Q: I have a 4-year-old daughter. I’ve been separated from her father for two years. He has not been in the picture, but since I now have a fiancé, he wants to spend time with our daughter. My fiancé doesn’t want him to see her in our house. How do I tell my child’s father? What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: It’s understandable that your fiancé doesn’t want your ex hanging around the house, especially if he hasn’t been around for a while. Kids aren’t the only ones who have to get used to a new parenting plan. Custodial parents and their partners who have stepped up to the plate often have trouble letting go when a wayward parent shows up.
There are lots of reasons that what you describe happens. The most obvious is now that you have a fiancé, Dad is jealous, and is using your daughter to get back into your life. Or, he could be quite sincere in his desire to rekindle his relationship with his daughter – the timing is just suspect.
The main concern is that your daughter is 4 and if dad is not truly committed, his reappearing now will really set her life upside down. The classic picture of a child sitting by the window waiting for the noncustodial parent who doesn’t show up is no joke. It’s something that sticks with a child, causes incredible insecurity and affects their ability to form lasting relationships in the future. If he starts, then disappears again, the likelihood of your daughter – and your fiancé, if he’s invested – being tolerant, is close to none. It’s sort of make-it-or-break-it time.
Obviously you have to have a frank conversation with your ex. Don’t blame his newfound interest on your fiancé being around; use the best interest of your daughter as the center of your reasoning, (Ex-etiquette for Parents Rule No. 1, “Put your children first.”) And, although Ex-etiquette for Parents Rule No. 8, “Be honest and straightforward” also is important, so is tact and timing.
“Our daughter is 4. She hasn’t seen you in two years. If you would like to see her I would like you to start out slowly and on a set schedule.” Then lay out the parenting plan you suggest. Don’t be afraid to suggest day, even hourly visits at first. Dad and daughter need to get reacquainted, and to expect her to warm up to dad after not seeing him for half her life is just plain not fair. There are lots of places your child’s father can see her other than your home. At age 4, he should be able to spend time alone with her, but a public place may make her feel more comfortable. An afternoon at the park or beach are good choices when it is warm outside. In winter, someplace that caters to kids, like Chuck E. Cheese’s, would be perfect. I hesitate to suggest a movie right off because that’s two hours of not talking.
I would also give dad solid boundaries, “You miss two visits without warning, and that’s the end of the visits.” So there is no question about your agreement, put any parenting plan you agree upon in writing. Don’t be afraid of going to court for that help.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation.”