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Badmouthing’ – to do or not to do?

Badmouthing’ – to do or not to do?
Written by
Wikizine Parents

This month, our Wikizine Parents talk about how they cope when talking to their children about their Ex.

In Kirsten's words:

We single parents are damned if we do and damned if we don’t when it comes to commenting about our ex-partners – the mothers or fathers to our children - who have their heads in cloud cuckoo land. Do we point out the truth (and ask them not to shoot us, after all we’re only the messenger here) or say nothing and let them find out the hard way that it’s all fiction? Do we even know what the truth is or how the reality will show up when our ex partners say one thing and it’s only hindsight which reveals they actually meant something very different?

When it comes to protecting our children from being hurt by the other parent who may mean well, but actually can’t distinguish fairyland from reality and fails to see the damage it causes to our children, the stakes are indeed high.

On a positive note, there are divorced parents who work it out amiably and whose children come through unscathed. The best example I know is Anne Cantelo, author of the book entitled ‘It’s no big deal really’ - named after the words her teenage daughter used to describe to a friend her experience of her parents’ (very amicable) divorce.

Sadly, I fear Anne and her family are an exception as I know no-one else who can claim their children are unscathed by divorce. Whilst it’s widely recognised that children can recover quite quickly from separation and divorce, the way the parents handle divorce will have a lasting impression on them. The impact of this can be seen in a study last year which found that one in three children permanently loses touch with a parent, usually the father, post divorce.

My own experience is a bit of a pick and mix – from my kids barely seeing their father after separating for a couple of years (father’s choice) to my eldest now living with his father and his father supporting him by picking up the tab for his post grad course fees. This caught me totally off the back foot, as I’d warned my son to prepare to be disappointed and I fully expected to hear that on the first day of term the fees wouldn’t be met. I was wrong and it was great to be proved wrong.

But what I find curious is the lack of consistency: no birthday or Christmas presents for years and then a big present, and always an expensive brand. He does make an effort – when it suits him. I no longer know what this means, but if it means he pitches up in Oxford without any prior warning once in a while to take our daughter to lunch, then she’s pleased. Or it might mean that he buys a suit for our youngest son ‘because a gentleman has to have a DJ’.

There’s no pattern and it’s always on his terms. Is it a game? Are they being bought? And if they don’t play ‘his game’ will that mean they won’t benefit either materially or emotionally? I don’t know and thankfully don’t get involved other than making encouraging noises when it works for them as they are all young adults now. At other times I can’t help but remind myself of the saying ‘Expect nothing and never be disappointed’ though I’ve refrained from passing it on to them in case I’m accused of cynicism!

But it is sometimes hard to hear of their friends who have everything handed to them on a plate by their parents; for whom not receiving a birthday or Christmas present, let alone two holidays a year and their under graduate and post graduate fees paid would be unthinkable. Fortunately my children know there are always those who are worse – as well as better – off than them and (reluctantly) acknowledge that financial independence has to be down to them sooner, rather than later.

Bob's view:

Those who know me will confirm that I have never said anything negative about my ex in front of the girls.

But, when the name of the girl’s mum is brought up in polite conversation I do tend to break out in a cold sweat, reach for my worry beads, clutch a crucifix tight to me heart, smear myself in garlic paste, and cower beneath the nearest mirror trembling...

...I wonder if my girl’s notice?!

In the www.onlydads.org office we have a shelf of literature from Family Solicitors and other organisations helping divorced and separated parents get through what can be a very hard and difficult period. The phrase “always retain a good and positive relationship with the ex, especially in front of the children” is a phrase that I think is bordering on glib.

The fact is that some Mums and Dads behave appallingly. Pretending you can still be friends in front of the children just may not be possible in some cases. Even if you tried the kids would rumble you! One of the things that many reading this will appreciate, is that children tend to know what’s going on in any case. My children can spot any hint of a false-hood a mile away!

Of course we have to avoid constantly bad-mouthing the other half in from of the children – but for those parents who have reached the stage where they actively dislike their ex (and in the case of some single mums who have been the victims of domestic violence), end up going through life scared, I think being honest with the children is perhaps better than pretending everything is all sweetness and light.

This is a difficult area! I have yet to come across an article that really tackles this problem head-on. There is plenty of half-baked “in an ideal world” advice; but what help that is, is to my my mind dubious.

Kim says:

Bad mouthing the absent parent - Tell the truth vs protect the innocent?

I’ve bitten my lip so many times I’m amazed I don’t look more like Angelina Jolie. I know it’s not good for the kids if I “bad mouth” their father but his behaviour sometimes is so awful and their devotion to him is so complete that it takes the strength of the Titans not to do so. He seems to think that it is OK to get them all excited about some promised future treat that he knows he is unlikely to deliver. They spend months talking about it in giddy and breathless anticipation. He gets oodles of adoration as the weeks go by – “Isn’t Daddy marvellous?” and “Won’t it be wonderful?”…and so on and so forth. I have seen them go through this loop of excited wonderment many times before, and then had to deal with their crushing disappointment when he conjures up some flaky excuse (e.g. “the Centre burnt down”, “the airline lost the reservation”, “I have a business meeting” etc). It’s so predictable you almost laugh.

So what do I do this time? Do I risk telling them that he isn’t going to deliver again? Do I couch it in more gentle terms (“Perhaps Daddy didn’t actually promise…”)? Whatever I say – even though I am trying desperately hard to protect them – they will see me as the angry, resentful Mummy who dares to challenge their fierce and protective love of their father. So shall I just bite my lip and listen to their excited voices chattering away about the next promised treat – and be ready to hold them close, provide lots of cuddles and kiss away their tears when the inevitable let down occurs? I always used to think that telling the truth was best. But these days I have to protect the innocent – and let them learn for themselves (in the hardest possible way) that not everyone can be trusted. And how it must hurt them when it is one of the few people in the world – their Dad – that they really ought to be able to trust, who lets them down.

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