One of the most common and heartbreaking topics I'm asked about is dealing with fathers who don't see their kids regularly. A recent caller to Like a Mother, had a typically devastating situation: Her 11 year-old-daughter's father would go months without seeing the girl, and instead spent all his time with his new girlfriend. When the mom asked him why he didn't return the daughter's phone calls, he replied: “I don't have anything to say.”
I gave her some ideas about taking the issue to family court, and managing both the daughter's and her own expectations (stop trying to control him – you can't). But the advice the mom told me that was most surprising and helpful was this:
The reason that a parent does not fight to be intimately involved with their child is because their sense of self-worth is low.
When you recognize that your child needs you — and you are valuable to them — you show up. You take parenting as a responsibility — not an extracurricular activity.
I'm working on that attitude as both a divorced parent and a child of divorce. My own dad was not involved in most of my life — and that devastated me in ways I don't yet fully understand, but I have harbored a lot of anger about it. My ex is an awesome father, but there was a time when he was not as reliable as I would have hoped, related to what I wrote about a little bit here. Over the past half year I have let go of a lot of the rage I harbored for my ex over all kinds of things. But I see now that when he is not there for the kids, it is because forces bigger and darker than him are at play. And those things prevent him from being the parent he wants desperately to be — and enjoy his children as much as he otherwise might. Recognizing that allows me to be kinder to him, spend less toxic mental energy managing the situation. I'm a happier person and better mom because of all of the above.
There is also incredible work being done in the realm of shared parenting, in which courts presume that both parents are equally competent in the face of separation and divorce, and therefore presume that both parents should share in parenting time equally. There are now 60 peer reviewed studies that prove that shared parenting is what is best for children — including in high-conflict cases (and I know of none that have found in favor of unequal time to either parent). The literature finds very clearly that in cases where there is conflict between the separated parents, and when parenting time is heavily weighted in favor of one parent over the other (such as the every-other-weekend, Wednesday night arrangement, which constitutes 14 percent of hours in a month), the parent with the lesser time with the child has a very high chance of checking out of the kid's life. Argue with whether or not that is fair or ethical. That has been happening for decades or more.
Shared parenting work in both the legal and mental health realms go hand-in-hand with work on parental alienation. A study found that 11 to 13 percent of divorce cases involve parental alienation, in which one parent systematically programs a child to reject the other parent, for no good reason. This is recognized as child abuse, and a symptom of mental illness on the part of alienating parent.
These facts are important to mention here in this post about MIA fathers. The research is there: When one parent is marginalized in their children's lives, they tend to check out. As mothers — which are granted primary custody in 80 percent of cases that go to court — we can influence these things in powerful and positive ways. When you promote equally shared parenting with your kid's other parent, that trickles into our culture, our expectations of one another, and that influences policy and court rulings.
Related: 29 ways to co-parent like a pro
So when your heart breaks because he stood your son up again, are enraged at his disregard for your time at yet another last-minute cancelation, or your daughter knows her dad is on vacation with the new girlfriend but says he can't afford to see her, you are 100% entitled to be livid. Because that is bullshit.
But it is also a sign of a broken person. And a sign of a broken culture and parenting expectations that go far beyond just your family.
So practice forgiveness. And practice empathy. And activism.
And report in the comments how it's going.
Listen to my Like a Mother episode ‘If he doesn't see his kids, don't fuck him':
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.