Absentee fatherhood is a huge, complicated problem in this country. Incarceration, a culture and family court system that presumes fathers are incompetent, and other lack of support for shared parenting are among the causes for the fact that just 22 percent of fathers who don’t live with their kids see them once per week or more, according to Pew Research, and nearly a third never see their kids.
This, of course, is heart-breaking for your child, and stressful for you as a single mom. If your child’s dad is not, or marginally involved, there are a few guiding principles for addressing your child’s concerns and questions.
What to say to your child when his dad is not involved:
- Be honest. Don’t say he died if he didn’t. Never say “He’s working far away.” Your child deserves the truth, even if it is painful for both of you to address.
- Be kind, and keep your feelings out of it. “Being a parent is really hard for some people, and your dad wasn’t ready to be a parent yet.”
- As you will do in your relationship with your child’s father, as well as in your own heart, you will keep the door open to future, improved relationships. At the same time, be very careful not to nurture false hope in your child. It’s a tough balance, but an important one. Note in the “yet” in the sample script above.
- Answer all their questions. “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” or “We don’t talk about that in our family.” These create the notion of secrets, and secrets foster shame, self-hatred, and lack of trust.
- Highlight the fact that there are all kinds of families, and every family is whole. Even if it feels silly, as you go through your day, or are watching movies or TV, point out gay families, interracial families, kids being raised by grandparents, multigenerational households, friends who live together, foster and adoptive families, how some groups of friends create families, and on and on. Then, name the people in your family — blood relatives, friends, your neighborhood network. Do this enough and nuclear, married, straight families start to seem like the weirdoes!
- That said, do not dismiss or minimize pain that a child experiences by his father being absent from his life. It might be really, really hard to hear, but listen. It sucks to feel like you’re the only kid at school whose dad isn’t around. It hurts like hell when your birthday comes around and your father doesn’t call. You worry you did something wrong, or you’re unlovable, or deeply flawed — no matter how great your mom and life are. My father was mostly not part of my life after age 8, and there was no space for me to talk about it. Growing up with my mom, I heard no positive stories about my father, and no space for any of us to ask questions, or to share hurt feelings about the matter. The few times I remember asking about my dad, I was just reminded of how good our life was, which only made me feel stupid and selfish for feeling so horrible for not having an involved father. I think my mom felt really bad about the situation, and didn’t know how to deal with her own feelings, much less her kids’. Fast-forward to today, after plenty of therapy and other ways of processing my daddy issues, I now find myself answering my children’s questions about why they don’t know their paternal grandfather. While your son or daughter is not your bartender, talking with your child openly can be a wonderful way to heal your own heart, too.
- Do not always wait for your child to ask. For many reasons, your child may not bring up the fact that her father isn’t part of her life. It is up to you to talk about it very early, even earlier than you may think reasonable. One day, when my daughter came home from school and said, “Today Sofia talked about how both our parents are divorced.” She was 3! Even as a toddler your child sees her friends with two parents. Movies and TV shows and books are powerful messages, consisting almost always of a mother and father. It is your responsibility to address this, even if she doesn’t initiate the discussion.
- Remember: Life is long. The questions will continue throughout your life, and each conversation at each age will lend new perspective and healing for both you, your child, as well as your relationship with each other.
Is your child’s father not as involved as he should be? How do you deal with it? What mistakes have you made? What advice can you share with other parents? Share in the comments…
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