“Should I Tell My Kids the Truth About their Dad?”

My ex-husband and I have been split for over 10 years. Our two kids are technically adults now, with my youngest daughter, age 20, in college. He has always been a mostly emotionally and physically absent dad who got tired of having family responsibilities. The only time he paid child support was when he was married to his latest ex-wife, who was actually the one paying. (He has always made very irresponsible decisions with money, and I raised the kids mostly alone.) I am also good friends with this ex-wife, Jane. Added note, when he left us, he cleaned out our bank accounts, mine and both kids’. Kids lost about $1000 each.

The ex recently came into an inheritance when his mom passed – about $100k-ish. My college daughter got Grandma’s used but newer car, which was a relief as I was only able to provide a much older car that worried me. Ex gave my son 10k to even things up. He also paid off about 4k in student loans my daughter had, and he made many promises – even as recently as August – that he would cover her tuition going forward.

Now, eight months after this inheritance, tuition is due and Ex is broke. My daughter is super stressed and having anxiety and panic attacks. I am going to sell a car and try to help any way I can, but I am just disgusted with him. Again. My policy has always been to try to be civil with him and not badmouth him to the kids. They will discover in their own time what their dad is truly like, and my older son definitely has.

Here is the question: Jane thinks this current situation is somewhat my fault for not telling the kids that he’s a POS and letting them think he’s a nice guy. I always answered their questions honestly, like when they asked where their savings account $ went, I told them. Jane thinks I need to cut ties and tell them exactly what I think of him. I think she needs to butt out of this one because, while she loves my kids too, she has her own issues with him from their marriage. However, I’m also feeling tremendous mom-guilt because I kind of saw this coming, but I hoped he would do better. Who wants to say that you better get that money now because your dad will piss it all away? Even I thought 100k would last longer than eight months.

So, did taking the high road for 10 years backfire? I still would rather just state the facts of what happened and take what steps I can to resolve problems, rather than going scorched earth and telling them how much I hate him and what a POS dad he is. I already feel so guilty that they lost out in the parent-lottery. — Ex-wife of a Jack-Ass

First of all, your kids didn’t lose out in the parent lottery. They have you, right? And, honestly, one loving, committed, attentive parent is a lot better and a lot more than many kids get. You sound like you’ve done a great job raising your kids, and even now, as they are technically “adults,” you are still at it, still prioritizing their best interests, still sacrificing to meet their needs, still feeling guilt for not being and doing enough. I know just by reading these few paragraphs that you are probably an amazing parent. I’d say your kids lucked out getting you as their mom.

Second, you are correct: Jane has her own issues with your ex and she is projecting them onto you. Don’t fall for her trap. Misery loves company, right? She’s wants you and your kids in the company of her misery with all of you collectively hating the ex. She thinks this will empower her (it won’t). This isn’t fair to your kids. They may eventually hate their dad on their own as they, as you say, realize what he’s truly like; they don’t need Jane manipulating you into manipulating them to form opinions that don’t serve anyone.

But here’s what I really want to say to you: Your kids are going to be ok. As they move from adolescence into young adulthood, it’s understandable that you’re worried about them, that you’re re-evaluating the job you’ve done as a (single) parent and how you’ve raised them, wondering if you’ve provided all the tools they’ll need to navigate the adult world and all the hurdles and pitfalls and challenges that will undoubtedly come their way. And the thing is, you probably haven’t. None of us parents – even those of us lucky enough to co-parent with partners who are as equally committed to parenthood as we are – can possibly provide everything our kids need to succeed in life without bruises. But that’s not our job.

As counter-intuitive as it might feel – and it feels very counter-intuitive to me! – it is not our job to protect our kids from all of life’s ills and spills. It’s not even our job to pay for their college or to protect them from disappointment or to keep their hearts from breaking over unrequited love or love that shifted or stopped or … from learning the truth about a parent who failed to meet even the most basic commandments of parenthood. What is our job is to foster independence, empower their faith in themselves, and give them a soft place to land (or return to, even temporarily) when the hits are especially hard. It sounds like you’ve done this for your kids. You have done your job. You continue to do your job. You’re a great mom!

Life isn’t easy. I’m sure it hasn’t been easy raising two kids alone. It’s not easy for Jane, who is grieving the end of her marriage and is full or rage and wants someone to share that burden. And it’s not easy for your kids to come to some realization that their dad kind of screwed them over. But while life isn’t easy or fair, it has, if we’re lucky, easier stretches in which we can catch our breath before the next challenge.

If we’re really lucky – and it sounds like your kids are – we have a support system that holds us up when we feel weak and celebrates our wins and shares at least some of our journey, providing companionship, and laughter, and advice, and care, and even sometimes financial help. And that support system is rarely ever just one person. It’s a family, or a community. It’s neighbors and friends and loved ones. And if your now-adult kids have that, then any failure on their parents’ part to be perfect is balanced, at least a bit, by the support they get from others, by their own empathy, by the opportunities afforded them, and by the tools they’ve gained over 20+ years to navigate challenges – tools that were likely only developed by experiencing or observing previous challenges.

Your kids are going to be ok. You are, too! As a mom of a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old, I understand mom guilt. Married or single or widowed or divorced, being a mom means never feeling like enough for your kids. But we’re not supposed to be everything for them. We’re supposed to be the best we can and trust that everything we’ve provided for our kids and everything they’ve fostered on their own will be enough to carry them through. Just as it’s been enough to carry us, too.

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.


  1. I agree that your kids didn’t lose the lottery, you sound like an awesome mom.

    I am here to assure you that you will never regret taking the high road. And you should not regret hoping against all hope that your ex would one day get his shit together. Your kids can say that they were given the luxury of being able to hear words, see behaviors and make up their own minds.

    My mom was like you, and when I was ready, when I heard the words and saw the actions with more adult eyes, we were able to have more open conversations about who my dad was . And even then she never trashed him. She spoke more factually than emotionally about his flaws. And in doing so she made it possible for me to say “I get it. I get why you divorced him.” I knew that even when I said that, she was not going to tear down this person that I loved as a kindness to me.

    But I know that after that conversation she had to hide a skip in her step.

  2. LW, I’m pretty sure your kids know – or soon will know – exactly how their dad is and they are well equipped to make up their minds about how they feel about him. It’s admirable that you’ve taken the high road. There’s no need to go scorched earth now. His actions have natural consequences.

    As for what it’s worth although I know this wasn’t your question and you know your financial situation best, but if you cannot afford to pay for your daughter’s education, then it may be time for her to look into grants, scholarships and loans, if she has not already. While it’s a nice benefit to have college paid for by one’s parents, it is not a requirement. Don’t let misplaced guilt over your ex’s failings force you into an unsustainable financial situation.

  3. As the mum of two fabulous girls with my stinker of an ex-husband, I can only echo Wendy’s great advice.

    You are doing the right thing by taking the high ground. Don’t ever be rude about him (but don’t sugarcoat anything either). Just be neutral.

    Anytime I’m tempted to tell my children that their dad truly is a stinker, I remind myself that their ingredients are half me, half their dad: if I insult their dad, I am insulting them.

    Your children need to make up their own minds about what they think about their dad’s actions and not have anyone else’s opinion forced on them. (Mine certainly did: after he let them down numerous times, they have decided they want very little to do with him.)

    Just keep loving and supporting your kids as you have been doing – they will be just fine. Good luck xx

  4. I understand your anger but look: what would it change anyway if you started to destroy all the great work you did during all these years and trash your ex in front of your kids? It won’t solve anything. It will make it worse. It strikes me as completely useless. I think that you too, like Jane, are projecting your divorce’s anger on this situation. What he did then, when he left you, was awful. It is beyond lame and a shame that he didn’t pay child support. Now he did give a part of his inheritance to his children. Probably much less than what he owes them for the child support default. What you could consider is suing him for the child default but I have no idea about the juridic chances of success, especially as they are adults now (or they sue him). That is the only option I would consider about your ex. If it is impossible or too late, just let it go. Just be factual when the conversation rolls about him.
    If you want to help efficiently your daughter now, keep your anger in check and start discussing with her about her options. Be realistic and remember that they are all adults. She has to work on the B plan: what if the money doesn’t come? What are the best possibilities for her? don’t get trapped and don’t let your daughter get trapped in an impossible situation.
    About this “Jane”: she is just your mirror. Keep her at arm’s length. She is of no help here. Just the shadow of your own resent. That gets in the way. Face the real issue now, with a better advice than Jane. Ask advice about finances and tuition and cheaper colleges to reliable and well informed people. You are a great mum!

  5. Oh, and don’t let your energy and your life and your family and your friendships revolve around this man. He really isn’t worth it.

  6. I think there are two or three separate things going on here.

    One of them is of course not to trash the dad. That won’t help the situation at all.

    But the second thing is this: I do think it would’ve been helpful for YOU to have come out of some denial about who he is. Sounds like you were expecting a snake to fly. He has never (ever) been good with money, so a windfall like that would never have been handled responsibly. I am not at all surprised that it’s gone. That’s how money-drunks roll. That’s how he’s always rolled. It would be much better to fix, just in your own mind, the reality that he is never (ever) going to come through for your kids. That way, you can guide accordingly, without trashing him. Cut him out of any and all financial equations going forward, because he has repeatedly proven that he is unreliable.

    Third, maybe that is what Jane was trying to tell you. Maybe the two of you could have an agreement that you won’t discuss him anymore, just so that he doesn’t maintain centrality in your lives. You can both leave him behind. Don’t allow him in to wreak more destruction, you know?

  7. I’m an adult child of parents who divorced when I was 15. Your gut is right, don’t trash your ex. Honest but neutral is the way to go. Your kids don’t need the burden of carrying any of your animosity toward your ex. They will figure it out their dad on their own as it relates to their relationships.

    My mom did trash my dad to me frequently, and as I said above, it really was a burden. It was eventually one of the things that damaged my relationship with my mother, which she still doesn’t understand to this day.

    1. My mom also trashed my dad, while they were still married and it has continued after their divorce. When I was younger, some of the trash talk really upset me because it simply wasn’t any of my business (and some was gross to hear). As I’ve gotten older, the trash talking makes me judge my mom — for not getting the help she needs to cope and sometimes for staying so long with a man she despises. They’re divorced but still haven’t cut ties with one another so the messed up dynamics continue.

      Anyway, your kids are lucky to have you and not trashing your ex is the way to go.

  8. I realize it must be a great disappointment to your daughter that her father isn’t keeping his promise to pay for her year of school. But, I don’t get her and your financial panic over this change. What was going to happen with school costs prior to this promise. It sounds like you and your daughter had a plan and weren’t counting on him for anything. The car and paying off $4K of her school debt was an out of the blue benefit of the same order as her absent father’s inheritance, meaning the two of you should be able to cope with school costs.
    “He’s never been good with money” seems a pleasant shorthand for he’s addicted to gambling or drugs, in order to go through the $ so fast. At least your daughters got $20K of it. That’s at least something.

    And don’t badmouth him to your children. That’s an ugly look. And unnecessary — from what you wrote, the broken promise to pay tuition tells your daughter all she needs to know and in a way she won’t forget.

    1. Yeah to go through $100k that fast, he probably had a shit ton of debt to pay off, either from being an irresponsible mess or from gambling. I do think it seems ~naive~ of you to think he’d really come through for the kids. But I agree with everyone else that badmouthing him to the kids or within their hearing helps nothing and is a no-no. I think you have to just keep living your life without expecting anything whatsoever from your ex, and be careful not to get your kids’ hopes up to expect anything from him either.

  9. anonymousse says:

    I think there maybe is room for a middle ground, where you don’t trash him, but maybe remind them he doesn’t always follow through with plans (if they are counting on him) or, he makes promises he doesn’t keep (financially.) So maybe make sure they know about the awesome idea of a solid plan A, and that their dad shouldn’t be it. They are old enough to know that people are flawed, even their own father. They don’t have to hear your personal horror stories of his behavior, especially your relationship with him, but just make sure they have realistic views of him, in a nice non nagging mom type of way.

    My mom and dad had a horrible relationship and bad divorce before I was even one year old, and although my mother did badmouth my dad, my stepfather was very neutral. My dad and his family were truly horrible and would make fun of my mom’s poverty and stuff in front of me as a kid. That made an impact. My dad was legitimately a jerk for many other reasons, I will say. Growing up, I have actually found out more horrible details of his behavior that she never told me recently from him (!) by accident. Like my dad hid assets from her when they divorced, for example. So her and by extension my own poverty, was partially the doing of my dad and his lovely family. Ugh.

    Sorry for the personal tangent. Don’t trash him but make sure they aren’t like, signing mortgages hoping dad pays the down payment or opening credits cards in their own names for him, etc but otherwise remain mum.

    1. It’s hard to find that balanced tone between “Please protect yourself from getting your hopes up” and a more sneer-y “Don’t get your hopes up”

      1. anonymousse says:

        Oh for sure it’s probably very difficult or even impossible.

        I honestly remember my brother being very young 5-6 and waiting by the door all day to go on a special fishing trip, etc. and my dad never showing up. It doesn’t take too many of those experiences of watching your own child be so disappointed to start setting boundaries and being more honest with your kids about what kind of person your dad might be, age appropriate hopefully.

        I often find myself in adulthood looking back at my mother and her situation and just feeling so bad for her. I truly don’t know how she did it all sometimes. She had a lot stacked against her and the little amount she did badmouth him (or I overheard as a kid) was nothing compared to what he deserved.

        She often did come off on the sneer-y side of warnings, but she was right so often it didn’t come off so negative after awhile, just the unfortunate honest outcome we came to expect.

        The odd thing? He’s a totally different guy now in his sixties. Life is weird.

  10. Bittergaymark says:

    It’s funny how some parents simply love endlessly playing the martyr party blame game of “oh, I have deadbeat spouse.” Always, always, always conveniently forgetting that other guilty party — you know, the person who saddled their kids with such an awful father or terrible mother is — well, them.

    Trust me. Your kids will figure it out. They already have.

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