During the married years, visiting Ex’s family during the holidays was an uncomfortable and unhappy—not to mention gastronomically unsatisfying—experience. It was especially so when I was an insecure hormone-riddled new mother. Ex’s family is the sort where much is said with scowls and plausibly deniable looks of disapproval, which isn’t to say that they aren’t offerers of plenty of unsolicited advice; they are.
“He just needs a good spanking,” my mother-in-law often advised, referring to my then undiagnosed Asperger’s and ADD middle son. At six feet, my mother-in-law was one of very few women taller than I. Her default expression was always one of surprise and displeasure. She rarely smiled and her gaudily tinted lips seem to be permanently pressed into a sour, disapproving pucker. She knew well that I was exactly the sort of mother who did not believe there was such a thing as a good spanking.
Inevitably the long ride home would find me in tears over the criticisms of Ex’s mother and sisters.
“Why are you even listening to their opinions?” Ex would ask. “One was a lousy mother and the other two aren’t mothers at all.”
Still, I wanted their approval. I don’t care so much these days.
Here is what has happened over the course of some 2000 words in exchanged emails beginning two days ago:
First, Ex called for the first time in two weeks. He told the children that he had seen the pictures of them frolicking on our recent adventures. An email I wrote to Ex’s mother and sisters had been forwarded to him. I had been explicit that those emails were for the intended recipients only.
Yeah, I’m a dummy. I trusted Ex’s family. I guess all those apples didn’t fall far from their tree.
I sent a short polite note saying that I would no longer be sending updates because they (one of them, anyway) had breached what I held to be a confidentiality understanding. I concluded with, “Of course, you may contact the children directly.”
Holy-hell if that didn’t start a sh*tstorm. Ex’s middle sister is a brash take-no-prisoners corporate exec-type who is quite accustomed to throwing her weight around. Presumably she was elected to take the pitch because she is intimidating. (I’ve seen her cry. She doesn’t scare me.)
Her email began by agreeing with me that the divorce had been “needlessly hateful and litigious” and she laid that at my feet as much as Ex’s.
She continued that I could not “with any rational thought” expect that they would abide by such an agreement.
They are his children, and there is nothing that you have shared with us that is inappropriate for their father to know.
(That is unless their father is using that information to attempt to reduce his financial obligation to them to $40 per month.)
She then went on the offense, accusing me of “severely limiting” her family’s ability to interact with the children.
It is impossible to reach them on the phone, email goes unreturned and gifts go unacknowledged. Additionally, in the limited interaction that I have had with the children, they have offered accounts of your actions to limit their access to us.
Of course it was the last line that needled me, because I know full well the children don’t feel that way. I asked them anyway and not as in “Your Auntie says…” but as in, “Do you feel that I help you to maintain your relationships with…? Do you feel that I have ever interfered? Have I said anything about them that makes you uncomfortable…?”
Weight-Throwing Auntie went on to tell me that she had hoped I would make decisions “based on what is best for the children.” It appeared to her that this was a “false hope.”
This woman was seriously barking up that tree. Arf arf. Like what? She could guilt trip me into doing something?
At this point in m’own little life, I’m pretty clear about my intentions and about what is and isn’t in the interests of the children. When I am weighing things, I am consulting with counselors and psychiatrists, not child-free Aunties with axes to grind.
Then Weight-Throwing-Auntie told me that she thought I should consider the impact my decisions would have on the children’s relationship with me. (Oh, I would never have thought of that myself.)
Growing up with a mother who restricts access to relatives will certainly lead to their questioning your judgement and motivations once they are mature enough to understand the value of family and the support and love only blood relatives can provide. Bitterness and resentment are sure to follow.
I’ll give it to the gal, she sure knows how to step on a nerve. I wrote a very nasty reply which I stuffed into the virtual drawer and pulled out this morning. I really, really tried to be evenhanded. This is what I sent (abridged to take out the tedious bits):
Dear [Weight-Throwing Auntie],
No doubt your interest in the children’s welfare is sincere. Unfortunately, in many respects, it is also wrongheaded. [Wrongheaded! Take that!]
I am surprised to learn that you feel I have actively alienated the children from you and your mother and sister. The opposite is true. Although I am under no obligation to facilitate these relationships, I have done so because I believe it is beneficial to the children. [Explained details at length, just like all the wise men recited their lists of great deeds done for the king in their time. (Many Moons, James Thurber)] Where I have failed to properly encourage responses to calls or gifts, it has been oversight in our busy lives and not ill-intent. (Believe it or not, single parenting is actually quite challenging.) [You wanna argue that?]
If you have heard otherwise from the children, I am surprised. [Okay, that was an understatement. I'll just say it straight out—I'm guessing that was a straight-up lie.] I inquired of them last evening and they do not feel that I have undermined their relationships with you. They expressed appreciation that all of you have made an effort to maintain contact and that you have refrained from badmouthing me or their lives here, something which causes them considerable upset. Among the most difficult things for children in divorce is when they are made to feel that loving one person is a betrayal of another whom they also love. You are correct in your assessment that the individual who puts children in such a position is damaging their own relationship with them, advice you would be wise to share with your brother. [God knows he could use all the parenting advice he could get, even from her.]
Please note that these issues arise only because I am backing off on one of the things I have done to facilitate your relationships with the kids—sending email updates—because you (or one of you) reneged on what I understood to be an agreement that those emails would be held in confidence such that they could never be used in court to undermine the interests of the children. This came up in a recent hearing in which [Ex] pontificated about the allegedly privileged and leisurely life we lead—which is—I’m sorry—bullsh*t—in order to further deprive the children of resources. This is the way [Ex] rationalizes paying $25 every two months in support, precisely the amount required to keep his driver’s license. (In case you aren’t clear—that is not in the “children’s interest.” Also, that technically makes him a “deadbeat” which would put his face on a milk carton in some states and would put him in jail here.)
Regardless, if you folks wanted a different agreement with me, you should have talked to me rather than violate my (obviously misplaced) trust. I was explicit that if you forwarded emails to [Ex] such that they could be used against the children in litigation, I would no longer be sending updates. As I said, you may still contact the children directly. We have a busy schedule, [here is how to arrange things, blah blah blah.]
With regard to your placing of blame equally for the acrimonious nature of things—with all due respect, you have exactly one side of the story: [Ex's]. I don’t claim to have been blameless, but you are seriously out of line. As things are now, I do not bear [Ex] any ill will. I see him as the children do; as a very sick individual, ill as opposed to evil. The children love their father, but they know very well that he is unreliable and irresponsible at best, and destructive at worst, not because I have told them so, but because that has been their experience. [I take no pleasure in telling her that her brother is the king of loser-dom.]
[She did, however, open it with that 'blood relatives' bit and "I have a policy about honesty and ass-kicking: if you ask for it, I have to let you have it." (Taylor Mali)] The recent email to you three was shared with [Ex] prompting him to place a call to the children for the first time in two weeks. When [Ex] has failed to call for weeks on end, it has generally been an indicator that he isn’t functioning well. Whether you all have your heads in the sand about it or not, [Ex] has a serious substance abuse problem, poor judgement, and a bad temper. Likely he also suffers from mental illness for which he is not, but should be, receiving treatment. In court he said he has been so depressed for eight years that he cannot work. [Ex] is so ill that he cannot govern his own life, let alone partner in parenting. He told the court that he is on the verge of losing his building (probably because he drinks and who knows what else all night and sleeps all day and doesn’t work). He doesn’t return client calls or answer mail, and he has virtually dropped out of the children’s lives (again). Oh, and in case you didn’t know, his contact in Hawaii was his drug dealer in college, who supposedly moved to Hawaii for the marijuana. That’s not mean or bitter—it’s honest. If [Ex] had gotten help perhaps even the marriage might have been saved. If he doesn’t get it, his life may not be—and that would be a tragedy for everyone.
Being ill does not give him a pass on the choices he makes. He should be held accountable by the courts and by people who care about him, including you. (If the support of blood relatives is so fantastic—why have you folks watched idly while his life has crumbled?) [I couldn't resist that swipe. Seriously, why haven't they had an intervention or something? It worked when Betty Ford's family did it.]
Regardless, I am trying very hard to provide for these children and to raise them well. [Ex] has not been a partner in that effort at all. In fact, often he has actively undermined their physical, mental, and emotional wellness. There is no one involved in the children’s day-to-day lives who would disagree nor would call me anything other than a conscientious—if imperfect—parent. (That includes a legion of friends, community members, teachers, counselors, and psychiatrists.) If their testimony wouldn’t do it for you, the children’s raw successes should. They are all thriving, even in the face of some rather serious challenges. [So stick your petty criticisms where the sun don't shine.]
To be very clear: If your contact with the children is not positive and appropriate, then your contact with them will be relegated to [Ex]‘s ever-shrinking watch. I have not felt that this has been the case, even in light of your court testimony, which was NOT in the “children’s interest.” I have, however, consistently felt that in your interactions with the children, all of you have remained positive and supportive, and have consciously avoided controversy. When I have raised concerns, you have been responsive. That is why I have never limited contact, why I have in fact facilitated contact, and why I will continue to do so, in spite of your criticism, in spite of your combative tone and frankly—your rudeness.
I regret that I will not, however, be sending you updates which [Ex] could misconstrue and use against the children’s interests in some future court hearing.
As I have said before, I appreciate your efforts in support of the children.
That Bitch Who Mistakenly Married Your Brother]
Okay, maybe I should have left it in the drawer for another day or two. It didn’t take long for her to reply. She wrote that “…it will be your actions that tell the story, not your words.” (I am still shaking my head and wondering who made her the judge and jury of me because for once, it wasn’t me.)
She declined to respond to any of the issues I raised related to Ex, and reasonably so, they were outside the scope of the original dispute, although I maintain that she opened it by extolling the virtues of “the support and love only blood relatives can provide.”
She wrote that she was disappointed that I had spoken with the children about her allegations. (Actually, I hadn’t and I bet you can guess why that would have been disappointing? Could it have possibly been because she lied? Nah.) She wrote:
I understand you have no legal obligation to provide interaction for us; however, if your standard is (as I had hoped) that which is best for the children, you would want the children to have free and open access to family. I am disappointed to learn that you quizzed the children last night of my claim of things they shared with me – that would never stand up to the standard of “best for the children” since it essentially requires them to choose allegiances. As you note in your email, that is something my mother, sister and I have avoided at all costs.
The email I sent in reply:
First, let me remind you that you are not a parent and are not especially qualified to judge what is “best” for any children, most especially not mine. I asked the kids how they felt about things which is entirely appropriate. I asked not to force any choice of allegiance, but because I actually wanted to know so that I could address matters if need be. Your allegations were not mentioned.
I am perfectly capable of deeming exactly what does and does not meet a (subjective) standard of “best for the children.” Frankly, I didn’t ask for your opinion. If you are not able to offer a degree of professional deference to me as the parent, but instead choose to engage in second-guessing, judgment, and criticism, then kindly keep your views to yourself.
Single-parenting is difficult enough without the ex’s family lining up to tell you that you are doing a lousy job. (I’m not, thank-you-very-much.) I owe you nothing and were I the sort of person you have alleged that I am, I would tell you to stick your “free and open access” somewhere impolite. The children are fortunate that I’m not, and frankly, so are you.
To restate and to conclude this exchange: I will no longer be sending email updates because you have violated what I held to be a confidentiality agreement made to protect the interests of the children. If you want to have contact with the kids, you should simply call them. Arranging a time in advance will ensure that they can take the call.
[That Bitch Who Mistakenly Married Your Brother]
Yeah, so, um, I seriously considered sending the blog URL, too, but thought better of it.
Q: How do you start an argument with a redhead?
A: Say something.