An Ex by Any Other Name

I grew up reading Ann Landers and Dear Abby. I still read them, when I buy the paper, which isn't often, as I get most of my news online. When I do peruse their advice, often it's to make fun. I'm a liberal, a feminist, and I disagree frequently with the twin gurus.

Over the years, however, two pieces of genuine good sense from those gals jumped out of the newsprint and stuck with me. I'll get to the second in a minute. For now, let's talk about the first. One of them, maybe both of them, have advised readers against bad-mouthing ex-spouses who are the other parent of your child/children. The wisdom is as follows: a child is made up of half the mother, half the father. If you insult your ex-husband or ex-wife in the presence of your shared child, you insult half the child. A negative message against the other parent, whether it is meant to be or not, is a direct strike against your offspring.

Now, granted, this suggestion is not without loopholes. Yes, technically, a child is genetically part mother, part father. But, in my experience anyway, my son sometimes seems to be from another planet altogether. That is, he seems to have a personality all his own. Sure, I see his father's mannerisms all mixed up with my eyes. But, still, he is unique.

Nonetheless, let me tell you something about Henry and me. I never, ever bad-mouth his father in front of him. In fact, I don't bad-mouth his father, period. Because I'm one of the lucky ones. I still love my son's father, though he left us long ago. There are people who are surprised by this. Hen's dad is a severe alcoholic. He doesn't send child support. Legally, he's not obligated to--I terminated his parental rights in court years ago.

I did not do this because I don't love him. I only did it because he's sick. And if I die while my son is a minor, I want to be certain of who his guardians will be. The only way to do this--to keep the courts from transferring custody to the living other biological parent--is to sever such rights.

Still, there was never a question of my love for my son's father. This is something I tell Henry all the time. Your father loves you. I love you. I love your father. Henry is welcome to see his daddy any time. I only wish they could see each other more often--this is a problem as Henry's dad lives so far away.

Like I said, I'm one of the lucky ones. I realize not everyone has a similar situation. I have been able to separate, in my case, a man from his disease. I don't like the disease. I don't like how poor I am, how sometimes I lie in bed at night and think, "If only James sent us money." But I can see beyond that. I can see, in my mind, the rare moments my out-of-state ex and our son are together. They adore each other. I will never do anything that might interfere with that.

But this path I've chosen hasn't been easy. In the beginning, when he left nearly seven years ago, I was mad. And confused. And hurt. I'm not suggesting that getting past these things is a simple task. It isn't. But eventually I came to accept my fate as single mother, responsible for all expenses, all discipline, all holidays, all everything. I hardly think of it anymore-- this is just "who we are."

Years ago, I was walking through the grocery store and I saw two young kids with their dad. I heard the dad talking about the children's mother--who was not on this trip and, I discerned from his words, an ex. He called her a bitch. I winced. It was obvious he hated her. He was a stranger to me, and I should've forgotten him years ago. I haven't.

Because I know those children will take that message with them throughout their lives. I know, one day, when they are upset with their mother for one thing or another (even if what they are upset with is something she is doing to protect them, to guide them) they will have these words to fall back on: You're a bitch. They may or may not believe this in their hearts. But they will hear their daddy's voice, echoing the sentiment, validating their anger.

And what they grow to disrespect in their mother, they will grow to disrespect in themselves. Or, if they get angry at the father for his venom, then they will be angry at that half--the father half--of themselves.

Either way, they end up angry. Anger is something I know firsthand. Anger is something it takes decades to get over. Sometimes we don't get over it at all.

It is not easy, when an ex-spouse acts in a way we deem unjust, to find a kind thing to say about that person. Sometimes, it is impossible. And while I do not always subscribe to the old cliché, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," here is one situation where I think that is handy advice.

You may have an ex who is the worst person in the world. Not just your opinion, but an opinion validated by, say, court records, a bad history, a drug or alcohol problem, a lack of child support. I am not suggesting you lie to your children and say you love the other half of them. I am just urging you not to bash that parent. This is not protecting the "bad guy." This is protecting the children you had with that person, a person you loved enough at one point--though you may be loath to remember this--to procreate with. Even if the only thing you can do is calmly and accurately describe the other's problems (something I do with my son, regarding his father's drinking), this is so much better than bashing.

Which is where part two of the Ann Landers/Dear Abby advice comes in. (I can't remember now which sister wrote it.) A reader wrote in to say that a friend had had a baby. A very ugly baby. The natural thing to say, when one views photos of a newborn, is "What a beautiful child." But this reader had a point: the child in question was pitifully ugly. How to deal?

The advice was this. Turn to the parent and say nothing of physical beauty (or lack thereof). Just say something smart. Like, "Oooooh, you must be so proud."

Granted, you might not be proud of your ex and how he/she acts in general and/or around the kids. That's not the point. Look for something, anything, positive to say. If the other parent has visitation but doesn't offer child support, for instance, you don't need to mask the obvious, but you also don't need to broadcast it angrily. The kid(s) know if mom/dad isn't coughing up the dough. Just point out that mommy/daddy cares enough to spend some time with the children.

This is absolutely not easy. It's even less easy if the parent in question is absent or a total loser. Still, find something to say. Tell the child something you once loved in the other parent. Or, if this is absolutely impossible for you, say as little as possible.

Before you dismiss this advice as trite, as advice-columnist simple, think about it. Remember, on the other side of the unfortunate split between parents is your former partner. You would deny any negative charges he/she made against you to your children. So why waste energy doing the same on the front end?


Spike Gillespie is a writer living in Austin, Texas, with her son Henry. Her first book, All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy: A Memoir, was just released by Simon & Schuster.

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