Dear Ellie,

After fighting my way out of an emotionally abusive marriage and making a better home and life for myself and my children, I’m struggling with how to co-parent with this man. When we divorced, my ex-husband and I agreed to keep our children out of our conflicts. As my son and daughter have gotten older, they mention the passive-aggressive comments he makes about me when they are with him. He has said things indicating that I’m the one to blame for breaking up our family. According to him, I’m selfish and trying to ruin his life.

I try so hard to take the high road, to say nothing derogatory about him in front of the kids, but it’s so frustrating! Sometimes I just want to tell them the truth about what a jerk their dad is (and I think they are starting to sense this for themselves), but I don’t know how much is appropriate to tell them, and at what age. Can you help?


Frustrated and Fed Up

Dear Frustrated and Fed Up,

On a blustery February day a few years ago, I picked my sons up – they were probably 5 and 6 at the time – from their grandparents’ house. They had spent a weekend with their dad and his family, and I was chomping at the bit to get them back in my arms.

Once we were all in the car, my younger son said quietly, “Mama, Daddy says you don’t want us to be part of your family anymore.” My eyes shot up to the rear-view mirror, and what I saw made a lump swell up in my throat: my sweet boy with his big mess of brown hair looking down into his lap at his fingers nervously twirling around each other.

It took everything in me not to slam on the brakes, turn my beat-up car around, march my son right back into his grandparents’ home to face his father and demand an explanation for why in the world he would say such a terrible thing to our preciously innocent boy. I was completely enraged.

And there, in a split second, I had to make a choice.

I could demand justice for myself or I could be a parent.

Before I give you any advice, I want to give you a big high five and a hug. It sounds like you are navigating a difficult situation with grace and poise. Dealing with a co-parent who puts a lot of effort into hurting you is really difficult work. It is draining and maddening and heart-breaking all at once.

The fact that your children are telling you these things is a signal that you are a safe place for them. Communication between parent and child in the midst of divorce is so important, so I would encourage you to keep listening and keep being a haven for your son and daughter. Inevitably, there are going to be difficult life experiences ahead for them as they navigate high school and adulthood. You are laying the groundwork now for them to feel comfortable bringing life’s mess to your doorstep and saying, “Mama, I need you to help me with this.”

When my son told me what he understood his to father say that day, what he was really communicating to me was, “Mama, I need you to help me with this.” His five-year-old soul knew that I loved him and cherished being a part of his family. He just did not know how to reconcile what he heard from his daddy with what he knew to be true. And so in that moment, that was my calling – to walk with my son down a path that had already brought him questions and hurt and help him make meaning of it.

What rings so true in your letter, Frustrated and Fed Up, is the immense love that you have for your children. If you let it, that love and devotion to their wholeness will keep your lips pursed so that you don’t draw your kids into the chaos that is your relationship with their father. That love will give you eyes to see their pain instead of blind rage when they tell you ways that he disparages you.

Once I took my offended heart out of the picture, the steps I needed to take were very clear. I pulled our car over into the nearest parking lot, climbed into the back seat, and drew my sons into my chest. I let them bawl heaving sobs as I reassured them that they were the best thing I had ever done and I wasn’t going anywhere. I asked them how they felt about what their dad said, and I listened.

I know it’s difficult, Frustrated, to quell the uprising you justifiably feel when the father of your children disparages you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bawled my head off into my pillow at night once my boys were asleep because I was utterly incensed at things their father said or did to me during our separation and divorce. That season tends to bring out the worst in us and in our soon-to-be-ex-spouses, and sifting through it all can be utterly exhausting.

I want to encourage you to find an outlet for this anger and hurt. Grab a handful of your best girlfriends and let them be the safe place you fall to talk about the awfulness of your ex-husband. Give yourself space to grieve and mourn the pain he tries to lob your way. This sort of self-care will be healing for you.

I once read that the best way to get revenge is to ignore the person who is trying to break you down and build a happy life instead. This is one of my mama bird mantras. It reminds me to ignore other people’s mess and focus on what I can control. Because there is, in fact, a lot that I can control. I can build a life of beauty. I can fill the relationships I have with my children full of love and care and safety. I can create peace for myself, which is something that toxic people can never give me.

You end your letter asking a brave question: When do I get to tell my kids what a jerk their father is? The truth is this: you won’t have to. They will see it for themselves eventually. It will probably break their hearts. And you will be there to grieve with them, to remind them of how beautifully brave they are, to encourage them to pursue a healthy relationship with their father (which might mean no relationship at all).

Your children have a tremendous gift in you, Frustrated and Fed Up. I know the work of co-parenting with someone who is unreasonable and unkind is really hard work. You have proven that you can do hard things, and I know you will face this with the same courage and strength. I am rooting for you.

Boldly yours,

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