It’s one of the hardest things about separating: all the times you aren’t with your kids.
They’re with their other parent for a dinner, a weekend, a 10-day trip over spring break. It’s tough for most women. It’s especially rough on those of you who are actually afraid - not just sad - to send your kids off with your ex.
A client once told me “Pilar, if I’d known it would be like this, I’d have sucked it up and stayed together. At least I could make sure they were safe from him when we were still living in the same house.”
I’ve known many moms who were afraid to leave their spouses alone with their kids. But being afraid and being able to do something about it aren’t the same thing.
State laws favor both parents having regular, meaningful contact with their children.
Unless you can show there’s a real cause for concern, they’re going to spend time alone with dad once you separate. That means you don’t have a say in where they go, what they do, whether they can have McDonalds for breakfast, lunch AND dinner, or if they’re allowed to stay home alone way before you think they’re ready.
If that last sentence left you breathing into a paper bag, let’s take a look at what you CAN do:
1. Figure out the real reason for your fear.
If you’re a new mom of a very young child, your fear may have less to do with dad and more to do with you. When my first child was born, I was terrified to leave her alone. With my husband or anyone else. It was a crippling (and I now can admit, irrational) fear. Once I went to the Verizon store only to race home 45 minutes later, without a new phone, because it was taking too long and I was certain she’d stop breathing.
If you’re a parent of a child under 3, ask yourself if your ex - even if a crappy husband - is a decent dad. If he can change a diaper, make a bottle, and make sure your child is safe, it’s actually a good thing for them to spend time alone. They need to bond; studies show it’s critical for your child’s healthy development and self-esteem.
And you, Mom? You need time away. To sleep, to rekindle your relationships with your girlfriends, and to remember you’re a whole person. One day you’ll believe that too.
But if you have a real reason to be worried for your child’s safety (at any age), such as a history of irresponsible parenting, substance abuse or other reasons, read on.
2. Establish that your concern existed before you separate.
You need to show this issue is “real” and not something you’re bringing up for the first time now that you’re addressing custody.
Real world tip: If you’re truly afraid to leave your kids alone with your husband, then while you still have a say in the matter, don’t leave your kids alone with your husband – even for a short time.
I may sound like Captain Obvious, but I can’t tell you how many smart women I’ve counseled who’ve done just that. They’re afraid - he doesn’t watch them closely enough, or he’ll drink too much, or whatever - yet they leave him with the kids while they go to a work event, or run a quick errand.
Lady friend, your actions speak louder than your words!
If you’re truly worried about your child’s safety, and you want to persuade whomever will make the decision about the custody of your children, you’ve got to be consistent in your actions showing this concern both before and after you separate.
If you leave them alone with him while you’re still living together, it’s going to be harder to convince anyone you’re that afraid to leave them alone with him when you’re not.
I get it; it’s tricky to do this while you’re still married. You’re going to have to either tell him the truth, cancel your plans, or make excuses why you need a sitter even though he says he’ll watch the kids while you’re out. But if you’re serious enough about your concern, you’ll find a way to do it.
3. Document, document, document.
Since so much parenting goes on behind closed doors, it can be really hard to give someone else a full picture of what’s going on.
It’s one thing to say it. It’s much more powerful to show it.
How you document your concerns depends on what your concern is. In general, think photographs, documents, and (and only if legal where you live) recordings.
If it’s drinking, take pictures of the beer cans, the half-empty liquor bottle, him passed out on the sofa at 8 p.m. Gather the credit card statements and yellow highlight all the liquor store purchases. You’ve got to get crafty, lady.
Record your concerns in a journal or log. Write down dates, times, and the specifics of what happens. Details matter, and I promise you won’t remember them as clearly later as you do today.
Who else has seen the same things that worry you? If your neighbor, friend, or another soccer parent was there when something happened, ask them if they’re willing to testify. That might look like writing a statement, or it might mean they have to come to court. That depends on the law in your area. But ask them to write down everything they remember now, and to give you a copy of what they write, while it’s still fresh in their minds.
And of course, make sure you share your concerns with your lawyer and ask her what options you have for addressing them in your custody plan.