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Ethical Dilemmas: When Co-Parenting Leads to Feelings of Guilt and Inadequacy

Ethical Dilemmas is a regular column where we hope to give you clear-cut answers for complicated problems. Hayley Glaholt is a pro at carefully examining two sides of a story and weighing each move with a cautious code of morality. If you have a difficult problem you’re currently dealing with and want some free advice, send your question to heyjudeadvice@gmail.com.

Hey Hayley,

I have a three-year-old son, and his dad and I are not together. His dad makes much more money than I do, and so when our son is with him, he gets lots of gifts and goes to exciting places that I can’t afford. Plus, his new girlfriend also earns quite a bit, and I feel like they are able to give him a life that I can’t give him, and I worry that my son will prefer being with them since they can give him all of the “bells and whistles” that I can’t. I keep thinking about this, and it’s affecting the time I spend with my son. I feel guilty all the time that I can’t provide more for him.

(female, 31, Toronto)

Co-parenting can be very difficult, fraught with comparisons and feelings of inadequacy, and I know you’re not alone in stressing about this. That being said, I think you can address this in three parts:

1. Do cool free things. It’s true that money can buy fun experiences, neat toys, etc. But it’s also true that some of the best adventures are free. And in my humble opinion, the ideal place to go on adventures is…in nature. Your son is at the perfect age to do some exploring. Go to city parks and provincial parks, look at birds and bugs and animals, and get dirty. Take a picnic lunch, even in the winter, and show your son how incredible the natural world is. Also show him how much fun can be had for little to no money. I’m often guilty of thinking that I need to buy this or that in order to get off my butt and go do things, but the truth is that you can put on shoes and a coat, bring a water bottle and snack, and just get going. The GTA is full of many, many fun free things to do, so do some Googling and adventuring.

2. Reframe and question your guilt: It sounds like you are pretty fixated on what you cannot give your son, and what your ex *can* give your son—so much so that it is affecting the quality of the time you’re spending with him. It may be helpful to reframe this in two ways. First, focus the spotlight on the things you ARE able to provide for him: stability, unconditional love, a home, life! THESE are the things that are crucial for a happy childhood, and ultimately these are the aspects of childhood that will benefit him the most in his future. And second, try to avoid “all-or-nothing” thinking. It seems like you are veering towards the following narrative: he can give our son everything of value and I can’t give our son anything of value. But is that correct? I don’t think it is. Reality-test that narrative. Neither you nor your ex are 100% good or bad, 100% successful or failing, so when you catch yourself thinking this way, try to make sure you poke holes in that harmful narrative.

3. Discuss your concerns with his dad. Lastly, it may be helpful to talk to your son’s dad about this, using “I” statements rather than blaming language. I would leave his girlfriend out of it for the moment. Consider letting him know that the unequal standards of living are making you feel inadequate, and maybe he would be willing to tone down the spending a bit. But if he isn’t willing to do that, focus more on a) taking appropriate action in your own life, and b) changing your perception of the situation rather than focusing on changing his spending habits.

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