Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Mom worries about leaving daughter with ex's new squeeze
My Nerves Are So Shot: Per our new custody arrangement, I have to drop off my daughter for the first time today with my ex-husband and his horrible new girlfriend. There is nothing I want to do less. How do I make myself okay with this? Daughter is 3 and in a very formative stage, obviously. Will bubble wrap keep the new lady's fingerprints off her?
Carolyn: I don't know if this will make you feel better or worse, but here goes.
If there were such a thing as emotional bubble wrap, we'd all be tempted to use it, and we'd all be wrong to succumb.
I sympathize completely with your horror at handing over your pride and joy (and your biggest responsibility ever) to someone you don't trust. The thing is, though, even if there weren't a horrible new girlfriend (HNG), there would still be a whole life full of influences, good and bad, awaiting your child.
Parents (rightly) research and agonize their way into the best choices they can make about day cares, or babysitters, or preschools, but even the best research can't protect them from the other kids, who make play guns with their fingers or repeat the profanities they heard on the subway or form cliques that don't include them — and whose parents also researched and soul-searched and fretted their way into choosing that same school you did.
It won't protect them from adults you trust who have frailties you didn't foresee.
It won't protect them from you, who will (guaranteed!) pass along some bad habits or misguided thinking.
These are all people who may be in much more regular, sustained contact with your child than the HNG will. And they will leave fingerprints, all of them, and there's just so much you can do about that.
That's why being a parent can't just be about protecting your kids.
It's also about fortifying them — with love, with listening, with encouragement when they do good things, with letting them make some mistakes, with the assignment of age-appropriate chores, with the incremental (and earned) letting go to teach them independence. These are better than bubble wrap, because they help a kid become strong enough to resist yielding to every thumbprint.
Obviously, this answer would be different if there were grounds to suspect the HNG (or ex) would be abusive. Certainly, too, people who unwittingly entrusted their kids to abusers, people for whom even overprotective instincts wouldn't have been enough, will take great and justified exception to a that's-just-life attitude.
I'm just saying that given the real and unavoidable risks of introducing a defenseless child to the world, the most productive frame of mind is a practical one: How much control do I have, where is it most important that I use it, when do I have no other choice but to let go, what do history and context say about which risks are real and which are perceived, and how can I keep myself from responding so emotionally that I become a hazard myself?
Tomorrow, the discussion readers weigh in.