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Ex-Etiquette: Disparaging other parent is not good for the child

Q: My child’s mother and I were never married. We weren’t even together by the time our son was born. He is now 18 months old, and we share custody. Let me be blunt: She’s a terrible mother. She smokes pot all the time – always has, and she has never been able to hold down a job. I’m afraid my son will get hurt because she doesn’t pay attention to him. This can’t be good ex-etiquette. What do I do?

A: So often, people walk into my office complaining about their child’s other parent. Rarely is the offensive behavior new. You even said it: “She smokes pot all the time – always has.” It appears that’s the way your child’s mother acted before she was your child’s mother. You still had a baby with her.

After I point this out, many people tell me that it was a mistake – they weren’t planning on a child, as if that nullifies “the problem.” It doesn’t. You both made this baby, and complaining about the type of person mom is after the fact is a waste of time. He’s here.

Now that you have a baby, it’s your job to put the child first (Ex-Etiquette Rule No. 1). If your child’s mother is not doing this and you’re concerned about his safety, there are agencies you can contact that will check into the mother’s behavior and the environment in which your son lives when he’s with her.

From an ex-etiquette standpoint, you can only control your own behavior (Ex-Etiquette for Parents Rule No. 9: “Respect the other’s turf”). You can’t dictate how a mother raises a child – unless, as I already mentioned, the child is in danger. You can set the example by being a conscientious father. You can do your part to make sure the lines of communication are always open and you aren’t the one stonewalling if you don’t get your own way (Ex-Etiquette for Parents Rule No. 5: “Don’t be spiteful”; Ex-Etiquette Rule No. 6: “Don’t hold grudges”).

You can make sure you keep mom informed about your son’s milestones when he’s with you, and never ask her to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself (Ex-Etiquette for Parents Rule No. 7: “Be empathetic when problem solving”). You can make sure you don’t say bad things about her even if you hate her and she frustrates the heck out of you (Ex-Etiquette for Parents Rule No. 3, “No bad-mouthing”). Because, after all is said and done, that’s your child’s mother. He loves her. If you say bad things about her, he will not take your side, just as he won’till not take her side if she bad-mouths you. It may even backfire and he will reject the perpetrator.

My wish for both you and your child’s mother is that you raise this baby to love and respect both of you, because he needs both of you.

Jann Blackstone. Ph.D., is the author of “Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation” and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website, exetiquette.com, at dr.jann@exetiquette.com.