On Not Being A Disneyland Dad

I’m a divorced dad and don’t get to see my kids as much as I’d like to. I have the typical custody arrangement – every other weekend and one night a week. I miss them and I know they miss me, so I try to make it up to them by packing our time together with all sorts of really fun activities and trips. By the end of the weekend, I’m completely exhausted and stressed out. I really want to spend some quiet time with the kids, but they seem to want each visit to be more fun than the last. What can I do?

Non-custodial fathers-especially those with fairly infrequent visitation-often feel obligated to make every second of every visit with their children “count.” Sometimes they’re motivated by guilt, the fear of losing their children’s love, trying to make up for lost time, a desire to compete with the ex, or something else. But whatever it is, the result is the same: they buy their kids extravagant gifts, eat out every meal, take them on expensive trips, give into their every whim, forget about discipline, and generally treat them like visiting royalty instead of children. It’s no wonder that a lot of people refer to this kind of father as the “Disneyland Dad.”
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There’s More to Being a Dad Than Pulling out Your Wallet

Dear Mr. Dad: I have a 13-year old daughter. I was never married to her mother. But recently the mom got married to someone else, had another child, and moved away, taking my daughter with her. Do I still have to pay child support even though she’s married and has full custody of my daughter?

A: There are a number of factors at play here. However, what surprises me most about your question is that you seem to be focusing on the finances rather than on the fact that your daughter is now living in another state and you don’t get to see her. Doesn’t that bother you? Most guys would be investigating whether the mother has violated a court order by moving the girl away without an agreement between the parents, or figuring out how to see their child more often. That said, you do raise some interesting financial questions.
But before we go on, it’s important that you hire a lawyer. This situation is quite complicated and you need someone in your corner who has a lot of expertise in custody matters. An experienced attorney will be able to tell you about the child support rules in your state.

Some states count a new spouse’s income when calculating support. Others don’t. Either way, in most states, there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of time the child is with the non-custodial parent and how much support is paid. Child support is supposed to be for the child’s benefit and is designed to help the custodial parent cover increased child-related expenses. Time your daughter spends with you would reduce her mother’s expenses because yours would be increased. Makes sense, right? Simply put, the less time you daughter is with you, the more you’ll owe. So if she’s with her mom 100 percent of the time, you’ll most likely be ordered to pay the max amount.

The big question is, Why don’t you want to pay? If you’re having financial troubles—and you certainly wouldn’t be alone in this—your attorney should be able to get your support order reduced, at least temporarily. If you’re concerned that the mother is pocketing your support checks or spending them on non-child-related things, again, your lawyer may be able to get the support order modified so that you can put the money into a college savings account or other savings vehicle for your daughter.

If you’re using financial leverage to punish or get back at your ex for something she did to you, stop right now. Whether you’re legally required to pay support or not, I think you have a moral obligation. Does it really matter where your daughter lives or whether her mother now has enough money to pay for everything she needs? She’s your daughter and you should be doing everything you can to support her. If that means sending money, so be it. The one who gets hurt the most by your ducking your responsibility is your daughter, not her mother.

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Supporting the New Guy No Matter How Much It Hurts

Dear Mr. Dad: I was divorced in 2001, when my daughter was 1. She’s now 11. Here’s my dilemma. The person who was a big part of the divorce is still with my ex. But up until recently, my daughter knew him only as a cousin. After all I been through, I resent him when my daughter talks with him or spends time with him. Do I just keep swallowing my pride and let it go, or is this something I can talk about with her in a subtle way. She understands that her mother and I were divorced but not that this guy was involved.

A: I totally get that you’re still angry with the guy your ex is involved with (and who, if I’m reading between the lines correctly, was involved with her before she became your ex). And you have every right to resent his proximity to and relationship with your daughter. But be very, very careful. As painful as it is, you’re going to need to swallow your pride for a while longer—at least until your daughter comes right out and asks why you and her mom got divorced. Given that she’s perched on the brink of becoming a teen, that should be pretty soon.

When that day comes, you can—and should—tell her the truth. But do it in as calm a way as you can. Do not come across as attacking anyone (and by “anyone” I mean your ex or her “friend”). Just lay out the facts—and make sure they’re facts no one can argue with. The last thing you want is to get your daughter involved in a he-said-she-said kind of thing. She’ll end up in the middle, and that’s a place she should never be.

Like it or not, your ex’s friend is a part of your daughter’s life, and you need to bite your tongue and support him. If you can’t bring yourself to be supportive, at least don’t do anything hostile or vindictive. There is absolutely no upside to that. The only thing that will come of it is that your ex and, most likely, your daughter, will turn on you, and you’ll become the bad guy.

I’ll Take The High Road. You Take Whatever Road You Want.

Dear Mr. Dad. I’m getting divorced. My spouse is acting horribly and I have to admit that I haven’t been behaving much better. I’m angry and I find myself wanting to punish him. But maintaining this level of intensity is exhausting—and I can see that it’s hurting our children. Is there a way for me to start taking the high road at this point?

A: In a word, Yes. Since you and your spouse know each other’s buttons better than anyone, it’s easy to slip into defensive, uncooperative, and hostile mode. So kudos to you for recognizing the problem and making the first move to change things.

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Hang in There, (Single) Dad + Winners of the 2009 Holiday Seal of Approval!

Dear Mr. Dad: My child’s mother and I never married and we split before the baby was born. Nevertheless, she and I used to share parenting equally. We compromised, worked out schedules, and we both spent lots of time with our daughter. But about a year ago, I got married. And immediately, the mother cut me back to seeing my daughter only every other weekend. Two months later, she moved in with a man. Since then, she barely lets me see my daughter at all. My wife and my little girl (who’s now three) have a very strong relationship. The mom and I have been fighting for over a year and I finally got her to agree to go to mediation with me to come up with a parenting plan. What can I reasonably ask for? How can I get anything when she has all the power just for being mom?

A: You put your finger on the problem perfectly–your child’s mother has all the power simply because she’s the mother. Well, nearly all the power.

Every time I address the issue of single fathers in this column, I hear from lawyers insisting that unmarried parents have the same rights as married ones. Well, that may be true on paper, but it’s rarely the way things play out in real life.

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Dating a Defensive Divorced Dad

Dear Mr. Dad: I am currently dating a divorced father of two. I am having trouble communicating to him that being a good father does not exempt him from being a good partner. How can I get him to see my point of view without putting him on the defensive?

A: In a perfect world, you’re right–being a good father wouldn’t exempt your boyfriend from being a good partner. But I have to tell you that most single dads would make the same choice. Their priority is their children—giving them stability and protecting them from going through another breakup. When dating a divorced dad you have to understand that his kids are part of the package. You can’t have one without the other. And if you ever put him in a situation where he feels he has to choose between the kids and you, he’ll go with them every time.
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