are angry or brokenhearted over your child’s behavior.  Perhaps for some parents this is a natural inclination.  For me it most definitely was not, and this post is the product of a lot of trial and error, and reading many parenting books and blogs.  I saw my relationship with my child slipping away, and decided that repairing and strengthening it was the most important thing for both of us. We are still a work in progress, but I can attest that it gets better with a concerted effort and lots of patience.