Dear David Coleman: My son is caught in the middle of our separation
Q I am separated over six years. For a number of years my youngest, a boy aged seven, has been asking for increased time at my house. I've asked his mum for a trial of say one more night a fortnight (its currently three nights every two weeks) - but it's a blanket "no". Over the years I've tried mediation to try to find agreement on different things, but their mum cancels sessions, or walks out, and generally discards any progress or agreements reached. Because my son keeps asking her can he stay with me, his mum will often text me last minute to take him, when I often have work commitments, so I end up saying no, leaving him believing I am too busy to have him. I hate him being caught in the middle like this. Have you any advice?
David replies: Yours is a good example of just how difficult it can be for children in the aftermath of separation. Even though the separation occurred over six years ago, it sounds like you and your children's mum still haven't found an effective way of communicating about the children. This does make it more difficult for them.
Children need the adults to have things well enough sorted, such that there is consistency and predictability in their time with each parent. While it may be upsetting for your son to have his hopes raised when his mum agrees to contact you about an extra visit, he does, hopefully, have the absolute certainty that the three overnights each fortnight will occur as planned. In truth, this is all you can promise him, and so this is the critical thing to deliver all the time.
It may be that his mum isn't aware of the way in which she might get his hopes up, without having a firm plan agreed with you. While it is OK for her to contact you, last minute, to see if you have any flexibility, the key thing is that she should check this out before mentioning anything to your son. As you so rightly point out, if she has told him she is checking with you, it will appear then that the failure to make an arrangement for him to visit lies with you.
Children will always continue with requests or demands when they believe that there is a possibility that the request or demand may be granted. So, if we are ambivalent, or inconsistent in our responding, then they are likely to continue taking a chance and asking.
With this in mind, perhaps you may need to be the one to quash his hope that he may have extra time with you. While you do want the extra time, it seems that any extra time is coming at quite a high emotional cost at the moment. So, if you are definitive, with his mum, and with your son, that the most effective plan is the one that is currently in place and that, right now, you don't have the flexibility to vary it ad hoc, then he can return to the certainty of the visits he does have, without the misplaced hope that he will get more.
While it may seem cruel to tell him he can't spend more time with you, when this is something you both want, it may be the better option since you and his mum can't negotiate anything more predictable.
You might also want to look afresh at how you prioritise your fathering in that work-life integration that we all need to manage. If you know that his mum may be unpredictable in contacting you about extra time with him, then maybe you need to negotiate extra flexibility with work to be able to take advantage. Or, perhaps there other ways that you could spend more time with him, or be more involved in his life, even if not overnight, by being available to attend sports events, or take short visits, arrange Skype/Facetime calls and so on.
Health & Living