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Divorce Dilemmas

If you're going through a divorce, you know that even under the very best of circumstances, thorny issues inevitably arise. "When we're married, we work hard to minimize our differences -- we're more willing to negotiate and compromise on questions of family and child rearing," says M. Gary Neuman, author of Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way. Divorce, on the other hand, tends to magnify those differences. Factor in dramatic changes in lifestyle and routine -- not to mention the hurt and anger than can linger long after the divorce is final -- and you have the potential for any number of difficult situations that you never thought you'd have to face. The good news, says Neuman, is that careful communication and a commitment to your child's welfare can go a long way toward solving these divorce dilemmas.

Q. My ex-husband asked me not to go to my daughter's soccer game on his weekends because his new wife says it makes her feel "uncomfortable." I think I should be there for my daughter's sake. Who's right?

A. In this situation, the adults' wishes are less important than those of your daughter; this is, after all, her game. Ideally, all the grown-ups should put their personal feelings aside. "Your daughter should come first, and her feelings should guide your decisions," says Jann Blackstone-Ford, a divorce and stepfamily mediator and coauthor of Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After a Divorce or Separation. Ask yourself honestly: Would she be happier if all of her parents were there? Or would she rather have you and her dad take turns? (But don't ask your daughter; that could put her in an extremely uncomfortable position.) The problem may not be your presence per se, but the way your daughter responds to it, says Neuman. "If you're the one she automatically runs to between quarters, her stepmother may feel slighted. Talk to your ex-husband and see whether you can find some middle ground that's acceptable to everyone." You can, for instance, explain to your kid that you'll be there to watch her game, but on Dad's weekends she should spend most of her time with her father and stepmother. Whatever the solution, make sure it leaves your child feeling loved -- on the field and off.

Q. My children don't like my new boyfriend, and frankly, they're often rude to him. How can I get them to treat him with respect?

A. You really need to look at this from your kids' perspective. "They're thinking, 'My mom is supposed to be with my dad, and that guy is not my dad,'" says Jeannette Lofas, PhD, a family mediator and founder of stepfamily.org. Not only that, but almost all children, no matter how long you've been divorced or how old they are, harbor fantasies of their parents someday reuniting. In addition, they may be feeling somewhat displaced. Having a new person in your life can make a kid who's used to getting all of your attention fear that someone else may be taking his place in the spotlight. This isn't a bad thing, but you'll need to have a lot of patience: Your children need time to get to know and accept your new partner and to get used to another shift in the family's dynamics. Until that happens, don't make a big show of physical affection and don't let your boyfriend discipline or lecture your kids or in any way try to "stand in" for their father. If the relationship is serious, sit down with your children and explain that "Mommy needs to have friends her own age too."

Insist that they at least treat him with respect as they would all guests in the household. Let them warm up on their own timetable. Meanwhile, keep your expectations realistic. You might consider taking the whole family to see a counselor -- the children may have feelings that they find too difficult to express to you directly, and a counselor can also help you and your boyfriend through this stressful adjustment period.

Q. Since my separation, I've had to go back to work full-time and put my 3-year-old son into daycare. I thought he'd adjust, but after two months he still hates it. What can I do?

A. Switching to a new routine can be tough for kids and parents, and when it's precipitated by a life-altering event, it's often hard to untangle the source of all that stress. So before you make the assumption that his daycare problems have to do with your separation, take his complaints at face value and ask him directly what he doesn't like; if necessary, talk to other parents at the center, and drop by unexpectedly to observe with your own eyes. "It might just be a bad fit, or your child may need help connecting with the other kids," says Isolina Ricci, PhD, author of Mom's House, Dad's House for Kids: Feeling at Home in One Home or Two. If you feel good about his daycare situation, be sure to communicate your enthusiasm -- he might be picking up on your guilt or ambivalent feelings about leaving him.

Often, though, the problem is garden-variety separation anxiety, and the best remedy is to help your son feel connected to you, even when you're apart. "Take the mystery out of your work life by taking him to your office," advises Dr. Ricci. Get him involved by asking his opinion of something in the office. The idea, says Dr. Ricci, "is to help make him feel a part of your world even when you're apart."

Q. My ex-husband allows our kids to do things I don't approve of, like staying up late on the weekends, playing video games, and eating junk. How do I express my objections without angering him?

A. First, ask yourself if the issues are really worth an argument. It's unlikely, after all, that you and your ex will agree on everything. "If the behavior isn't unhealthy or dangerous, it may be better to put up with it," says Neuman. But if you feel the situation is intolerable, discuss it but stay on message -- don't bring up past transgressions, and avoid placing blame. "You can e-mail him and say something like, 'I know we might have our differences, but let's try to keep a consistent bedtime,'" advises Neuman. If this doesn't resolve the issues, consider seeing a coparenting mediator for counseling or to help create a coparenting agreement -- a list of rules, either legal or informal, that can cover everything from curfews to acceptable clothing to family values, suggests Dr. Lofas.

Q. My ex's father says negative things about me to my kids when they visit him. How can I stop this?

A. What your father-in-law may not realize is that his comments aren't just hurtful to you; they're harming his grandchildren. Ask your ex to speak to him and explain that whatever his personal feelings, he needs to keep them to himself. If your ex won't do the talking you could write a note and very nicely explain the situation. "Grandparents are often kept out of the loop in a divorce," says Neuman. "So they've got anger and hostility but often can't figure out how to help." In reality, grandparents can be an invaluable resource for kids during a divorce, with the power to provide a consistent source of love and support. "They need to understand that their relationship to the grandchildren is too important to be tainted with tension or conflict," says Neuman.

Q. My kids stay with their father two days each week. What do I say when he tells me that his time with them is too valuable to "waste" on things like doctors' appointments and homework?

A. Even though it's maddening, try to give him the benefit of the doubt. He might not really get what you, as the primary caregiver, already know: that the routine responsibilities of raising a child offer some of the most valuable interactions. "The best conversations with kids happen when you're doing regular things like housework, grocery shopping, or merely riding in the car. These are the times when you can pass along your values and your outlook on life," says Blackstone-Ford. So try selling him on the importance of being involved in the mundane aspects of the kids' lives, as well as how important it is for both of you to play the role of caretaker. If that doesn't work, you may have to take a harder-line approach: Look into changing the visitation schedule so that the kids don't have to suffer the consequences of not getting their stuff done.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the November 2007 issue of Parents magazine.