An open plea to divorced parents

Before I begin, let me make clear that I don’t judge you for getting divorced.  I don’t know what your relationship was like, and I don’t know how it was for you to live with each other.  While broadly speaking I think it’s better for children to be raised by both parents in the same household, in any given case I think the people involved have to make their own best decisions under their particular circumstances.  If your relationship had irrevocably broken down, then I’m certainly not going to suggest you should have papered over that reality.

To the overwhelming majority of you who manage to find a workable way of co-parenting, I salute you.  Almost everyone finds some system that seems to work relatively well.  Occasionally a little bit of sarcasm or annoyance about the former spouse comes out during visits (usually because the other parent supposedly allows something the parent present for the visit disapproves of), but usually it’s kept to a minimum and the impression is that everyone has gone about their lives with a modicum of civility.

On that note, for those of you who both come to your kids’ visits to the doctor and make a point of treating each other with respect for the sake of your children (or, even better, because you are still capable of respecting each other), you have my sincere admiration.  I understand that there must have been something wrong that led you to divorce in the first place, and I’m sure it must be somewhat difficult to behave this way.  When divorced parents show up together and still function as a child-rearing team, it speaks to the quality of character of both.  Thank you.

Which, sadly, leaves that minority of you who, even after the legal dissolution of your marriage, seem intent on lacerating each other at every opportunity.  Clearly the relationship between the two of you has so corroded your mental health that you are still willing to go to some effort to make each other miserable as an end unto itself.  That you feel the need to poison each other for perpetuity is terribly sad, but if it were only the two of you suffering I’d have little to say about it.  There is, after all, much that is very sad in life.

However, what always seems to happen in these cases is that the acid you’re spitting at each other spatters onto your children.  You turn them into your pawns and your proxies.  You use their lives as your battlefields and your shared parenting prerogatives as weapons.  Not content with the disruption that cannot help but follow any divorce, no matter how amicable, you undermine each other such that your children have no place that is stable and safe.  Instead of being able to turn to you for advice and comfort and guidance, your children are left to their own psychological devices while they go about the work you have given them as spies and agents.

This, of course, is where you try to involve me.  One parent brings in the child for some reason or another, and the other calls me or sends me an e-mail demanding to know what was said and what was done, often preemptively contradicting what they believe was reported about them.  Frequently the absent parent will refuse to sign off on the plans made for the child’s care because he or she was not present for the discussion.  Frequently one parent asks me to write a letter instructing the other to follow some course of action, or to be filed as some kind of ongoing legal action.  Frequently it is attempted to make me another proxy in the ongoing war.

Never does that work.  I never alter treatment plans because of parental objection.  If the absent parent wants to be part of the decisions, he or she is invited to attend medical appointments the next time.  I never write letters for files, or make calls enjoining a parent to do as I say.  If I do write anything, it is an e-mail to both parents stipulating that I cannot and will not intervene in disputes between the two, and will only function in a way that safeguards the health of my patient, their child.

However, since this is my blog and not part of any given medical record, I have the luxury of being more blunt.  Grow the fuck up.  Your children need you to put aside your shiny resentments, polished to a brilliant luster after years of caressing, and focus on their mental and physical well-being.  They need you to stop acting like overgrown seventh graders and remember that when you had them you signed up for a lifetime (or at least the duration of their childhood) of putting their interests ahead of your own.  They need you to act like… what’s the word?  Oh, yes.  Parents.

If you don’t, then please don’t come to me in astonishment when they turn against you.  Please don’t act surprised when the defiance you demanded against each other is turned against you.  Don’t be shocked when, instead of staying where you wanted it, their hatred spills over onto both of you.  Or, perhaps even more sadly, when it turns inward and manifests as self-injurious or risk-taking behaviors as they get older.  Because it so often does.  It’s quite a whirlwind that shows up when adolescence hits, if it waits even that long.  Don’t pretend you couldn’t see it coming.

So, there you have it.  That’s what I’m thinking when you try to spend half of your child’s appointment badmouthing the other.  That’s my reaction when I read your bitter, bitter e-mails.  That’s what goes through my mind when your child tells me he only gets his medication half the time because one parent thinks he needs it and the other doesn’t.  That’s what I would say to you if I had the freedom to be blunt.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. I once used to do a fair bit of drinking with an attorney who’d gotten out of criminal defence work and into divorce law. Moodily nursing a Maker’s Mark, he told me criminal law was mostly presenting a horrible person in the best possible light but divorce work was watching two decent people at their absolute worst.

  2. Simply, thank you.
    My first wife and I have worked very hard to ensure that we put the boy (now 17) first. That said, there are few things as disgusting as watching people take out frustrations they have regarding the other parent through a child.

  3. (sigh). These people are the reason why I have so little faith in generic humans.

  4. Parents who fall into that trap make me wish I could whisk their children away to Never Never Land.

  5. Why restrict this to divorced parents? I’m sure that there are parents who are not divorced (but perhaps should be) who use their child as a proxie.

    I’m glad me and the ex don’t have children. We’re polite on the rare occasion we need to do anything with each other, but by and large, we just live our own lives.

Comments are closed.