Dear Emotional Hardbody,
My ex-husband Keith and I got divorced four years ago when our son Will was 5 years old. The first year after our divorce, Keith exercised his visitation and stayed very involved with Will. But three years ago, Keith took a job out of state and things started to change.
The first year after moving away, Keith came to town for Will’s birthday in September and then again for Christmas. The second year he came for Will's birthday and sent presents for Christmas. This past year, however, Keith didn’t come to town for either occasion, nor did he send presents or even call. Will, however, bought a Christmas present for his dad with his own money, which we mailed it to him. Will called him on Christmas Eve, but got his voicemail. He left a message, but Keith never called back.
Will misses his dad a lot and is taking this rejection hard. I called Keith after Christmas when Will was at school and told him that Will’s feelings were hurt and that he misses him. I wasn’t attacking him; I was just letting him know how his son felt. Keith got very defensive and blamed me. He said it was my fault he didn’t come to town because I didn’t invite him. He also said it was my fault he didn’t send any presents because I never emailed him to let him know what to get him.
The prior times that he has come to town weren’t in response to an invitation on my part. He just notified us of his travel plans and I adjusted our schedules so Will could spend time with his dad. And the only time I’ve told Keith what to buy for Will was when he asked me for suggestions.
I don’t appreciate Keith blaming me for the disappointment that he is causing Will. I don’t think it’s my job to tell him what to get for Will or to invite him to come to Austin. Keith makes good money, plus his best friend lives in town. So, it’s not like he can’t afford to come or doesn’t have a place to stay.
How should I handle this situation from this point forward?
Worried About My Son
This is a good news/bad news situation. The good news is Keith is no longer your husband. The bad news is he is still Will’s dad. Although you wouldn’t know it from your recent interactions with him, Keith is a grown man. As such, he is responsible for acting like one. That means it is Keith’s responsibility to do what he can to meet the needs and reasonable expectations of a child who depends on him — in this case, his own flesh and blood son. Keith is in charge of making his own travel plans. Keith is in charge of communicating with Will and otherwise maintaining his relationship with him. Keith is in charge of sending Will birthday and Christmas wishes and presents.
But you have some responsibility in this, too — not to Keith but to Will. Your son has a dad who is inclined to be careless with his feelings — and if you didn't know that before, now you do. While you cannot prevent Keith from disappointing Will, you can help your son set up his life so that he is less likely to be blindsided by these disappointments, and equip him with the resources to handle the disappointments when they do occur.
For starters, consider sending an email to Keith telling him that he has an open invitation to come to Austin whenever he wants; and assure him that if and when he does come, you’ll do what you can to adjust your schedule to reasonably accommodate him, just as you’ve done in the past. Feel free to add that the more notice he gives you, the better you’ll be able to accommodate him. In this same email, tell him that any time he wants suggestions on what to get for Will for any occasion, you are happy to help. All he needs to do is ask.
Secondly — and this part is optional — you can also send Keith a quick email a month or so before Will’s birthday and Christmas, saying something like, “Please let me know if you’ll be coming to town. Also, I’m happy to give you gift suggestions for Will should you want them.” Of course, it is not your duty to send him emails like this. But this goes in the category of doing what you reasonably can to navigate around needless disappointment for your son.
It is important to note that there are limits to what you can and should do in this department. The goal is to give Keith the chance to get it right, not to do it for him. If you find yourself buying presents that you intend to wrap up and give to Will under the fiction that they came from Keith, you’ve crossed a line. Part of Will’s work in life is going to be to figure people out for himself. If you create a false image of his dad and their relationship, not only are you enabling Keith, you are interfering with Will's ability to do this work by manufacturing fraudulent data for him to work with.
Now let’s talk about what you can do to set things up so that Will is less likely to be caught off guard by his dad’s thoughtlessness. Build a full life for you and Will, one that isn’t contingent on his dad living up to his duties. Plan birthdays and Christmas on the unspoken assumption that Keith will not be there. The “unspoken” part of this is important. Don’t say, “Since your dad isn’t coming to town for your birthday, I thought it would be fun to have your party at Peter Pan Putt Putt Golf.” That puts the spotlight on the disappointment. Instead, simply begin the sentence with, “I thought it would be fun to have your party at Peter Pan Putt Putt Golf.”
If Will wants to buy his dad a Christmas or birthday present and send it to him, by all means help him with that. If Will wants to call his dad on Christmas, that’s A-okay. But don’t be the one to suggest to Will that he do these things. And don’t point out the times and ways that Keith does not come through for Will. Your goal is to structure Will’s life so that if and when his dad occasionally shows up and gets it right, it’s a pleasant surprise. And the years that he doesn’t, it’s more normal life than crushing disappointment.
Finally, if Will wants to talk about any of this, be a good listener. Resist the urge to either bash or defend Keith. Also, don’t tell Will that his statements are wrong. Simply acknowledge the feelings behind his statements. Will may need to talk, but he doesn’t need you to editorialize. Above all, find a good counselor for Will. With a guy like Keith for a father, he’s going to need it. And you might also consider getting one for yourself, too.
All the best,
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