Putting aside parents’ issues and watching out for your child

I received a call from “Sharon,” a single mom concerned about her 4-year-old daughter’s contact with her father, a man largely absent from the girl’s life. The parents had never married. Our conversation was informal, in part because I am not familiar with the laws of her state.

Sharon was apprehensive. The father, “George,” was to take their child “Elisa” away for several days during a holiday break. But then, without discussion, George told Sharon that he was adding extra days to the trip — during time not his, according to their parenting schedule.

The mother had many concerns: will Elisa be safe? George has never gone away with Elisa. A lot of driving, part of it well into the night, is planned. Would George get drowsy and into an accident? Would he even bring their daughter back?

Additionally, Sharon didn’t want to set a bad precedent. She felt that she has been very flexible and accommodating to George during the past year, when he had been around more, but now she feels that he is taking advantage — something that she could easily imagine being repeated.

I wondered if George might be immature, as opposed to being a bad father. Certainly, he was inexperienced. Sharon agreed that immaturity was an issue; perhaps a good sign, since maturity and experience can be acquired.

After discussing these matters, I shared my thoughts and we spoke about her options, and the approaches she might take. I suggested that Sharon:

• Focus on her child’s welfare: what is best for Elisa? What does a child her age need, and what causes Sharon’s fear and disappointment? Focusing primarily on Elisa’s needs, rather than her own — which are also valid — may meet with less resistance from George.

• Make use of a mutual acquaintance: I asked Sharon if she and George have a mutual friend, a family member or a clergyman, who she might be able to discuss her concerns with, and who in turn could discuss them with George. Likely, George has trouble listening directly to Sharon; but he might be open to hearing her concerns if expressed by a third party. Sharon said there was no such person to turn to.

• Go with George to a child psychologist or other parenting expert: a parenting expert can address concerns such as how a trip of several days away from her mother (here including lengthy car travel and some by plane) might affect a 4-year-old — especially a child who has not spent much time alone with her father; and how sticking to a routine makes a child feel secure. It’s one thing to tune out your ex, who may be accusing and negative; and another to ignore an impartial expert.

• Consider mediation: as discussed in my March and November 2012 columns and more fully on my website, mediation is a process through which many couples learn to communicate better and work together to get what they need. Sharon was unaware of what mediation entails.

I gave a brief description and then put on my mediator hat, asking questions and reframing her responses, and confirming that I had understood her.

When I then told Sharon that she had just experienced what she likely would in an actual mediation session, she seemed pleased, and felt capable of doing it for real.

• Speak with an attorney: I have hope that legal action can be minimized in this case, if not avoided. Still, with her concerns, I offered that it might be wise to meet with a local attorney who is knowledgeable about her state’s laws. Sharon, wanting to know her “recourse,” could learn this from such a meeting.

Sharon was very grateful for our having talked, believing that she had a lot more information than an hour before. Energized, Sharon ended our conversation, wanting to immediately follow-up and find individuals and groups that might help her move forward constructively.

Postscript: Two weeks later, Sharon said that “Things are going better. I am armed now with more information, and feel like I am tuning into my intuition, and more capable of making powerful decisions.”

New York City and Long Island based divorce mediator and collaborative divorce lawyer Lee Chabin, Esq., helps clients end their relationships respectfully and without going to court. Contact him at [email protected], or (718) 229–6149, or go to lc-mediate.com/home.