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.
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.