I’m a recently remarried parent of a 7-year-old son. My co-parent and I don’t particularly see eye to eye on a lot of things, but have been able to get along OK in the past. We don’t have a legal custody agreement, but rather choose to be flexible with each other while retaining a strong schedule for our son. Recently, however, there has been one issue that I’m afraid we won’t be able to settle ourselves. Our (white) son currently attends a Waldorf-inspired public school that is predominantly black (our city is very geographically segregated). Since preschool I have been the only person looking at schools, going to open houses, and applying to places. I did a lot of research on the school itself before deciding to enroll him (after encouraging his bio-dad and other family members to attend community events, etc. all for naught).
His bio-father thinks that the Waldorf curriculum and predominant minority make up will be bad for him socially and academically and wants to put him into a private, traditional, Christian (we’re both atheists) school. I think the opposite AND think that this cons of this private school outweigh the pros. Regardless of the school debate, my ex-partner is becoming increasingly frustrating to deal with—being disrespectful, sending “articles” (I use the phrase loosely) to “prove” his ideas are better, accusing me of steamrolling, and being outright snarky. I know I can use a mediator if it comes to it to help us make the school decision, but how do I deal with a rude ex while trying to remain a good parent?
Fed Up Co-Parent
Dear Fed Up,
This sounds like an incredibly complicated situation with several sensitive factors in play (race! religion! learning styles!). There’s a lot at stake here. Our children’s education is their future. It’s pretty high up there on the list of “Things A Parent Does Not Want To Fuck Up.”
You and your ex disagree about which school situation is the right one, but it sounds like you each have thoughtful reasons supporting your choices. If you can, try to see that as a good thing. The decisions that feel the most wrenching are often because we have two good options we must choose between. Yours both sound like pretty good options. Try not to lose sight of that in the midst of all these heated discussions.
You’re not asking me to weigh in on which school is the right choice for your son, so I won’t (though I absolutely have a very strong opinion, which I am refraining from sharing by reminding myself over and over again that I only have six sentences of actual information on the topic). You’re asking me to help you figure out how to deal with your rude ex. I will dutifully focus there.
The key to arguing with an ex is to remove the word “ex” and replace it with “person.” Your ex is, after all, a person, right? Or at least he used to be, before the anger, the resentment. Think back further, even before the love, the lust, the like, the infatuation, the crush. Remember when you first met? He was just a person then. Like you.
The complicating factor here is that the outcome of this argument affects your son, which affects you. So you have to be understanding, but vigilant. You have to be calm, but firm. You have to listen when your person makes his points, but you can’t be afraid to voice your arguments as well.
Be clear. Be thorough. But don’t dwell. When everyone has presented their case, but no one’s convinced anyone of anything, there’s a tendency to repeat the same ideas only more loudly, and then in more forceful language. This rarely accomplishes anything. Your better tack is to remain calm and as unemotional as possible. When you hit an impasse, notice it out loud. Call it out for what it is. Say something like, “It sounds like we fundamentally disagree on this point, but we still have to make a decision.” Try to keep the conversation practical, rather than ideological.
Your description of your person as “snarky,” “disrespectful,” and armed with lots of unconvincing literature is problematic. It makes me think you’re likely fighting with a bad arguer. I don’t need to tell you (because you’re living it) that it’s very difficult to fight fairly with someone who refuses to fight fair. Again, I think a calm tone is your ally. Try noticing your person’s rhetorical maneuvers rather then reacting to them. “That sounds more like a personal attack than a comment on Alexander’s education.” “When I looked for citations in that article, I couldn’t find any unbiased sources.” “You sound angry. Maybe we should continue this conversation another time.”
Finally, I hate to plant this idea if it isn’t already in your head, but is it possible there’s an undertone of jealousy coloring your person’s anger? You say you’re “recently remarried.” I’m wondering how recently. Has your person’s rudeness increased in proportion to the seriousness of your current relationship? If so, that would be cause for concern.
No doubt your ability to get along well with your person in the past is due to your mutual willingness to put your son first. Your description of your de-facto custody arrangement sounds nearly idyllic. It’s great that you’ve been able to work so closely with one another to ensure a positive parenting experience for your son. When you’re having these difficult conversations, maybe it’s worth the time to reinforce the fact that your goals are aligned. I know it’s obvious you both want what’s best for your son, but what if you spent a little time at the beginning of each phone call or meeting saying that out loud? What if you reminded each other at regular intervals that, in fact, you’re on the same team here?
A simple “Thanks for calling” is a good start. Maybe something like: “I know we’re both working hard to make sure Alexander has a really positive experience at school. That’s so important to both of us. I can tell you feel as passionately about it as I do. I hope this conversation can get us closer to figuring out the arrangement that feels comfortable for both of us.” Starting there, with something small that you can both fully agree on, might help set the tone for more agreement down the line.
Good luck to you.
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of “Why We Never Talk About Sugar.” Her work has appeared widely in print and online. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com or follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch