A letter to my ex: The kids notice when you treat me badly

SOMETIMES as parents we forget that our children have fully functioning individual minds. Their thought processes might not be as sophisticated as our own, but that doesn't mean they aren't watching, listening and forming judgements about the people around them - including us.

As a single mother, I receive a constant barrage of advice about what I should and should not be saying and doing in front of my kids. I know that if I speak negatively about their father they will take it as a personal criticism because they know there are plenty of ways in which they resemble him. I know that having other adults coming and going from our inner circle can cause them to develop attachment issues. Truth be told the amount of unsolicited parenting advice I was given as a first time mum pales in comparison to the amount I get now.

My ex-husband doesn't have this problem. Maybe it's just that my status is more visible; I'm rarely without at least one child by my side, or perhaps there are some underlying assumptions about gender roles at play. I suspect it's a little bit of both.

As much as we single mums could do with a break from all this advice, there are times when I know our children wished their dads got a little more.

My ex and I are lucky to have some pretty straight talking kids, some of whom are now adults with children of their own. At times their feedback can be hard to hear, but it's always helpful, so I'm going to share it here on behalf of those kids who are too young, too shy, or too scared to say anything directly.

You will notice that it is addressed to non-custodial fathers as it was originally expressed, but it applies equally to non-custodial mothers.

You know those times you cancel visitation? I'm not talking about the occasional necessary reschedule, but missed days and hours. Your kids notice those. They might not say anything, but they do keep it there in that file at the back of their mind.

When you say you're sick, you have no car, you have something else on that weekend? What they here is that they aren't worth the effort. It doesn't matter how supportive the other parent is. I tie myself in knots covering for my ex because I want my kids to feel loved and valued by both of their parents, but they know what they see.

Mummy (or daddy as the case may be) catches the bus with us, so why can't daddy? Mummy still looks after us when she's sick. Mummy can get a few hours of care and still see us the next day.

No matter how either of you frame it, this is what they see. And these are good things, right? You want your child's primary carer making them a priority, of course you do, but that means you will have to lift your game too. It's not about your convenience or your comfort, parenting doesn't work that way. You know that job that takes up so much of your time? Maybe you work away; maybe you just work a lot of overtime or weekends.

It's the same job that helps you support your kids. I know you need your job but here's the deal, your kids need you more. You think I scrape by on the hours that suit my kids because I want to? I do what I do because my kids need me when they need me. If you can't negotiate the occasional day off, the occasional hour for a school meeting or a doctor's appointment then maybe you need to start looking for another job. If that's not possible then you need to make it up in other ways.

We live in a wonderful age where you can chat face-to-face with someone on the other side of the world. Your kids are getting chats, texts, calls and photos from their friends day and night; you can be sure they will notice if they don't get them from you.

When mummy buys them a present to give you for Father's Day, you can bet they will notice her empty hands come Mother's Day if you don't do the same. When you deliberately frustrate your ex's plans by cancelling, rescheduling or refusing a visit they will notice. Whether she says anything or not they will get the message, over time, that your animosity toward her is greater than your love for them.

As much as you might resent it, you're not "babysitting so your ex can go out", you're parenting. That is your job. They will notice if they have to live in poverty unnecessarily. They might not know why when they are young, but as your children grow into adults they will learn about relationships, child support and income minimisation.

Will you be proud of your stance when you have to explain it to them adult to adult? Because let me tell you they won't care why you made their life hard, only that you chose to do it when you could have done better.

Parenting should never be a race to the bottom. It should be about giving your children the best possible start in life, even if that means giving your ex less trouble or more fortune than you think they deserve. As hard as that might be, your children will thank you for it.

This article originally appeared on Kidspot and has been republished here with permission.