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One night a week and every other weekend, he goes to his father’s house.

It’s a place with different rules – or more likely, a lack of them – with lax bedtimes and lots of video games, with no enforcement of vegetable-eating, where fast food is a staple, where toaster waffles are consumed for breakfast, where teeth do not get brushed, where showers need not involve soap, where hours and hours are spent in front of the television or tapping apps on an iPad screen. It’s a place where nails grow like talons from never being clipped and socks get worn over and over without being washed, where you fall asleep at night on the couch in your school clothes.

Reconciling all of the contradictory messages and rules between the houses has been one of my hardest battles in co-parenting. Undoing these messages and habits on a daily basis is a lot of work in our household, where he spends eighty percent of his time. When he returns from his father’s, he’s cranky and exhausted and we spend at least twenty-four hours getting him back on track, on the schedule we’re accustomed to in our home, the nighttime rituals that are the most predictable aspect of our day: bath, a home-cooked dinner, teeth brushed, maybe a little television if his behavior warrants it, reading, snuggling in bed. That’s been the order of things for many years and we rarely deviate from it.

If there’s one constant in our sometimes chaotic, messy life, it’s that predictable nighttime routine we all slip on like our favorite pair of pajamas. It’s an anchor amidst a choppy current pulling us in a dozen different directions throughout the day.

On those days he returns from his home-away-from-home and falls back into the fold of our family of five, where his little brothers mess up his toys, where broccoli is served at dinner instead of Subway and he’s required to eat it, where there are no iPads to entertain him for hours on end, where video games are not allowed, where bedtime is enforced, where he’s told he needs to bathe using soap, wash his hair with shampoo and not just rinse it off with water, that he actually needs to use toothpaste while brushing his teeth,  I’m usually met with resistance. The type of resistance that makes you want to give in or give up, but you know you can’t.

This is the toughest aspect of co-parenting for me. More challenging than the stress and expense of a custody case in court, tougher than the exasperation from angry text messages often exchanged between his father and me, usually over some aspect of our son’s care or wellbeing that I feel is being neglected by him, tougher than seeing him off on those weekends he leaves our home.

Choose your battles is the mantra that plays as an endless loop in my head. Choose your battles.

I can imagine how confusing the mixed messages can be for him to process. It’s hard to explain to a six-year-old why broccoli is good for you even though it doesn’t taste nearly as delicious as the cheeseburgers he devours on his father’s watch, why reading is more important than playing video games on a device all night. Rules aren’t fun to follow and neither is brushing your teeth. And although, it’s so much easier to give up sometimes when the resistance gets so strong from him that I want to run into the bathroom and lock myself away under the hot water of a shower that drowns out all the questions marks, I don’t.

I can’t.

I will never give up on him even when it’s the easiest way out, when it takes less time, when it takes less patience, when the defiance is so loud, I can’t hear the joy over both of our no’s.

It’s not fun being the disciplinarian, the one who doles out all the rules. It’s not fun being the one who says “no.”

No, no, no, no, no.

No. I will never give up on this boy.

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