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How do I tell my son not to listen to my ex?

My ex has become very vocal about where our son should go to school. I feel that he went from absent father to helicopter parent in a few short months.


The question

My son worked hard through high school and has now received offers from all the universities he applied to. He's narrowed it down to two choices, both good schools. I was a single mother until my son turned 9; then I met and married a wonderful man who has co-parented with me for the past eight years. My son's father – to whom I was happily married, until it was revealed that he had another relationship on the side – has been an absentee father at best (he left when my son turned 2). He sees the children once a month at most (he lives several hours' drive away) and pays child support only sporadically. The children love my ex-husband and I've worked very hard to keep the relationship lines open between my kids and their dad. However, he has never been an active parent to them; he is more the fun guy they can go visit every once in a while. So, here's my dilemma: My ex has become very vocal about where our son should go to school. I feel that he went from absent father to helicopter parent in a few short months. I trust my son; his reasons for choosing the school that he has chosen are sound and well thought out. Now he is getting incredible pressure from his father to take the second choice. How can I kindly, but firmly, get him to butt out? And how can I best empower my son to stand up to this man whom he adores, but who I feel is letting his inner bully show?

The answer

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So let me get this straight: the guy cheated on you (using the arithmetic of adultery probably from the time your child was born, if not before); routinely stiffs you on child-support payments; has seen your kid at most a dozen times a year since he left when the kid was 2, while you single-mommed it; and now he wants to boss everyone around on the topic of where the kid chooses to go to university?

Any one of these actions, taken individually, would be enough for your ex to merit a swift kick … But wait: Let's focus on the advice.

What I am about to say may sound harsh, especially to the fathers out there, and I know a lot of people won't agree with me. I say it as a father myself, and one who would be heartbroken, completely devastated, if it were applied (in a negative way) to me:

Fatherhood is something you earn on a daily – or, maybe if you're divorced, a weekly basis.

It's always seemed a little hilarious, but mostly just all wrong, to me that the verb "to mother" means "to nurture, look after and care for," whereas the verb "to father" means, basically, "to provide sperm."

So the following actually makes sense: "Did you hear? Dave's fathered a child! Now he's got to get the hell out of town!" Whereas it wouldn't if you substitute a woman's name and the verb "to mother."

So your ex moved out of town? His choice. I love that you've managed to keep the relationship lines open between father and son, and of course your kid "adores" him. What's not to like? A wild and crazy guy with your kid's DNA he sees once in a while and who maybe slips him a little cash now and then.

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Kind of like … a fun uncle. And his opinion on where your kid should go to university should be given about the same weight and credence, I think, at this point, as a fun uncle's would be. In other words, maybe your ex "fathered" your son in the technical sense, but it seems to me he long ago forfeited the right to parent him.

Basically, I think you answered your own question: Politely but firmly tell your ex to butt out. Of course, you don't want to inflame the father, or cause unnecessary friction between you and him or him and his son. But do summon some of that single-mom steel and say in no uncertain terms: "Listen, I appreciate your input and we'll take it under advisement, but I think our son has made the right choice here. His first choice is the best choice."

And encourage your son to stand up for himself and not to be bullied around by his absentee dad. A slightly more delicate and ticklish conversation, maybe. You do not want to be seen to be undermining or backstabbing his father. But tell him: "Listen, I think you're making the right choice for the right reasons. Your father means well, but it might be he hasn't given it as much thought as you have. And it's your future, you're the one who has to live it, so you have to do what's best and right for you. And incidentally I, your mother, think you are."

And what of the fellow you met and has been by your side for nearly a decade? What does he have to say? Personally, I'd put more credence in his POV than whatever your son's fun-uncle DNA dad might have to say on the rare occasions he rides into town, popping wheelies and telling everyone what to do.

What am I supposed to do now?

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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