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  Subject: divorced parents disagree on co-sleeping issue

QUESTION:

I am a forty-eight-year-old divorced father of one wonderful seven-year-old son; he was four when separation was imposed. My father left when I was two years old, so it has been a cathartic experience for me to see what being a father is, and to see what I missed not having a father. Believe me, it gives me great insight.

I live in Canada and my son lives in Los Angeles. We spend two months together in the summer and three weeks at Christmas. I also make several trips to L.A. each year to be a part of his world, to share in his everyday life: school, teachers, friends, sports, etc. I read with glee that you support parents sleeping with their children. I believe as you do that it builds a strong bond of trust and support for both parties.

Unfortunately, my ex feels that this behavior leads to a lack of both self-esteem and self-confidence. So much so that she is threatening to stop his visits here unless I acquiesce and stop sleeping in the same bed. This has been echoed by both his pediatrician and psychiatrist. Yes, she has been sending him to a psychiatrist for nearly two years because she can't handle his tantrums and moody behavior. I should point out that he never has exhibited this kind of behavior when we are together and I can only suggest that if she spent more time with him and showed him a greater degree of respect for his feelings, she wouldn't be giving him these problems and getting them back in kind.

I have an attorney, so my ex can't stop me from having him visit, but she certainly will make things unbearable for both of us, and that's not fair to him especially. Our agreement calls for twelve weeks' visitation a year: three at Christmas, spring break (varies), four in the summer, with the balance to be in L.A. over the rest of the year...

We have only slept in the same bed since his visits began, because his room in my house was to be a guest room with a king-size bed. However it has become his room completely with art work and his toys etc. having taken over, all of this with my hearty approval. My guests actually enjoy staying in "his" room. So, due to the size of the bed, we didn't think twice about sleeping together. It allows us to spend as much time together as possible, even if we are asleep. He goes to bed around 9 P.M. after a good book and our nightly talk. Same thing first thing in the A.M. Our morning chats sometimes last for up to an hour and are our most treasured time. The bonding is so deep and pure, it kills me to even think of losing or altering that special time.

The main problem my ex had which started this whole mess, is that when he returns to L.A., she lets him sleep in her bed for the first night, then it's back to his own until he returns from the next trip. He doesn't react well to this, and of course wants to spend time with his mom the same way he does with his dad. And there lies the crux of the problem: my actions are creating a problem for her and she won't have it, especially since she has the backing of his pediatrician and "psychiatrist"! I certainly agree that as he gets older, say 9 or 10 years old, both of us will move away from this, but in the meantime, we both cherish it.

At any rate, I think there may be other single parents out there who are experiencing this kind of arms-length parenting where [one parent's] wants, needs and desires are being fulfilled at the expense of the child's well-being. Some advice on the sleeping question and this kind of situation in general would be very much appreciated.

Thanks for the concern and interest, I look forward to your thoughts,

Richard


JAN'S REPLY:

Thank you for writing. You certainly have a quandary. How unfortunate that you and your ex-wife have such differing views.

A situation of this kind involves a built-in problem. When parents divorce, the problems that led to this division do not magically disappear. When a child's custody is shared, the parents must have contact and communication. Whatever factors led to the divorce will almost always continue to be present afterward, unless there is competent intervention such as post-divorce custody counseling.

Unfortunately, most divorcing couples do not take this step. Without such help, the conflicts, resentments and power struggles inevitable in divorce can become the focus when choices need to be made involving the child's life. The child's right to make choices and decisions, in accordance with his age and experience, can be overlooked in the complex circumstances of a couple who, by definition, are unable to agree on important matters.

The focus in the present situation should instead be on the child. His rights, needs, and preferences need to be heard and given primary consideration. It is only right and fair that the person whose life is under discussion be given a strong voice in the matter. Unfortunately, in our society both the young and the elderly are expected to sit quietly by while others make choices for them.

It seems clear from your letters that your son is happy to sleep near a father he sees only part-time, and with whom he has a mutually rewarding relationship. Such an attachment can be invaluable to a child in these circumstances. Co-sleeping is a cultural, not an ethical matter. For millions of years, it was the norm - and in many places in the world, it remains so. Not too long ago, a businessman from India shocked his American colleagues by mentioning that he had always slept with his father's arm around him - until he left home at age 21. In that culture, this was normal and accepted, and this man's bond with his father remained close from childhood to adulthood.

As the mother also co-sleeps occasionally with her son, it seems inconsistent to ask the father to stop doing so, without a clear reason as to why this might be harmful. A child of seven can be asked - and should be asked - his views, preferences, and feelings about this situation, and have his words heard. A psychiatrist, parent, relative, lawyer, or anyone else in this situation who sees co-sleeping as necessarily harmful and dangerous should read the books listed below.

In a complex situation like this one, the most helpful step might be for the whole family to meet with an objective, neutral third party, such as a competent mediator or counselor. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to find someone whose views on co-sleeping are sound. The local La Leche League may be a good source to ask.

Jan

Books:

Nighttime Parenting, by William Sears, M.D.
The Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedloff
The Magical Child, by Joseph Chilton Pearce
The Family Bed: An Age Old Concept in Child Rearing, by Tine Thevenin
Three in a Bed: Why You Should Sleep With Your Baby by Deborah Jackson


RICHARD REPLIES:

Thank you for your concern and your caring. I feel much better about talking to my ex about this subject now and have done further research as you suggested.

Keep up the good work.

Richard


LAURA ADDS:

First of all, I have a couple of questions. His ex-wife is threatening him with not allowing him to see his son at all -- does she have that authority automatically, or would she have to go to court? I've been told that, without adequate proof, U.S. judges almost always assume that the parent accusing the other of child abuse (which is what she is doing, at least implicitly) is being malicious and that the charges are false. There are no guarantees, of course, and I can see why he'd be nervous to put himself and his son through that sort of court-wrangle torture if he could avoid it. But he has plenty of support for his position that co-sleep is not hazardous to a child's well-being -- that in fact, it's beneficial.

Avoiding a court battle is desirable, obviously. But he may have certain other alternatives. It seems to me that, if he wants to continue to co-sleep with his son, he needs to arm himself with experts' opinions that support his position: Sears, you, and others -- copies of articles, book excerpts, etc. After sitting down and writing up his main points and arguments, perhaps he could see if he can get his ex-wife to agree to a joint session with him, her, and the psychiatrist. In my opinion, he should tell his ex-wife that unless the pediatrician has specific training in child development, his or her opinion is irrelevant as far as Richard is concerned. Pediatricians are welcome to their opinions like anyone else, but they should not automatically be touted as authorities on child development and parenting.

Directly, non-hostilely, and cogently confronting the people who are opposing him -- pointing out that there are two schools of thought on this issue, that plenty of people co-sleep with their kids, and go on to raise happy, productive kids -- might be enough to cause the psychiatrist to back down from his or her position. I'd advise him, in this negotiation, to keep a very tight focus on the benefits of co-sleep and his reasons for wanting to co-sleep with his son, and if at all possible to avoid like the plague any discussion of his opinion of her parenting. Otherwise the session could quickly devolve into blaming and he'll lose out.

If a face-to-face meeting isn't possible, perhaps a telephone discussion can be arranged, or even an exchange of letters. This probably wouldn't work as well -- people tend to have an easier time, in letters, ignoring the points they don't want to deal with -- but it might be preferable to doing nothing.

I believe that in California, as in other parts of the U.S., arbitrators are more and more coming to be used in settling disputes when people don't want to have to incur the expenses and emotional turmoil of going to court. Both parties have to agree ahead of time to abide by the arbitrator's ruling. He might be able to arrange for something like this -- he could point out to his ex that they both want what's best for the boy, co-sleep is important enough to him that he's not willing to just drop it, and that instead of resorting to a custody battle, they could hire the services of an impartial arbitrator.

I'm also wondering if there are divorced-parent support groups and other such resources that might help him find ways out of this sort of "emotional blackmail" power struggle over differing parenting styles. While other divorced parents might not have had this specific struggle over co-sleeping, I'm sure they've had different kinds of struggles that have some parallels to his own.

Anyway, that's about all I can think of. My heart really goes out to Richard. He's in a tough spot.

Laura

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