Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a divorced mom, and because of my past substance abuse issues, my ex-husband has primary physical custody of our children. I only get to see them on weekends and we miss each other terribly. I’ve been trying to make it up to them by filling every weekend with outings and activities. But I think I’ve made a mistake. More than anything, I want to just hang out with the kids, but every time I schedule some downtime, they complain that they’re bored. What can I do?

A: I’m so glad you wrote—I get this question a lot from non-custodial dads, but it’s important for readers to understand that when the roles are reversed, moms often experience the same problems. A lot of non-custodial parents, especially those with limited time with their children, fall into the same trap you did. Sometimes, like you, it’s because they feel guilty about not having been around as much as they’d like to. Sometimes, they’re trying to earn their children’s love, and sometimes they’re trying to compete with their former spouse. The result is a non-stop party, filled with expensive gifts and trips, little or no discipline or responsibilities (meaning no homework or chores), and treating the kids like royalty instead of children. Hence the nickname “Disneyland Parents.”

As you’ve discovered, this model simply isn’t sustainable. Eventually, you’ll run out of money or ideas. And even if you don’t, you’ll end up with no relationship with your children. Plus, they’ll be so spoiled that if you pull the plug on the fun they’ll think you don’t love them anymore or they’ll resent you for taking away what they feel they deserve. Here’s how you can turn back the clock.

  • Pretend the kids live with you full time. That means making sure their homework is finished, chores are assigned (and done), and that they do their piano practice. Also try to schedule some one-on-one time with each child, and some unstructured, screen-free downtime—even if they claim they’re bored.
  • Have a reasonable amount of fun. You can’t possibly entertain them every minute, so don’t even try. Of course, some of your weekends are going to be packed to the gills with great activities. But don’t make them all that way.
  • Be normal. Accept that you may need to spend a few hours on a project from the office or doing some household repairs. Having the kids help out is a wonderful way to spend time together and makes them feel they’re a part of your life. It also reminds them that you’re human and have obligations and responsibilities.
  • Get their input. Ask them to put together a list of activities they’d like to do. You won’t get to them all, but the fact that you’ve asked lets them know that you genuinely care about what’s important to them.
  • Be normal. Some days you’ll have tons of energy to run around all day; other times you’ll feel like a slug—just like everyone else in the world. Your kids will understand. You and they will occasionally have fights, too. Don’t worry: the kids won’t stop loving you. Fights are perfectly normal in intact families, and just as normal in broken ones.

 

As a non-custodial mom, your goal is to have as normal a relationship with your children as possible. There’s no need to compete with your ex and you don’t need to buy their love. If you genuinely love your children and are interested in being with them, they’ll know it. And they’ll love you and want to be with you too.