parent opinion

"What you are doing is monstrous.” A stranger on Facebook accused me of child abuse.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a child must be in want of your criticism. How else could I explain the sheer amount of unsolicited advice I receive on a near-daily basis since becoming a single mum?

As a blogger who gets hundreds of thousands of views each month, many strangers read about my personal life. I don’t think about it too much — mostly, I just think about writing as my job — and as a general rule, if it's cathartic for me to write, I suspect it’s going to help someone else who reads it. 

As a result of my writing, I receive a surprising amount of emails and messages across social media. Even on channels I don’t associate with my work.

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While some folks want my help, there’s a large faction of people trying to tell me how to mother better.

Yesterday, a message request popped up on Facebook Messenger while I was working from my phone. 

Curious, I opened up the request and for the first time in my life the expression “my blood ran cold” finally made sense. Because that’s just what happened to me when I read this:

“You are literally abusing your child. Please seek counseling! What you are doing is monstrous.”

My brain quickly tried to make sense of the words and what was happening. I looked at the woman’s Facebook profile and didn’t recognise her name or photo. We liked a few of the same pages, but shared no mutual friends.

Now, I didn’t have to respond to some random stranger, obviously. But come on — abusing my daughter? I’m afraid I’m not grown enough to let that one go without finding out what she meant.

“What on earth are you talking about?”

I sat there like a dope, just waiting for this stranger to respond. Recently, I’ve made more posts on Facebook about funny incidents at home. I even uploaded some videos to Instagram. Sh*t! I wondered what anyone could have found so offensive.

She finally replied.

“The article you wrote on [redacted] about alienating your child from their father. It’s emotional abuse and you need very serious help.”

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I began to laugh out of sheer relief. Oh, that. She thinks I’m a monster for not forcing my daughter to see her dad. I replied, “Ohhhhhhh that’s amazing.” (I know, I know, I’m not the most impressive real-time conversationalist.)

Unfortunately, my critic wasn’t done:

“I assume you’re either a narcissist or have borderline personality disorder, so I know nothing I say will mean anything to you. But I couldn’t stand not saying something, for your child’s sake.

"Let me ask you something; when your child doesn’t want to brush her teeth, do you not let her? Because it would make her uncomfortable?"

At that point, I vacillated across feelings of anger, fear, and hurt. People really love to toss around mental health diagnoses, don’t they? I mean, I do have BPD (technically, I’m in remission), and I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t scare the shit out of me when folks come after me and bring it up.

I’m a single mum who admits to having a highly stigmatised mental illness and I know when people don’t like me, that’s the first thing they’ll use against me. Does that make me feel vulnerable? You bet it does.

I took a deep breath and briefly made my case. That I am not supporting, condoning, or promoting parental alienation. I am not alienating my kid from her father. I explained a few details knowing full well that I don’t have to justify or defend myself. But I hoped to somehow diffuse the situation.

Her response?

"That is irrelevant—your article encourages alienation. It literally promotes it. Your story is irrelevant.

"Other people who are proudly alienating their kids will feel validated by your article.

"That is wildly irresponsible at best, and absolutely monstrous at worst."

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I decided not to reply further, and she left it at that. But a full day later, I have to admit I’m pretty damn steamed. 

Here’s somebody who went out of their way to find me on Facebook, accused me of something as serious as child abuse, and then walked it back (slightly) to say at the very least, my writing promotes child abuse. And then she just left it sitting there — no apology for coming at me out of nowhere — but apparently believing the onus is on me to stop jerks from misusing my words.

The piece that I think she must have been referring to is this one.

It’s a year old already and some dynamics have shifted, but I still don’t have a good reason to take the story down. 

I also have no idea why this particular woman decided to come after me, but I’ll take a guess that she’s been impacted by parent alienation in one way or another. Maybe she’s got a fiance who’s been dealing with that in his own life. Or, maybe she’s the child of divorce and one parent victimised her through alienation.

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Clearly, I have no way to know, but after being a single mum for more than six years —my daughter’s whole life — what I can say is that society needs to seriously grow up and quit treating single mothers like some terrible trope on Lifetime Television.

When my fiance left me pregnant back in November 2013, one of the more sobering realisations was that our child’s life was now 100 per cent my responsibility. 

Perhaps that wouldn’t be such a strange thing if it didn’t also mean that everybody in the world would feel free to weigh-in on my life choices. Or, that strangers would routinely toss me into the role of the vindictive single mother who’s somehow always out to get her ex.

It’s really been a trip to watch how little of an effort my ex makes with our daughter, and then see how other people get so worked up over their feelings that I could be withholding her from him.

Folks, it’s 2020. Lots of births happen outside of marriage. But I can’t seem to get away from the comments that “divorce is bad for kids,” and that I’m a monstrous mother if I don’t literally force my daughter to visit her dad.

Keep in mind, he and I were never married, and he left me pregnant one week after his own divorce was finalised. 

This is the man who initially wanted to have one of his guy friends drive me up to get an abortion because he didn’t think he could emotionally handle other people finding out he got me pregnant.

When he changed his mind and said we should have the baby, he made a Facebook post to all of our friends claiming that PCOS made my birth control ineffective. This is literally not a thing, and in reality, PCOS makes it harder to carry a pregnancy to term.

This is a man who demanded I leave our shared apartment in the middle of my high-risk pregnancy and go live with my mentally ill mother a thousand miles away. He and I shared a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment back then and we were still early into the lease. 

For a sex addict who didn’t want the responsibility of a child, even a roommate situation was too much. So, while I was looking for a place to live with zero money (since everything I had was spent on our new apartment and getting him through his divorce), he was going out drinking every night with women he met online.

Hey, I could go on and on about all of the horrible things that happened between us during the pregnancy and postpartum period, and I’ve written about a lot of it. But my point is that he’s never been truly reliable and my biggest mistake when he first left me was believing that I still needed him.

Since I didn’t believe in myself, and I thought I couldn’t be a decent mother without him, I wasn’t good at setting boundaries.

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For the first couple of years after our daughter was born, I bent over backward to include him in her life and to get him to act like an engaged father. I never wanted to keep my daughter from her dad, and I blamed myself that she wouldn’t be raised with an attentive father at home.

A lot of my reactions and feelings came from internalised misogyny. I didn’t think I could do this on my own or give my daughter a better life without a great dad. 

I really thought I needed him to remain in our lives when he treated me like garbage. And no, he wasn’t good to her, either.

But we don’t expect a lot from fathers, do we? I have always hesitated to call him abusive or negligent with our daughter because those are serious allegations. And I don’t think of him as an outright abusive dad.

At the same time, I’ve learned that it’s my job as a mother to set healthy and reasonable boundaries with family members who aren’t so good with boundaries themselves. 

For more than two years after giving birth, I was petrified that my daughter’s dad would completely cut off contact. During that time, he threatened to do so whenever we fought. I wound up trying to (repeatedly) set up and enforce boundaries, but breaking them and usually allowing him to come and go as he pleased.

You might have heard that you can’t co-parent with a person who has narcissistic tendencies. It’s true, and I learned it the hard way. Even when I tried to make the father-daughter relationship happen, there were so many red flags:

  • My ex would only agree to overnights, and only for multiple nights at a time. He wouldn’t do day visits because he felt they were too inconvenient.
  • When he moved or lived with other people, he didn’t inform me. Eventually, I found out from my daughter that she had sleepovers with a little boy I didn’t know anything about.
  • His girlfriend (later, wife) told me not to talk to him about anything and only speak to her. After all, she said, she was the one taking care of our daughter, not him.
  • He lied about unnecessary things, like why he wanted our daughter one particular weekend (to be at his wedding). By lying about getting married, I couldn’t have timely, age-appropriate conversations with our child about the nuptials or having a stepmum. He never cared to have those conversations with her either.
  • Whenever I brought up a co-parenting issue he didn’t like, his wife harassed me through text messages. One time, she came over unannounced to chew me out in front of our daughter and declare I have no rights to know her business. I had to explain I need to know about her life when it significantly impacts my child. She still disagreed.
  • When our daughter cried at pickups or drop-offs that she, “Just wanted mama,” her stepmum sometimes stormed off to cry about it outside of the car, but still within our daughter’s line of sight. There was no consideration to the things they could do to put our daughter more at ease.
  • My requests for them to consider her needs, whether emotional or physical, went largely ignored. I wound up providing duplicates of everything she needed: diapers, clothing, toys, food. Yes, food. And I did this back when I was still living below poverty before my writing career took off.
  • I’d find my daughter’s step-sisters wearing her shoes, clothes, and jewellery at the drop-offs or pickups. When I asked about those missing items, I would never see them again.
  • When I made suggestions for group outings with the kids, the parents were not interested. I couldn’t get my ex or his wife to consider doing any fun activities our kid wanted to do.
  • In passing, my daughter revealed unacceptable details about her dad’s place. She said she didn’t brush her teeth at dad’s house because no one reminded her and there wasn’t soap in the kids’ bathroom when they washed their hands. When she wet the bed she covered it up with towels and went back to sleep instead of getting help. She slept with the light on because she didn’t know how to turn off the lamp. She even told me she held in her poop at his house.
  • To date, he and his wife have not shown any interest in bonding with our daughter one-on-one.

These are just some of the issues I’ve run into with my daughter’s dad. 

As it became increasingly obvious that my daughter wasn’t comfortable asking him for help no matter how much I told her he would help her if she asked, I made the difficult decision to create better boundaries. And the biggest one is allowing her to decide when she wants to visit him. She also gets to decide how many nights she stays.

For us? It works. Her anxiety is down, and she gets to see him when it makes sense for her. I want my daughter to have access to her dad to attempt a relationship on her terms. But I understand I cannot force him to respond appropriately or make an effort to build that relationship.

If I were to facilitate a relationship between my daughter and her dad, it would send out the wrong message. 

A child should not be expected to wait on her father’s scraps of attention. As she gets older, she’ll also be able to speak up for herself directly to him. 

One of my most important jobs is to help her grow up with self-respect and healthy boundaries. This is the kind of dad who has no interest in attending her school functions or doing anything for her that he doesn’t “feel” like doing. 

He’s not understanding of the reality that love in inconvenient — especially when you’re a parent.

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What good would it do for me to force her into seeing her dad?

Besides, given some of his narcissistic tendencies, I’ve found that the best way to avoid conflict with him is to disengage. 

It’s almost unbelievable, but I think it’s been a good two years now since my ex and I have had an argument (we used to fight every single day for years). But once I set better boundaries, quit worrying about making him happy, and refused to argue with him or his wife — it was like magic. The fights were done.

Other parents won’t have the same options to disengage. 

They might have court orders in place to lay out visitation guidelines. I can’t speak to things like that since I have sole custody and we have never had the courts involved.

My parenting choices are bound to come under fire from time to time because I openly write about my life as a single mum. 

But when people hear that I’m a single mum with boundaries regarding her daughter’s dad, they freak the f*ck out like I have committed child abuse and done something criminal to my ex. 

Every time, I look around and wonder when we as a society are going to quit looking at single mums as these malevolent gold diggers. Apparently not in 2020.

Over the years, I’ve heard a dizzying array of assessments about who I must be — all because I dare raise my daughter alone and recognise that I don’t need a man to do it well. And do you know what’s so ridiculous about it?

It’s not just men who take the time to criticise me.

Other mothers, like this woman yesterday, go out of their way to find me on Facebook, message me on Instagram, or email my personal accounts just so they can tell me that I’m a selfish, manipulative monster.

Let’s try to remember that families come in all different shapes. It is naive and privileged to assume that all fathers wish to be actively engaged. 

It’s sexist to assume that the mother is to blame for a father’s lack of involvement. And it’s laughable to think that single mothers need your unsolicited advice.

Because let’s be honest. The woman who accused me of child abuse had no real interest in ending a child’s suffering. She read my story and decided to dump out her emotional baggage at my feet.

And my job as a mother? It certainly isn’t about catering to strangers online.

Feature Image: Getty.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished here with full permission.

You can read more from Shannon Ashley on Medium, or follow her on Twitter

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