||Subject: divorced parents disagree on
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
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
Thanks for the concern and interest, I look
forward to your thoughts,
Thank you for writing. You certainly have a
quandary. How unfortunate that you and your ex-wife have such differing
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
Nighttime Parenting, by William
The Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedloff
The Magical Child, by Joseph Chilton Pearce
The Family Bed: An Age Old Concept in Child Rearing, by
Three in a Bed: Why You Should Sleep With Your Baby by
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.
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
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.