When a Bad Husband is Still a Good Father

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By Tammy Letherer

I had been divorced for a couple 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. I got that feeling you get when you walk in on a conversation and everyone is laughing and looking at you like you know what they’re talking about.

China? 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? The only connection I could come up with was my son’s collection of “Pokemon” cards, but those are Japanese.

“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 that he had bought tickets to travel during a school week and during days that were technically mine on the parenting schedule.

I imagined my son 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 once your trust in someone is completely shattered, how do you patch enough of it together to cover some areas and not others? I believe my kids’ dad, as a parent, is loving and devoted, but I believed that about him as a husband, too and I was wrong.

At the same time, I must be careful not to color my kids’ experiences with my disappointments. For me, this meant smiling while I packed a suitcase and waved bon voyage to my baby. It also meant feeling genuine happiness when my baby returned unscathed, unperturbed, and a little worldlier.

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

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 loss of power. Responding equals reclaiming power.

Have your facts straight. In the case of the China trip, I assumed that 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 clear my thoughts about my objections and whether they were ones I had a right to make. As galling as it is to have to follow rules with a rule-breaker who broke your heart, do it anyway.

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 what I need rather than entering a “hungry” exchange with my former husband.

Of course, life in its perfection always provides us with opportunities to practice these skills. I had another chance when our daughter turned 13 years old and her dad decided it was her turn for an extravagant trip—to Thailand. This time I was prepared.

My response? Don’t forget your sunscreen. Oh, and bring me back a buddha.


Online editor for Hers magazine.

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