#935: “Getting a co-parent to show up on time & explaining to the child that they aren’t to blame for the lateness.”

Dear Captain Awkward,

I know the number one rule in divorces and co-parenting is to never say mean things about the other parent and to protect the child in a way that won’t “hurt” them.

With this in mind, I’ve been struggling trying to explain to my child (who’s 4) why their Father’s lateness in picking them up on their days together is not because the child did something and that the father is the one at fault. My child has been asking more frequently why their Dad isn’t here yet or what’s taking them so long. I hate seeing my child become sad about their Dad not being somewhere when he said he would be. Often he texts a few minutes after he’s due to arrive and I’m left having to make excuses for his lateness. I don’t want to damage their relationship, but I’m also tired of covering for my child’s father’s poor behavior. I’m afraid that by covering for the father would continue to set up false expectations for my child and I’m afraid that what I’m saying to alleviate the stress my child is feeling about it could also be bad.

I tell my child, when they ask why Dad is late is that their father’s lateness isn’t the child’s fault and that we continue with our day not worrying about when the father finally shows up. And that their Father will do their best to meet up with us wherever we are. Am I telling them the right things?

I of course have been trying to fix this lateness situation with the father by changing pickup times, but that hasn’t worked. They continue to show up sometimes over 2 hours late and when I do let them know that we have left our house, then the time that they do show gets further delayed. I’m tired of keeping my child and I trapped at the house and rearranging my and my child’s schedule to fit the other person’s lateness. It makes me so angry that even after the divorce that I’m still powerless to him. I just want to make sure I’m doing right by my child.

Thank you.

Your ex is ensuring that every single time he’s due to have your child that it’s maximally uncomfortable and stressful for both of you. It reads to me like he’s trying to control you, forcing you to work your entire schedule around his whims.That’s gross enough, but what kind of asshole wants his kid to be continually disappointed and stressed about “Is Daddy actually coming today?” I think that doing right by your child in this case means using whatever levers you can to end this cruel behavior.

Step 1: If you haven’t already done this, document every time he is late & by how much. Use a dedicated notepad or computer file, note the scheduled time of every visit vs. what time he actually showed up, so that the pattern is clear. Document how you’ve tried to resolve this in the past, and what changed (if anything).

Step 2: Consult your custody/visitation agreement from the divorce to make sure you are familiar with all its provisions and get your attorney’s number (or an attorney’s number, if you didn’t use a one in the divorce) handy.

Step 3: Communicate with your ex that the lateness in pickups is cruel and upsetting to your child. Child looks forward greatly to time with Dad, and gets very anxious & upset when Dad does not show up on time. This is not okay. What does ex suggest that would fix this problem once and for all? What would ex like you to tell your child when he is late?

He’ll say some stuff. Document the conversation, his response, and how things change or don’t change as a result.

Important: Keep this communication brief and do not bring up your own inconvenience or the prospect of legal action. It’s not that your inconvenience and distress don’t matter  – they do matter, but they are most likely a feature and not a bug from your ex’s point of view – so keep everything focused on your child and wanting to solve this for your child.

Seek professional legal advice before issuing any ultimatums of your own. As tempting as it is to say, “If you’re more than 30 minutes late, don’t bother coming – we’ll reschedule for another time,” and enforce that, under no circumstances do you want to be in violation of your custody agreement. I also don’t think “Oh yeah? Well if you don’t, I’ll have to call my attorney” accomplishes anything except to get people up in their feelings & makes them massively defensive and self-righteous. One does not threaten legal action, one gives the other party a clear opportunity & explicit request to do the right thing and if they don’t do it, one takes legal action.

Step 4: A reasonable person and good parent would hear “Your continued lateness is really messing with your kid’s emotional well-being, how do we fix this for the kid?” and realize “I have GOT to get a handle on this” and start showing up on time. If the lateness was because of an unpredictable work schedule or an executive function issue or had some actual explanation behind it, a good parent would do their best to mitigate those things for the sake of their kid, like, “Hey, I’m so sorry, but the Wednesday pickup is always going to be unpredictable because I can’t leave work until my boss releases me – how do we make that not impact Child or your schedule so much?” or “Can we change pickups to drop-offs or move our days around a little bit? As much as I want to be there when we agreed, the schedule isn’t working for me in reality, let’s figure something else out.

I am not sure that your ex is reasonable person or a good parent. For your child’s sake you gotta do your best to treat them like the parent you want them to be and hope they grow into that role, but if nothing gets better after you talk to your ex and ask him to solve the problem, it’s half-past lawyer-o’clock. Call your attorney, give them the documentation of the lateness issue and your discussions, and let them do their job to enforce or renegotiate the custody arrangement. You can’t be the only person in your state with this specific issue, and I’m betting somewhere somebody has worked out a reasonable “Pizza Delivery” rule of being on time for pickups, like, if you’re more than 30 minutes late the visit is considered cancelled or it happens at your sole discretion. Somebody somewhere has also probably calculated the exact amount that child support is affected if one parent is messing about with this, too.

Step 5: Keep your expectations low. Keep your schedule light on Dad-pickup-days, even though it’s unfair and you shouldn’t *have* to, because you know how things are likely to go. Schedule something comforting and rewarding for yourself for after the pickup.

Step 6: I think you are saying the right stuff to your child, though actual parents in our community will have better advice than me for how to frame it. Your ex is causing this problem (and any resulting “alienation of affection” or damage to their relationship). Four is young enough that your sweet distractions and reassurances still hold some water, and yet old enough to remember & notice that “Dad never does anything on time” or “Every time I’m supposed to see Dad I feel scared because I think he maybe doesn’t really want to see me or that I did something wrong.” I don’t think you’d be a terrible person if you said “Daddy has a hard time being on time, and it’s not your fault, but I know it is very frustrating and it’s okay to be upset about it.” You can’t singlehandedly fix or spackle over the situation where your child’s father is mistreating them (and you) by playing this game every single week, but maybe you can circumvent that thing where your kid doesn’t feel like they can feel their real feelings about all of it.


275 thoughts on “#935: “Getting a co-parent to show up on time & explaining to the child that they aren’t to blame for the lateness.”

  1. You can say things like, “You know how you struggle to tie your shoes/keep your room clean? Well sometimes, grownups struggle too and your dad struggles with being on time.”

    Also, if your ex is predictably two hours late, you can tell your kid that pick up is two hours later than it is – Dad will be here at 8 pm – and tell Dad to be there at 6 pm. It mitigates your kid’s disappointment but will allow you to keep documenting and discussing with your ex.

    1. Yes, this strikes me as a good life lesson in general. People have different strengths, and there is nothing bad about acknowledging that. It’s the kind of lesson that will be useful when kiddo starts school and finds out that hey, they have an easy time with math/art/following the rules in line/whatever else, but Friend does not, and vice versa. I wish that adults in my life had been as open and understanding about all people having things that come easily and things that need work, especially because I had (unreasonably, it turned out) high expectations at home.

    2. I also thought about just telling the kid that the pickup time is later than what was scheduled, but I also think that if dad suddenly decided to show up on time, (if he is being controlling in the way he seems to be), he might try to make in issue of the fact that the kid isn’t ready to go at that time.

      If this is a thing that is going to escalate to legal proceedings, it is unfortunately important that LW keeps having the kid ready at he time that was scheduled. Otherwise, the question of who is being irresponsible could get muddled pretty easily :/

      1. A good work around on this (that I have had to use for all three of my children with my ex) is to still have everything ready for the time you tell your ex. After all the point is to encourage compliance. Tell your child by (actual time + known delay of time) instead of at. For the expected known delay time, plan fun and distracting things for child that can easily be shelved one dad shows up. You now have your own pre-dad fun time as the last thing done with mom before visiting dad instead of anxiety over dad being late. It also gives you something to take off the shelf upon return (a little de-stress activity to get settled back at home). You can’t fix dad and you can’t undo his mistakes (yes, I am being generous). But you can be there for your child and demonstrate the extra efforts you engage in due to dad’s lack of responsibility.

      2. Yes, but one way to avoid this is to have whatever the kid needs packed up and ready to go, and have them go to the potty a half-hour before the scheduled time. That way “being ready at the scheduled time” is just “need to put shoes on the kid”. The kid doesn’t need to know that the potty time is because pickup is supposed to be coming. It’s not all that different, logistically, than me packing up my 5 yr old’s dance clothes the night before.

    3. Yes, I was going to say something similar. ‘Daddy isn’t very good at being on time – but he’s good at other things!’ is quite a useful life lesson: it models tolerance and accepting our own faults.

      I don’t know if I’d lie about the pickup time. I might say, ‘Well, Daddy’s going to aim for one o’clock, but you know he often struggles with being on time, so let’s guess he’ll be there between one and three, and plan to do something fun between those times that we can stop when he gets here.’ I mean, that’s how adults cope with chronic latecomers, so you might as well start practising now.

      Also: make sure you schedule thingd early enough in the day that a two-hour delay doesn’t translate into ‘too late to do anything fun.’ Though of course you may already be doing that.

      1. I don’t know if I’d lie about the pickup time. I might say, ‘Well, Daddy’s going to aim for one o’clock, but you know he often struggles with being on time, so let’s guess he’ll be there between one and three, and plan to do something fun between those times that we can stop when he gets here.’ I mean, that’s how adults cope with chronic latecomers, so you might as well start practising now.


      2. I do think that you need to be careful to be able to say this without moral anything. He struggles with being on time can’t be a thing that you imply to the kid makes the father a worse person that struggling with dancing, or French, or whatever. otherwise good idea.

      3. I’d frame it this way: Kitting-out (packing clothes, &c) hapens the night before (which is never a bad habit to get into), including putting shoes by the door for quick deployment. (Popping into the bathroom right before departing is totally a thing, so I’d assume that in any case.) Story to kid: “Daddy’s not sure when he’ll get here. I think it might be [two hours after nominal scheduled time]. But let’s be ready by [nominal scheduled time] in case he happens to come early!”

        That way, things can happen when they’re supposed to, but the story still covers a late arrival.

        If kid is asking why Daddy is always late, I’d tell kid: “I don’t know. Do you want to ask him?” (Although the “adults struggle too” line is good, for the reasons mentioned above.)

      4. I don’t agree with this framing, because it could lead to feelings of guilt in the child due to being disappointed / angry / sad *for very good reasons*, but being told their feelings are not reasonable. Expecting the kid to learn “tolerance” out of this is simply teaching the kid that an unreliable and neglectful parent deserves to be tolerated. The child does not need to learn this, as it will: 1) not help him in the future, and 2) teach them that their rightful feelings and *needs* are in some way *wrong* because, you know, we need to tolerate Daddy’s quirk.

        Tolerance is about learning to live with things that do not *hurt* us. And Father’s behaviour is not a quirk, it’s neglect (and neglect = abuse). And it *does* hurt the child. It doesn’t matter whether Father is depressed, ill in some other way, or has an addiction, or what have you. Let’s hope he gets help and gets better. But if he is not a responsible parent, he doesn’t have the right to care for the child. It’s not the child’s responsibility (they are four!) to carry the burden of the father’s faults.

        So, no. I don’t think the child will learn a valuable lesson from “tolerating” their father’s behaviour. They will just learn they need to accept neglectful “care”, and it will mess up their boundaries.

        1. Eh, I think there’s a middle ground here. Finding that balance of “Dad is not being late on purpose and it’s not something that’s likely to change about him, but it’s still ok to feel upset about it” is a really useful life lesson.

          1. He’s totally being late on purpose. And as a former child in a similar situation I totally disagree with the advice to gaslight the child on top of the neglect they are already suffering. Just say “daddy seems unable to be anywhere near on time for some reason, so let’s try to figure out how to minimize the impact. For many reasons, including legal ones impacting your ability to keep living with me, we need you to be basically ready to go at x hour. But historically we know he’s been as much as 2h late. So what fun thing would you like to do during this standby time so we don’t get upset over his lateness? What do you enjoy that we can drop instantly without tears? ”

            I think my mother was excellent at divorce – I knew they separated because she thought he was a major asshole to her, she didn’t volunteer the details but she did give them when I grew up and interrogated her about it. When he was an asshole to me, she didn’t try to paper it over but basically said “I’m sorry, I know how it is, he used to do it to me too, I know it sucks” which made me feel a lot better, it was no longer about -me-. And I didn’t grow up delusional about how my life would have been better if the divorce hadn’t happened, something which I see commonly when mothers try too hard to pretend all is well. And I have several friends who had horrible experiences with adult children when rosy-remote daddy wanted to reconnect, because they had failed to ever explain or even hint at the abuse that led to the divorce. You really do not want your child to ever be in a position to believe that this perfect parent was forced to leave them because of your (all too familiar) character flaws.

            I remember sharply one time, I must have been 7-8, when I was obstructing getting ready and whining about not wanting to to visit because he always yelled at me. My mother explained point – blank that if I didn’t go she would be held responsible and could lose custody entirely. In addition, he had the right to see me every other week, so I should consider myself lucky he only felt inspired to take me out for a yelling once or maybe twice a year. Boy did I put those shoes on fast 😀. I’m still so grateful she always did her best to tell me the truth.

            LW, you cannot disguise from your child how little their father really cares about them. This is no more under your control than when a friend of theirs falls out with them. You can help them process by listening and not denying their correct perception of reality. But please be assured that YOUR love is enough. You do not need to feel hysterical on their behalf because you cannot squeeze more love out of this guy than he’s capable of giving, on their behalf any more than you could for yourself. Your child will be fine with just you.

        2. Yes. As someone raised this way, it really, really messes up boundaries, and has impact on future relationships. This is a lot of emotional labor for a four-year-old, and being told to “tolerate” this is going to set them up for damage into adulthood.

          I’m rather invested in this because it’s one of the reasons I’m currently in therapy in my thirties: to learn to strengthen boundaries and not feel guilty or unreasonable for enforcing them. The guilt is terrible and overwhelming.

      5. There probably isn’t a right answer here, but I grew up with “Your father loves you in his own way” to justify his absence of showing anything we associated with love.
        Many many years later, I discovered – much later than I should have – that I was using “he loves me in his own way” to justify staying in emotionally abusive relationships.

        So, I don’t know. Maybe that was unhelpful. But I thought it might be an additional perspective.

    4. Yes, I was just about to suggest something similar! It would be a true-enough statement for a kid to hear “sometimes adults are bad at some things and this is something he needs to work on.”

      (I mean, I get the feeling he’s doing it on purpose, but that’s not really something your kid should have to try to deal with right now, I think.)

    5. Yes, thank you. And thank you to the LW for taking into account the long-term good of her child. I was the dad in this situation: I had terribly severe ADHD and depression, as well as undiagnosed thyroid issues. My daughter’s father was deeply angered by my leaving him, and told my daughter it was because I didn’t love him OR her. He used my inability to be timely as support for this statement.

      What my ex wanted (and what I definitely do not sense from the LW) was: control over me (when I had so little control over myself! Also, ew. How young was I at the age of fourteen, to mistake that need for control for love?), and my daughter taking his “side” (when we should have both been on the kid’s side). What actually ended up happening was my daughter thinking of herself fundamentally unlovable and unworthy. She is mildly paranoid now, because her father defined loving actions such as time, money, or phone calls as hypocrisy/ window dressing and used a lot of “If she really loved you, she’d move back in/ be a family again/ let me tell her where to work and live and how to dress and whom to fuck.”

      My ex was doing the best he could with a damaged toolkit, himself, and he has grown up quite a bit, so I cannot be angry with him, and holy Hel, I despise my irresponsibility even more than he did, he had EVERY right to be angry, I was the WORST wife and mother and the best thing I could possibly have done for either of them was to get the hell out of the AO and stop poisoning their lives with my brainweasels’ bullshit, but every time my daughter goes on one of her, “You secretly hate me and mental illness is made-up snake-oil flimflam that people who didn’t get beaten enough as children use to excuse their irresponsibility,” or internalized misogyny tears, I ache for her.

      I’m punctual these days. I bought every second of it with blood and sweat and LOTS of help from better reframing and medication, and every. Single. Second. Is for her sake. And she can’t appreciate that she’s awesome and loved and so. Very. Worthy.

      Of course, this is also exactly what a narcissist would say. But you don’t know me from Adam, and I have no investment in making myself look “good” to you. Your ex may be every inch the manipulative power-playing horrorshow, but there is a case to be made for giving your kid some room for mercy toward him, all the same.

    6. Yes, that explanation is a graceful and helpful one for young kids. I have used similar to explain the failures of adults to my daughter. It helps her not to internalize it as being about her, but just about the fact that nobody is perfect — and that being not-so-good/unskilled at something (maybe they’re always late, maybe they get overwhelmed when little problems come up, maybe they don’t know how to be comforting in a particular way, etc.) also does not make the grown-up a bad person or mean that the grown-up is unloving.

      She’s eight now, and we separated when she was three. These gentle and helpgul explanations and lessons have really allowed her to feel better about imperfect interactions and behaviors not just with her dad (or me! I’m certainly not perfect!), but also with a wide variety of adults: grandparents, teachers, and so on.

  2. My Mom used to do this to me and my kids, say she was coming for a visit and then cancel 30 minutes before she was due to show up. Too long to go into, the short version is I stopped telling the kids that Gramma was coming. So if she showed it was Surprise! and if she didn’t, there was no disappointment.

    (an added bonus was that it drove her crazy that I stopped reacting / caring about her cancellations.)

    1. Yes. My dad’s family was notorious about saying they’d visit and then never appearing, or appearing an hour or more late. My mother got so frustrated with having three kids sitting around waiting for Grandma & Grandpa, watching every car that came down the street, that she just stopped telling us they were coming at all. I don’t know if this caused any problems in their relationship, but they were never the best of friends anyway.

      With a kid as young as 4, I think I’d probably do the same thing. He’s probably not paying attention to calendars as much, but even if he is, you can tell him that Dad is changing their visits and you haven’t figure out a new day/time yet. Then, when he shows up, YAY and if he doesn’t oh well. The downside to this, I suppose is, what if Dad says he’ll be there the following week on X day at Y time, and then never shows? My grandparents never made such promises to us directly, but I suppose the Dad might.

      1. If Dad says “I’ll show up on X day at Y time” to the kid and then doesn’t, all Mom can do is comfort the kid and let Dad deal with the fallout of his broken promises.

      2. This approach is helpful if it’s a Visit From Dad, where Dad will come and interact with the kid in Mom’s home.

        This is not so helpful when it’s a handover where the kid has to be packed and ready to leave with Dad within 5 minutes or so of his arrival.

        The complexity of getting a kid ready to go out the door increases the younger the kid is and the longer the stay; packing for an afternoon out with Dad is different from packing for a weekend or week with Dad. Even if there are duplicate clothes/toothbrush/etc. over at Dad’s, there will still be favorite toys and such… and gear like that has a non-zero chance of getting unpacked (by the kid) to play with if Dad’s arrival is delayed, or the kid will be upset that the specific toy has to remain packed if it’s going to be ready to leave, or the kid will require a change of clothes, or need to use the bathroom…

        1. That’s a good point about the complexity. I was thinking it was more of a brief visitation where Dad takes the kid and they go out somewhere and then returns him that evening. But maybe having Dad wait while they pack and gather clothes isn’t such a bad thing. Presumably he’s blocked off the next few hours or so to be with Kid and that’s all, so if he has to wait a short while (after making Kid wait) I kinda feel like that’s justified.

          1. Having Dad wait will cause problems if Dad is late because “I’ll pick up MY KID whenever I damn well want, I’m not dancing to your tune, b*tch.” If he has to wait then it’s “she didn’t even have our child ready Your Honour” or worse, “I don’t have all day!” *takes off without kid*

          2. Unfortunately, I think Cyberwulf is right. It’s probably in the LW’s and the kid’s best interests to continue to be as ready as possible by the agreed upon departure times. I can only imagine how a guy this entitled and callous would spin it if HE had to wait even ten minutes for Kid. 😦

          3. I wouldn’t do anything like this before talking to a lawyer to make sure you’re not going to end up in breach of custody arrangements.

        2. I dunno; this can be managed in different ways. I have mostly full custody of three kids (7, 9 and 12) and that’s been the situation since the youngest was 3. Their dad has them for every other weekend. All three kids have duplicates of every essential item, as well as a small but functional wardrobe, at their dad’s. I make sure they have sneakers on when they go see him (rather than dress shoes that would have limited usefulness on a trip to the park or whatever), and weather-appropriate coats/gloves/whatever. Generally, whatever they have on their bodies when they get home from school is fine. They know by now that they don’t bring stuffed animals/toys/books from one house to the other, with rare exceptions, so they have favorite items that live at each house and always stay there. If they have something special they want to show their dad, they show it to him briefly at the time of the handoff, and then it stays at my house. Usually they don’t pack anything at all to go to their dad’s (well, my oldest brings her tablet and sometimes some homework to work on. But that wouldn’t be the case with a 4 years old).

          I guess my point is that while you’re right that this is all a bit more complicated with younger kids, there are ways to set up rules and expectations so that there is very minimal packing or preparing for the transfer to the other parent’s household, IF the other parent is responsible enough to maintain whatever supplies the kid(s) require. Hopefully that’s the case here.

          I agree with others that keeping the actual pickup time murky is a great idea – “Dad is going to try to be here around (pickup time + 2 hours). Wouldn’t it be cool if he was a bit early, though?”

          I have so much admiration for the LW, that she tries not to badmouth her ex in front of the kid. That only confuses and upsets the kid. I totally agree with other commenters here that you can truthfully say something along of the lines of how everybody has strengths and weaknesses and their dad tries to be on time but it’s a challenge for him (and you can include an illustrative example of something the kid has a hard time with, and also an example of something you yourself have a hard time with, to underline the fact that this is in no way a criticism of your ex per se – it’s pointing out a universal truth about people in general).

          LW, so much sympathy. Negotiating post-separation/divorce realities is so hard. Best of luck in finding a tolerable solution to this.

    2. Second the ‘ let Dad’s arrival be a surprise’ advice. I have a parent with health and energy problems who often suggested things with my kids then canceled when she inevitably didn’t have enough spoons. In her case, she just wished she had more energy than was actual, and I quickly found it was easier not to mention it to the kids at all until the time came and it was still a ‘go’.

      1. I don’t agree.
        It could be a good idea if we are talking about grandparents and “surprise” visits, but here we are talking about a father and scheduled visitations established in a divorce. You can’t deal with it treating it like “surprises”. I think it would be very disconcerting for the child and if the father becomes aware of it, then it could cause problems.

        I suggest to LW to follow CA’s advice, and the script IceandIndigo suggested some post ago.

        1. I was the kid whose father arrived for “surprise” visits. I’m not sure how to explain how upsetting this was. My routine, what I had thought would be going on over three days of our scheduled visit, was completely ruined and because I didn’t spend as much time with him and was young (3 & 4), I didn’t know him as well as I did my mother.

          I strongly recommend against surprise visits. I literally resented my father for never planning ahead because it disrupted Mr life so completely every time. In my early teens when I began to develop more friendships and autonomy, I had the worst anxiety around just the thought of one of his visits.

          So. I don’t have a ton of advice, but as the kid whose dad was into this surprise visit thing, it was really awful and hard and upsetting. Please proceed with caution.

          All the feels and good vibes, LW. I think you’ve gotten some solid advice here.

    3. Yes, I do that with a dear but very flakey friend whose daughter was born the day before my son. The kids really enjoy each other but I never tell my 3-year-old that they’re coming. It’s always surprise.

      I do agree with the other commenters below: whether this strategy is workable depends a lot on how much packing & prep there is (& also some kids need some transition time to get used to the new plan–being suddenly popped in a car when he wasn’t warned about it can really ruin my kid’s mood) and the LW should look at possible consequences for the legal case she may be trying to build. I don’t think it’s impossible necessarily to come up with strategies for being ready without the kid’s knowledge, depending on how long the visit is. But that’s something the LW will know the feasibility of best herself.

    4. My mother in law, while a basically lovely if frustrating person who is amazing with my kids, also has multiple times simply not shown up. Or she’ll call and say she wants to arrive in 30 minutes and we’ve already made plans and refuse to change them because she decided she want to come over. After the first time when my kids were utterly heartbroken when Mamaw didn’t show, we simply do not ever tell them she is expected. She is always a lovely surprise to them. Of course, you can’t do that in the LW’s scenario, but it works very well in our case.

  3. Great advice, I would also ask your child what he thinks is happening, gently. Children can have some odd or surprising ideas and sometimes they may know exactly what’s going on. You can then empathise, validate their feelings without the necessarily making too much comment on absent dad’s behaviour. You would be giving your child a voice, which he will need as he grows up in this relationship.

    1. Came here to suggest the same darn thing. Child asks why; you answer, “Why do you think?”

      On a related note, another thing you can do is to have Child say or doe something that shows they’re upset about the situation; and then you state, “You’re upset! You don’t like it that Dad is late. You want him here now!”

      We want to reassure Child that it’s not their fault, and we don’t want them to be upset. But if we jump to reassurances, we’re skipping at least two steps. One, we’re not checking in to find out what Child actually feels. And two, we’re not letting Child feel those feelings, name them, and start to learn how to deal with them. Feeling left behind or forgotten or abandoned is rough. Now imagine being four and not having felt that feeling many times before, and it’s a huge, awful feeling, pretty scary — and Parent, instead of acknowledging the feelings, says, “Oh, he’ll be here soon! He loves you!” That’s reassurance, but it doesn’t teach Child how to identify and work through the feelings. And it can also sound like Parent hasn’t fully listened to and heard Child.

      One of the most amazing resources for this kind of back-and-forth is How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish. It’s a classic for a reason. There’s also Gottman’s Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, but I’d go with How to Talk first because it’s got instant strategies you can use right away … and also use long after the 4-year-old has become the household teen.

      1. Thank you for this. When I was a child, my parents took several parenting classes, including an active listening class. My dad was not the smoothest with it and I would tease him about his, “I hear that you feel X” responses to me, but now it is clear to me that he made this effort because he cared. I am so, so grateful and feel so lucky to have had the father I did.

      2. Yes to all of this, including How to Talk So Kids Will Listen!

        The other thing I want to mention is that if you go straight to reassuring your child that it’s not their fault that Daddy is late, you may be planting a seed that wasn’t there already. If it had never occurred to Child that it *might* be their fault, if you introduce the idea it could have the opposite effect. Why is Parent telling me that it’s not my fault? I never thought it was, but maybe it really is and she’s just trying to make me feel better! Obviously not that sophisticated at age 4, but you get the idea. Definitely start with listening and affirming, before you do anything else.

        As I mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been there, and it sucks. If you have a way to get therapy and/or self-care (which isn’t dependent on your ex being on time to look after your child!), I recommend it. It hasn’t changed my ex’s behaviour in the slightest, of course, but it has made it easier for *me* to deal with. So much love and strength to you – it’s a tough position for you to be in, but you can totally do it.

        1. Seconding JMegan. and no, 4 isn’t too young for a kid to think like this.
          I was 3-almost-4 when my parents split up, which I thought was an excellent idea at the time, because even 3-year-old me could see that Mom and Dad spent a lot of time being loud and angry with each other about grownup things when they spent time together and they were much happier when they stayed apart. So, staying apart and therefore most of the time on purpose? Smart plan. Also, it was more fun to have one-on-one time with either of them. So toddler me didn’t see any drawbacks to the split.
          Then when I went to preschool and kindergarten, well-meaning adults took to assuring me that it wasn’t my fault that my parents split, it didn’t mean either of them would stop loving me or taking care of me. I already knew adults did not always give trustworthy information –they said canned spinach was yummy and sleeping without a nightlight was not scary and kids I didn’t know would be fun playmates and friends. I figured all the reassurances about divorce were the same kind of thing. Doubtful at best, maybe intentionally misleading.

          When I was a little older I wondered why adults said things like this, that so often turned out to be untrue, when I got in trouble for lying. I figured they must do the thing I did sometimes: if there was any doubt, they said the thing they wanted to be true, pretended it was, and hoped it would be believed enough to escape undesirable consequences or bad feelings.

          It was not until I was quite grown up that I began to learn that this is not the most effective way of dealing with uncomfortable situations. And that from the first good intention to just make everything okay, it can easily slide into harmful impulse to blame, deny and punish, instead of listen and support, when reality refuses to be made okay by pretending.

      3. Long time reader, first time writer. Just wanted to say how amazing this advise is (even though this is an old post). Kids are amazing and should be treated with the same respect adults are.

      4. whoa, you just articulated why I often felt dismissed as a kid. Parents are a few steps ahead bc they’ve dealt with things before, so they’re just like, yeah, it’ll be ok. But as a kid you’re like, “are you not hearing that I feel like crap rn.”

  4. A question to ask the attorney, especially if a specific pick up time/drop off time is included in the divorce is “do I have to comply if he doesn’t arrive within an hour (before or after) scheduled pickup?” If not, treat you and your child to some fun time exactly 1 hour after pickup was supposed to happen… outside the house, without notifying ex. If/when he protests, let him know that the pickup time is stated clearly in the divorce paperwork and if he isn’t there within an hour of that time, you will be making sure your child is not disappointed by doing something else during that time, and he will miss that visit. Either he will stop coming, or he will start coming on time. Either way, this reduces stress to you and your child.

    1. I like this. I’m a big fan of both natural consequences and not accommodating people who are chronically late. A natural consequence of being late to something is that you miss it. It sucks that the LW will essentially be forced to make two plans for the day: one in case her ex shows in time and one in case he doesn’t, but it’s better that she take the emotional hit than her child.

    2. One would think that persistent lateness (two hours late? All the time??) on the part of the non-custodial parent would result in forfeiture of that day’s visitation time, and if I ruled the world it would. But it’s best for Parent to get advice from a lawyer about this first.

    3. Came here to say this. Often a custody agreement has some statement specifying the allowed leeway for pickup, and how long one is obligated to wait before the other parent’s visitation is forfeited. If OP’s doesn’t, all the documentation the Captain recommended will be helpful getting it added.

    4. As an adult child of divorced parents, I would NOT have liked this as a kid. Mom taking me out to do something else would have felt like torture because the weekends were “dad days”, and I would want to see him no matter what time he showed up. It would have been very stressful to not see my dad that day.

      (For the record my dad was exceptionally punctual, even pre-cell phone days, and my mom generally enjoyed staying home alone on the weekends anyway. So my life circumstances aren’t the same as OP’s.)

  5. Ugh, LW, that situation sucks and I’m sorry. I wonder if it might be easier to make the pickup someplace other than your home–for example, tell Dad “We’ll be at the park/McDonald’s play area/library between 10 and 11 a.m., on Saturday, and you can pick Kid up from there.” That way, Kid can be distracted by playing on the slides or listening to storytime instead of just sitting there all ready to go, waiting for Dad as the minutes drag on.

      1. Sadly, having done this, it’s no fun for an adult to spend 3 hours sitting in a McDonald’s playspace, and the kid gets tired and whiny, but you’re stuck there bc that’s where you set the meeting place.

        I never talked smack about my ex, beyond “Daddy loves you very much, but he has a hard time with [X], and that is tough on both of us.”

        I did most of the driving for pickups/dropoffs, which helped with the waiting-around issue.

        FWIW, kid is now in twenties and has a good relationship with her father, while recognizing that he has some difficult personality traits.

        (She got old enough to observe the behavior and read between the lines, and accepts that he isn’t going to be perfect, but he is going to be *there.*)

    1. Sadly, having done this, it’s no fun for an adult to spend 3 hours sitting in a McDonald’s playspace, and the kid gets tired and whiny, but you’re stuck there bc that’s where you set the meeting place.

      I never talked smack about my ex, beyond “Daddy loves you very much, but he has a hard time with [X], and that is tough on both of us.”

      I did most of the driving for pickups/dropoffs, which helped with the waiting-around issue.

      FWIW, kid is now in twenties and has a good relationship with her father, while recognizing that he has some difficult personality traits.

      (She got old enough to observe the behavior and read between the lines, and accepts that he isn’t going to be perfect, but he is going to be *there.*)

  6. One alternative perspective on motivation for lateness from my own experience – my mom had horrendous issues with lateness, taking me to school late sometimes by hours, picking me up at random unknown amounts of time after school/band/whatever ended (in the 70s & early 80s, so no cell phones/tracking etc). She was also out of control late with taking me to music lessons, anyone including herself to doctor appointments, even things by herself that she really unambivalently wanted to do and screwed herself out of by missing them (and pissing everyone off to no end, getting fired as a patient etc). And while it sucked massively for me as a kid dependent on that, I did come to realize that she was totally stuck in ways that had nothing to do with me. (Emotionally it lasts, and protecting the kid is priority one no matter what else.) She had among other things OCD, IBS, ADD, major depression. The place I think she was narcissistic was in her refusal to hear how it affected us and actually get help or change the parameters so as not to keep us stuck in the hell of it – hiding and defending was her priority, a lot like an addiction.

    Point being, LW’s ex’s lateness could be power & control tripping on them as is easy to assume? but it’s also possible that he’s a huge mess about time for any number of reasons that are utterly incidental to how it impacts them. Not caring enough to make sure he fixes it is rotten either way. But from my own experience, coming at it straightaway as him trying to control instead of him maybe being out of control himself in any number of ways (mental health issues of many possible kinds? Guilt? Anxiety?Addiction? Etc…) might miss an opportunity for a less conflictual path to getting whatever his trip is to not be painful for the kid. My $0.02. None of that is an excuse, but might be a less painful frame to work with, and if it is the case, less polarizing to approach it that way.

    1. And btw my folks were not divorced. There sure was a ton of conflict over this and other things like hoarding etc – and my dad finally accepting that it had nothing to do with him and to quit expecting her to be different and just go his own way brought a huge wave of peace.

    2. I can see where you’re coming from, but I’m not sure what the LW could actually be expected to do about it if it *is* a personal mental health issue.

      I mean, LW is their ex. They want minimal contact with this person specifically for the sake of the child. Getting them in any way involved in handling or assisting with the ex’s mental health needs isn’t going to do anyone any good. Even if the ex isn’t intentionally being manipulative or powertrippy here, the net effect would still be to drag LW deeper into a more personal situation than they want with their ex. And worse-case scenario, ex could genuinely have a personal problem contributing to the lateness *and could also* be an arsehole playing power games, and LW getting involved in the situation would just give him another avenue through which to be a jerk.

      I don’t think LW needs to speculate about *why* their ex is behaving this way, except inasmuch as they need to protect themselves. The issue regardless is that LW needs to be able to keep some kind of reliable schedule in their own life and the ex is preventing that from happening by being at times 2 hours late to pick up their child, and the child is being upset and stressed out by their unreliable father. Helping LW’s ex with a speculated mental health issue would be the job of the ex’s friends and family.

      1. I don’t think that works when there’s a kid in the mix. If the ex does have an untreated mental issue, that’s going to affect the child, especially if they have unsupervised visits. That is absolutely the LW’s doncern. Their power may be limited, but they need to know as much as possible about the situation their little one is going into.

        1. Especially with a little kid, yeah. If they were a teenager, they have enough autonomy that they can get on a bus, take a cab, call the other parent to pick them up if Dad is having a mental health crisis, but at four, you’re dependent on your caretaker. I know a divorced couple who have a young kid and one of the parents can’t have unsupervised visits because they have major panic attacks and totally shut down, like curl up in a ball and become completely unable to function. Obviously this isn’t something they do maliciously, but it’s not safe to leave a three-year-old kid alone with someone like that and information about their mental health is absolutely their ex’s business as it pertains to the safety of their child.

        2. I hear you on that, but I don’t think it’s very helpful to throw that on LW now, on top of everything else they’re dealing with (if the LW is still dealing with let’s-schedule-a-time-for-weekly-visits, it sounds to me that the divorce is a pretty recent thing, and that’s a pretty time for anyone). Let the ex and his team figure out how to deal with this chronic lateness, LW has enough dealing with the damage control, at least for now.

      2. Agree that making assumptions about why dad is late is probably not helpful. But to me that goes double for assuming malicious reasons like ‘he’s doing it deliberately to control you’, unless there’s a lot of other history that makes that more than speculation.

        1. From the letter. “It makes me so angry that even after the divorce that I’m still powerless to him.”

          1. I’m confused. How does her feeling powerless imply he’s being late on purpose? And why does OP need to cover for the dad and make up excuses in the first place? This seems like a problem that good boundaries and communication skills could help with. I get a lot less of those angry/panicky feelings of helplessness now that I have constructive skills to use instead. 🙂

          2. That doesn’t mean here’s trying to be controlling. He just could be a dumb, disorganized guy.

            I’ve seen this first hand as a divorce atty. clients tell me something is malicious when it’s just stupidity and incompetence.

            But the reason he is doing it is irrelevant. Absent other behavior, a judge will likely not care.

            She needs to ask an atty to take the matter back to court and have visitation adjusted based on dad’s chronic lateness.

            A lot of the self help suggestions here are dangerous. Failure to turn over the child is contempt of court if the decree doesn’t allow her to leave after a set time

            If the decree/court order on visitation doesn’t have a clause about what happens if he is late, it needs to be amended to include one

            This is an area w a lot of dragons. She needs to hash this out with an attorney before she says anything to him or refuses visitation. She dies it wrong and she can end up in court explaining to a judge why she didn’t follow court orders.

          3. If Ex is late on purpose, it means LW has to sit around and wait for him. It means all of LW’s plans for the rest of the day get derailed–did LW have an appointment? A date? Plans to relax? Too bad, have to cancel, because according to Custody Arrangement Ex has the RIGHT to see his child. It’s a power move, a way of exerting control over the LW even though they’re divorced, and that’s why LW says it makes them feel powerless. That’s also why LW’s feelings of powerlessness imply Ex is doing it on purpose–if he were just a flaky airhead, LW would have probably indicated that.

            This is also why people are suggesting LW consult a lawyer and see if a “If Ex hasn’t arrived by [amount of time] after stated pickup time, the visit is considered canceled” because it’s a way for LW to take back power in this situation.

            I’m with you on LW not needing to cover for dad, though. LW is perfectly within rights to say “I don’t know why Daddy is late and it’s okay to be upset that he’s not here” if the child is upset, and leave it at that. Not LW’s job to manage Ex’s relationship with his kid (and frankly, wouldn’t be LW’s job even if they weren’t divorced).

          4. Ah, I see, I guess I can see how you can read it that way.

            I just read it as the (unsurprising) frustration and powerlessness of having to constantly deal with such a difficult behaviour.

            But I get now how you could read it the other way

          5. “if he were just a flaky airhead, LW would have probably indicated that.”

            if I had a nickel for every time a teacher accused me of being difficult on purpose… or every time my mother raged about how she couldn’t make someone behave the way she wanted…

            anyways, the point is, we don’t know, and there’s no benefit to assuming malice here. it’d feed the anger, but anger doesn’t seem like a useful tool in this situation. There’s some great advice in the comments that applies regardless of what’s going on in the father’s head.

          6. I think if you are flaky / disorganised / late in a way that inconveniences and upsets other people, then it’s on you to tell them you’re sorry and let them know that you’re doing your best – especially if one of those other people is four years old! I think “Ex is incredibly disorganised and frequently late although he’s apologetic and recognises it’s a problem for me” would be a different letter.

          7. In hindsight… I think I ended up derailing by focusing too much on what *I* perceived as derailing (the “he’s definitely doing it on purpose” comments). *facepalm*

      3. This.
        Even if it is a personal issue that the ex needs to work on, it is entirely on the ex to do so, INCLUDING things like telling LW what accommodations are needed.

        For the purpose of the LWs goal – which is to get the kid’s visitations to happen smoothly – it literally makes no difference whether ex is using schedule shenanigans to deliberately make LWs life hard or whether it is something they are working on in good faith. Therefore, “but what if REASONS” is not actually relevant.

        1. I strongly agree. Having been raised in “but what if REASONS” trumping the impact of someone’s behavior on me, it’s a very counterproductive mindset that requires a lot of emotional labor and results in weak boundaries.

          If ex is having legitimate issues, it’s still not really LW’s responsibility, and they’re allowed to protect themself and their child.

        2. THIS.

          I am coming at this from a world where both I and my partner have mental health issues of differing kinds that tend to cause us to rub up against each other and the world in un-intentioned ways. And that we both also come from upbringings with parents who had mental health issues that were undiagnosed, untreated and unmanaged, and who did large and small and various kinds of damage as a result that we are both only in the last couple of years starting to untangle.

          So I’m very sympathetic to how hard it can be to navigate the world when parts of it are just categorically not designed to accommodate you. But also very firm on who’s job it is and isn’t to manage another person’s mental health needs.

      4. I tend to agree speculation doesn’t help a great deal; there’s nothing LW can do for untreated mental health or behavioral problems, that’s on the ex. It might help a bit on predicting best management strategies; I would expect someone who was malicious to keep trying to move the goalposts and actively sabotage most any setup, while mental health issues I would expect could wax and wane but not actually change focus dramatically (ie, not to go from chronically late to stealing/breaking things or lying the court)
        Regardless LW should protect themselves by renegotiating the custody agreement if there’s not already a lateness clause in there and yes, document everything.

    3. Yep. My ex is an alcoholic, and when he’s drinking he’s pretty much never on time to pick up the children. He’s not on a power trip, he’s genuinely doing his best, just that his “best” is a very low bar. I agree with Violet’s last sentence – it’s not an excuse, but it’s an explanation, and it helps me manage my own anger about his behaviour.

      I also agree with the LW, that it’s a crappy thing to do, regardless of his motivation (or lack of motivation.) Whether or not he intends to make it a power trip, it does leave you feeling powerless and angry. I’m sorry you’re going through this, and I hope it gets easier for you soon.

    4. I’m so sorry. If it still bothers you, and I could see why it would, I can offer a bit of reframing.

      Given the time period, it’s entirely possible that she was defensive because she /didn’t/ think she could change. There’s been a lot of progress on understanding and treatment of, for example, ADHD in the last 30 to 40 years, and even with that progress, there’s still a lot of shame and stigma surrounding it. A lot of people treat ADHD as a personal failing or laziness, when the fact is that our brains don’t work the way neurotypical people’s brains do. (Note that I’m not saying either is “better” or “worse”, just different.) Add in that girls weren’t diagnosed at the same rate boys were/are, and women less so, and it could have been hopeless from her point of view. I know that the only thing that helps with my lateness is a combination of meds and therapy, and those tools weren’t as available then.

      That said, I’m not saying to give her a free pass, because what happened still hurt you. I think what I’m saying is, maybe she couldn’t get help because it wasn’t available, at least not the kind of help that would make any big difference.

      My heart goes out to both of you, either way.

    5. I’m very, very sorry that your mother failed you so strongly. Mine did too, in many ways. Maybe mental illness is the reason, but it absolutely doesn’t excuse neglecting your parental duties on such a grand scale.

      I don’t care why LW’s ex is a neglectful parent, but I care that he is one. This little kid deserves better. So did you. He’s an adult, he needs to fulfill his obligations to his son, who is a powerless child and undoubtedly being damaged by his father’s failure to follow through.

  7. Document and go back to court. This is abusive. Don’t tell the child when Dad is coming. That leaves you free to leave the house if he doesn’t show by the court appointed grace period. Don’t make excuses for Dad. You’re not really convincing your child and at some point you will have to deal with this on a deeper level when your child is older. It’s better for you if you’re not telling a story. Don’t say anything bad either. “I don’t know” is the best answer because the truth is: You don’t.

  8. At four, does the kid have to know that Daddy is supposed to come or not? Can it be a pleasant surprise rather than a missed expectation?

    1. Depends on the kid. My daughter — at four and now at 11 — likes to know the schedule. Where “likes” means that she’s an awesome amazing above average in all ways child if she does. And if she doesn’t know the schedule? If there are changes or uncertainty? Everything becomes enormously difficult.

      One of the few things that parenting “experts” all agree on is that consistency and reliability are the foundations of good parenting — even for kids who are more flexible than mine. I literally can’t imagine how my child would have acted if this was happening to her. She would be a totally different person. I am so sorry for the OP and blindingly angry at the father.

      I have no advice. I’ve dealt with this in other people (Grandpa is just always late so we do this and that) but in a co-parent? It’s … dramatically upsetting.

      1. I am the same way as your daughter and reportedly always was. I think it’s related to my hatred of surprises—I’ve had good ones, but they all would have been just as good if I had known they were coming. I’ve also had some really, really awful ones. If the LW’s child is someone who is really schedule-oriented, the best thing to do is to have the conversation the other commenters have suggested: explain kindly that some people are not good with time management, and unfortunately, Dad is one of those people. On a more practical level, it might help to discuss contingency plans: “If Dad is late again, we’ll [insert some activity that child enjoys, but which isn’t more exciting than seeing Dad] while we wait.”

        I agree that this is a crappy situation for the LW and hope that her lawyers can help her find a way to get her ex on board with the agreed-upon pick-up times.

      2. Seconding this.
        My youngest prefers consistency and foreknowledge, but can go with the flow.

        We’ve spent a lot of time and effort helping our oldest to be okay with changes in schedule/routine, and it’s better.
        But at four? No. Either way, a parent showing up unexpectedly, or not showing up when Oldest expected, would have been a giant sinkhole that ate everyone’s emotional energy.

        It would have been minimum a week of reassuring her that we would not be randomly appearing for or disappearing from her.

      3. Also depends on how long the scheduled visit is supposed to last, I think — “Daddy’s here to take you to the park!” is potentially a fun surprise, but “Daddy’s here to take you to his house for the entire weekend!” is a big enough adjustment that trying to make it a surprise is probably a no-go, even for a kid who takes well to surprises and changes in routine. (Not to mention, requires enough prep that treating it as a surprise just isn’t practical.)

        1. This is a good point & one I wasn’t thinking of when this was discussed upthread. My kid would not deal well with that (even if he was used to ever having overnights in another house.) I do spring things on my kid, especially playdates with a certain friend who is wonderful when she’s here and really doesn’t *mean* to flake but hella does. But that’s a minor thing–it’s just two extra, enjoyable people in our space. If Friend was taking him to her house for babysitting, a sudden surprise & quick transition would be much more dicey.

      4. Right. This is not an “innocent harmless mistake” when it happens over and over. A four year old can’t process it, so just saying something like “oh well Daddy has a hard time being on time” is fine, but in the long run you don’t want to construct a whole staircase around that missing stair and cooperate in asking your kid to smile smile smile while walking on it.

    2. If this is for an overnight stay, the kid does have to know, because their stuff has to get packed up.

      1. Well, there’s the argument that one of the healthy things that could come from this is learning to love your dad even when he’s flawed. Learning how to forgive. That’s pretty powerful.

        1. Does a toddler to learn to “forgive” a flawed parent or does an adult man need to learn how to show up for his four-year-old child when he said he’d be there, tho? The kid forgives Daddy already and is starting to worry that the problem is him or herself that makes Daddy not want to come.

          1. Even setting aside my kneejerk rage reaction to the word forgiveness, what children learn from being treated poorly by people who are supposed to love them is not forgiveness, it’s that they don’t matter, their feelings don’t matter, they aren’t safe in the world, and that they shouldn’t expect ever to be treated better.

            Aside from that, forgiveness is only powerful if it’s freely chosen. A small child cannot help loving their parents and needing their approval and is simply and literally unable to cut one of them out of their life if the child doesn’t like the way they’re being treated. They cannot possibly make a free choice to forgive a parent who is treating them badly.

          2. the comment under this puts a lot of why I’m annoyed at “forgive your abusive friend/relative/so-and-so :D” into perspective so uh…thanks. It’s not really forgiveness they’re asking for at that point, its’ “put up with this and pretend its’ not as bad as it is”.

          3. I’m with Mel Reams and hhhhhh here, because it’s a child we’re talking about, and asking them to forgive a pattern of poor treatment is a *tremendous* emotional burden for them to carry. Basically it’s “put up with it and act like it’s not a problem,” and as I keep saying in the comments, it messes with boundaries and self-esteem.

          4. Right. Toddlers need to accept that their parents are human and imperfect within certain parameters, but they do that when parents own their mistakes and apologize for them, not when parents are endlessly unreliable in a way that dramatically disrupts the child’s life and don’t seem to give a damn about the emotional impact. If the ex was making an effort to show up on time and apologizing to their kid and explaining that they have trouble with being on time, that might be a good lesson for the child to learn. But it doesn’t sound like what’s happening here. At best, the ex is leaving it to the OP to manage the impact that their constant lateness is having on the kid; at worst, they’re doing it on purpose. Neither is exactly stellar parenting.

          5. I don’t think that “forgiving” comes for a toddler. But by modeling recognition of the reality of Dad, and the reality that he’s not going to change, can be pretty powerful. Forgiving is not about approving; it’s about not letting the sin have the power over you that it used to.

          6. I think you can achieve the same effect by going, “I’m sorry, I know it sucks” and giving the kid the space to have those negative feelings, while at the same time acknowledging that this is How Dad Is. Maybe it’s just me, but “letting the sin have power over you” seems to put the onus on the kid for being upset, like it’s their problem and not Dad’s, and I worry they wouldn’t feel like they were being understood or acknowledged. The former way might be easier for them to naturally let go.

        2. I just really disagree with this. I don’t believe in the idea that forgiveness is the ultimate power, or that this baby owes his irresponsible, unreliable father love.

    1. OK, but what if OP has plans to do something with the time?

      Like, it can’t always be as simple as “oh well Dad didn’t show, I guess we spend the night here” – sometimes it’s “Shit! Dad didn’t show again, and I need to be away from here in half an hour, where do I find a babysitter we trust and who knows your routine at this notice!?”
      …Not actually out loud to a 4 year old, but.

      Oh well Dad didn’t show, visit is cancelled is not a neutral option for Other Parent. Presuming they’re allowed any kind of structure in their life that isn’t Care For 4 Year Old At All Times, there are likely to be knock-on consequences.
      Ditto if all OP’s plans to do anything ever have to be scheduled on OP-nights with a reliable babysitter, and daddy-nights when he does show mean making last minute plans or moping in alone.

      Errr…Note: This may not be OP’s actual situation so much as Very Familiar To Me Personally.

  9. LW, I want to end you for handling your ex’ss bad behavior as best as you possibly can and doing your best to keep from letting on to your child how much that sucks. As a child of divorced parents, I remember the most annoying thing about the divorce was having to manage my mother’s annoyance with my dad.

    With the caveat that i am sure you are 100% doing everything you possibly can not to let the lateness affect your kid, could I suggest a couple of coping strategies for right now?

    1. Your kid is 4, so they probably don’t have a super great sense of time and probably aren’t managing their own calendar. Is it possible for you to simply not communicate a specific time for your ex’s pickups to your child? Your ex can’t be late if he’s not expected by any specific time (“this morning!” Or “this afternoon!” Are great times for when the pickup is happening).

    2. Is it possible for you to not visibly check your phone/clock/watch/ticking time bomb as frequently when pickups are scheduled, or be engaged in an activity that uses a device with a built-in clock? Kids are incredibly perceptive, and “parent keeps checking the time” is something they understand as “parent is anxious about latenesses” pretty early. You’re not doing anything wrong by keeping track of the time, but your kid is probably picking up on your anxiety because kids do that. If you can do less looking at the clock, it may help your kid stop thinking about time.

    3. Playing a Daddy Lateness game is a great suggestion that i was also going to make.

    Good luck. I’m sorry your ex is being so awful. I’m really sorry this is happening to you and your wonderful child.

    1. syddle, I am just going to assume that you meant to type “LW, I want to hand it to you”, or something similar, unless you are following the comments and you correct me 🙂 I’m really just posting this in hopes that you will see it, or at least to hopefully alleviate any potential confusion. Your comment is really nice and helpful, so I am like 99% sure that you don’t actually want to end the LW!

  10. One thing that concerns me – 2 hours late is an inconvenience, but it could also be a pain for the kid in other ways, too. If daddy is supposed to be taking the kid to lunch, or out to dinner or even if they just have a specific pick-up time that then involves an overnight stay with meals and bedtime and such. At 4 years old, 2 hours is an unpleasant upset to a kid’s schedule.

    While this is being sorted out, it’d be worth making sure that whatever scheduled plans you’ve made with the father, they don’t include times that run close to a mealtime or bedtime, so kid at least isnt hangry or overtired at the same time as being upset and anxious about daddy.

    If it is a power play aimed at inconveniencing you, could you get other family and trusted adults involved? People your kid already likes hanging out with and who you have trusted to babysit for you before? I’m thinking, if kid is being watched by granny or auntie at the time of the pick-up, this could have 2 effects:

    1. Kid is already having a fun time with another adult they love (I know when I was a wee one, it was way easier for my uncle B to distract me from getting bored waiting for stuff than my mum could, because I saw mum every day but uncle B was a Beloved Favourite Uncle who I could spend literally hours playing with). Kid is therefore less aware of the lateness and less upset by it.
    2. Daddy doesn’t get to use shitty schedule-keeping as a power-play over you, because you’re not trapped at home with an increasingly anxious child waiting on him, you’re Doing The Things You Needed To Do and passing the time away just fine.

    Now, caveat. I have no idea how this might effect any legal co-parenting arrangements or if this is a thing the father could use negatively, so Do Not Try Until You’ve Looked Into That. An alternative might be to still have a beloved family friend or family member be over when it’s Scheduled Daddy Arrival Time but you also still be home, because at least then you could be doing something with them – catching up on family news, tag-teaming some housework, playing with the kid, hosting your weekly knitting group/book club/lunch thing/coffee thing, or something?

    1. I like these suggestions very much!

      LW, I would be furious in your position and I really admire how you are focused on your child’s perceptions and feelings. I am not a parent or a divorced person (or even a married person) and I don’t think I have any relevant advice, but I’ve read so many great, and very different, suggestions in this thread that hopefully at least a few of them will be helpful in the full context of your life.

      (I am a lawyer and I approve wholeheartedly of the Captain’s advice re: documentation, contacting a lawyer, NOT threatening legal action, and beginning legal action if and when it becomes necessary. Good luck!)

    2. Great suggestions! Its fine to suggest ‘planning fun activities for the kid’ to distract them from Dad’s tardiness, but its not so easy to do that when the mother has probably been doing that for days, needs a break and has to put all the things she had planned to do while Dad had the kid on hold too, especially when it involves hanging around the house for hours. I know I’d be peeved if I have to break out the art and craft (I freakin’ HATE craft) just to distract my kid.

    3. This is my favorite suggestion: Caretaking Parent sticking to hir schedule and planning in advance on leaving Child with Trusted Friend of the Family or Trusted Relative and thereby removing the power-play potential from Late Dad Being Late. A few rounds of this, if it is a power-play rather than disorganization, will frustrate Late Dad while Child’s Caretaking Parent goes and does whatever zie wants. If it is just disorganization and not malicious, it still works out great because Child gets good care, Caretaking Parent isn’t waiting around for Late Dad, and Late Dad doesn’t get to inconvenience anyone on purpose OR accidentally OR due to lack of a functional executive function / ADHD / overbooking self / imperviousness to any sense of time passing / a watch / a modern cellphone with a clock and an alarm feature.

      Combine this smart idea with diligent record-keeping that tracks how often Late Dad Is Late (for support payments, household upkeep help, tuition, medical bills not covered by insurance co-pays, pick-ups, drop-offs, etc.) and I think this will be the least stressful but also ass-covering solution for both Child and Caretaking Parent.

  11. This is not only abusive to the child, but also to the Mom. She needs that free time. He knows this of course. And of course, she is going to put her child in first place with some of the great suggestions above but she is still being massively inconvenienced. Thanks for taking the hit, Mom, and Good Luck managing your business without counting on your ex.

  12. Hello, Letter Writer!
    I’m pretty sure I have an idea of how your child is feeling, because my dad also tries to control mine and my brother’s and my mom’s (his ex-wife’s) lives through unreliability, inaction, or blocking the situation. I agree that this is your ex’s way of keeping you and your child as his tools. It is gross and wrong and not your or your kid’s fault.
    I think you are trying to do your best, but unfortunately you cannot shield your child from your ex’s behaviour: your child is going to notice that you’re there for them and that their dad isn’t. Given time, your child is going to draw their own conclussions about their dad’s behaviour and what kind of relationship they have or want to have.
    At first, my mom also tried to solve all my dad’s faults as a father with reasonable agreements and lots of good will. That didn’t work out, because my father wasn’t interested in solving problems, he was interested in causing them so he could keep controlling my mom. So she had to do everything via documentation-attorney-divorce agreement.
    My mom always told me that he was a good father and that he loved us, she tried to shield us for decades, but his actions always spoke louder than her words.
    So, a few practical pointers:
    – DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. Every missed visit, every late child support check, every e-mail, every cent you invest in your house if your ex is a co-owner. Make back-ups of those documents, label them clearly, and store them in a safe place. They will come in really handy in 5, 10 or 15 years. They are a guarantee of your child’s and your rights.
    – Provide your child with all the love and support they need. You’re going to have to love them for two, because your ex isn’t doing his part. Just, be a loving, supportive, reliable mom for your child. Don’t be afraid to be the “boring” or “strict” one, that’s actual love with actual substance and your child can tell.
    – When your child is upset about their dad, remind them: “It’s ok to be upset over this. This is not your fault. I love you”. You cannot make their dad change, but you can love your child and be there for them, day to day. That’s way more powerful and necessary.
    – Your child does not need a “father figure”; they needs adults who care for them. That’s you, and you are doing great.
    – Good instincts on no bad-mouthing your ex to your child. Do not make your child feel as if they have to choose between the two of you or side with one of you. Don’t use your child as a messenger to communicate with your ex. Whether your child is close to their dad or not, be supportive about their relationship.
    – You’re doing a fucking awesome job at being a good mom and don’t you forget that. That your ex is throwing the precious love and trust of your child down the drain is not your fault. It sucks, it’s cruel, but it’s not your fault.
    You got this, LW. You and your child are going to be okay.

    1. I know you were writing that to the LW, but I read it as if it were for me. Thank you for writing it.

      1. B. — yes, thank you. I feel the same way Amanda does. A lot of the comments that are assuming “hey maybe he’s just a disorganized guy” have *no idea* what dealing with a passive aggressive co-parent is like and how much that personality type thrives on what I call “remote control” (I can’t control you directly anymore, but by not showing up on time I still control you ha ha!) and how much they don’t care about their children’s essential wellbeing and how having to manage all of it is (a) the only answer and (b) deeply unfair and (c) gonna hurt the kid in some way, no matter how well you strategize around it.

        1. I’m so glad I could be of help! Lots of strenght and jedi hugs to all of you who are struggling with this, you are amazing ♡
          I also want to apologise for gendering the LW. Where I wrote “great mom” I should have written “great parent”. I’m sorry.

  13. Ugh, OP and OP’s child, I’m so sorry. My parents divorced when I was 13, and my dad was chronically very late (30-120 minutes) to pick me up for visits, and I remember just losing it every time. I was much older than your child, and reading your letter still felt almost triggering for me. I want to give your kid a hug and tell them it will all get so much better one day.

    The advice to validate feelings is a good one – my mom used to try to get me to calm down, which was even harder.

    Is is possible to not tell your kid dad is coming? I appreciate that that might be even worse and terribly disruptive. The commenters’s advice above to just add hours to the time may be more realistic, but right now it seems like the whole pick up thing is just vastly anxiety-provoking for your kid anyway.

    1. Co-sign on validating feelings. My dad and stepmom, who were generally very good parents, sort of missed the boat on that one and it wasn’t great for my development as a person. My mom was once a full day late picking me up from summer camp. It wasn’t until therapy ten years later that I got some confirmation that this was incredibly fucked up.

      1. I get that, though I do kinda think that at 4, you need to be careful on telling the kid anything their other parent does is fucked up. That parent is half the kid and the kid loves them. I get where you are coming from, but I think it has the potential to spin into trash talking the other parent.

        1. I see what you mean, but I think MuddieMae was referring more to validation the kid’s feelings that it’s fucked up, if the kid is already feeling that way? Like, don’t trash talk the ex to their kid, of course, but also if the kid is angry/confused and not sure if that’s okay? Validation would probably be good.
          I like what someone said above about gently asking the child what they feel/think about this.

    2. “My parents divorced when I was 13, and my dad was chronically very late (30-120 minutes) to pick me up for visits”

      ARE YOU ME?!?!?!

      1. …are you both me from a slightly different timeline? My parents finally got divorced a few years before both of yours did, and my dad was consistently late to pick me and my sister up too. I still resent being treated like an afterthought, and it actually kind of pisses me off that he meets us on time now that we’re adults – now that it’s a special treat for *him* to see us, suddenly he’s able to be on time.

        To tie my venting back to the LWs actual question, definitely ask what’s your child’s feelings are, validate them and try to distract them from worrying about if/when their father is going to show up this time. LW, of course you know your child best but I would be very cautious about just not telling your child that their father is supposed to be coming. I still hate sudden changes of plans as an adult, I would have had a really, really hard time with suddenly going to my other parent’s house when I was a kid.

  14. This letter brought back so many memories for me. When I was four, my father was very flakey about visits, and eventually stopped coming when I was six. As an adult, I can recognize that he was struggling with depression, alcoholism, and a sense of failing as a father. He was not flakey to try and control me and my mother. My mother did the best she could. “Daddy loves you very much, but he’s sick and sometimes that makes him stay away” is something she told me. It was the truth, in a way that I could understand.

    It’s a tough situation. With us, it ended in a restraining order when my father took me six hours away and wouldn’t bring me home. LW, I hope things go better for your family – and that your child sees how much you do for them. Best wishes!

  15. Thank you all for the kind words and the great advice from CA! I’m almost at my wits end here, but times like these are a helpful reminder to why we got divorced in the first place and to keep a sense of humor.

    Here’s some more background:

    The not sharing what time Daddy is going to be here worked wonders for us. I would treat when he would show up as a happy surprise. Yet, I fear it not working so much as my child has recently begun asking around the time range their father would typically show up where is daddy. And it just breaks my heart not being able to give a definitive answer.

    The tip about not checking clock/phone, etc, I so do that and didn’t recognize that until syddle wrote that. Defintely need to stop that. Kids pick up all sorts of things that we think they don’t. That’s probably one of the reasons why the technique of not saying what time isn’t so effective anymore.

    Regarding pick-up/drop-off locations:

    At first I tried to dropping my child off at his house because I knew that they would be late in picking up the child. But, that also entailed spending almost an hour waiting for them to wake up. And this was at a time that we both agreed to in our custody agreement. So, I moved the pick-up/drop-off to a neutral location. But the father would text that they will be there in an hour. Which would turn into sometimes more than two hours. And this was even after agreeing to push back the pick-up time once we moved to a neutral location. I decided no more and just do the pick-up from my house, so that way my child is somewhere comfortable and we wouldn’t have far to drive to. We just agreed again to pushing the pick-up time some more. I hope that works…

    Thank you again everyone for the kind words and thoughts!

    1. Ha! Was writing when you posted this. Just to reiterate: You’re doing GREAT by your child! GOOD WORK.

      On the ” it just breaks my heart not being able to give a definitive answer” thing: it’s ok to not know and for your child to learn that you don’t know the answer all the time. The definitive answer is “I think [time] but I don’t really know, and it’s ok, because we know what we’ll do if he can’t come at [time]. What are we going to do at [time], child?” (Ans: play, sing, dance, eat cookies until we’re sick, whatever)

    2. For timing I’d like to second some else’s suggestion of saying he’s scheduled to be there after you finish [distracting fun activity / visit from some other adult friend]. Your child probably won’t notice if that’s 10 minutes or an hour, especially if you change the activity somewhat often. It also sort of frees you up not to worry about the time: start the activity around when he’s supposed to show up, do the fun activity until he shows up.

    3. Oh, good, you liked what syddle wrote; so did I.

      My father reneging on promises started way before my parents separated, and it was that that conditioned me into hypervigilence. I attribute my PTSD to him not paying the child support, so that we were on food stamps and lost our home. My mother’s attorney did not advocate for us…

      Telling the child the truth will allow them to learn to self-soothe, and that its OK to cry at the feelings that come up. Four is as you have said, absolutely an age when children are aware of promises, and how the parent is feeling. Hiding that won’t work. Reassuring them that their emotions are valid, and helping them direct and channel their energy, will let the child know they can trust you.

      I’d love it if the child could say, “You’re always late and that makes me angry!” to the father, without punishment.

      1. I couldn’t find a YT clip with Mr Rogers, but asking the child what they’d like to do with the mad that they feel, and directing them towards “run to the park fence and back” “color outside the lines in a coloring book” or “pretend to be a big growly bear or dinosaur for five minutes” seem age-appropriate recognition and anger management channeling.
        If you can use an example of how the child saw you handle a less-stressful situation, “Do you remember when we went to pick up the car and it wasn’t ready? We were pretty angry, weren’t we? What did you see Mommy do?” would surely help the child see that anger is normal.

    4. One suggestion for you, if you haven’t already tried it/thought of it: in really acrimonious situations, there are licensed (in most states, anyway) providers who specialize in divorce cases, primarily providing either neutral ground or a neutral person to make drop-offs and pick-ups in custody cases. You might view that as a last resort, but because you have to pay for it, suggesting that you pay the initial fee and your ex pays any costs incurred by not showing up on time, could solve a few issues. But that’s probably a last resort for going back to court and renegotiating the custody arrangements.

      I totally agree on documenting everything, though. Every time your ex is late, or child support is late, or any time your child passes along any disparaging remarks your ex might make about you…

      Good luck!

      1. I can see using a neutral party for the drop off if the parents’ relationship is so bad it’s dangerous for them to have any contact, but I’m afraid that in this case, where it’s just a matter of father’s being late, you’d have the child dropped off by mother and left with strangers for who knows how long, which I could see leading to the child’s thinking mommy wants to get rid of him and daddy doesn’t want to come get him.
        Child is much better off at home with mother. Maybe finding a good day care that child likes and letting him play there until father comes allows mother to schedule things, but that raises its own set of issues.

        1. I’m also a little dubious about this plan. I suppose it might work, but I can see far too many possible scenarios where it doesn’t – and then the LW is paying money and/or spreading the inconvenience around to the staff.

    5. I’m so sorry your ex is treating you and your child this way. It’s really, really not okay.

      I have a circadian rhythm disorder, and him not even being awake yet at the designated pick-up time sounded dreadfully familiar to me. If sleep, specifically, is what’s getting in the way of your ex showing up places on time, and if he is physically unable to wake up early, the only thing that will work is moving the pick-up time to considerably later than you think it should be. It doesn’t sound like he considers late sleeping to be a problem worth treating, and even if he did, circadian rhythm disorders are remarkably treatment-resistant.

      Beyond that, I’m generally a fan of being pretty honest with kids:

      “I don’t know what time your dad is going to come. I hope it will be between 1 and 4.” And then a pause to make space for the child to react, and support for that reaction, whatever it is. “You feel sad that your dad isn’t here yet. So do I. It’s hard not knowing what time someone is going to come and be with you.” “You’re worried that your dad doesn’t want to see you. That’s really hard, feeling that way.”

      You can offer solutions if it seems like your child might want them: “Maybe when he gets here you can ask him to reassure you that he loves you and wants to spend time with you.” Or just provide avenues for expression. “Do you want to draw a picture or tell a story about how you’re feeling?” “Let’s go for a brisk walk around the block and push our feelings out through our feet.” “Let’s go outside where you can yell as loud as you want about what you’re feeling.”

      My mom is a big fan of turning things into games, so she probably would have started a betting pool for extremely low stakes. “I bet he’s going to be here at 2:17. What do you bet? Whichever one of us is closer to the time he shows up gets to skip making their bed tomorrow morning!” But obviously that won’t work with every kid, and if your child doesn’t want to play it’s important to respect that.

    6. 4 is *slightly* young, but just coming up to about the right sort of age where “where is daddy?” can be “I don’t know sweetheart. Daddy is his own separate grownup who looks after himself and I can’t see him from here” or those sorts of wordings (gently vs snapping obvs).

      It’s a learning stage anyway (people are separate from each other, me-parent is not omnipotent and all-knowing really, grownups are in charge of themselves), apart from being the truest possible response.
      And there’s always the option of following it with the Fun Suggestions Game: maybe daddy is.. on the moon! “no, that’s silly, he can’t be there!”, Maybe daddy is… etc.

      Don’t play that one if it turns into the go sit outside and look for daddy coming down the road game though, I’ve lost whole days of my life (cumulatively) to that one!

    7. Thanks for writing to the Captain, LW. I wish you hadn’t had to and I wish you and your child weren’t going through this, but it’s been really comforting for me to hear from so many other commentors who have been wounded by one parent’s inability to treat them as if they matter. I’ve been having a lot of feelings all over the comments on your letter but those are not about you, they’re about me.

      I really don’t want you to worry that you’re somehow a bad parent because you can’t make ex show up on time like a responsible grownup. If you had the power to do that you would be doing it because you obviously care deeply about your child and their relationship with their father and are putting massive amounts of effort into making sure child gets to see their father. Your child is going to be okay, I can tell that by how much work you’re putting into doing the best thing for them.

  16. Not a parent myself, but my parents divorced when I was 5 (separated before that), and then had joint custody of my sibling and me, so I can offer advice from that perspective.

    You will not do your child any favors by trying to keep an abusive parent involved in their life.

    In retrospect, I think I wish my mother would have just pushed for sole custody of us kids when she divorced my father after years of emotional/verbal abuse. He continued to be (primarily verbally and emotionally) abusive towards me throughout my childhood. My personal feelings about my own situation are complicated by the fact that my mother was *also* abusive (severely physically neglectful, emotionally manipulative, and so on). If she’d been able to supply an entirely safe, nurturing environment (which presumably LW is able to do for their child), there would have been no question that I would rather have been raised just by her.

    1. Going for sole custody is not easy to do. I tried, and I had a lot better grounds, and he still got 50%, after I spent thousands of dollars on attorney’s fees.

      1. I’m not saying LW is a bad parent if they can’t get sole custody, but right now they seem to feel like keeping their child’s father involved as a co-parent is a positive and important thing for their child. Obviously getting sole custody is hard to do, but I’m encouraging them that it’s not something they have to feel bad about or selfish for trying.

  17. You can not only get a lawyer to put a “X amount of time late = missed custody day” clause into your custody agreement, depending on the state, you may also be able to get a “missed day of custody = X amount more in child support” clause in there.

    Child support is based on how many days the custodial parent is financially supporting the child’s physical needs. If he has to pay for the dinners you’re fixing when he doesn’t show up, he may be more motivated to be there.
    If not, you can put the money into a therapy/babysitter/awesome vacation fund to cover the mental and emotional stress he’s putting on you and your child.

    If you go that route, document everything, especially your child’s reaction to the late/missed visits and your attempts to be flexible. Communicate with him through emails and texts that show he knows your child is hurting, and that you’ve tried to make visitation work.
    The judge will be much more receptive if you frame your request as a Hail Mary pass to preserve the relationship between your child and his father, rather than why it’s unfair to you.
    It’s his job to make impartial judgements about the best interests of your child. Caring about yours, even if justified, gives the impression of being partial to you.

  18. Goodness, that letter strikes a chord. When I was a young child, my father was perpetually late for his visitations as well. The situation was more dire than it is for the LW, since both parents badmouthed the other and got me to relay ‘messages’ while fighting a bitter custody battle. I always felt that I was somehow the cause of all this pain and anger, and that the father was always late didn’t help that impression (and neither did the mother who continually gaslighted me that he had done something violent to me. Didn’t happen). One day, he stopped his visitations altogether, and I don’t know the reason to this day.

    I haven’t seen my father for over twenty years, and it has been nearly a decade in which I haven’t seen my mother. Both are effectively cut out of my life, both for being terrible, unreliable, scheming people who hold a master’s degree in bad parenting.

    Dear LW, it is very tempting to just stop making excuses for the father, but I implore you to do so anyway and try to convince your child that this is not their fault, that they didn’t misbehave, that their father doesn’t want to hurt them on purpose. I know that it would have meant the world for me back then to *know* that my father wasn’t late because spiting my mother was his priority. It would have been such a comforting thought to not be disappointed, and that comfort is what I would wish for your child. The suggestion to just predict the two hours he will be late that was made by other commenters is a good one. Lie if you must, but your child deserves better.

    As for the father: it might be prudent to remind him that even if he successfully needles the LW with that constant schedule-bombing, he is shooting himself in the foot in the long run. The child will remember, and they won’t understand why. And when they are done feeling guilty, when they are older, they will see that petty behaviour for what it is – and that always has consequences.

  19. Ohhh boy this sounds so much like my ex it’s scary. He made me late for work so many times by not being there on mornings he was supposed to pick her up. Telling him something was 2 hours earlier than it really was didn’t work, either. I’d say “You need to get her at 10” when really it was noon, and he’d show up at 1:45 anyway.

    Now, she’s 19. And she learned over the years that dad was unreliable in all aspects of his life, without my saying anything.

    1. This is what I think we are talking about here, which is such a bigger sadder problem than “how to manage the immediate lateness” (though that is a problem too of course).

  20. The Cap’s advice is spot on. Wouldn’t change a word.

    But some nuance as the parent of a 3 and 2 year old: “work” is what takes Mommy and Daddy away from them. And I’ve frequently had conversations with them that go like this:

    WeeLogic1: Where’s Daddy?
    Me: He’s working very late tonight, and he won’t be home for bedtime.
    WeeLogic1: Is he sad?
    Me: Oh yes. He is very sad that he can’t be home with you.
    WeeLogic1: Good. He is sad because he’s at work.
    Me: (NOT cracking a smile) Yes. He is sad. But he’ll see you in the morning, and that will make him happy.
    WeeLogic1: Ok.

    They don’t really understand what “work” is, but they understand (or at least accept) it as something that mommy and daddy must do that takes them away from what’s REALLY important: queuing up episodes of Umizoomi and providing graham crackers. Usually work is actually work, but sometimes it’s a hair appointment or decompression time or or or. “Work” has nothing to do with how much we love them, and has no bearing on how good or bad they’ve been. It’s the perfect alibi for us at this age.

    In my opinion, not telling the child daddy is coming is a bad idea. Nice surprises are for older kids, and I find MOST of the under-6 set prefer to know what to expect. If child is expecting to sleep in their Mommy’s House Bed and things change on the fly with no notice, that’s disruptive and scary, even if it’s otherwise fun to go sleep in their Daddy’s/Friend’s/Gramma’s/Auntie’s House Bed.

    But “what to expect” can include two options, and knowing that one of two (hopefully equally great) things WILL happen can provide the security the child needs. Kudos to the person who suggested doing the pick-up in a fun, not-home location. Some suggested scripts for that:

    “We’re going to go to the McD’s Playplace and if Daddy joins us, you can go to Daddy’s house tonight. If Daddy is too busy to come play with us before we get tired, we’ll go to Our House and build a blanket fort. Ok?”
    “Daddy might need to work, so we’re going to go to the JumpPalace until [time]. If Daddy’s work lets him go, he’ll join us and you can go to Daddy’s house. If Daddy’s work is mean, we’ll go to our house and get some pizza. Ok?”

    Also, doing something fun for the duration of the waiting period, if it must be at home, is a good strategy.
    In our house, screen time is pretty limited, so that’s our go-to. “You can play on tablets until [expected thing happens].”
    In your house, maybe there’s something that’s typically off-limits that the child can get access to. Perhaaaps your closet? Make-up? Playdoh (I fucking hate that stuff, so it only comes out VERY occasionally to much fanfare)? Paints?

    With that, the script is:
    “As long as Daddy is running late, let’s do something fun!”

    Of course, there will still be tears. There may be nothing that can compensate for Daddy’s “work” being mean. But the goal is not to MAKE your child happy, it’s to helpfully direct their sadness, to make it possible for them to be happy. It’s OK to be sad that Daddy is late. It’s OK to not prefer to build blanket forts at our house. It’s even OK to worry (a little bit) if it’s your fault, as long as you can be reassured that it’s not.

    Good luck, and great work. You’ve got this.

    1. This is actually nothing like the LW’s situation, because she is dealing with a passive-aggressive controller who is trying to hurt her on purpose and using their child as a ready to hand weapon.

      1. You’re correct. Our situations are different, and as such I didn’t provide any advice on how to cope with the *ex.* But I do have two kids of about the LW’s child’s age, so I described how I personally might explain the situation of a perpetually-late parent to a child of about the same age as mine. Hope it helped the LW, or at least gave them the sensation of a parenting solidarity fistbump.

  21. Going forward, LW, remember that this, too, shall pass. If Child is 4, then you have 14 years to go. But Child won’t need constant adult supervision, dependent on on-time custody exchanges, for all 14 of those years. In just 4 or 5 years, Child will be scouting or taking music lessons or playing some kind of sportsball. And 10 years from now, Child may be getting to and from school on their own, and staying late for after-school activities. A dozen years from now, Child will have an 11:00 p.m. curfew on Friday and Saturday.

    Fourteen years from now, all this grief you’re having today about the custody exchange will seem small potatoes, and a long time ago. Plus, with any luck (and good humor, patience, and gratefulness to yourself that you kicked your ex to the curb in the first place), you’ll be able to get along better with your ex as you get farther and farther away from the divorce. Fourteen years is a long time, but it’s a really, really short time, too. Seriously, before you know it, the big issues will be FAFSA and college application deadlines, not pick-up times. Speaking from an almost exactly parallel divorce and custody experience here.

    I think your best route will be to try to solve this one collaboratively. “Trust, but verify,” and document everything; but don’t go straight to involving the lawyers or threatening court involvement. See it as an opportunity to model for Child how you do problem-solving with difficult people.

    1. “I think your best route will be to try to solve this one collaboratively. “Trust, but verify,” and document everything; but don’t go straight to involving the lawyers or threatening court involvement. See it as an opportunity to model for Child how you do problem-solving with difficult people.”

      I have tons of clients who tried that to no avail.

      They aren’t having a disagreement that can be mediated. If they were, you would be correct in modeling problem-solving.

      What is going on here is a parent who is repeatedly, consistently failing to live up to his obligations as a parent AND his duties under the divorce decree/visitation order/whatever order lays out child custody and visitation.

      Based on what I’ve read, she needs to go straight to an attorney and ask for an emergency order suspending visitation until a hearing can be held and new visitation issued.

      Someone this clueless or manipulative (we don’t know which) isn’t going to suddenly see he’s being unreasonable and decide to work it out.

    2. “Fourteen years from now, all this grief you’re having today about the custody exchange will seem small potatoes”.
      No, it won’t. It really, really won’t. Abuse of this kind is not something that one can forget or laugh about.

      “Plus, with any luck (and good humor, patience, and gratefulness to yourself that you kicked your ex to the curb in the first place), you’ll be able to get along better with your ex as you get farther and farther away from the divorce”.
      There’s no “getting along better” with abusers. There’s minimising contact and pretty little else.

      Source: fifteen years after their divorce, my dad still tries to financially abuse my mom and it. Fucking. Hurts. Every. Fucking. Time.

  22. When the child is grown – probably long long before then – he/she will draw the appropriate conclusions about whether Dad loves him/her, and how much of a priority that love is or is not, without the mom having to say anything. (Better if she doesn’t!) I know that’s not much consolation in the meantime, however. In the meantime, document all this and get legal advice.

  23. I’m so sorry about this. You sound like such a caring parent… It’s a terribly difficult situation, but keep in mind the following: Not telling the child that the father is fucking up is not protecting the child, it’s protecting *the father*. You wouldn’t mess up their relationship for telling the truth (again, within parameters of not hurting the child furthermore, without meanness nor poison, etc…). It’s *Father* who is messing it up all on his own. The sooner the child learns who he can actually rely on, the less pain and confusion will be waiting down the line. If you normalize the father’s unreliable bullshit, it will become a habit and a norm in your child’s life, and that could end up with your child ignoring the father, but it could also end up in years of longing and suffering. In any case, poor baby. 😦 I’m so sorry for your child. I wish you luck xxx

  24. My dad was like this (still is). My mum stopped telling me when he was coming, and I know this didn’t affect me badly because I had no idea until she told me at a much later age.

  25. Hi–I’m a divorced parent (kiddo is now an adult), and I used to work in family law. The Captain’s advice is very good. The only thing I would add is that this is an issue where mediation might be helpful. Your lawyer should know about the mediation resources where you live and how/if they work with the family courts in your area.

    You are walking a fine and difficult line here, and I wish all three of you well.

    1. Mediation is actually quite dangerous if only one person’s goal is to reach a reasonable accommodation and the other person’s goal is to inflict damage. Lundy Bancroft is relevant here.

  26. Extra special games that Child plays with when waiting for Other Parent that aren’t used any other time and that hopefully aren’t something that Other Parent can replicate easily. So you’re waiting for Other Parent when the super special video comes out, something really exciting, or the special song or art supplies, something really engaging. When Other Parent shows up, “So sorry you have to put away special game now even though you’re right in the middle of it.” Child is handed over to Other Parent; special game is put away and doesn’t show up again until next week. The only explanation is “This is the special waiting for Other Parent game.”

  27. Was this a part of their behavior before you separated? Having spent my childhood crying, and my adult life worrying, over a parent who was habitually late or simply didn’t show up because something came up, I want to stress how important it is to realize that the behavior is extremely destructive to their relationship. People with control issues will exercise control in whatever way they can, all the while firmly believing they are not doing it on purpose. They are teaching your child not to trust. They are teaching your child that it is normal to be treated this way. That they deserve to be treated this way. It is important that children learn that some people cannot be trusted, with the emphasis on some. It is a tragedy for it to be one of the parents the child depends on. I am so sorry you and the child are going through this.

    1. Yes, he was like this before we separated. And why, I first arranged to do drop-offs which turned out not to work well either.

      Your point about “they are teaching your child that it is normal to be treated this way” really struck a nerve with me. It is one of the main reasons for the divorce and specifically why I wrote in looking for advice on how to answer my child’s questions. I want to make sure that I can answer my child’s questions honestly, without adding my own baggage that would negatively affect the relationship they want to have with each other still, and make sure that they know that if you don’t like being treated this way you too can say no and it’s okay to stand up for yourself. My child loves their father and I want my child to feel empowered as they get older to decide how they want the relationship to continue. And for my child to know that during this process that I will always love them and be there for them and respect their decisions on their growing journey.

      But I have to be honest and say that I would just love to tell the dad just to F’ off, but I have to respect my child’s desire to see their dad for the time being. So, I deal with it and try to do my best for me and my kid.

      1. “Do you want your child to grow up thinking that this is what a normal relationship looks like?” is what got me off the stick, too.

  28. As someone whose parents divorced (not entirely amicably and also not especially contentiously) when I was a young child, I would like to add to the Captain’s excellent advice to say that you are never under an obligation to cover for your ex when his behavior impacts your kid. It’s good to avoid dumping issues that only impact you on any kids (exception for abuse – covering for abuse is a really bad idea, since it can normalize it for the child), but relaying true information without a value judgement (your child can judge things on the basis of zir own values as they develop) is perfectly okay e.g. “dad does not predictably/consistently [good opportunity to teach new words if your kid doesn’t know what they mean] show up on time for his pickups, and I’m not sure why”. Frankly, I’d be more worried about the impact of gaslighting your child to cover for your ex’s poor behavior than the impact of acknowledging behaviors in which your ex engages that various people find problematic.

    1. Thank you for identifying the well-intentioned covering-up as being gaslighting. None of the Army would want to dis-regulate the child, but being lied about the other parent’s actions most certainly will.

      1. Seconded, it would really mess me up to have someone try to convince me things were okay when I knew they were not okay. I really don’t think it’s badmouthing their ex for LW to tell the truth and say “I’m sorry [child], I don’t know exactly when daddy is going to be here. I think it’ll be between x and y but I’m not sure.” If their child is already asking when their father will get there and why it’s taking so long, they clearly know something is wrong. I think it’s better for child in the long run to acknowledge that their feelings are real and something really is wrong.

        1. I was raised like this growing up, and hearing “that’s OK!” when I brought up something that was bothering me was really freaking invalidating.

          Not to mention as I think I said upthread, despite the good intentions, it risks giving the kid weak boundaries and a *lot* of bottled-up resentment toward others because they may not have the tools to object to bad behavior in a safe, healthy way.

          1. they may not have the tools to object to bad behavior in a safe, healthy way.

            I struggle with that to this day. It’s like I don’t have any settings between “mildly annoyed” and “HULK SMASH” when I’m unhappy with someone. It would have meant so much to me if anyone had ever acknowledged that it was a dick move for my dad to be so late so often when he came to pick me and my sister up from our mom’s house.

          2. @Mel Reams: Exactly. I feel like I have to swallow my hurt and anger whenever there’s bad behavior because ~benefit of the doubt~ and ~what if~. My ex exploited this a lot with his untreated mental illness (that he was aware of, no less), and professed lack of bad intentions, and being raised the way I was made it super easy to go along instead of going, “that’s still not all right, and we need to find a solution instead of me just tolerating it.”

            The validation I got from that anger and hurt post-breakup from friends was so, so helpful, but it’s still a struggle because of that ingrained pattern. I’m hoping therapy with a trained professional will help me with that.

    2. as an older kid I can see that, but at 4, remember that this kid still considers their other parent part of them. tread carefully on saying anything that can spin into dumping on the other parent.

    3. I thought gaslighting was trying to convince someone that true information they already possess or suspect is actually untrue. Not telling your kid hurtful and also useless information is not the same maybe. If I overheard or was told something rude about my child, for instance, I would be very unlikely to pass it on in the name of Truth. We have the ability to break up with people (hopefully) who damage us emotionally. A 4 year old can’t do that with a crap parent, so damage limitation is all that remains. I feel strongly about not lying to my kids, but if sharing some info with them only gives them a crappier childhood, then I think the ‘do no harm’ spirit behind the rule of telling the truth is violated.

      1. I look at gaslighting (AKA lying) as denying another person’s reality. There is no reason to pass on hurtful information that wasn’t asked for, but in this case, the child is asking why parent is late. To lie for late parent is denying the reality — even though LW has good reason to lie, if LW chooses to do so in order to minimize the hurt to the child. But the possibility that the truth will come out later is very real, and the child will likely feel betrayed and lose trust in both parents. I agree with others who suggest telling the truth in the form of “I don’t know why” and validating the child’s thoughts and feelings about the situation.

      2. It’s taken on it’s own sort of definition though the original version was to intentionally mess with a person’s environment and deny it to make them think they are crazy / question all their own judgements. That scenario only comes up in extreme abuse cases; a lot of people use it to mean “denying someone else’s perceptions / observations / feelings” whether it be intentionally malicious or even conscious.

  29. I have some experience of such things.

    You’ve actually got a lot of power here in how your child sees it. The more you can treat it as normal, the more your child will see it as normal. But some things you can’t prevent – and don’t need to, I think.

    You can’t prevent your child being impatient to see him, and that’s OK. And it doesn’t reflect on you. Impatience is a feeling they will have, often, about all manner of things.

    Sounds like you have a great approach being more vague: ‘He’ll come over this afternoon’ If they don’t know he’s Officially Late, they can’t worry about why he’s late. They will see he normally turns up at about the time he normally turns up, and sometimes a bit earlier than that and sometimes a bit later.

    If they ask why he isn’t there yet you can talk about how adults have a lot of things that have to be done before they can play (life lessons!). You *could* put it all on him – Daddy’s just not very good at planning is he? – but that could be pretty undermining depending how you do it, so not to be used lightly.

    I’m not sure I agree necessarily with giving them a treat as some sort of compensation as it feeds into a story that they are being let down (though if you need to to make things easier on yourself at a stressful time then go for it, absolutely). I’d save the treat for a time you can both enjoy it. What do you usually do when they’re impatient for something?

    The Hard Bit: The more you can see it in your own head as ‘he will turn up at some point in this window, whatever, we’ll just go about our day until he does’ the easier it is to be matter-of-fact. It is hard. You’re justifiably angry. It doesn’t help in the moment. You will be the one your child knows they can rely on to give them a plan and stick to it.

    Re the father – whenever my ex caused upset to the child, I told him factually (“Child cried for several minutes. If I’d known you were running late I could have explained”). I did this every time Child noticed and got upset (which was not always). It helped some. I never mentioned myself and never commented/blamed so he couldn’t really argue, and it’s hard to brush off ‘you made Child cry’.

    Good luck.

  30. “I know the number one rule in divorces and co-parenting is to never say mean things about the other parent and to protect the child in a way that won’t “hurt” them.”

    It would be honest and reasonable and certainly not “mean” if you told the child “dad is not very good at being on time”. We are all good at some things and not so good at others, and it’s not a value judgement or criticism for you to say what your child already knows, which is that their dad is one of those people who is not the best at showing up places on time. If you say something like this, it also addresses the child’s fear or hurt that dad is specifically not showing up for them – rather, dad is just the sort of guy who shows up late for things in general.

    1. I think the LW would need to be careful to find someplace else to deal with the feelings until “your dad is not very good at being on time” carries no more things on them as a person than “your dad is good at cooking pancakes, but not so good at cooking casserole” or something similar.

    2. To me the number one rule in my own divorce was never to tell a lie to my daughter. I always kept the amount of truth age appropriate, but it was always true. I think it is unrealistic to be always positive about people who behave badly, and yes, to me it verges on gaslighting. Small children are learning to construct their own understanding of the world and they need our help in knowing how to do this. We don’t need to go out of our way to be gratuitously unkind but it is not being mean to be honest; if dad is always late then why pretend he isn’t? ‘Yes, dad is always late; we don’t know why but it is not kind of him.’ Imo, there is no need to add, ‘But he is great at playing Lego!’ The child already knows that, and in this context it is irrelevant.

      If the father doesn’t want the child to hear the mother admit that he is always late then he needs to turn up on time. It is as simple as that. There is no duty of care to cover up for actual failings of the ex which end up hurting the child; none at all.

      My daughter learned for herself what her dad was like, without me having to tell her. As an example one day when she was about 8 her dad told her by phone that any time she needed him, any time at all, he would be there. She immediately said, ‘I need you now.’ Then he explained that he could not come right then because it was late, and there would be no busses, and he would have to get a taxi etc etc etc.

      Different time, different day; call from my daughter to say she had hurt her leg at uni; not critically but enough to make walking impossible for a few days. Me: ‘I will be there in a couple of hours; email your tutor and pack for a few days at home.’

      So rule one, imo, is tell the age appropriate truth. And rule two is never make a promise you are not prepared to keep; children will remember.

      Ymmv, of course. All parents have their own ways of doing things.

  31. I’d like to recommend a book called “Joint Custody with a Jerk.” I’ve found it really helpful in developing ways to communicate, and while the title does sound frivolous, it challenged me and helped empower me to deal with my son’s dad. It doesn’t just pat you on the head and say “You’re fine, it’s all your Ex’s fault.”

    My son’s 2, so he doesn’t get too thrown-off if his dad’s late, but I try to tell him what’s happening anyway. If his dad’s late it’s up to 1 hour late, so YMMV, but I say things like “Daddy’s coming as quickly as he can, and I know he’s looking forward to seeing you and you’re going to have lots of fun this weekend! Let’s read a story while we wait.”

    1. Another thought: In England there are often family solicitors who offer 1 hour of free time to new clients for them to get brief advice. Is there anything similar where you are? You can run the situation past them without a financial committment and you can at least get an idea of dos and don’ts.

  32. I’m not sure I completely agree with “do not bring up your own inconvenience”. Because someone who is over two hours late IS inconveniencing the LW. Because 15 minutes late, even 30 minutes late, could be from being stuck in traffic, but 2 hours? That’s just being a jerk. It is saying to the LW “Your time isn’t the least bit valuable and I can control you by forcing you to wait forever for me to show up.”
    When he texts, I’d be seriously tempted to text back and say “I can stay until X:00 o’clock and then I have to leave and if you haven’t arrived by then I’ll have to take our son with me.”

    1. “I’m not sure I completely agree with “do not bring up your own inconvenience”. Because someone who is over two hours late IS inconveniencing the LW.”

      Of course he is, and LW has every right to be frustrated about that and vent about it in a sympathetic space. But when negotiating with Ex and/or the courts, it’s better to stick strictly to what’s best for the child. There’s a nasty streak of expecting mothers* to sacrifice their own convenience to smooth things over for the father-child relationship, and bringing up personal inconvenience unfortunately lays LW open to an attack based on that.

      *Even if LW isn’t a mother, I’m pretty sure this dynamic is in play with how Ex is behaving.

    2. Of course he’s inconveniencing the LW! The reason it’s not necessarily helpful to say that is that there’s a good chance he’s doing it deliberately and you don’t want to reinforce it, and an also-good chance that as a past romantic partner with potential bad blood, he knows, simply does not care, and won’t be swayed at all.

      That answer sounds tempting, but there might be legal ramifications–the LW might not be ALLOWED to simply go home or not answer the door when the dad finally does show up.

  33. You are doing great by your kid. You sound like a loving and caring parent. Adventures with Rachel had a great post on this (with subsequent great comments) but I wanted to go into the “don’t badmouth your ex” thing a bit more.
    This rule describes not saying mean, unkind or unfair things about your ex. You shouldn’t say something unnecessarily mean. This does not mean you can’t acknowledge unpleasant facts about your ex when they come up in your child’s life.
    If your kid says “Why is Daddy late?” the ‘don’t badmouth your ex’ rule says you can’t say, ” Because Daddy is a lazy jerk,” but you can absolutely say, “Daddy finds it very, very hard to be on time, no matter how important they are.”
    The first statement is subjective and mean, and the second statement is a verifyable fact.
    In your kindness you’ve taken the ‘don’t badmouth your ex’ rule a bit too far. You don’t need to cover up for him. I hope this takes a little stress off you. 🙂

    1. I’m not a parent and am mainly curious: is it parenting-okay to go as far as “Daddy finds it really hard to be on time, and I feel frustrated by that because I want him to be on time, but I also feel happy that he’s coming because I know that he loves you and wants to see you”?

      I know that sometimes with really little kids there are additional factors because of how small children cognitively understand what Other People even are and it’s not just a question of simple vocabulary – just curious, because I know with older kids acknowledging the elephant in the room when Mommy Is Damn Stressed is helpful.

      1. In general I would think that was okay (as long as it’s clear the frustration needs to be managed by the parent, not the child) and a good way to model identifying emotions – in this case it could backfire however because you can’t expect your 4-year-old not to tell what you said to their other parent. Which in turn might be interpreted maliciously by other parent.

        1. I’m not in LW’s situation, but one of the things I use with my child of a similar age when it comes to certain unreliable relatives is ‘sometimes I feel frustrated too when people aren’t on time’, or something similar. So it’s not ‘I’m mad at Dad/Grammy/whoever for being late’, but it’s identifying that the lateness can be a frustrating behavior.

      2. I’m not a parent either, but I feel like it would be okay to occasionally acknowledge your own stress about dealing with the other parent, but I’d be really careful about it and generally only when it was clearly relevant to the kid in some way. If the kid was showing their upset about it I might empathize: “It’s frustrating when he’s late isn’t it? I’m frustrated too. Being on time is really hard for your dad. It’s okay to feel bad about that, but when you’re ready, lets try to think of some things we can do to help ourselves feel better while we wait.” If your kid is doing okay but you feel like your frustration is becoming too visible to the kid, I’d acknowledge it very very briefly and immediately move on to modeling strategies for dealing with frustration, “I’m sorry I’m getting snappy/fidgety/tense/not paying enough attention honey; I guess this isn’t my best day for patience. I’m going to set you up with a video and then go mediate/make tea/pet the dog/have a time out/give myself a minute to feel my feelings/send this work email I was planning to send after your Dad got here but can do just fine before he comes I just have to be flexible–then you can catch me up on the story or we can go back to playing–it’ll be more fun if my feelings aren’t distracting me.” Basically, acknowledge your feelings but take responsibility for them. If you just state them and stop then whatever the kid does next has to be a response to your feelings and that is not your kid’s job.

      3. I don’t know much, having only been a parent in an intact family.

        But I would NOT say, “I feel frustrated..” or even “I feel happy…”
        I would not want to burden my child with how their dad makes me feel. God forbid they decide they have to do something to help me!

        I would say, “daddy finds it hard to be on time.” And then I’d try to assess what they were feeling, and ask about it: “You seem a little upset. What are you feeling?” I might even probe a bit to get them to be able to name the feeling.

        And absolutely I’d say, “I sure understand why you are upset/hurt/mad.” And even “It’s perfectly reasonable to be upset when someone doesn’t come to see us when they say they will. You aren’t alone in feeling this–I think anybody would feel that way.”

        And then steer toward coping skills (skills which should include acceptance of reality and even forgiveness; also “not dwelling on Dad’s bad points” and distraction).

  34. Society sure does like to dump all the issues of dealing with joint parenting on the custodial parent (probably because the custodial parent is usually female or read as female) and non-custodial parents sure do often take advantage. With my little one’s dad, I have to do every last bit of work around arranging visitation. He won’t even suggest a day, I have to suggest a day and if that’s not convenient for him, I have to suggest another. Sounds petty, I know, but it gets exhausting fast. So a bit of jerk-co-parent solidarity, LW.

    Not bad-mouthing the other parent is a good rule, but being honest about their faults isn’t the same as bad-mouthing them. Some thoughts that occurred to me: “You remember when we [occasion when you were late for something]*? I expect something like that’s happened to Daddy.” “I don’t know where Daddy’s got to. When he gets here, we can ask him what the hold-up was.” “I don’t know where he is. It’s quite annoying, isn’t it?” You don’t have to make excuses for him, and if his lateness damages the relationship between them, that’s for him to fix. Obviously you’re going to comfort your child if they get distressed, but you don’t have to make them feel good about a situation that would be really frustrating for many adults, never mind a little kid.

    *I’m assuming there’s been a time when you were late for something through no fault of your own, like stuck in traffic or something. Or is kid ever late for nursery/childcare/anything like that because they misjudged how long it would take to get their shoes on or whatever? Any little story that they can tie to their own experience might work to smooth over the situation.

    1. Yes, when we moved far enough away that visits involved a plane trip, we changed the agreement to say that each parent was responsible for arranging transportation TO their home. Once he had to be responsible for booking and paying for plane tickets, his demands that he be given every second of custody he was entitled to dropped off SHARPLY.

      1. Is Nick Kiddle just supposed to let their child feel abandoned by their father? I’m pretty sure they’re doing all of this exhausting work that they deserve more credit for for a good reason.

  35. Just wanted to applaud you for working so hard to let your child define their own relationship with their dad. I admire this so much.

    My own parents had a pretty bitter divorce, and both would often say horrible things about the other to me and in front of me. I know that they were acting from a place of personal hurt, but in the end it damaged my relationship with both of them.

    Really hope you can work out a solution that spares your child any pain and hopefully makes your life a little easier. Xx

  36. Bummer about the child-share situation, reminds you why you’re divorced! Great advice, Captain, also a range of interesting & helpful comments.

    I found that when I tried to protect my children from their dad’s behaviour they ended up resenting me. I now have a policy of honesty when asked & attempt to be fair. Being human, I inevitably fail at times.

    I often wish I’d set firmer boundaries at the beginning. I took on so much more responsibility for his relationship with his kids than he did! I focussed so much on “best practice” that as a mother I felt my kids father was able to use my desire to do best by the kids as an excuse to get away with terrible behaviour.

    Only recently my kids begged me to meet their dad on our family holiday (9 years separated & I’m repartnered). I suggested it to him & surprisingly he agreed. It went south very rapidly with the end result being we cut our holiday short, much to the kids & our relief.

    In the three days we spent in proximity he managed to bring a dual seat car to manage 3 kids travel requirements, run out of fuel, lose all phone contactibility, refuse to speak to me, my husband or our 2 year old & be late to every pick up & drop off we arranged. That was the less disruptive stuff & I can laugh about it now. Sort of.

    I think I’m reading between the lines, but a bit of what I see in your question is how I used to feel. It’s really hard to get through loving someone, especially the parent of your child. The quicker you learn that there is no common ground, reasonable consensus & consideration, the better. That person is your ex because it couldn’t work together & there’s no magic wand to make it work now. You can’t get them to be on time because they owe you nothing, anymore. On the flip side, neither do you.

    Kids cope. They cope better when we cope too. I spent years in therapy & am considering more, because my ex just never stops giving. He emotionally hurts our kids all the time & because I’ve taken it, they think they should take it. I left to be unburdened & you said something along those lines too. Sometimes the hardest letting go is in ourselves.

    I hope I haven’t gone too off track, or offended anyone. I’ve come to understand the greatest gift I can give my childerbeasts is an authentic me, warts & all. Strong, funny, vulnerable, resilient, humble, mistaken, ferocious, apologetic… Were on an amazing journey & I feel so sad for their dad that he’s missing out.

    Good luck to you LW, parenting is hard work! 💕✨😊

  37. I spend a lot of my time saying “I don’t know” when my kids ask me questions about their dad. I usually couple it with how frustrating/sad/upsetting/whatever feeling follow-up. Mine were 4 and 8 when we first separated and at one point they didn’t see him for several months. They’re older now and have the means to contact him directly so that helps a little. But only a little.

    I gave up a long time ago trying to manage the kids’ relationship with their dad (lots of therapy led me to this decision). It doesn’t matter why he’s unreliable or whatever – I divorced him so he is no longer my problem. If he doesn’t organise something, it doesn’t happen. Fortunately for the boys he has been more proactive lately but I hold zero hopes it will stick. I focus on helping my kids work through the fall out. It’s not fair and it sucks but it is a lot less stressful than trying the ‘manage’ their dad and still have to work through the fallout. We are fortunate to have regular access to a very good children’s psych who supports my methods and helps the boys work through their feelings and reactions.

    I also recommend the recording of all interaction. Court/custody orders are had to change, but hopefully you can have something put in about your discretion or “to which both parents agree”. I regularly just don’t agree to things that their dad suggests because he so often suggest inappropriate activities or has zero regard for our own arrangements. If he doesn’t like it then he can petition the court to have the order changed.

    Important note: I am in Perth, Australia and family law/court works very differently here than the US (where I think you are?). Hence YMMV.

    1. I always feel so delighted to find other Perth people on here! (Though I am in the UK these days)

  38. A friend was in a similar situation with a chronically late ex. This one wasn’t really malicious I think, just flighty. Friend had the brilliant notion of dropping kiddo off with ex’s Mom or Sister for visitation. Kid got more time with Auntie and Grandma, and they got the joy of yelling a kids Dad when kiddo was disappointed… Don’t know if LW has any handy ex-in-laws, but they can be a game changer.

    1. REALLY be careful of this though, if this is ever your plan, that ex actually has, you know, decent parents/relatives. For the brief time that my father kept up trying to do visitations, I spent several Sunday afternoons sitting on my grandmother’s couch reading while she watched TV and he slept.

      Wasn’t exactly the highlight of my week 😛

  39. A book that I have found to be very helpful in navigating these types of situations is Anthony Wolfe’s WHY DO HAVE TO GET A DIVORCE? (AND WHEN CAN I GET A HAMSTER?)

    He is very good a giving simple scripts that neither lie to the child nor vilify (or protect) the other parent. Unlike 95% of parenting books, this one is quite funny, not self-righteous or proscriptive, and generally optimistic that you can succeed in giving your child enough to have them grow up just fine.

    Good luck! This stuff is not a picnic.

  40. I’ve a friend with a controlling ex who had great success with parallel parenting as opposed to coparenting. It’s legally recommend to avoid conflict and resentment in many us states (she got the info online, we’re in the UK) she went the whole hog not only communicating exchanges solely in writing, but using an intermediary (his mother, which I thought was a hinky choice but it’s worked well) after dropping communication with him she got bolder – saying ‘if you’re 15 mins late I can’t promise we’ll still be here, kiddo deserves his day out, though of course we’ll try’ He may have been sounding off at his mum for that boundary, but somehow I doubt it. The power plays were always about creating conflict with friend. Anyway he started behaving and friend started telling child when to expect him in a yay! dad! style once he became reliable. Document EVERYTHING. the other plus of PP is it’s all written politeness, no verbal narkiness! Kiddo sometimes asks mum why she doesn’t speak to dad besides a cheery hello, and friend never says anything negative she just says ‘he’s your daddy always but we’re not married any more!’ Important to model that you don’t HAVE to stay friends with the ex.

  41. “Four is young enough that your sweet distractions and reassurances still hold some water, and yet old enough to remember & notice that ‘Dad never does anything on time’ or ‘Every time I’m supposed to see Dad I feel scared because I think he maybe doesn’t really want to see me or that I did something wrong.’ I don’t think you’d be a terrible person if you said ‘Daddy has a hard time being on time, and it’s not your fault, but I know it is very frustrating and it’s okay to be upset about it.’ ”

    So… my niece is taking the opposite track on her inconsistent father, and I want to bring it up in case yours does the same, LW.

    My niece is 8, and my sister is going through a divorce. Niece said something recently that Sister’s therapist had a great take on:

    “I just feel like nothing is ever Daddy’s fault!”

    She said this in my presence, in the midst of some extremely* mild criticism of one of Daddy’s actions. The therapist picked up on the pattern that my sister hadn’t articulated yet: Niece had once called her from Daddy’s house to ask for a stapler because she didn’t want to bother Daddy. She asked Mommy for $10 because she had no toys at Daddy’s and Daddy had told her they were poor because of the divorce and he couldn’t afford anything over $10, but she found a Lego set online for $10 but Daddy still wouldn’t order it because Daddy doesn’t have any money. (Daddy owns a successful business and is living in a $500k house. He can afford a fucking toy for his kid during her visits in which he often ignores her.)

    ANYWAY, this is what Therapist had to say: Niece has learned, at her young age, that Mommy will love her no matter what, but Daddy will not. She has learned not to upset or inconvenience Daddy, or he will withdraw his love. Mommy, on the other hand, is a safe and stable parent for her to bounce all her feelings against. There is structure there, consistency, accountability, and overwhelming love. Those things are not present with Daddy. As my sister and I have talked about this in the following months, we’re trying to see it as a COMPLIMENT when Niece is snitty and disrespectful of Sister, which she is, increasingly, since the separation. She talks to her in ways she would NEVER talk to her daddy. And this is painful for Sister (not to mention frustrating/infuriating). So reframing it is difficult. But I do think it’s normal and healthy, given the situation Niece finds herself in, with her unreliable father. She tests those boundaries because she relies on them. They’re non-existent with her dad, and that puts her into a state of deep, deep anxiety. Sister’s consistency and fairness with her are a boon, but she’s looking that gift horse in the mouth by pushing against it. She knows she’s safe with her, and she’s testing how much further she can go.

    I say all this because you might go through something similar, if you’re not already. I hope you’re seeing a therapist, because I have some idea how difficult and painful this must be. If you find that Child begins to see her father as Favorite Parent and starts to treat you with meanness… well, not being a parent myself, I have no idea what that must feel like, but it seems like it would feel pretty shitty. Try to take it as an indicator that you are the Stable Parent, and her father is the Inconsistent Parent, and so Child may need to test and re-test your stability to understand that there are safe boundaries Child can bounce against.

    Very best wishes to you and your family as you go through this, LW.

    *TOO fucking mild, tbh. Sister’s Ex is a Trump supporter, Sister is a Clinton supporter, and Ex showed Niece a video of Clinton supporters abusing and traumatizing their children for voting for Trump in a mock school election. My sister had a VERY hard time keeping her cool on that one, but kept it to “Well, I think that video was too upsetting and I wish you hadn’t seen it. Even I couldn’t finish it. Those people were very mean. How are you feeling about it?” I followed Sister’s lead and didn’t directly criticize Ex, and I’m glad I did, because I was fucking LIVID and seeing red.

    1. Whoops, sorry for the pronouns when referring to your child, LW. I was thinking of Niece and they slipped in. 🙂

    2. Reason #3 why I’d make a lousy parent: I’d have told my kid that daddy is a greedy asshole and that poor people don’t live in huge houses. You and your sister have incredible patience and restraint.

    3. Oh yes. One of the sacrifices you get to make for your child is being the boring parent and sometimes the cross parent. The one that makes them do homework, and eat healthy meals, and tells them off when they behave badly, and is always there. Ex gets to be the fun parent, that they look forward to seeing (because they don’t see them often), who only does fun things with them.

      I don’t know how it will work out, perhaps they’ll always be the ‘swooping in for fun’ parent they look forward to seeing – but guess who’ll be the parent they can trust and rely on?

      1. Yep. You get to be the parent that hears the private stuff – what they’re scared of, how they feel about their friend circle at school, what they’re most excited about. Although having mostly full custody of three kids is, frankly, draining to the point where I feel like I’ll never ever not be tired for the rest of my life no matter how long I live, I also realize what a privilege it is to be my kids’ refuge and strength and source of morals and love.

        Of course, whether that seems like a good position to be in depends on whether you give a crap about the kid, of course… ; )

    4. Agreed. All of this.

      I filed for divorce from my daughter’s dad when she was 18 months old, and there were certainly years of how she got to watch tv and videos endlessly at her dad’s when we watched only one a week, and how they went out for snacks all the time, and how much she liked spending time with him, and I fretted that when she was 14 or so she’d decide she’d want to be with him all the time.

      Guess what.

      Now she’s 16, hates going to her dad’s because all they do is sit around and watch tv and videos, and speaks enviously of me because at least *I* could get divorced. She loves her dad but finds him frustrating to spend time with — in other words, just like me. So stick to your guns and trust your kid to understand eventually.

    5. “They’re non-existent with her dad, and that puts her into a state of deep, deep anxiety.”

      yeah… that anxiety is, iirc, why I chose to stay with my mother. Unfortunately, her bad-cop routine brings out a whole different side of anxiety (and perfectionism and self-hatred and and and…), so I really don’t know if it would have been worse or better to stay with my dad. This post’s comments are bringing up lots of old Feelings for me.

    6. This almost had me in tears. My daughter (now 15) would often be snitty with me about things but not say ‘boo’ or criticise her dad because he would not react well. I feel vindicated that for as much as possible, I took the high road. The relationship I have with the ex now is a fair bit better because he has repartnered and got two more young children (and therefore doesn’t have time to hassle me) but I see him still acting in much the same way. It makes me sad for his current partner.

      1. Well, let me supplement it then, with counsel from my own wise therapist: One stable adult is usually all that’s needed for a kid to grow up emotionally secure. We’ve talked about this for years, because neither of my own parents were stable and I was emotionally stunted as an adult. So we’ve talked about what a difference it would have made if just one grown-up around me had seen what was going on and presented a stable alternative to the crazy that was my normal.

        We both think Niece will be fine. She’s a highly sensitive, imaginative child, easily bruised, and this separation is not great for her. But my sister’s solid, reassuring presence in her life will present a counter to the chaotic presence of her father. Even if it takes her years and years to realize that (in my head, I always say “till her 30s,” just because that’s how old I was when I started figuring shit out and creating my best life for myself).

        So yeah, if you’ve been feeling the injustice of Daughter’s double standard, just know that every fight, every crazy feeling she threw at you but withdrew back into herself when Father was around, was VITAL for her to grow into a healthy adult. If you weren’t there, taking that high road, her own road would be so much more difficult and treacherous. She’s very, very lucky, and you deserve all the internet hugz for being the grown-up she needed. 🙂

  42. Yes. I was married to a person who didn’t take the same level of responsibility for parenting as I did, and the divorce that did not improve in the least.

    What gave me a certain peace in the situation was coming to the realization that I did my part. I am a good parent. I take responsibility seriously, I love my children. I feed and cloth them. I take time with them. They will be fine, because I make sure they are fine. (Of course I’m not perfect, but I don’t think anyone is)
    The minute I stopped trying to cover for their father, it was an enormous loud off my shoulders. When my children had questions I’d say “That’s good question. I don’t exactly know, you’ll have to talk with your dad about that”. When he was missing/lacking/directly messing up, I controlled the urge to apologize and explain. I stopped managing their relationship, since it was not mine to manage

    This doesn’t answer the question on how to deal with your direct problem, LW, our Captain did an excellent job on that, but want to reinforce that fact that you are alright, you are doing your part. Trying to do the other persons part as well is 1) impossible, and 2) not required, your kid will be fine

  43. I firmly second CA’s suggestion of documentation.

    You mention that you ex often communicates by text about his lateness; that is strong corroborating evidence, and you can likely use it to retroactively create a spreadsheet for lateness on visits that have already happened (at least where you have sufficient evidence in the texts to reconstruct the timeline accurately)

  44. Hi, I think the Captain’s advice is great. I also think there’s no harm in having a quiet chat with a family lawyer now (if you can afford it) to work out what your legal position is and how to manage your interactions with your co-parent in a way that puts you in the best position possible if the situation becomes untenable and you need to take legal action.

    I agree with her totally that it is best to avoid getting adversarial or threatening legal action at this stage, but I also think there is no harm in working out the lie of the land and what your options are. Depending on where you live and your situation, you might be able to find a community practice, law society (or bar association in the US) or private firm where you can meet with a lawyer for free or at an affordable rate.

    All the best. So many parents get caught up with bitterness and acrimony with ex-partners and hurt their kids in the process. I think it’s great that you’re being the grown up and not letting your ex-partner’s crappy behaviour affect your parenting. It’s a really tough and frustrating situation to be in and it sounds like you’re committed to handling it in the way that is best for your child’s wellbeing.

    1. RIGHT?! The commonality has been enough to turn my sister to feminism as she shares her story and like, every divorced friend she has immediately shares her own back. WTF is up with this shit?!

      1. Had feminism been part of your sister’s and most women’s childhood and growing years, these issues would arise a lot less frequently, given that feminism gives women the tools to identify abusive from the beginning and gives them the support and practical responses they need to avoid the more obvious poor choices in partners. Feminism should be a way of life, not a sad headshake of a fallback.

        1. While I understand your frustration at what you see as people treating feminism as a fallback, your comment ends up reading pretty victim-blamey. You may not have intended this, but reading this, I got “if you had been a good enough feminist, you wouldn’t have wound up getting abused!”

          1. Yeah, I was raised with feminism and still got caught with an abusive ex. The guilt of not seeing it ahead of time made it harder to leave.

        2. I get that your comment boils down to “we need more feminism”, but it comes off as judgmental and borderline victim-blaming.

          You can have all the feminist prep about abuse in the world and still get caught in an abusive situation. Because that’s how abuse functions. It’s insidious and slow. Implying women who get caught up in abuse could have avoided it if they had more feminism in their lives is messed up, because implying someone could avoid abuse by doing ANYTHING is messed up.

          A huge reason people do not admit they are in abusive situations is because they believe they’re smart and they’d never let it happen to them–so if it did, they must be dumb and weak and it’s all their fault. Going around enforcing those damaging beliefs helps no one.

          1. YES, THIS–I was raised to be feminist but still ended up in an emotionally abusive marriage, though it’s over now. I suppose one could say that this makes me a “bad” feminist? Or maybe, this sort of thing is a good example of how powerful patriarchal socialisation is. And like you said, I thought I was too smart/progressive/enlightened to end up in a situation like that.

            (Also, if it’s not acceptable for women to learn about and embrace feminism as a result of having been treated badly….when IS it acceptable? Should you just not bother unless you were raised in it from birth??)

          2. The day after I got out of an abusive relationship, I was chided by a well-meaning friend for not seeing the red flags. “You’re supposed to be smart,” he said, “but you got played.” It wasn’t until a year later that I realized that while I was naive, 1) there had been a *lot* of work to gain my trust, 2) only then did the shittiness start, but it was normalized in such a way that I thought I was being respectful by complying, and 3) responses to my objections were emotionally manipulative in a way that pressing my case would make me look unreasonable and toxic.

            It didn’t help that my ex espoused and agreed with feminist beliefs the entire time, either. As onyx said, abuse is slow and insidious, and at the end of the day, no matter how flawed the victim is, the blame should be on the abuser.

          3. @codenameminali I really really hate the whole “you’re supposed to be too smart to be abused” thing. Not only does that imply that people who get abused somehow deserved it for not being smart enough, but it totally ignores the fact that abusers are extremely good at getting away with it. They literally spend years practicing. No amount of “smart” is going to let a total beginner beat a grandmaster at chess, so why do people think any amount of smart is going to save someone from an abuser who has spent years learning how to get away with it?

          4. @Mel Reams YES. Getting out, I was reading Lundy Bancroft and other books on abuse, and one of the things that stood out was that smart women were also abused, along with those with high self-esteem.

            It is *super* easy from the outside to say, “oh, I’d never fall for that garbage” but it ignores the fact that abusers do not show their true colors until they’ve got you well and truly hooked. It also ignores the fact that abusers can be found *anywhere*, even in feminist circles. The frog in a slowly boiling pot analogy is apt here, because in my case, the abuse was normalized very slowly and gradually, so that I thought I was respecting boundaries instead of being subjected to cruel treatment (which doesn’t even get to the withholding of vital info that my ex did). My empathy was preyed on, essentially, too, and it doesn’t help that being raised as a woman you’re socialized to put their needs before yours, and no amount of book smarts can help you there.

        3. It starts the first time they tell us that he pulls our hair because he likes us, so we must give them a chance. While feminism is a splendid political movement for the liberation of women it is not an adequate defense against the conditioning of a lifetime by a society, or the predators who are constantly testing boundaries in search of a target. I wish it were.

    2. Current theory: men are completely unaware of how much power they wield whilst in a marriage with children, and confidently expect to feel like they’ve regained power when they get divorced. When they leave and everything goes through court and is spelled out and clearly negotiated, they realise they’ve lost a fuckload of power, and frantically scramble to regain it by the only method available, which is being a total arse.

      (ugh, now realising just how much Brexit has in common with toxic masculinity.)

      1. This.
        Many newly divorced fathers seem to think that their ex will continue doing emotional and logistical labor on their behalf. They are gobsmacked when they realize those things are their job now.

        A lot of the red pill MRA types complain about how their ex is a greedy female slur because she only cares about the child support check.
        Implicit in that is the idea that their ex should still be caring about and for them because he’s paying her money.
        During the marriage his financial contribution “bought him” having the physical, emotional, and practical needs of himself and his children cared for.
        He’s still paying her, so she should still be providing those things, and is stealing from him when she doesn’t. Being an asshole is their way of collecting what’s “due” to them.

        Except no, it didn’t. What his financial contribution bought was physical necessities and whatever luxuries they could afford. The emotional and logistical labor of a spouse is a gift of love. One that they don’t have to keep giving when love is gone and they are no longer a spouse.

        All child support “buys” is covering part of the cost of your children’s physical day-to-day needs.

        1. My theory is that fathers who were marginally involved in rearing their children while married continue to be only marginally involved in rearing them when the marriage disintegrates. How dare the you-know-what who kicked them out try to *force* them to be involved now.

      2. This rings SO true. The older I get, the more and more clearly I see how *so many men* structure their entire romantic lives (and beyond) around controlling women. That’s the core essence of sexism, of course–control of women. Men want us to be self warming blow up dolls who periodically coo and pat their heads when they feel sad. We’re not supposed to serve ourselves first.

    3. Right? I don’t even know how to feel about shit like this. It’s both so infuriating and so typical that it’s like my body short-circuits and goes straight to exhaustion.

    4. No kidding. I didn’t have kids with my ex (thank goodness), but I’m currently watching my former BIL’s wife go through this. Cancelling five minutes before he’s supposed to pick them up for a weekend, lying about his income, refusing to feed them when his time overlaps with meal time (because that’s “her” job)… she told me the other day that she doesn’t understand what he’s punishing her for, since he was the one who left. And I’ve heard similar stories from almost every other female acquaintance who is divorced with kids. It just always amazes me how many men are willing to ignore the needs of their children if they can stick it to their ex.

      1. He’s punishing her for daring to make him parent, instead of letting him ditch his responsibilities for his Shiny New Life. He’s hoping if he makes things as difficult as possible that she’ll just stop bothering him.

        1. Or at least that he can force her to do the stuff that’s ‘her job,’ ie the practical, unfun part of parenting like taking care of all the kids’ physical and emotional needs. Normal kid behaviours like dawdling, forgetfulness, distractability, stroppiness and needing to be put first and take care of are all on her schedule, if she was a better parent they wouldn’t overspill onto his, and since it’s her fault, it’s not his problem. (I’ve known men do this even in a relationship: childcare is a mother’s job, respect is a father’s due.)

          In effect, ‘You made this mess, you clear it up.’ Except the ‘mess’ is people.

          The sad thing is that if he’s mean enough to let them go hungry out of sheer spite, the kids probably will learn to save their needs and acting-out for mom time, because where else can the poor things put them? He’ll take this as a sign that he’s the better parent.

          I hope she’s documenting his sorry act as well.

        2. An acquaintance was pregnant with her fourth child. It was conceived only a month after her third, which she found out at the appointment to get her IUD.
          Their children were all one gender, and the father kept wanting to try for the other gender. After an ultrasound showed the fourth was the same gender as their others, he left her for a Shiny New Life with Affair Partner.

          Acquaintance took a cut in child support for a 4 day/3 day a week split, and showed up at Affair Partner’s home with 3 kids (one still an infant) every Thursday evening. When their fourth was two months old she went to stay with her father as well.

          Husband was furious. He told anyone who would listen what a terrible person Acquaintance was for not wanting to take care of her own children, even after people started pointing out the irony.
          He wouldn’t admit that complaining about “being forced” to parent his own kids (that he had begged Acquaintance to have) made him the asshole.

          Acquaintance wasn’t a person who needed time to renew the certifications to reenter her career, see friends, sleep, take care of her home, or have a moment for herself.
          Nope, she was “a mother” who somehow was supposed to take care of four kids (two under a year!) full-time, by herself, with no days off, so he could romance Affair Partner into having kids with him.

      2. Reading this thread makes me want to hug my dad. He cheated on my mom, so he was a bad husband, but he was a present and loving father.

  45. I would also point out that although my bio father was no kind of father at all and abusive, I developed a lot of emotional strength from the few adults who could love me wholeheartedly. Even for people in my situation (abused physically, sexually, mentally for years starting in infancy) the presence of the loving adults rewrite the story in ways that give a child a hopeful future. It allowed me to reach a maturity later where I could make peace with how awful my Daddy was.

    Your kids may struggle at this point when the emotions are raw and questions cannot be answered in a way to salve it. But please be reassured that your love and the love of those in your family life will see your kids safely into adulthood. Not having a father is crap. It does make me appreciate my mother’s efforts and my family who let me come to see my Dad for who he is in my own way.

  46. This might be a shot in the dark, but is there any possibility of time-shifting? If you ex is two hours late to pick up the kiddo on Friday, you’ll adjust accordingly and pick them up two hours later when you do the hand-off? Obviously pre-arranged and agreed to, but then you have the right amount of non-kid time, your ex has the right amount of custodial time, and there are some natural consequences?

  47. You have to talk to a lawyer. I have nothing to add to the thoughtful suggestions about what to tell your child, but all the tactical suggestions will work, or not, based on the law where you are, and on the judge, and the history of litigation between the parties, and your lawyer’s advocacy. If you don’t have a lawyer, try to find one, maybe just for a consultation. Try Legal Aid if you can’t afford a lawyer. Maybe consult with a different lawyer if you don’t like the one you have (but switching lawyers is something to do cautiously). Lawyers are expensive, and you may not be able to afford to go to court on this point, but the lawyer’s information (from what would probably be a free or affordable consultation) will help you to make choices. Do you want to save up money to go to court? What if you leave the house 61 minutes after the scheduled pickup time? Will the court order your husband to pay your legal fees, or extra child support, or anything else, and, if so what if he can’t or won’t? Will a notebook be good enough to document what’s happening, or do you need a digital camera with a time stamp? Go to the lawyer armed with specific questions. Good luck.

    1. In this type of situation, in my state, it would cost between $500 and $1000 to get the agreement amended. In some states, it could be much less. In some states, she could get the ex to pay for the attorney’s fees b/c he’s the one not following the agreement/order in place.

      People think “this will be several thousand dollars”, so they don’t hire an attorney. Sometimes matters can be a lot easier.

      It’s much cheaper to amend an existing order b/c of one parent not complying than to get an order in the first place.

      She needs to talk to an attorney yesterday!

  48. Can you drop your child off with their father instead of waiting for dad to come to you and then he can do the return drop off? I work in family law, and that is what is generally recommended if workable. For an issue like this, I would highly recommend mediation as a first step rather than involving lawyers and the court.

    1. LW explained upthread that taking the child to the fathers house required them to wait in the car an hour or two until the father woke up. So they gave up that effort to compromise. I don’t think the LW wants to drop a four year old off on the porch to wait for her dad to get out of bed and let her in..

  49. I have so many thoughts and feelings about this letter I don’t know where to begin.

    I’m stepmother to my husband’s two daughters (11 and 15). They live with us full-time. We used to co-parent roughly 50/50 with their mom; they now see her for dinner here or there, but only when they want to.

    For the first few years of our marriage, I treated it as an article of faith that one did not speak a bad word about their mother (who is a nice person but, objectively, not always an effective parent). I realize as I look back that there were clear signs that their time with her was hard on them; they were often in a noticeably bad mood when they returned from visits with her, and they made vague but fairly persistent complaints about not enjoying being with her. Whenever they were given a choice in the matter, they opted to be with us.

    A traumatic event forced the thing to a crisis, and they finally flat-out said that they didn’t want to live with their mother anymore. One of them went even further, stating that she no longer wanted to see her mother at all.

    I realize, looking back, that in being so careful not to criticize their mother or even to entertain criticism of her, I conveyed to them that it wasn’t okay to find fault with her. I wish I had given them space to talk about what was happening at her house and why it was upsetting to them; I wish I had made clear to them that they had a voice in how other people are permitted to treat them. Their takeaway from it at the time, I fear, was that they had no choice but to live with their mother being alternately flaky, overbearing, verbally abusive, and neglectful.

    They’re utterly different kids now that they live full-time in a place where they can be their loud, messy, sometimes needy selves. They can be kids, in other words. And they can speak up when they’re sad or scared or anxious or angry and they will be heard. The older one has a great therapist who is helping her sort out how she wants to relate to her mother going forward.

    I’m not saying you should slag on your kid’s dad; you absolutely shouldn’t. But don’t overcorrect to the extent that your kid feels like he/she can’t call out objectively rude behavior for what it is, and have a completely reasonable emotional reaction to that rude behavior.

    1. Great insight. Simple curiosity: have you told the girls you regret how you handled that aspect? It sure would have helped me if some adults had later in my childhood told me, “remember when xyz? you were right.”

      You’re doing an awesome job. I hope the girls appreciate what a gem you are.

      1. I’ve had that conversation with the older one. I was really careful to couch it not as “your mom wasn’t doing a good job” but as “there were clear signs that you were having a hard time being at your mom’s, and I wish I had asked a few open-ended questions to let you know it was okay to talk about how you were feeling and even to ask your dad and/or me to help you out.” She is very closed up about her relationship with her mom. Periodically she’ll open up to me about the subject, but always on her own time and her own terms. I think she knows at this point that it’s something she can talk to me about, and she definitely knows that if I had a do-over, I’d do things differently and work to be a better advocate for her.

        The younger one is closer to her mom, and often takes on an apologist/caretaker role. So far, I’ve only gone as far as trying to make it clear to her that she gets to define that relationship; for example, her mother was pressuring her to spend more time at her house over the holidays, but she was having a really good time with her sister, and I coached her on how to decline her mother’s invitation politely but firmly. She seems to have come away from the whole thing a lot less traumatized, so I’m focusing on giving her the tools to define her boundaries in a way that feels right to her.

        I find myself thinking of the well-worn advice dispensed by columnists and counselor’s office pamphlet authors: “If you’re having trouble with something, talk to a trusted adult.”

        If you’re a good parent (and it sounds like you are), you are probably the person your kid thinks of when he/she hears the words “trusted adult.” Your kid needs to be able to talk to you about things that are on his/her mind, even things that pertain to your ex, and know he/she will be heard.

    2. Yes! Please let them have the space to feel that this isn’t right. That normal adults don’t behave like this, and it’s ok to be upset by it. That this treatment is not how they should let others in their life behave towards them as they get older. Tell them their father loves them, but diplomatically say he has a problem with being late and it’s ok if they are angry or worried about it. And steer them towards a father-like role model of some kind who can model that kind of consistent caring and respect that you want your child to learn to expect from future partners and friends. Even 4 year olds are more perceptive and more capable of complex feelings than you realize, and they are learning how to expect to be treated by those they love as adults..

    3. My parents divorced when I was really young, and were always very considerate of me. They handled the logistics, and I NEVER needed to worry about them. But when my mother remarried, the step-father was the flaky somewhat abusive one. My step mom was my lifeline during this time. I would tell as story about what step father had done, and she would get LIVID about it. This gave me permission to feel like it was ok that I was upset (something I had a hard time with). My father was DEEPLY concerned, I found out later, but never said anything critical about Mom or stepfather. I think he was worried about saying too much. I think you did the best you could in this situation, but the more you can validate the kids’ emotions and feelings, the better

  50. Dear LW

    Please reconsider dropping kid off at their father’s house.

    Also, yes discuss this with your lawyer’s

    I would consider, not mentioning that it isn’t kid’s fault, unless kid asks

    This is hard you’re doing q great job

    1. LW commented that dropping off at the father’s house meant spending an hour in the car waiting for him to wake up. Not a plausible solution with a small child.

      1. I read that too, nonetheless perhaps waking him enough to open the door is possible.

        You see, as it currently stands, kid is learning that being unreliable pays off.

        1. If he doesn’t answer the phone, the only way to wake him up would be hammering on the door. A judge could take that as a strike against the LW for causing a scene in front of the child. And it would, in fact, be pretty upsetting for the kid.

          I’m uncomfortable with saying that the kid is learning unreliability because LW can’t wake someone who’s in a house she doesn’t have access to; it smacks of blaming LW. It also may not be true; the kid may equally be learning that being unreliable is bad and hurtful, or that they have to be extra reliable because they can’t count on other people. The lessons kids draw are complicated.

          1. I don’t know the details of why dropping kid off wasn’t working, and I do believe the LW chose to switch for good reason.

            Nonetheless, the switch has been very hard on both the kid and the LW.

            I’m not blaming LW *at all*, and I apologize for giving that impression.

            I’m saying the kid may be learning unreliability pays off because right now, it does.

            Daddy doesn’t show up and Mommy and Kid wait around. Daddy didn’t wake up, so Mommy and Kid adjusted their schedules.

            I understand that I’m coming from the perspective of watching my (female) friends cope with the vagaries of their (male) exes. And yes, in the long run the kids learned that sometimes being unreliable like Daddy left people mad at you.

            And in the long run the mothers adjusted the custody agreements and made fewer accommodations for the fathers.

            It just took so long, and was so hard on the mothers.

            Again I apologize for any disrespect or blaming.

            I think the LW is a really good parent, in a very annoying situation.

        2. Also, if Dad’s not a nice guy, it runs the risk of dropping the kid into his sole custody when he’s now in a filthy mood. You can’t do that.

        3. How do you suggest LW do this that they haven’t tried before instead of spending two hours in a car with a small child?

          1. Also I think teaching the child that if someone doesn’t want to see you, you should go to their house and wait for them to bother to give you the time of day, even if it takes hours out of your day, even if they are making it very clear that they don’t want to see you by NOT BEING AWAKE TO LET THEIR SMALL CHILD IN THE HOUSE… is not a good lesson to teach. Personally.

          2. Here’s the thing: Ex won’t change without external pressure. I hope LW can get outside forces to apply pressure soon.

            Maybe texting that drop off is at X time but LW won’t leave unless Ex texts that they’re up and ready by X-travel would work temporarily.

            Maybe playing special games until Ex shows at LW’s house would work.

            Maybe dropping Kid off at Ex’s workplace is the way to go.

            What isn’t working is the current situation in which LW’s day is consumed by waiting around and resentment.

            So yeah revisiting old arrangements is one stop gap.

            Long term solution: a more manageable custody and visitation agreement. But that requires lawyers and court and time.

  51. Love the captains advice (as always).

    I think it’s important for the LW to avoid saying negative things about the dad. She doesn’t know why he’s constantly late. Maybe he’s trying to piss her off. Maybe his schedule is irratic. Maybe he’s a flaming A-hole. Maybe he doesn’t like parenting anymore now that he’s single. Maybe he’s time challenged. None of that matters. The mom doesn’t know. When kid asks her, she can honestly say she doesn’t know, and that the kid can ask dad when he sees him. Put the onus back on the dad, where it belongs.

    In the meantime, reassurance that the kid did nothing wrong is key, but without trash talking the dad.

    Total agreement that everything should be documented. I do everything either by text or email, so I have a written record. SMS backup for all texts. Forward all emails to a dedicated email account (so I don’t have to see my ex’s garbage on my phone, but it’s there for me if/when needed).

    All communications from the custodial parent should be neutral sounding. Not “Where the hell are you” but “I was expecting you at 10 a.m. for visitation. It’s 10:30 now. Please advise.” Note how the communication is both neutral (no blaming) and gives all the info needed for future reference in case it’s needed in court. A text that says “you’re late” isn’t as helpful, because it 1) doesn’t say how late, and 2) it’s likely to be received as aggressive, and escalating.

    Document that the kid was ready to go at 10 a.m. (or whenever pick up time is). Maybe at 10 a.m. text a photo of your kid dressed and ready to go with a note like “kid is excited for your day. See you soon.” If you start a project after that, and dad shows up, and now kid needs to wash up, you have documentation that he was ready at 10, so any additional delay is on the dad. If dad needs to travel further to meet you wherever you went while waiting, that’s on him too.

    1. I agree w/ your “just the facts; don’t speculate as to motive” and want to suggest this script:

      “I don’t know why Daddy’s late, honey. I don’t want to speak for him.” or “It’s not right for me to guess about him that way.”

      Might as well teach & model decent boundaries and respect while you’re in the middle of this kind of stuff.

      1. Maybe even “I don’t know why Daddy’s late, honey. You can ask him when he gets here,” because of course the ex knows why he’s late, and will presumably have some kind of answer.

        The ex’s answer may be a flat-out but somewhat acceptable lie like “the bus didn’t come,” if he deliberately set out late to make LW’s life more difficult, but it’s reasonable to teach the kid that they can ask both their parents questions, and that if you want to know why someone did something, ask them, not someone else. Letting the ex be the one to answer could, I think, be part of being divorced and no longer doing his emotional labor.

  52. Another vote for talking to your attorney about getting a clause that if he’s X minutes late, he loses the visit into the custody agreement. An ex of mine got her agreement amended so if he was a half hour late, her daughter didn’t have to stick around to wait for Dad. Ex was tired of fighting with her daughter because daughter wanted to go do something with her friends and Mom was being the bad guy by telling her she had to stick around in case Dad bothered to show up.

    After the agreement changed, he’d show up an hour late and be _pissed_ that daughter was off seeing a movie with her friends.

  53. You might want to consider not telling your child about the visits in advance so that way if dad is late or cancels your child won’t even know. When dad does show up it’s a pleasant surprise for your child and you don’t have to worry about making any excuses. In fact this was what I did with my kids when they were little for any kind of future event bc the anticipation is just to hard to manage at that age.

  54. I don’t have kids, but I just realized I might have advice for the long term. I don’t know your specific custody situation, LW, but my parents divorced when I was 3, so I know about split custody. This may not be feasible for you right now, but one of the ways my parents made things work was that days when I switched houses were always on a school day, so they actually didn’t have to interact with each other. (I started preschool at age 3, I think it was one of the conditions of their custody agreement – don’t know if your kid is enrolled.) On a switching day, mom would drop me off in the morning and dad would pick me up at night. Or vice versa. It was relatively painless most of the time. My switch days were Tuesdays and Fridays.

    1. Idk, if dad can’t get to LW’s house on time to pick up the kid, can they really trust him to pick the kid up from school? I’m having visions of a four year old left by themselves for two hours because dad can’t get his shit together. (Which would be fantastic grounds to severely restrict visitation but an absolute nightmare for kid and LW.)

  55. Got a log on just to comment on this post. I am the kid in this scenario. My father was wildly unpredictable when picking us up for scheduled visitation as well as picking us up from events like dance practice (Nothing like waiting in an empty lobby with the secretary as the studio was closing for the night, praying to see your parent’s car drive up). Please give your child the chance to verbalize their feelings about this. My mom never even discussed my father’s lateness, she just put on a brave face and moved on with the day. I’m sure it was the best way she knew to cope, but it left me feeling like my feelings of being neglected and uncertain of my father and his motivations were either invalid or not important to her. I was not a “go with the flow” kind of kid, so the comments suggesting just not telling the child when Dad will be there or if he will be rub me the wrong way. How would you feel if you were at home, and all of a sudden without warning, it’s “Dad’s here! You’re spending the night at his place tonight!” That lack of predictability can be very disconcerting for a child. My suggestion would be to acknowledge to your child that yes, Dad is late a lot. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you, but I know it probably makes you feel upset when it happens. And then let the child have a chance to discuss those feelings, giving you the chance to validate that they aren’t crazy and their feelings are reasonable and appropriate reactions to the situation. Then just continue doing your best to provide continued stability in your home the best you can. As your child gets older, they will come to their own conclusions about Dad’s motivation. Right now just stick to facts and be a sounding board for their feelings, even though you think a 4 year old may not understand fully what’s happening.

    1. Your mother was probably trying very hard not to badmouth your father. She was between a rock and a hard place, I think. If she’d discussed it he may have turned it against her and claimed that she was trying to alienate you from him.

  56. I know I’m late to comment, but I just wanted to mention that another question to speak to your lawyer about is whether your ex might be breaching the custody agreement (if you have one) by being later than the agreed times for pickup. I don’t know about what the law is like where you are, but, in a lot of jurisdictions, a custody agreement is seen as something to protect the rights of the child rather than something to protect the rights of the parents–so it’d be not a matter of him failing to use his right to see your kid and more a matter of him failing to protect your kid’s right to spend time with him. I don’t know what the practical application of that might be, since that’s more of a question for your lawyer, but it’s something to think about.

  57. There was a great bit of advice in “Dear Annie” today about dealing with an erratic non-custodial parent. A woman wrote in to say:
    “When I kept having to tell my children that Dad was not coming, the kids were getting angry with me, as though it were my fault. I finally realized that their dad needed to be the one to tell them he would not be coming; this way, he would hear the disappointment in their voices. So from then on, I would hand the phone to one of my children when Dad got ready to break his plans.”
    This probably wouldn’t work with a two year old as he/she wouldn’t be old enough to understand, but an older more verbal child would get it right away and finally understand that it wasn’t the custodial parent. Of course kids usually do take out their anger on the custodial parent, because that is the “safe” target – they know that’s the parent that isn’t going to walk away and leave them.

  58. @JeanBean this had some VERY good advice – I double-upvote minimizing the surprises, keeping the child informed, and giving the child a safe place to discuss their feelings.

    I was the mom in a very similar scenario. My daughter was 4 when we divorced and was 8 when her Dad passed away. Her dad was always late, if he came at all, and made many other questionable decisions. My daughter was seeing a counselor already and they taught her some great coping skills that I see her still using today, 7 years later. I wasn’t able to give her the dreamy-fabulous childhood that I might have hoped for, but she learned some amazing life-skills that I don’t think I learned until my 20s and 30s. Boundary setting, expectation management, dealing with disappointment, anxiety, anger… all very valuable things.

    LW: I hope you have a support system, too, to help you and your child through these years. Just know that the times DO pass, you can still give your child a wonderful childhood, and they will be the stronger for it, in the long run. Just keep loving that kid and let them know how valuable they are!

  59. While I am not a lawyer, I work in courts and see stuff like this all the time. Use the courts to help you with this if the steps outlined above do not work. My judge has set parameters such as the parties are to meet at some public place for the switch-off of the kids, and the wait time is 15 minutes. If the other party doesn’t show in those 15 minutes without prior ample notice of a time change, they forfeit their visitation. This kind of thing does require a court order, so documenting and doing all the steps the Captain recommends are important before going to this option, but it might just be the best and only way to handle this.

  60. Hi LW,
    This letter hit me right away because I was a kid with a dad who was nearly always late for visits. I have memories of my brother and I sitting on the couch for hours waiting for him to arrive. Sometimes it turned into a no-show, usually he’d eventually show up. The reason was always “traffic” no matter where he was living. One day my mom got so fed up and was going to leave with us, and suddenly guess whose car was blocking the driveway. Oh childhood memories.
    My mom generally avoided litigation because my dad was the one who would bring her to court at the drop of a hat. (OR call the cops if things didn’t go how he wanted, hahahaaa…). Eventually visits were months apart and I would throw fits when I had to go. My dad eventually went to court, but by then I was 16 and some wonderful judge told my dad that fixing the relationship was on him at that point. Unfortunately, my younger brother wanted to keep seeing him and was jerked around with late pickup times and last-minute cancelled trips until our dad died.
    Our mom tried hard not to badmouth dad when we were kids, but she would get frustrated and we knew why. Even as kids, “dad is late” and “mom is angry” weren’t hard to put together. My brother thought she badmouthed dad and somehow wrecked his chance for a good relationship with him. When she questioned me on whether I maybe would want to actually go on visits and what about trying to give my dad a chance, I would get so peeved, oh my god. I thought she was siding with the enemy in those conversations when she was terrified that I would end up as a “fatherless girl” statistic. She still had my side in court, but she kept that shitfest away from my life. Which was awesome of her, but then I also lacked that context so those conversations felt like she was trying to change my decision to ditch my dad (she might have also been worried about the case going my dad’s way). As an adult, I see she was in a rough place with two kids with completely different needs towards this toxic ass and she somehow had to reconcile those on top of still essentially being a single mother.

    I don’t know how ultimately it will turn out for you and your kid. As they grow older and develop their own outlook, keep communicating with them and let their needs help set the course for how to proceed. Sorry if that’s an obvious way to put it. If they want to pull away from their father, stay on the kid’s side, listen to their feelings. It’ll be up to the dad to fix that connection, and the kid probably shouldn’t be convinced to be “forgiving” if they’re innately growing sick of being treated that way. If they’re ten and starting to hate his guts, it’s not on you to try and do bridge-repair, and might backfire. If they want to keep the relationship and he continues to be unreliable for whatever reason, make sure they have other outlets and connections that will bolster them up as much as possible, because that kid will go through some emotional shredding in every maybe-visit cycle. There’s a lot of great advice above for how to handle this with a young child, but I wanted to add my two cents growing up in that situation. Mostly, please forgive yourself and don’t take on the guilt Shit Dad should feel. I’m thankful my mom fostered in me a sense that I didn’t have to put up with being treated badly, and I wish she would give herself more credit, as well as that maybe she would have made more choices to make life easier for herself as well. Maybe the kid never learns what a jerk their dad really is/was, maybe they figure it out from experience. At some point they’ll make their own choices for what relationship to have with their dad. There can be good outcomes whether your ex is in or out of their life, I swear. Either way, they will eventually know you and their dad as an adult, and as much as psychology talks about parents being the source of all life problems in some way, there’s a good chance your kid may grow up, connect some dots, and be incredibly forgiving of the situation you are in now.

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