Q: My partner and I have been together for three years. During that time he was estranged from his now-5-year-old daughter. The parents of this child have recently reached an agreement on visitation and custody, but I’m 36 weeks pregnant, and the father is afraid to tell mother for fear she will stop the visitation. They have agreed to introduce Dad slowly for the sake of the child, with a day visit every other weekend, and she has had two visits. My concern is the child. She is just getting acquainted with Dad again, and there will be an introduction of a new child; plus, Mom may not be supportive. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: Here are the red flags I see: First, Dad is “afraid.” Starting from a place of fear establishes negative interaction right from the beginning. Better to be honest and straightforward (Ex-etiquette Rule No. 8), using the welfare of the child as the criteria for all decisions. (Put the children first, Ex-etiquette Rule No. 1.) The truth is, he has a partner who is pregnant. His 5-year-old will interact with that partner. Rather than keep you a secret, I weigh in on the side of introducing you to mom. After all, you will be interacting with this child and have a huge influence on her. You are all adults! Yes, Dad has not been around, and Mom has been the primary caregiver – for whatever reason – you all have the chance to do a better job now – for the sake of this child.
Second, your child: This is a reality. If dad is trying to “normalize” his relationship with his daughter, why not act “normal?” You have not mentioned whether you are living with the father, but if you have been in a relationship for three years and are 36 weeks pregnant, I’m anticipating that you do. One-on-one time with Dad is important for the girl, but you have to get to know her as well. Dad’s child is not “just visiting,” nor is the unborn child – they will be siblings, which brings us to the third red flag, the visitation schedule.
I understand why the parents want to go slow with the unification process, but young children do not perceive time as we adults do. It’s difficult for a young child to build a bond with two week breaks between visits. Rather than visit every other weekend for a day, courts usually look to “frequent and constant contact” with both parents, especially when reuniting a parent. Knowing this, I would suggest a step plan that incorporates more frequent short visits for child to get to know Dad, perhaps two or three hours in duration, say on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week, slowly extending the alternating Saturday visits to all day, then to overnight on Sunday. Once the child gets used to the overnight, extend the alternating weekend from Friday to Sunday. Reaching the end of these steps could take up to six months, and the short weekly visits will make it easy for Dad to spend some one-on-one time with his daughter before the new baby is born.
Finally, to protect everyone concerned, my suggestion is to get a court order validating any agreed-upon visitation schedule and for Mom and Dad to take a co-parenting class. If these parents are going to share this child’s time, they have to learn to work together in her best interest.