Q: I'm a hands-on parent and when my ex and I were together, I was the one who did the most for the kids. My ex always was around, but I made most of the decisions. Now that we're breaking up, he is taking me to court for shared custody. I don't think he can handle it, and I don't think it's in the best interest of the kids. What's good ex-etiquette?
A: Good ex-etiquette is to support the premise that your children have a right to a good relationship with both parents. Even though you used to do everything, that doesn't mean your ex is incapable. He may have been reacting that way to avoid arguments. It's not uncommon that while together, one parent is more hands-on than the other, but when there is a breakup, the less-involved parent steps up to the plate. There was a tradition established during that past relationship and, as one parent begins to take on his or her newfound responsibilities, the parent who had been more hands-on starts to feel threatened. It can then go one of two ways: The parent who has been in charge pulls out all the stops and makes everyone's life miserable, or he or she steps back so the other can step up.
I often hear divorced parents refer to themselves as "single parents." Of course there are parents who are their children's only support system, but more often than not, parents do have help — each other — they just don't want to ask. Many have told me they would feel like a failure if they had to ask the ex for help. Truth is, that's the exact reason I made "Ask for help if you need it" as Ex-etiquette rule No. 2, right after rule No. 1, "Put the children first." You both love the same kids. Who, more than their other parent, would be a more likely candidate to help you with your children?
Here's a little trick that can help when asking for assistance. Try using the word "would" rather than "could." If you say, "I have to work late tonight, could you please pick up Samantha at 5:30?" you may get, "Not today, I have to pick up my laundry at the cleaners before they close." But, if you say, "Would you please pick up Samantha at 5:30," you are more likely get the help you are looking for. Try it. "Could" is asking if it is a possibility. "Would" is asking for a favor. Ironically, simply using the wrong word can set you up for failure.
As angry as your ex can make you, making the mental shift from "ex" to "my child's father" (or mother) will also help your ability to calmly interact. Bring it back to being about the kids, not how angry or frustrated you are with each other, and you will be surprised how your ability to problem solve will improve.
Finally, I'm betting dad will be just fine. For your kids' sake, do your best to support each other.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation, and the founder of bonusfamilies.com. Reach her at drjannblackstonegmail.com.