How can I parent my child most effectively when our family has been divided by divorce? I'm a single mother of a four-year-old son. He goes to stay with his father, who left me when I was pregnant with him, every other weekend. When he comes home, he cries for his dad. This really hurts me because I've raised him alone, and as a result I've had all the hard work (like discipline). I also have two other children by another man, so it's harder for me to give this child as much love and attention as my ex-husband does. To tell the truth, I think he spoils him. After these visits I end up crying and feel emotionally devastated for several days. I would appreciate your help with this.
We're very sorry to hear that the situation with your son and ex-husband has been so difficult. Our hearts go out to you in the midst of your struggles, and we want you to know that we're here to offer you a helping hand in any way we can.
Under circumstances like those you've described, it's normal for a four-year-old boy to bond closely with this father and to miss him when they're apart. Nor are we surprised to hear that his father may be spoiling him. It's not unusual for non-custodial parents to spoil their kids. After all, they only get a few days with them each month.
Your reaction is normal too. Since you're the one who puts in all the hard work with your son day in and day out, and since you have the tough job of disciplining him when he misbehaves, it's only natural that you feel a bit annoyed when you receive the impression that he's getting away with murder at his dad's house.
If you have a good relationship with your ex-husband, you might discuss how the two of you could get on the same page when it comes to discipline. A good place to begin would be to identify those parameters you think you both would agree on and work from there. Hopefully, he'll be able to see your point of view and realize that consistency is in the best interest of your son. If, on the other hand, your relationship with your ex is strained and this isn't possible, we'd encourage you to put aside any anger or resentment you may feel and try to make the best of the situation. We'd also encourage you to resist the temptation to put down your husband in front of your son. That will only make matters worse.
The most important issue you need to deal with is your own emotional dependency. You mentioned that you're emotionally devastated for several days every time your son comes home from visiting his dad. If that's the case, then you are most likely looking to your children to meet all of your emotional needs. Many single moms have a tendency to do this, and it's not healthy for you or your kids. If you expect your children to supply your needs for friendship and to fill your emotional tank, you'll just end up harming them in the long run.
How can you get around this? We suggest you find some supportive, emotionally mature adults to meet your relational needs. The Bible tells us that we are designed for relationship, and that we need people in our lives to encourage us and help bear our burdens. Since it sounds like your relationships with men haven't been particularly successful, we recommend that you concentrate on building some healthy connections with other women.
You might start by joining a moms' group, perhaps through a local church. The organization MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) has chapters in communities all across the country. You can find one near you by visiting mops.org. For some great tips on finding emotionally healthy friends and getting healthier yourself, we'd recommend the book Safe People, by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. This resource is available through our ministry and can be ordered via Focus on the Family's Online Store.
If you need further information, feel free to get in touch with our Counseling department. We'd be pleased to assist you in any way we can.