Respect–what does it mean? What does it look like, especially when it comes to someone you’d rather not have to deal with? These are the questions fixed in my mind lately.
The constant demands for respect have gotten old. They pop up at the strangest times. One time this spring, we were in the parking lot of my church for the Wednesday night kid swap. He had been almost insisting on being the one to sign the kids out of their catechism class on Wednesdays, likely because he’s always rushing them away to start his parenting time. On this night, he had signed them out and we began walking to the parking lot to leave. We were nearly out to the cars when he said, “Oh, I think the nun wanted to talk to you about something.” Annoyed that he had waited until an inopportune moment to tell me, I said, “Why didn’t you tell me when we were in there?” He ignored the question and gave me a dirty look. I got in my car and texted him, saying, “That was a legitimate question.” He responded with, “You need to respect me in front of the kids.”
Another time, last year, our oldest son had been complaining to me about something his dad had done and he said that his dad was a hypocrite. I tried to redirect the conversation, but our son is old enough to form his own opinions and had come to this conclusion based on several interactions with his dad. Somehow, the conversation got back to the ex like some twisted game of telephone, and he interpreted it as though I had told our son that his dad was a hypocrite (I had not).
A few months back, my youngest son was hungry when it was time to leave for his dad’s house. He said he wasn’t feeling well. I asked what he had eaten that day. It wasn’t much and it was mostly sugary, carby, light meals. I asked if he could try asking for something more filling like eggs instead of cereal for breakfast. I told him to tell his dad he wasn’t feeling well. On my way back home, I got a phone call berating me for undermining his parenting. Our son had told him that he doesn’t feed him any healthy food (which I didn’t say), and ran in the house crying.
Most recently, I had given my oldest a consequence for picking on his brother. He was to write a one page paper on bullying before leaving for his dad’s house. He had several days to complete this task and didn’t, but said he would do it at his dad’s house over the weekend. I emailed the ex and told him of the consequence. I said, “He said he would finish it on Sunday. Please ensure that he does.” The ex responded to say that that he felt disrespected by my email.
Meanwhile, he ignores emails from me that bring up concerns about the hostility between us, or concerns the kids have brought up to me. Last summer, he and his wife began acting like I didn’t exist at public events for the kids, after I had tried to be welcoming to her. If I take the kids to the doctor or dentist, I get resistance when the bill arrives. He has tried to bribe the kids to get all of their homework done at my house, so that his evenings aren’t disrupted by supervising homework. And he has told the kids, “I know your mother doesn’t respect me, but don’t let that rub off on you.”
His idea of respecting me is a phony smile at pickup or a “thanks” only in response to the emails that involve me sending him information about school dates or appointments (the ones he bothers to read, anyway).
He accuses me of having an attitude that poisons the kids against him, undermining his parenting and his relationship with them, and disrespecting him. I do none of these things that he accuses me of. He takes no responsibility for his role in the situation.
The kids complain or bring up problems or questions, and I listen to them and talk to them. He interprets these conversations as me “feeding the kids my opinions,” when what is actually happening is that I, as their mother, am trying to validate their feelings or sympathize and try to help them find solutions. When he listens to the vitriolic, un-Christ-like radio programming on KSFO with the kids in the car, they come home saying, “Why do people hate the president? Why are Muslims bad? There should be more white people around because they’re better.” And I respond to these issues. They say they don’t want to listen to that station. I say, “Could you ask your dad nicely to listen to something else? KSFO is an adult station and the information on there is meant for adults.”
The kids complain a lot about the religious practices in the other house. The ex, who was willing to throw away his marriage and friendships in order to become Catholic, has stopped practicing the faith that meant so much to him. He attends an evangelical Protestant church with his wife and takes the kids as well. The kids continue to ask him if they can go to Mass. Within the last few weeks, they said that their stepmother had yelled at them for not closing their eyes during a prayer while eating out at a restaurant. “If you can’t be respectful, you can sit in the car and not have any dinner!” I said to the boys, “Why weren’t you closing your eyes? They believe in the same God we do, right? They believe in Jesus, right? You need to have good manners and be polite. If you really can’t close your eyes, at least bow your head and stare at your lap.”
I deflect the things the kids complain about that are petty issues. I support what I can. I do not support the things I feel are wrong or harmful to the kids, like public humiliation punishments, yelling and cussing at the kids, or listening to toxic garbage that just confuses the children.
But I don’t smile warmly when he comes to the door. I don’t timidly approach him with dripping “pleases” and abject humility. I am not his inferior. I am his equal. So since respect is not offered in my direction and is instead authoritatively demanded from me, I put up my boundaries and refuse to be a doormat. Because being a doormat is not respectful for anyone.