Mention the fatherless epidemic in the United States, and the arguments are polarizing. We hear things like “Father refuses to see child” or “Father not involved in child’s life.” It’s easy to fall into stereotypes, but I discovered the issue is quite complicated:
Father not involved in child’s life? A look into why fathers walk away after divorce
It is either:
- Men are irresponsible douchebags who abandon their children to mothers, who are left to raise the children with few resources, or …
- Women are conniving, malicious, entitled nut-jobs who alienate fathers from their children while taking all said fathers' money — all of which is supported by the family court system.
However, as we unpack in this article, the real reasons are more complicated, complex and human. Men after all, are marginalized as inferior or at least secondary parents, a fact that is codified in family court when mothers are nearly always granted primary time with children — a power position that means men and dads are officially a lesser parent.
Why do fathers give up?
This post challenges a cultural assumption that men willingly walk out on their children and are irresponsible, apathetic parents. Instead, we all suffer under a sexist culture and legal system that marginalizes fathers, and makes it hard if not impossible for them to be meaningfully involved with their children, for reasons including:
- Sexist culture
- Family and divorce courts that favor mothers
- Many dads don't believe the child is theirs.You can buy a home DNA paternity test online that proves whether you are the father.
- Parental alienation, in which one parent turns the kids against the other parent
- One dad's compelling story about why he doesn't see his kids.
- 637 reader comments and counting
How can a father walk out on his child?
After studying this issue for the four years I've had this blog, I understand that the issue is complicated and nuanced. Men walk out on their child for many reasons, including:
- They never wanted to be a dad in the first place but were trapped
- They have been marginalized by our culture and court system to every-other-weekend parents, which is more painful than walking away and starting a new life that promises more joy
- Conflict with the child’s mother is too difficult to navigate
- They feel unworthy of parenthood, and feel like walking away is the best thing for the child
- The father never had a strong father figure, does not feel competent as a dad nor understand how important his role is.
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A father's experience with parental alienation
What I haven't reported much is the point of view from the checked-out dads, many of whom have shared with me articulate, thoughtful, and often heart-breaking accounts of why they are not part of their children's lives.
These stories resonate with me, as they have challenged my earlier, blind admonishments that every parent has a moral obligation to fight for their children, no matter what.
I still believe this, but I also believe in empathy, and for recognizing each other's humanity.
Here is one story from a reader, John G:
Point of view from a dad who doesn't see his child
From my own experiences, I believe it's widespread for women to use children as a weapon to exact revenge against the ex during, and after, divorce proceedings.
During my lengthy divorce, my ex-wife claimed I was abusive, that she was ‘afraid for her safety,’ and tried to get ‘supervised visitation.’
None of it worked, because it wasn’t true, and because, as an educated professional I had enough money to spend six figures on an attorney.
However, it was still a waste of time and money. Even after the divorce, the games continued.
My son was being tutored on what to say to me (did you ever hear a 7-year-old respond ‘I’m not comfortable talking about that’ when asked a question?) and being instructed to call me by my first name and not ‘dad.’ I grew tired of making phone calls that weren’t answered, or of being put on hold and the child not coming to the phone, and of canceled visits.
It was heartbreaking seeing the child slip away from me, little by little.
I went to court on several occasions. There is the assumption that the man will just sit there and take the abuse because he does not want to lose the child.
She stuck by the letter of the law, and was able to severely limit my contact with my son by way of orders of protection and maintaining to the courts that he was a ‘danger.’
Orders of protection as divorce strategy
Of the divorced, professional men that I know, all of them had orders of protection against them by their wives.
This is even a problem that is recognized by the courts. Some attorneys go so far as to admit that the ‘afraid for my safety’ issue is part of the ‘gamesmanship of divorce.’ I went from the mindset of being a father to the child, to being reduced to the status of a ‘visiting uncle’ or a ‘Disneyland dad’ allied with thinking all the time like an attorney.
I was often worried what would happen if she started to make untrue claims that I had (for example) abused the child. When he fell over and scraped his arm when he was with me, I was advised by my attorney to go to all the trouble of going to the doctor, having the scrape bandaged and so on, just to legally cover myself in case she would claim that it had in fact been intentionally caused.
While on the lookout for anything that could be used against me, all the while constantly being told I was a bad person, a bad father, and all my involvement with my son was systematically stripped away. The whole process became a painful sham.
Father refuses to see his child? Not quite …
I eventually reached a crossroads with four paths. Some men commit suicide because they can’t handle the anguish. Others resort to violence and anger against the ex-wife. Others take the difficult road, and sacrifice years of their happiness, battling on a hopeless battle with the ex, just to maintain some sort of contact with the kids. The fourth way, is to simply give up, and decide that the cost to the child through seeing the conflict, and to oneself, is too high.
I considered all the above paths for a long time and was tempted by more than a few of them. In the end, I walked away from all contact with my child more than two years ago.
Mother keeping child away from father
After I had calmed down, I tried again and contacted the ex. I had hoped she would have calmed down and would be willing to work with me.
But no, she is still the same bitter and vengeful baggage that she always was. Rather than attempting to discuss things and put things on the right track, she is willing to communicate in writing only.
She refuses point blank to let me contact the child. Everything has to go through her.
Some people will say it would be the noblest thing to carry on fighting regardless. ‘I would do anything for my kids!’ they spout.
Frankly, I feel that’s very naive and is almost always a view propagated by women.
Any father here who has been generously granted a weekend every two weeks knows the feeling when you say goodbye.
You’re just getting used to having them around, and they are gone. It’s like having a wound that never heals. Like a band-aid being ripped off over and over. The pain never really went away.
During those days, I used to recall these lines from Shakespeare's King John:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Logically, I have to balance the damage to myself, my life and mental health, the possibility of the conflict damaging the child, against the damage done by my absence.
People who don’t know the situation raise their hands in horror, or pass judgment, assume that this is a choice that is taken lightly and easily. It is not.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about it. Sometimes I see children in shops that look like my child and find it hard not to break down.
Sometimes I can’t take my eyes away. Even the shoes are the same. I don’t like to watch movies with children of that age in them.
I had to remove all the photographs that I had of my child and every other item and put them in a box. And that’s where all those emotions are now.
In a box, held tightly under control, so that I can try and enjoy some semblance of a normal life. It usually works.
I spoke to my ex recently. She claims that the child is just fine. She doesn’t seem to think that I’m needed and believes that my seeing the child is a bad thing.
She told me that the gifts I had been sending postally were in a box and he never got them. What is the point of trying? Who am I to argue?
She lives with the kid and does the real parenting. All that I could do, once a month or less (she lives a long way from me) would be to visit for a shallow shared visit, a museum trip perhaps – that’s not parenting – that’s just being a Disneyland dad.
I am in despair that many people and the courts expect the impossible. They expect the man to be totally interested, committed, involved with his child’s life – and yet – they make it impossible for that involvement to happen.
How can you remain interested and involved when you are given no information about the child’s everyday life, when even the most basic contact is made difficult or impossible, when you are limited to four days a month contact time if you are lucky?
In far too many cases, the father is merely viewed as a source of income.
The mother is viewed as the ‘real parent’ who almost always gets physical custody of the child. And once she has the child, she is then almost entirely free of the threat of any consequences.
Related: What is parental alienation?
Impact on a child’s life when a father isn’t involved
This is a great shame for the children involved who will probably be involved in divorces of their own or be afraid of marriage because they have seen the consequences when they fail.
I shouldn’t be surprised if more and more men eschew marriage and traditional family values over the next century.
Personally, I refuse to be blackmailed by my better instincts. I refuse to be reduced to the level of a Disneyland dad by some judge, attorney, social worker or indeed his mother.
I refuse to beg for access, or beg for photographs, or ask permission when I can please take him on vacation.
No. They will have no more of me.
One day, I will be able to get in touch without going through her once the child is old enough. Until then, I intend to get on with my life.
Please listen to Terry Brennan, co-founder of Leading Women for Shared Parenting, explain why default every-other-weekend visitation leads to absentee fathers:
Note that in cases where ‘standard’ visitation is awarded — every-other-weekend — fathers become depressed and non-involved, and within 3 years, one study found, 40 percent of children in an unequal visitation arrangement had lost complete touch with their non-custodial parents, which are nearly always the father.
Have a listen:
Bottom line: Father not involved in child’s life? Try to make co-parenting work.
If you are tempted to turn your child against the other parent, or not sure what is the best kind of parenting time arrangement, keep it simple, and equal. In fact, there are now more than 60 studies that prove that equally shared parenting is best for children (and, moms and dads!).
While we're at it, have a read about why a simple, fair 50-50 shared parenting time with no child support is the best, fairest, and most feminist arrangement.
To prevent this kind of trauma, here are some tips to how to make co-parenting work:
- Accept that mothers and fathers are equal. This is a gender equality issue
- Accept that just because the other person doesn't parent like you do, that is not abuse.
- Let him fail, succeed and find his own parenting style. Many dads become better fathers after divorce because they have to.
- When communicating with him, use ‘your house' and ‘my house' … not ‘Home.' Same when you address the kids – “daddy's house” and “my house.” Both places are their homes..
- Keep him posted on matters large and small. Even if he doesn't show up for the teacher meetings, or make the doctors’ appointments, keep him abreast of what is happening with the kids.
- Buy him holiday and birthday presents on behalf of the kids.
But the bigger challenge is to change our culture, from one in which it is presumed that fathers are incompetent, and mothers are the default primary parent. Terry Brennan of Leading Women for Shared Parenting, and an equality activist. Listen to our podcast conversation:
For more on co-parenting communication, and reasons for better shared parenting, read: Co-parenting rules–even with a difficult ex
What do you think? Are you a dad who no longer sees his kids? Why? Please share in the comments …
Or, are you the mother of a child with an absentee father? What is your response?
This post challenges a cultural assumption that men willingly walk out on their children and are irresponsible, apathetic parents. Instead, we all suffer under a sexist culture and legal system that marginalizes fathers, and makes it hard if not impossible for them to be meaningfully involved with their children.
After studying this issue for years, I understand that the issue is complicated and nuanced, and there is plenty of legitimate room for both of these points of view. What I haven't reported much is the point of view from the checked-out dads, many of whom have shared with me articulate, thoughtful, and often heart-breaking accounts of why they are not part of their children's lives.