Madonna is about to find out that she can’t flex her muscles when it comes to her soon-to-be ex-husband’s parenting style. The self-described control freak reportedly gave a list of rigid rules documenting what Guy Ritchie could and couldn’t do when he has sons Rocco, 8, and David, 3.
The list reportedly included a ban on TV, no Miley Cyrus for these boys, no non-organic food such as microwaved pizza and soda, nor any clothes that were not 100 percent cotton and sent by her. She even wanted her total blessings on what water they drank — Kaballah preferred — and no toys that are “spiritually or ethically unsound.”
What this sounds like is a recipe for disaster.
Divorced women tell me all the time that the hardest part of divorce is not leaving the husband but leaving the kids with him. And if you, like Madonna, are used to control, it becomes agony to realize the limited power you now have over your ex-spouse’s parenting style. It’s as though handcuffs have been put on you just when you thought you were finally liberated.
“Moms go nuts about this but all they can do is write to Dear Abby or Firstwivesworld,” says noted divorce lawyer Raoul Felder. “The courts will not mini-manage or arbitrate parenting styles unless it involves safety or basic acceptable serious judgment issues.”
“Other than allergies like peanuts, religion and sky diving, the hand of the parent who turned the kids over for their weekend with Pop has about as much to say in what the kids do there as Bush does in the choice of the next Secretary of State,” Felder says. “But isn’t that what week-end Dads are all about? Lot’s of hot dogs, chocolate and crummy blood and gory movies.”
This is exactly what makes many mothers’ blood boil. It undermines the discipline they have tried to instill all week.
Take, for example, Debbie who sends off her children Keith and Olivia with a sleepover bag. When they return all rumpled, she discovers that hardly any of the clothes have been used nor have the children showered or done their homework.
“I spend all Sunday night and the following day trying to get them back on their routine,” she laments.
Another example is Kathleen, whose son Jake was punished before his weekend with Dad for hitting his brother, Luke.
“I explained to my ex that Jake couldn’t go to a party this weekend in the neighborhood,” she said. “But then my girlfriend called me up and told me that Brian had dropped off Jake at the party anyway. When I confronted him, this jerk just yelled at me and said he could do whatever he wants with Jake.”
As Jeanette Lofas, president of the New York based Stepfamily Foundation frankly says, “fathers often spoil their children and divorced mothers have to get used to it.”
Ouch. That hurts but is often the truth.
“Mothers can’t reach into the other house and make rules, but the other part of that is, nor can your ex-husband enforce rules in your house,” she says.
But that doesn't mean moms can't devise strategies to deal with the parenting reality of divorce.
Lofas suggests that Kathleen and Debbie say the following to their children:
“You’re lucky that Dad is so easy with you. We have different rules in this house. Here we have consequences for actions and I’m trying to teach you these life lessons. There is a difference between going through a red light or a green light. If you go through a red light, you get a ticket. Rules have to be followed.”
And I would add this, “When you get a green light, we can have lots of fun. But we have to do the necessary work first.”
Aside from lingering resentments caused by the divorce, parents may have guilt for breaking up the family, and fear that the child will be damaged by inconsistent parenting styles. When they complain, it can be because they are seriously worried about the children.
However, parents have to have faith that their love and style will influence the children positively. As they get older, the kids choose what they like and didn’t like about each parent’s approach.
We have a generation of case studies to support this wisdom.
“Parents are entitled to a wide choice of parenting styles in a country as open as the United States,” says FWW’s Dr. Mark Banschick, who runs the Intelligent Divorce program in Katonah, New York. “They then have a choice: they can cooperate or confront.”
“Parents who choose confrontation lose the forest (a healthy post-divorce family) through the trees (winning one battle — in this case with organic food — while losing the war).The first leads to a better family dynamic, while the second ends up in endless court battles and struggle. My vote is that parents can teach children that they disagree but respect each other. And parents should opt, as much as possible, for compromise and consistency."
Another solution: some parents are having periodic meetings post-divorce with a mediator over parenting issues that are written into the divorce agreement.
"People can never fully understand the issues that come up until you live through them," says Dr. Jonah Schrag, a mediator in Goldens Bridge, New York. "When you sit down with someone in a meeting verses communicating through email, phone or a doorway, it can build a better understanding of viewpoints."
Surrendering your ego for the greater good is never easy. But is usually worth the effort. As for Madonna, she may want to sing "Papa Don't Preach," but will have to accept that one can “Express Yourself” in many different ways.