Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How Not to Handle This Co-Parenting Issue......

Remember the Berenstain Bears?  One of my favorite books involved Papa Bear teaching Brother Bear how to ride his new bike -- or, rather, how NOT to ride it.  Well, I recently pulled a Papa Bear stunt and decided to fess up to it and offer my behavior as an excellent example of  how NOT to treat your teenager when he has chosen to live with the other parent.

So, earlier this summer my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  She decided to come to Denver to have her chemotherapy treatments and, to the extent we could do any planning under severe emotional strain, we planned to have my mom live in my place as kind of a "home base" while she is here.  Our home only has two bedrooms, so, after agonizing over the situation for a ridiculous amount of time, I discussed the situation with my 17 year old son and his Dad.  I could turn my dining room into a room for my son and we could keep our parenting time schedule, or he could basically live with his Dad full-time and we would work out some way to spend time together.  We decided that staying with Dad was the best idea given all the unknowns about my Mom's health situation.

For numerous reasons, some unknown to me, my Mom has decided to stay with my brother and his significant other (she's wonderful) -- they have a much larger home, but it is not close to me or her doctors.  So, the bottom line is that I'm now alone.  I'm not a person who cannot be alone, but I am a parent who misses having her son around - even when he was here and spending most of his time in his room doing teenage boy stuff he was here and I had some connection to his life.  I could give him hugs, peek in on him while he was sleeping and, occasionally, try to see what girls he was writing to online :-)  Austin doesn't understand what the big deal is and, so far, isn't enthusiastic about going back to our parenting schedule.  Austin's Dad is thrilled with the new situation and takes every opportunity to remind me that I put my mother "ahead of" my son and, obviously, am not a good parent.  [NOTE:  The "I'm a better parent than you" theme is nothing new -- in fact I think it began the day Austin was born.  Superfun.]

The thing is that when I was agonizing over what to do, I rationalized that I have always known there would come a day when Austin would get sick of going back and forth between two homes -- and, especially as a teenager, he is definitely in a "daddy phase."  I reasoned with myself that this was totally fine and that as long as Austin is happy, healthy, doing well in school, I should support what he wants to do.  RIGHT.

Knowing that something is "right" in your mind, does not make it any easier on your heart. (or your ego)  I learned this lesson when Austin's dad and I divorced and it seems to be a recurrent theme in my life.  I try so hard to take my ego, my needs, my "issues" with Austin's dad out of the equation when trying to come to grips with this situation.  I try even harder because I work with parents who struggle with co-parenting their teenagers and I always stress that parents need to check their ego at the door when it comes to deciding what is best for their child(ren) in any particular situation.  Alas, even after 15+ years of co-parenting practice, I sometimes fail spectacularly.

Recent example:  I commented on something that Austin had posted on Facebook -- I know, bad idea.  He wrote back saying that this was why he didn't want me to be his friend -- even though pretty much everyone else is -- dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandma.....I FLIPPED - it was so ugly - I wrote him back a private email (I had some of my wits about me...) basically saying that I didn't feel like his mom anymore, that I felt like I only heard from him when he wanted something (kinda true) and that maybe he could send me a Christmas card or graduation announcement just to let me know how he's doing......to top it off I made a snotty remark about how I hoped he and his family were doing well.  Yeah, I told you it was ugly.

I tried to retrieve the message - no go.  I alternated between feeling totally justified and feeling like a total failure as a parent for about 24 hours.  I waited for some kind of response from Austin.  I knew I had handled the situation badly and that his reaction was not going to be "oh mommy, I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, I didn't realize how much it meant to you to have me here, etc. etc. etc." -- he is not that kind of kid.

Imagine my surprise when he showed up after school the next day.  He came in, gave me a hug and told me all about his day.  I told him that I was very sorry about the message I had written him......turns out he hadn't read it yet.  THERE IS A GOD.  (alright, I am being dramatic....but I was relieved)  I explained to him what happened, how I felt and asked him what he was feeling and if we could do anything to have more consistent contact.  It was pretty much a one sided conversation -- he wasn't upset, but still didn't understand why it mattered where he slept and really needed to get online asap.......we made plans to at least have dinner together once a week and to schedule some nights that he would spend with me.

What have I learned from this? 

1.  Don't write on Austin's facebook wall.

2.  When you know you shouldn't hit "send", don't.

3.   I'm not perfect, and I'm not horrible - I'm human.

4.  Letting Austin see that I'm human, and that I realize when I make mistakes and try to correct them, is a good way to teach him how to handle similar situations in his life.  Instead of sticking to my "position" and trying to force a situation that doesn't work for him, I let him know that I respect his needs/decisions even when I don't like them.  I'm not suggesting that parents should always let their children decide when they want to be with either parent -- in fact research clearly concludes that it is a huge mistake to put that decision in the hands of  younger children as it puts them in the untenable situation of having to choose one parent over the other.  In our situation, however, Austin is 17 and a Junior in High School.  He has spent 99.9% of  his life complying with a parenting schedule that, although we discussed it with him and got his input as he has grown up, was imposed upon him.  As long as he doesn't take advantage of the situation ("hey dad, I'm staying at mom's tonight [so I don't have to work on that report you keep hounding me about...])  I think it will work out well.  As long as I keep my monkey brain under control (i.e., not make this about me or my parenting) I can live with this arrangement.

Doesn't mean I don't miss him though.......  

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