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Ask Auntie Broken

November 3, 2010

I’ve always wanted to write an advice column. I am insufferably bossy and overbearing, brimming with wisdom and brilliance, so it’s rather upsetting that I haven’t yet been plucked from obscurity to fulfill my dream.  Recently it occurred to me, however, that even though many of my childhood ambitions (actress, veterinarian, Nobel laureate) remain incompatible with my lifestyle at the present moment, I could, if you were inclined to cooperate, perhaps answer a few questions about (let’s say) mildly autistic ex-spouses, or the rearing of male offspring, or how to find an apartment in Paris, or how to mix the cocktail we called a “Suburban” (the signature drink of the end of my marriage.)

But first, I’d like to distill some of the issues recent comments have raised into a question for you.  Fair enough?

We can all go around diagnosing our exes with various syndromes till we turn blue in the face; as Fatty (if that is his real name, which I doubt) mentioned, labels are lots of fun!  But ultimately they aren’t very helpful.  It’s safe to assume, a priori, that we dislike our ex-spouses’ personalities; after all, we did divorce them.  But supposing one’s spouse does have mental issues, or at least very very unattractive traits (like undiagnosed Ass-holers, for instance) that one does not want one’s children to mimic or inherit?  Your kids can’t divorce your ex.  If you’ve managed your divorce well, they don’t even want to; certainly you are not supposed to want them to.

I’m not talking about real danger, either psychological or physical.  I’m talking about niggling differences, from attitudes toward television to general expectations (you make them write thank you notes; he does not.)  Or abstractions:  You don’t want your kids growing up thinking it’s okay to treat people with aloof disdain, the way your ex-husband does.

So what’s a concerned divorced parent to do?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Celeste permalink
    November 3, 2010 7:10 pm

    Negative imprinting on the kids–that’s tough when still married, and I imagine even tougher when divorced.

    DH likes to bicker and is trying to train DD to be his bickering partner. I try to intervene when possible (ie if I’m around) and send her off to do something else to put a stop to it. Clearly I can’t tell DH what to do. Sometimes she gets upset with a certain way he has of dissing people, and when he’s done it to her and she’s sad, I’ve told her that that’s not how we should treat our friends and this is the better way. When these things happen when I’m not around, of course I can do nothing. So far the only carryover she’s tried is to bicker with me, and I WILL NOT have that. It’s lucky for me that she is getting to the age where she wants to emulate her same-sex parent…but I can see how this age with your boys could be problematic. Mostly I know that DD is never going to turn into me, and I feel secure that she is not going to turn into her father, either. She seems to be her own self and not a chip off either of the old blocks. I think that’s our saving grace here–mind the things that are habits and hope their own identity will carry the day.

    I’ll go so far as to diagnose my husband as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

  2. Anna permalink
    November 3, 2010 7:12 pm

    Take the high road is my advice. That’s what I am always, always striving for.
    I know why I divorced him, what his deficiences are, but I’ve never said a word to the kids and I never will. I want my kids to have a good relationship with their dad, and because he never bothered before, now is his chance to step up. It’s up to him. I am not going to save him.
    I plan to keep on parenting the best way that I can, being true to myself and my values. (Finally, I can do that now we’re divorced!) And as for my kids, I think that they will be able to figure it out and come to their own conclusions (fingers crossed.)

    Now as for advice on renting an apartment in Paris, count me in! I think in about 5 years when my youngest is off to university, I may just be ready for a litte trip to France!

  3. November 3, 2010 7:44 pm

    I dated a man for several years that I am convinced now has Asperger’s. I still occasionally wonder if he realizes that is what his “uniqueness” is. Anyway…

    As for your question I think that the best thing you can do is be a good role model. Obviously I don’t need to tell you you don’t want to criticize your ex in front of your kids (although I imagine that must be incredibly difficult, I’m sure I would struggle mightily if I was in that situation) but I think it is OK to discuss with them that you do things differently.

    If they ask, I think its quite fair to tell them that you understand their father doesn’t think thank you notes are important, but that you do and then explain why they are important.

    For other issues I think you just keep reinforcing the positive behaviors and do your best to respond appropriately to the negative ones. If they question why they can do something with their dad, but not with you, I think the best thing you can do is just explain why you believe what you do and then walk the walk.

    Of course I’m not dealing with an ex so it’s easy for me to give advice. Take it for what its worth.

  4. November 3, 2010 9:35 pm

    One thing I’m hoping my kids learn at a younger age than I did is that we get to choose who we are. We adopt the habits and values of our parents – or not. Are you especially like one parent or the other? I’m not, even though sometimes I struggle against a tendency or two. My husband and I both display qualities I’d like to see skip a generation but I don’t feel like I have a whole lot of control over that beyond encouraging self awareness, perception and critical thinking skills. I imagine it’s a whole lot more fraught in a divorce, but the level of influence might be the same. Kids are who they are. And even if I’m wrong, I’m calmer this way.

    Suburban recipe, please.

  5. November 4, 2010 9:01 am

    I think about this a lot. I think the good news is that our children are not being raised in a vacuum – they encounter and form relationships with many adults, not just their parents. Another thing to consider is the fact that like foreigners visiting a strange land, children are observing adult culture and absorbing all of it, and sifting through what makes sense and what does not. However much of that culture we can translate for them, the better. I agree that badmouthing your ex is a bad idea. However, if your ex is like mine and prone to behavior that disappoints and/or hurts your child, it is imperative that you translate that experience for them and value their instincts. When my ex promised our older son (5) that he would come over on his birthday (my ex’s birthday) so my son could give my ex his birthday present, and then flaked out and canceled via email minutes before he was expected to arrive, it would have been far more damaging for me to say, “I know you’re sad but your dad loves you.” and end the conversation there. Because my son would have interpreted that to mean “This is how you treat the people you love. You make promises and then you disappoint them.” Instead we had a long conversation about HIS dad and how sometimes he says he’s going to do something and then he doesn’t do it, and how that feels, and what we wish he would do instead. We play through scenarios of talking to him about it, though my son did not end up wanting to talk to him about it. We talked about how HIS dad sometimes makes decisions that he does not realize hurt other people, and then we talked about the importance of always trying to do what we say we’re going to do. By validating his feelings that what his dad did was wrong, that it was a hurtful and disappointing decision, I’m teaching my son that that behavior is not something to be valued or imitated. I’m carefully NOT badmouthing my ex, but I’m also not glossing over some of his less desirable personality traits. By denying them or ignoring them, you teach your children that their instincts are wrong – which is a dangerous and slippery slope. I also try to talk about people who have traits I DO admire…”Wasn’t that nice when Grandpa let that lady go in front of us in line? I think Grandpa is a very thoughtful person toward other people’s feelings, I think it’s so important to try to be that way….” (do you see the personality traits I’m actively trying to combat here?)

    I don’t think this applies to differing sets of values – ie: thank you cards vs. no thank you cards. I think kids grow up more flexible and resilient when they have two parents who operate under different sets of expectations – it teaches them an important skill in adapting their choices and their behaviors to match their environment (think: that hippy lit teacher in 2nd period who lets the kids choose their own seats and call her by her first name immediately followed by the uber-strict math teacher in 3rd period who does not let them out of their seats except for a medical emergency….some kids have a hell of a time transitioning while others do not). I’m talking about people like my ex, whether he’s a true narcissist or just an incredibly selfish and self absorbed person…..he’s inconsistent, he’s unreliable, he’s judgmental of others, unforgiving of other people’s flaws and weaknesses (even though they often directly mirror his own)….these are the traits I am working against. So I believe that actively talking about these things *when they occur and in context* is incredibly important in raising two men who will approach the world with empathy, responsibility and respect. Because my kids are so young, the conversations are short and simple. But when they get older and can start to really recognize that their dad seems to operate under a different set of social rules than the rest of society, our conversations will have to be a bit more complex, and that fine line between being honest and badmouthing him will get razor thin. Boy! The next 16 years are going to be a lot of fun, aren’t they???

  6. November 4, 2010 9:06 am

    I am married to an (undiagnosed) high-functioning Aspie and am mom to two (diagnosed) high-functioning Aspie boys, ages 12 & 14. Here in the relative safety of not-my-blog I think I can admit that most, if not all, of the “issues” in my marriage can be traced back to my husband’s Asperger’s symptoms in one way or another, which makes me very, very sad.

    At home, I model alternative behavior for my kids’ sake very aggressively, knowing that it may or may not be enough to make a difference.. And I hope fervently that their knowledge of their diagnoses will make a difference when they start navigating romantic relationships themselves.

  7. Sherry permalink
    November 4, 2010 10:55 am

    What I do: Take the high road (mostly). Wring my hands (always). Address the issues that arise directly. Case in point, my ex has appalling attitudes/habits/behaviors surrounding finances. He makes terrible decisions, ones that often result in my son missing out on certain things (like university education, which I am funding solely) but getting other things (like a wall projector to display movies). I tread heavily on the ‘what this family does’ as a positive role model, and say as little as possible about ‘what your other family does’ as the negative one. Eventually, if I do my half of the job right, he will draw his own conclusions…maybe? Hopefully? I guess?

  8. November 4, 2010 9:40 pm

    dear auntie broken!
    great thoughtful post as usual! i read all the comments above, and what i do is address anything that makes my children worry in a very direct manner. i do use the age-old – what matter is how they behave, not how anyone else behaves. i don’t treat their issues slightly, because they are very young, and their issues may seem trivial to an adult, but it;s not trivial to them, and so i tend to address everything, even if not at the moment, sometime later.
    at this point i only hope and pray that if i do my job right, the kids will be alright.

    i have another aspect too to deal with. the ex badmouths my origins to the kids. i deal with that very objectively. thankfully i have a bigger family = more role models, and hopefully the children will be able to see things for what they are, rather than what their dad portrays them to be.

    i also do trust my children. i’m not saying this because i’m their mother but they all have sweet gentle natures. and they are very sensitive. and they do know have a sense of right and wrong. my older son has called me on 2 occasions so far where i made a mistake. he doesn’t do that with his dad, i don’t think anyway, and for him to be able to point out my mistake to me was brave for him to do. i acknowledged what i had done wrong, and apologised, and then it did not happen again. because i know he’s watching me, and when i slip up again … he’ll be there to point it out!!!

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