Dad's Place Should Feel Like Home, Too

My ex-husband and I divorced three years ago when my daughter was six. We have joint custody and both live in the same school district. Our daughter lives with me most of the time and sees her dad every other weekend. It has always been a struggle to get her to go to her dad's. She loves him, but he has never done anything to make her feel comfortable in his new home. Her room is stark -- no pictures, no toys. She's bored when at her dad's house and feels like she is visiting. Her father is irritated with me because he thinks I am sabotaging her visits, but honestly, it's nothing I'm doing. What should I do?


Jann Blackstone-Ford

Author of Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation, and Director of Bonus Families, a non-profit organization... Read more

When attempting joint custody it's important that a child feel comfortable in both parents' homes. They need their own space -- if not a room, then a corner that no one will touch. Your daughter is lucky that she has an entire room to herself at her Dad's house, but if the room is not inviting, having that space all to herself may seem like punishment to a nine-year-old.

I'm not surprised your daughter doesn't look forward to visiting her dad if she has no toys at his house and her room is unappealing. The question is, how do you tell your ex that he is the reason your daughter doesn't want to spend time at his home? As the old saying goes, very carefully.

It's important for the non-custodial parent to look for ways to stay close to their kids. Dads are always looking for activities they can do with their daughters, and fixing up her room is a great project that they can do together. They can pick out a comforter, decide on paint colors and organize to their heart's content.

It's a fine art to talk to an ex. There's so much baggage behind the words that it's difficult to start a new conversation. Every exchange seems like the same one you had last time you talked. You have to put all emotion aside, which is difficult after divorce, and state your case very plainly -- no judgments, no innuendo, just the facts. So take a deep cleansing breath and begin the conversation.

"Bill, I think I know the reason Marsha doesn't want to stay overnight at your house." Then simply tell him the truth.
   • Don't editorialize. ("You know the way you are, Bill.")
   • Don't make him feel badly about his past choices. ("You know you never were one to fix up the house.")
   • Don't make him feel stupid because he didn't know he was supposed to fix up her room. ("You just don't understand little girls.")

All that is past, and if you mention it, you will put him on the defense and reinforce that you are the one creating the problem.

If you have been divorced from your child's father for three years, it's probably been that long since he has seen his daughter's room at your house. Invite him over. Have your daughter show him how she hangs her clothes in the closet, how she stacks her toys and stores her art supplies. Does her father know her favorite color? Initiate a conversation of how she would like her room to look at his house, and then leave them alone to discuss it.

Decorating her room at her father's house will accomplish two things: It will give father and daughter a project they can do together, and it will make your daughter's space at her dad's house uniquely her own so she will want to spend time there. Using a little tact, you'll kill two birds with one stone. And although you may secretly like that your daughter prefers to be at your house, it's your obligation as a good parent to help her have a positive relationship with her dad.

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