QUESTION: My husband and I have split up and we have agreed to share the custody of our son, aged six.
The problem is that my ex is devoted to our pets – a tortoise, two cats and a pet hedgehog in a cage. He is insisting that I take all the pets over to his new house on the days our son stays over.
I think it is madness, because surely it’s better for the animals to stay in one place. My son keeps begging me, saying he doesn’t want to visit his dad without them, and I wish his father had never suggested it. What can I do?
Yours sincerely, Freda
Answer: What a troublemaker your ex-husband sounds! He's still trying to cause pain and difficulty for you, even though you've split up. And isn't he succeeding!
I can see that the hedgehog might not be a problem - but in these early days of visits, it would compound your poor son's misery and anxiety about the split if he were to take the lot and one of the animals were to escape, or couldn't be found when it was time to come home. And knowing your husband, I am sure he would make certain that one of the cats got out of the front door, leaving your son bereft of yet another stable character in his life, and perhaps meaning he wanted to stay at his dad's until it turned up.
Even the tortoise, if your ex has a garden, risks vanishing before going-home time.
I would say okay to the hedgehog on condition that it was not let out of its cage. But impress on your son the real dangers of taking animals to other homes without settling them in properly first. Explain that the cats will feel bemused and stressed in another environment, and that he must go first to his father's house on his own, to make sure there are no ways they could escape. Are there friends' parents or grandparents who would endorse your views so that your son could realise it's his dad who's being unreasonable, not you?
If you both have iPhones, you could show the animals periodically on Facetime while he's visiting, so your son knows they're secure while he's away.
Alternatively, which might be the best idea anyway, pets or no pets, it might be more sensible to encourage your ex to come round to your home for a day, and to leave yourself. This way, your ex could see the animals, and your son could get used to seeing his dad on his own but still in a familiar environment.
I would encourage your ex to acquire animals of his own - a new kitten would be a tremendous lure for your son - if he's really sincere in his affection for animals.
But I fear that, by introducing these demands, your ex is determined, already, to paint you as the baddie in this break-up. He knows you're going to refuse to let the animals be moved, and it's an easy way to portray you as a dictatorial monster. Is there any way you can encourage your ex to come to post-split counselling purely to make things happier for your son? Because it sounds as if, even if you work out the complicated pet arrangements, your ex will finds other ways to demonise you in your son's eyes. And you - and your son - could do without that.