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A single father’s story: Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable

My story

In recent months, I have made more effort than ever to lessen any animosity between my young son’s mother and I tried to improve circumstances around his contact with her. This has, of course, been a very interesting and somewhat difficult personal journey. I’m going to tell you how and why I embarked on it in the first place.

At the time of writing this, my son is fast approaching his 3rd birthday. Not only does it baffle me how fast time goes, but also the fact that I became a solo parent when my son turned 17 months old - more than half of his lifetime ago. Before this pivotal moment in our lives, my son’s mother and I were in a committed relationship, living and parenting together. However, in the few months leading up to her leaving, there were some noticeable changes in her behaviour and involvement as a parent in that she became somewhat absent and withdrawn. Needless to say, that was a very difficult time and sent ripples through our families.

A while later, my son’s mother told me that she wanted to get involved in his life again so we agreed to start contact. By this point, a lot of water had gone under the bridge. As a single parent family, my son and I had completely rebuilt our lives around our new normal. Under the circumstances, we were doing incredibly well as just the 2 of us. Regardless of how I felt, re-introducing my son’s mother into his life was going to be another seismic change for him to deal with at such a young age. My top priority was to put my personal issues with his mother aside and do this right, for his sake.

Needless to say, there were many details to discuss and this was a very tough process. I will openly say that we did argue and conversations did get heated at certain points. I’ve avoided conflict for most of my life so this was really daunting for me, but as a dad I’d argue with the Prime Minister, the President and the Pope simultaneously if it was for my boy.

Points of conflict with my ex-partner

Everyone will have their own points of conflict, but our’s have been:

  • Court order application

  • Importance of routine and consistency

  • When to change/increase contact

Without writing an individual essay on each point here, I’ll try my best to summarise.

The court route for custody can get bitter. I knew it was the right thing for me to do for stability and security in my son’s life, but it may not be necessary for everyone. For any parents reading this who have gone through, or are about to go through the court process for living and custody arrangements, you may be asked to participate in something called SPIP - Separated Parenting Information Programme. I highly recommend embracing this as it can equip you with some perspective on what your child could experience having separated parents, as well as productive approaches to dealing with the other parent.

Routine and consistency are great for children even in a traditional family, but they are vital for children who have experienced trauma and have attachment issues. I knew this from doing the work and learning about the issues my son has and will face, so I refused to compromise and my son’s mother got sick of hearing the words. I insisted on an agreed schedule that we stuck to and that if we were going to get anywhere with contact. Now that we’ve come as far as we have with contact, we’re in agreement that my son having more time with his mother has been very helpful in establishing and improving the relationship between my son and her.

Being careful about the risk of trauma

Changes to contact arrangements caused difficult conversations every time. In order to be sensitive to the trauma my son experienced, we had to handle contact very carefully. From all my research into trauma and attachment theory, as well as being the parent who dealt with the fallout from my son’s mother leaving, I knew how difficult things were for him. It was often hard to stress the gravity of the situation. If I disagreed with a suggestion or said we should hold off for now, I (understandably) got some backlash as it was perceived as me being unreasonable or saying no out of spite. A key point for me was trying to have empathy with my ex and getting the right guidance from the right people. One pivotal source of guidance for me was when I consulted a trauma therapist during a particularly difficult patch. Discussing things with an expert was eye-opening and helped me be more proactive.

A key lesson: taking a diplomatic approach

Something that has been important in moving things forward is taking a diplomatic approach. One example that springs to mind is when we came to a crossroads about extending in person contact. It could have gone one of two ways - numerous arguments and back to court, or we worked through it ourselves. I extended an olive branch and offered to meet for coffee to discuss. This turned out to be an opportunity for us to turn a corner. Repeatedly arguing and butting heads only breeds more animosity and creates a toxic atmosphere. This is exactly what children don’t need. Anyone who’s parented a toddler will know that kids are like sponges and love nothing more than to emulate your words and behaviour, so I urge all separated parents to keep this in mind. Remember, you’re leading by example when communicating with each other - make it positive or at least civil. You don’t have to become best friends or fall in love with each other all over again, just behave in a way that would make you a proud parent if it was your son or daughter in your shoes.

Spending time as a three

Since this conversation, we have focused on cooperating when having contact and doing things as a three. For a long time, my son would rarely leave my side and go to his mum. I tried to step back to not obstruct their contact time, but this turned out to be counter productive as he seemed to get very anxious. We now incorporate more day-to-day activities like going shopping together which he really enjoys. He is noticeably more comfortable around his mother since this change in approach to create a more consciously positive atmosphere.

Spending more time around my ex was challenging but knowing it’s for my son and seeing the benefits with my own eyes helped me get past any negative feelings it brought up initially. There is no expectation of being best friends or returning to any form of romantic relationship, so I know I’m there as a father, not an ex-partner.

Final thoughts

If you’re going through something similar with your ex-partner and want the best for your child, here are 5 key takeaways:

  1. Be diplomatic in your approach with your ex - it helps with getting to where you want to be.

  2. Focus on what your children are experiencing - contact with both of you is for them.

  3. Don’t get stuck in an echo chamber - It’s easy to get wedded to your own perspective or experience, speak to the right people for perspective.

  4. Remind yourself that this is a process - reflect and learn along the way.

Focus on being a parent, not an ex - this part isn’t about romantic history.

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