When a Bad Husband is Still a Good Father: 3 Tips for Co-Parenting

By Tammy Letherer, author of "The Buddha at My Table" June 11, 2019

I had been divorced for a couple of years when my former husband called with a surprise. Thankfully, it wasn’t the type of surprise he delivered the night he sat me at the table and told me he had been unfaithful for more than a decade and was leaving me for someone he met in Las Vegas.

No, this surprise had to do with our 12-year-old son. He said he was taking him to China for a vacation. 


How had this come about? I searched my memory for some mention of anything remotely Chinese on my son’s wish list. Had the two of them been to see the First Emperor’s Terracotta Warriors on display at the Field Museum? Or taken a school field trip to Chinatown that I didn’t know about?

“Um….that would be cool, I guess,” I said, still processing the random nature of his declaration. By the time I gathered my thoughts enough to pose some questions and concerns, he announced he had bought tickets to travel during a school week, and over days that were technically mine on the parenting schedule.

“I can’t change it,” he said. “If I do, I’ll have to pay $1,000 and I know you don’t want that.”

What I didn’t want was to be told what to think or how to feel. An immediate, familiar pressure gripped my chest as I recalled all the activities and decisions that had already occurred behind my back. That he would plan something so extravagant for our son without discussing it with me felt too unfair. I was already struggling with the realities of co-parenting our three children, still getting used to the myriad ways a divorced mom must learn to let go as she is eased out of her job.

This shows up in small ways:

Tell me about your science project.

I don’t want to talk about it. I told dad all about it.

Want to see the new Marvel movie?

Sorry, mom, we saw it with dad.

Guess what? I got pizza for dinner!

(A chorus of groans.) We had pizza two nights in a row with dad!

And in big ways, like feeling helpless and broken during that stretch when my daughter called, in tears, begging to come home every time she was at her dad’s. Or having no words of comfort when my boys expressed their anger about their dad’s girlfriend moving in.

All of those impotent moments were triggered again by the thought of my son flying halfway around the world without me. I imagined him sleep-deprived and anxious from the long flight, wandering lost in a crowded street market, even starving, thanks to his finicky diet.

Overprotective? Maybe. But how could I trust my ex-husband? I believe my kids’ dad is, as a parent, loving and devoted. But I believed that about him as a husband, too, and I was wrong.

The road back from betrayal

I don’t blame myself for being guarded. I had suffered a major betrayal. At the same time, I have to be careful not to color my kids’ experiences with my disappointments. For me, this meant smiling while I packed a suitcase and waved goodbye to my baby. It also meant feeling genuine happiness when my baby returned unscathed, unperturbed, and a little more worldly.

Yes, I have learned some wonderful lessons on this road back from betrayal. Here are the big three:

1. Respond rather than react. 

One of the best decisions I made, early in the divorce process, was to treat negotiations as business agreements and relegate them to emails rather than phone calls. That way I can take my time and formulate a clear-headed answer on my timeline. Reacting equals losing power. Responding equals reclaiming power.

2. Have your facts straight. 

In the case of the China trip, I assumed my son couldn’t be taken out of the country without my permission. But when I checked our parenting agreement, I saw that my former husband only needed written permission from me the first 24 months following the divorce. Wow. That shocked me, but there it was, in black and white. Gathering the facts gave me time to figure out what objections I wanted to make and what objections I had the right to make. As galling as it was to have to follow rules with a rule-breaker who broke my heart, I had to do it anyway.

3. Come from a “well-fed” place.

This is the juicy center, the meat inside the sandwich. Everything revolves around my ability to get quiet, tune into, and take responsibility for my inner world. What are my motivations? Is this about me or my kids? Am I fighting for the sake of fighting? Am I settling an old score? Am I bored, lonely, or craving drama? I need to look at whether I'm feeding myself rather than entering into a "hungry" exchange with my former husband.

I had another chance to practice these skills when our daughter turned 13. Her dad decided it was her turn for an extravagant trip -- this time to Thailand. This time I was prepared.

My response? Don’t forget your sunscreen.

Oh, and bring me back a Buddha.

Tammy Letherer is an author, writing coach, and blogger. In addition to "The Buddha at My Table,"  available for purchase Oct. 16, Letherer is also the author of the novel, "Hello Loved Ones" and the children’s book, "My Health is in My Hands." She lives in Chicago with her three children.