Care and Feeding

My Kids Chose My Ex Over Me

A depressed woman holds her hand to her head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Doucefleur/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Care and Feeding, 

I have two teenage daughters with my ex-husband. We have been divorced for nearly nine years and have joint custody. However, my daughters have decided to live with him permanently and his girlfriend rather than my husband and me. He has no rules. I have rules and boundaries. He is a narcissist and has worked for nearly twelve different companies in the past two decades and unemployed for the past three. I have had one steady job and have risen through the ranks. I give back to the community, demonstrate empathy, work for a public school system and am married to a civil servant with similar values. My ex is selfish and gives in to every whim the girls have. Nonetheless, my kids refuse to come home. Outside of taking him back to court which I think will just be an expense without a good outcome, what can I do?

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—Custody Conundrum

Dear C.C., 

I am confused. If you and your ex have joint custody, where did your children get the idea that they could choose to live exclusively with their father? I understand how they may want to do such a thing, considering his lack of rules and his tendency to indulge them. However, absent any circumstances under which they were being mistreated, as I understand these issues (I am not a lawyer), they should not have ever had the decision-making power to choose one household over the other. Talk to your ex-husband and let him know that you wish to honor the original agreement and that you would appreciate his support in getting the girls on board. If he is unwilling to cooperate, then you have no other choice but to return to court. Hopefully, he will understand, or at the very least, want to avoid going before a judge again.

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I think you should also explore getting into some family counseling with your children. Your relationship is not where it should be. Even if they identify you as the less lenient, less “fun” parent, it should not be the case that they wish to opt out of having time with you at all. It sounds like there needs to be some healing work done between the three of you. It also sounds like you have a very negative view of their father, whereas they do not. Has this come up in your conversations with them? Neither you nor your ex should be going out of your way to say negative things about one another to them, and I worry that one or both of you has done just that. It is important for co-parents to support their children’s relationship with each other—something you need to remind your ex of immediately. I hope that you and your daughters are able to find your way back to each other soon.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Jamilah Each Week

From this week’s letter, Help! My Wife Says I Crossed the Line With Our Kids. I Thought It Was Just a Nice Fatherly Moment: “I thought she would think it was as cute as we did. Instead, she was angry at my actions.”

Dear Care and Feeding, 

My partner and I have a 9-year-old child, and we have lived in the same house for my child’s whole life. Within the last two years, some changes at my job (I am a faculty member at a university) have made things such that I am miserable all the time, and upcoming additional changes are going to make things worse and not better. Tack on to that an hour commute each way and being stuck in a Red state, and I really want to find a job elsewhere. But the nature of faculty jobs is that you need to go where the jobs are, which is generally not in the area in which you already live. I am fine with moving away. I never liked this area and only moved here because of my partner’s job, which will be ending sometime in the next year, so he is fine with moving away.

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My issue is my child. The fact that they will not want to move is only part of my concern. I don’t think children ever want to move, and I know they are resilient. But my child has dyslexia and is on the spectrum. They attend a private, gifted school that gives them lots of support and accommodations. Because they read at grade level, a public school would not be required to give them any support or accommodations. Also, while in the fourth grade, they are doing fifth grade work. So, if we move them to a different school, we may be facing a situation in which they would either have to repeat a year’s worth of work (and potentially be really bored) or skip a grade (which I will not consider). So, part of me feels like I should maybe suck it up at this job until my child finishes their school (the school goes through eighth grade, so another four years after this one).

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On top of considerations for my child, no one (except myself, my partner, and my best friend) thinks we should move. My parents (who live on the other side of the country) think that I would be ruining my child’s life and that moving is selfish. My partner’s parents (who live a couple of hours away) are traumatized that I would think about taking their son and grandchild away from them. Even my therapist doesn’t want me to go. So I am left wondering whether I am being too selfish. Should I stick it out until my child is ready for high school? Is it fair for me to potentially make my child miserable so that I can potentially be less miserable?

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—Feeling Stuck

Dear F.S., 

I am so sorry that you are unhappy in your current world. I think there is a way for you to relocate and keep your child happy, but it will require you to do some extensive research to find a school in a new city that can meet your child’s unique educational needs. To be fair, I don’t know that you will find another institution that offers exactly what you are getting now—support, accommodations, and an accelerated gifted program that teaches kids at a grade level above their classification. But I’m sure that your child isn’t attending the only school in the country that is capable of giving them a quality education. You will have to dedicate a significant amount of time to identifying not just this new school, but new jobs for you and your partner, and even if you find something that seems like a good fit, there is the possibility that your child won’t be as happy there as they are at their current school.

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Do you think your child can handle such a transition? How might they react if they don’t enjoy their next school as much as the last? Only you and your partner can answer that. If you don’t believe that they can, then you have to focus your attention towards making your life in your current town more bearable. Are there other colleges in the area where you could apply? Are there any activities that you could add to your routine that might improve the quality of your existence? Something as seemingly insignificant as signing up for a cooking class or swimming lessons could bring you a surprising amount of fulfilment and make things less miserable. I hope your therapist is also talking to you about what making things work under the current circumstances might look like.

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Ultimately, both you and your child deserve to be happy; if you aren’t able to change things now, four years is not as long a period of time as it may feel like in this moment, and you can spend those four years preparing for your next move, identifying both new jobs, and a high school where your child can flourish. I understand why your impulse is to prioritize their needs. But try and see what a life outside of this place might look like for the three of you and whether it’s achievable right now before you resign yourself to staying put. You owe yourself that. Good luck to you.

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Dear Care and Feeding, 

My friend Anna does a LOT of volunteer work at her kids’ school, which my children also attend. Recently, she asked me to head a project at one of the clubs on campus where the graduating seniors (there are about 40 students) will be given a small gift. There are no funds from the school, so I will have to do the fundraising and come up with the gift idea. I was thinking something small and economical (think: goody bag full of snacks), but both Anna (and my senior daughter) believe it should be special (think: shiny and not economical). Do you have any ideas on how to raise funds? I think it will cost about $200 - 300, and I don’t like asking other parents for money.

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–In Search of Funds

Dear I.S.O.F., 

A 50/50 raffle is a pretty easy fundraiser; you sell tickets, say for a buck or two, and the winner of the raffle gets half of the proceeds, while the other half is used to fund your project. If the school allows it, you may be able to set up a temporary concession stand; you could easily make a couple hundred dollars selling chips, cookies, and drinks to kids before and after classes for a week. A car wash is another fun, somewhat easy to execute fundraiser; perhaps the underclassmen in this club can participate as a gesture of kindness towards the seniors, and this could become a yearly tradition. Finally, while I know you don’t like asking other parents for money, if there are 40 seniors in this club, a request for donations that went out to their parents (and the parents of younger members) would likely net you more than what you need to raise, even if everyone was asked to give $5. Don’t discount the willingness of other parents to give!

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Monday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

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Dear Care and Feeding, 

My 4-year-old (5 in November) son just started transitional kindergarten (TK). Because of the pandemic, we never sent him to preschool. We were fortunate that both my husband and I could work from home, and he could play independently when we weren’t able to entertain him.

He just finished his first week at school and it was rough. The first two days went fine, but at the end of the second day he was very upset and didn’t want to go back. He says he gets very tired. My son is very introverted, just like his parents, so I’m not surprised that school is exhausting for him. He’s also very stubborn, so now that he’s decided he doesn’t like it, I don’t know how to change his mind.

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He spent the last three days last week mostly crying in a corner of the classroom (a mix of classroom aides and school counselors took him outside when they could), though he loves recess and plays with the other kids on the slides (something he would never do before at the park, so there is some progress!)

He keeps saying that school is too fun and makes him too tired, so he doesn’t want to go back. We’ve talked about strategies to help when he feels tired like standing up or drinking water. We’ve also offered him rewards if he goes to school and meets a goal, like starting the day on the rug with the other kids.

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Do you have any suggestions for how to help with this transition?

—TK Mom

Dear T.M., 

It’s time for your son to hear from you and your husband just why he goes to school. He should come to understand that much like the two of you have jobs that you are responsible for working each day, he is expected to go to school so that he learns the skills and information necessary for him to function in the world. School is not an option, school is his job. Let him know that the more he goes, the easier it will become for him (at least in TK!) as he gets used to the routine and the amount of excitement that is tiring him out each day. Encourage him to talk about the things that he likes about school and to focus on them, as opposed to how tired he may be. If things don’t improve in a reasonable amount of time, you may want to have him speak to a counselor. It could be that he is dealing with something more complicated than low energy levels, and that’s preventing him from having the sort of experience you’d want him to have. However, I wouldn’t worry too much. School is still very new for him, unlike some of his classmates who may have two or three years of daycare under their belts already. It’s not unusual for it to take kids some time to adjust.

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—Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

My mother-in-law moved in with us in August, for the foreseeable future, and my partner and I have noticed that she treats our 5-year-old differently than she did our other kids at the same age, especially when it comes to discipline. He is generally happy, though definitely not an easygoing child. However, she is much stricter with him in what we feel is not an age-appropriate manner, and she doesn’t deny treating him differently. It’s because “all she sees is an angry child who’s headed down a bad path and needs serious help NOW.” How do we get her to rein it in?

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