Our son’s routine goes awry when his dad is around

Happy childhool on green meadow, behind sunflowerQUESTION
My partner has to work away a lot which means I am effectively a single parent to our four-year-old boy. This is a difficult arrangement for everyone. When my partner is home – sometimes for only a few days a month – it can be particularly stressful.
Don’t get me wrong, my partner is great around the home. He cooks, cleans, washes, shops. He is very hands on and is keen to make sure I have a break when he is home. However, he is also in “holiday mode” when he is off work, which is understandable because he works so hard. But any routine I build up with our son is broken instantly with more TV from his dad, games on his phone, falling asleep during the day, and so on.
It’s a source of contention between us. I work hard to establish a routine for our son. I feel kids understand routine but every time his dad is home, this is disrupted.
It leaves me with a stressed, anxious, frustrated four-year-old when “Daddy is gone again” – “I want Daddy”, “Daddy is more fun” and Mammy is the big bad wolf.
We differ hugely, and I mean hugely, in respect to how we parent. It is tearing us apart and we are already apart as it is. For example, my partner has a habit of bargaining with our son and making unrealistic threats – “If you don’t do this, you won’t get your train,” or “If you don’t finish dinner, you’re going straight to bed.”
I tried to talk to him about it this evening. He said he was sorry and he would try harder. But that’s just a repeated pattern with us.
He is a loving dad and they have great fun together but parenting is so much more. And I feel I do it for both of us when he is away.

Even at the best and simplest of times, co-parenting can be a real challenge – two parents are different people and bring two models of parenting to the table. This can be particularly difficult when one parent is away a lot of the time. The parent at home is dealing with most of the burdens alone and the “away parent” has the challenge of feeling on the outside and struggling to join in when back home.
However, there are many positive things you can do to make co-parenting easier.
As you are both in this together, it is best if you and your partner read this article together and take time to discuss what might work for you.
Learn to understand each other’s position The key to co-parenting is to listen carefully to one another and to understand your different perspectives. This might mean you take time to appreciate just how painful it might be for him to be living away from you and his son, and how he lacks in confidence as a parent when he does come back.
This might mean him taking time to listen to the challenges you have parenting largely alone and for him to understand just how important it is to maintain the established routines to make things manageable.
Try to communicate positively Try to avoid blaming each other for problems and taking your stress out on your relationship. Instead, try to communicate positively and work towards solutions. Regularly acknowledge to each other the positives in spite of the problems. For example, you can tell him how much you appreciate him being a “hands-on dad” when he is here. And how much you appreciate him working so hard in his job to support you both.
He can tell you how much he appreciates your care and dedication to your son and how you keep the show on the road.
If you do notice something that the other is “doing wrong”, try to phrase your request for change as a positive request. For example, rather than criticising him for using ineffective threats, suggest a strategy he might use instead – “It might work better if you do this instead.”
Focus on the positive choices you have It is important to take time to review the living arrangement you have and to focus on any choices you have. For example, does your partner have to work so many days away? Is there any way he could commit to come home more consistently in a way that might fit into a good routine and lead to some stability?
If this is not an option, there are other ways he can create some stability of contact with his son. For example, perhaps they could have a Skype playtime at 6pm every evening. This could create a great routine of connection that might help your son settle.
When your partner is home, are there ways you can organise the routine that supports you better? For example, could you go out and take a break and leave him to manage for a good portion of the day?
This might be a “win-win” and allow him to learn to get on top of parenting, while giving you a break.
Try to support one another Each of you should think how you can best support one another. Your partner should think how best he can help you when he comes home. It is important that he takes responsibility for some of the hard aspects of parenting, such as discipline and keeping the routine. Equally, it is important for you to think about what he might need from you when he comes home. It is helpful if you both take time to listen to what the other needs and wants, and that you communicate this positively to one another.

Attend to your relationship with your partner In the stress of parenting, it is easy to neglect your own relationship with your partner. Try to plan a couple of nice things for each other when your partner is back. Perhaps make a list together of simple things you can do that you would both enjoy and put these on the schedule when he is home. In addition, you can agree to have a regular Skype call when he is away that allows you to stay connected.
John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, March 2016. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.