Staying Involved as a Non-Custodial Parent
It is often difficult for non-custodial parents to have regular, meaningful contact with their kids following the divorce. It is so difficult that there are many non-custodial parents who gradually slip out of their children’s lives. Studies verify the problem. In the U.S., 83 percent of children report not seeing their non-custodial parent on a weekly basis and 33 to 50 percent report not seeing them in the previous year. Although almost 85 percent of non-custodial parents are fathers, it’s important not to ignore the 15 percent who are mothers. The reasons many of these fathers and mothers gradually fade out of their children’s lives are much the same.
It doesn’t have to happen. If you are a non-custodial parent, you can and should stay in your children’s lives. Your children need you. Kids who have regular access to and positive relationships with both parents following a divorce or separation do better educationally, behaviorally and psychologically. You need them as well. Parents who lose touch with their children often experience chronic shame and depression.
If you are a non-custodial parent, you can ensure that you and your children have regular, positive contact. It isn’t up to the other parent. It isn’t up to the children. It’s up to you to maintain the connection.
The following are the most common reasons clients have given me over the years for why they became discouraged about having regular contact with their children. Sessions were dedicated to empowering them to do something about it.
- The divorce may be legal but it isn’t over.
You and the other parent are still so angry, hurt or defeated that you can’t deal with seeing each other. Contact with each other during dropoffs and pickups for the kids results in continuation of the fights that led to the divorce. One or the other of you can’t stand going through yet another go-around of hostilities.
If a fight about some issue has never solved the problem, what makes you think another round of the same fight will yield different results? It’s exhausting for the two adults. It isn’t healthy for the kids to witness yet another fight between their parents. If the issues are important enough to fight about, they are important enough to address through some mediation or counseling. Get some help so you can both have an emotional as well as legal divorce.
- Being a visitor in your children’s lives is too painful.
Being relegated to the role of visitor makes you feel like the world thinks your time with your kids is optional. Because you see the kids only intermittently, you have become less and less aware of their interests and activities. Visits have become more and more awkward. The kids are less willing to visit with you. You may have salvaged your self-esteem by convincing yourself that the kids are better off without you.
Reject the notion that you are visiting. Parents who are spending time with their children are parenting, not visiting. The division of time should reflect respect for the children’s need to have regular, ordinary contact with both parents. Work with your ex to see to it that you share responsibility for your kids’ daily lives. Make decisions about where you work and live that enable you to be actively involved. Spend relaxed time with them during the week. Go to parent-teacher conferences, doctor appointments and other important meetings. Attend your children’s practices, performances and games, just as you would as a full-time parent. Make sure you stay in touch with your children through texts and calls and social media (for older kids) when you are not physically with them.
- Unrealistic child support requirements.
Most divorced parents who are court-ordered to pay child support do so. Of those who don’t make their payments, two-thirds say they don’t have the financial resources to pay. Perhaps you are one of them. It’s not that you don’t want to pay. It’s not that you don’t want to provide for your kids. But you can’t figure out how to meet your entire obligation. Nonpayment has led to frustration and anger at the system. You stay away because you don’t want to deal with reminders from your ex about what you owe or your shame and anger about your inability to pay.
Negotiate child support that honors the children’s need for both parents to have some stability. Ideally, you and your ex should work on an approach to your collective finances that lets both of you have a home that includes space for kids and the ability to care for them while they are in your care. Consider the employability and resources of both of you. If you and your ex are too angry with each other to do this on your own, see a mediator for some help before you go to court.
- Your anger is renewed by your support system.
Your friends and extended family are so angry with your ex that every conversation with them includes reminders about all the ways you have been wronged. You feel that you have to stay angry with the ex in order to get continued support from your own parents or siblings. This is especially difficult if they help you with finances or childcare.
Draw some boundaries. Your friends and relatives probably mean well, but their anger isn’t helpful. It gets in your way of making a working relationship with your ex for the children’s sake. It isn’t healthy for the children to feel torn between their other parent and their relatives. Thank these people for their concern and support. Insist that they back off so you can provide a healthy environment for the children.
- Your new partner doesn’t want to have to deal with the kids.
You’ve fallen in love again. The new person in your life is wonderful in every way except one: She or he doesn’t want to have to be involved with your children.
This relationship may not be for you. Your children are not going to go away. You can’t erase your past with your ex or pretend you are not a parent. You don’t want to be always caught between responding to the needs of your children or attending to your partner. Your children deserve to have love and care from all the adults in their life. If the person you are seeing can’t accept those realities, move on.