I have a friend who has a beautiful relationship with his ex-wife. After their split, they remained good friends and have co-parented their children together almost as well as they would have if they were living in the same home. They backed each other up, made sure they were both there for their kids, and have truly done an amazing job.
But as many of us know, they are probably the exception rather than the rule. My ex walked away from my kids and didn’t look back. Other people have exes who like to pop in and out like a jack-in-the-box. And some have one who disappears but then gets their act together and steps up to be the parent they should have been all along.
But when you’re in one of those situations and your ex comes back, it can complicate things. You want to protect your children from being hurt or abandoned (again), yet there are laws that might say you have to serve your kids up on a silver platter and risk exactly that kind of treatment.
So what do you do when your ex wants to pop back into the picture? While I can’t give you any legal advice, I can tell you the things I’ve considered over the years as I wondered if my ex would ever want to see my kids again. And these are the things I think you should also consider.
Read the court order and state laws
First and foremost, I suggest meeting with your lawyer (or consulting with a new one if you don’t have one) to confirm what your court order and state laws indicate you must legally do.
Some states have laws that indicate after so much time has passed, the absent parent has forfeited rights and you don’t need to let them see the kids. But others don’t say that and if your court order gives them visitation rights, you could be held in contempt for refusing.
So meeting with your lawyer to find out exactly what you legally need to do is critical. No matter what your personal feelings on the matter are (and trust me, I support whatever you’re feeling), you don’t want to make a legal mistake that ends up really hurting your kids.
Find out what they want
It might sound like I’m skeptical and suspicious — and I am. Find out what your ex wants, especially if they’re showing up after an extremely long absence. It may very well be that they’ve grown up and decided it’s time to be the parent they should have been all along.
But sometimes they don’t have good motives. They might be trying to put on a good show for a new love interest. Or they might have some scheme to make money or at least try to get out of paying money (by getting out of child support).
Don’t hesitate to be blunt. Ask them straight out, “Why are you back? Why do you want to see the kids?” And pay careful attention to the answer — especially if they stumble or hesitate.
So they claim to have grown up and they want to be a good parent now. And you aren’t getting a feeling that it’s a lie. Now it’s time to dig deeper.
Evaluate what they’re telling you. Check out their job situation. How long have they been working and where, how many hours, and are they paying child support consistently (especially if they weren’t before)? Where are they living and is it a safe environment for the kids? What kind of relationships do they have now — if they have a new love, how long have they been together and how serious is it?
Recently getting a job after a long period without one, getting into a new relationship within the last few weeks or months or being dumped by a long-term partner they were living with aren’t necessarily red flags but they can be signs that this isn’t going to stick. You’ll want to take things slowly to try to avoid letting the kids get hurt.
How often have they done this?
Have you allowed the absent parent to come back before, only to have them disappear again? Maybe more than once? How often they’ve done this before can make a big difference in how you choose to proceed.
If you’ve been burned before, you’ll obviously want to be much more cautious about letting them back into your kids’ lives. But if this is a first, you might be more optimistic that it will go well.
Either way, you’ll want to proceed with caution, but the more times they’ve come back before, the more careful you’ll want to be. And if this isn’t the first time, it might be even more important to check in with a lawyer to find out what to do. You might have more options than you think for protecting your kids.
This part is especially important to look at in conjunction with everything you evaluated. You might notice patterns, such as that they only come around to see the kids when they get a new partner or after they’ve lost a job. This can help you determine whether it’s a good idea to give them another chance or find out what legal options you have to block them.
How do they want to do this?
A true sign of an absent parent who has grown up and is trying to do the right thing is their desire to do it the right way. This means they won’t come in demanding to exercise rights they may have been granted in the court order but haven’t exercised in a long time, if ever.
Instead, they’ll acknowledge that they’ve been gone. They’ll admit the kids may not know them well, may not remember them at all, or that they’ve been in and out in the past and hurt the kids as a result. They’ll want to prove themselves and be willing to proceed slowly for the sake of the kids.
If they come in demanding to have weekends, or full weeks, with the kids just because the order says so, they might be looking more to make a good impression on someone else than to truly rebuild a solid relationship with their children.
What do the kids want?
When my kids were small, I had to make the decisions. They were too small to decide things for themselves beyond what they wanted to eat or wear. So it was all up to me if their father showed up and wanted to see them.
But as they get older, kids deserve a say. We have to do what’s best for them, of course. But if your kid is a teen and hasn’t seen their other parent in a decade, is it really best for them to force them to see the absent parent when they clearly say they don’t want to?
While you can’t simply ignore a court order because the kids say they don’t want to see your ex, you can use the kids’ wishes as grounds to go back to court and ask for a change in the order now that your ex is back. Again, this is where you’d want to consult with a lawyer to make sure you do things completely aboveboard. But the kids’ wishes should absolutely be a part of your decision if they’re old enough to have an opinion.
What does a therapist think?
It might seem like overkill to involve a therapist for this but it can actually have several benefits.
First, if the relationship between your kids and the absent parent was marked by abuse, neglect, addiction, or other potentially dangerous situations, a therapist saying it would be bad for your kids to see your ex can be very helpful in court.
Second, if your kids are old enough to have a say but aren’t sure how they feel, talking to a therapist gives them a safe space to explore all their feelings and come to a decision without feeling influenced by you, your ex, or anyone else.
Finally, having the kids see a therapist before seeing their absent parent can help set up a baseline for who they are and how they behave. If seeing your ex ends up creating problems, the therapist will be able to help you document them in a way that can help you in court.
Trust your instincts
As a parent, you have instincts about your kids. Even when you’re wrestling with decisions, there’s a part of you that truly knows what’s best for them. And when an absent parent reappears, your instincts will tell you what you need to know.
Of course, we’re all suspicious in those first hours or days after they come back. And we should be. When someone has disappeared on your kid for weeks, months, or even years, your instinct is going to be to protect your child.
But once you’ve had a chance to process the idea that the absent parent is back and wants to be a part of your child’s life, it’s important to take a step back, ignore the chaos in your mind and heart, and dive a little deeper to see what else your instincts are telling you.
If your instincts say it’s safe, help your kids ease back into a relationship with their missing parent.
And if your instincts are screaming otherwise? Get together with your lawyer and take all the steps you can to protect your kids. You won’t regret it.
Wendy Miller is a Single Mom Coach & meditation teacher. After years of settling for abusive and otherwise toxic relationships, she began using meditation and other tools, to heal herself, set boundaries, and only engage in relationships (romantic and otherwise) that bring her joy. She wants to help other single parents find the love & happiness they seek, including and going beyond romantic love. She lives in Florida with her two sons, where she homeschools while solo parenting, while surrounded by what feels like a zooful of animals.
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