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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 7-year-old “Julie” is being a pain about our new house. I got divorced when she was about 2 and my ex kept our old house, which is about 1,400 square feet. I have 50/50 custody, and over the past five years, Julie and I have lived in several homes of varying sizes—the two of us together in the spare room at my dad’s, then a 900-square-foot rented apartment, then a 1,100-square-foot rented house. Finally, I was able to scrape together enough to buy a home, and now we’re here.
Every time we’ve moved, I did my best to make it as easy as possible on Julie, and this time was no different. I put a lot of effort into making sure it would be a nice home for her. She was excited to move, especially since no longer renting meant we could get a dog. But now she won’t quit complaining about how small the house is. I’m talking about fake bumping from wall to wall like it’s somehow too cramped for her to move around in. It is indeed a small house: two bedrooms, one bath, 850 square feet total. But she has her own room (painted green!) with plenty of space for all her many belongings, a large yard to play in, a full tub for bubbles. The house is clean and full of color, art, and plants. It’s in a neighborhood she’s familiar with, she hasn’t switched schools, we can walk to the library and the park. There’s no extra new factor in the picture, unless you count the dog she was thrilled to adopt.
It’s been five months. She plays and sings, doesn’t have trouble sleeping, and is doing well even in virtual school. The only cloud in our lives is how much she hates how small our house is. I told her that she’s made it very clear how she feels but that this is the house we live in, and I don’t want to discuss the topic anymore. No dice—she’s taken to sighing dramatically, and when I ask her what’s up, she says, “Oh, you know, just thinking about the thing about the house.” I am at the end of my rope. What can I do?
—Dad Without a Palace
You truly have my empathy here. It can feel very uncomfortable when your co-parent is able to offer your child something that she’d desire to have from each of you, while you are unable to do so. It’s time for a pointed conversation with your daughter about the difference in the sizes of your respective homes, for I am inclined to assume you haven’t yet talked about why that might be.
I would strongly suggest that you tell her that the home her other parent resides in represents two people combining resources to purchase a house for two adults and their child, which is why it is larger. Even if this isn’t exactly true, it is a version of events that makes logical sense and challenges the idea that you are simply less capable of procuring a big house than your ex, and/or the inference that your ex may be better off financially than they actually are. However, if there is a difference between your respective resources, there is no reason for you to be ashamed of that, and there may come a time in which you wish to tell her. I don’t know that now is the best time, but if you choose to include that information, be very clear in explaining that financial means do not signify one’s value as a parent or as a person.
Tell her that you and your ex agreed (or “agreed”—your daughter is 7, she doesn’t need to know everything just yet) that they would keep that home, and you are happy that your daughter still gets to enjoy the house that you’d planned to raise her in. Explain that you chose a lovely home within your means that was in a neighborhood she knows, where she’d be able to stay at her school, have a dog, etc., and that you hope she will come to appreciate the house more, in spite of it being smaller than she’d like. I’m not sure what her understanding of homelessness and privilege are at this point, but now is also a great time to explain that there are many children her age who do not merely lack their own bedrooms painted in a shade of their liking, but a home to call their own at all. It’s not about shaming her for being fortunate but making sure that she realizes that she is in the first place. Good luck to you!