The real reason your ex doesn’t see the kids

One of the most common and heartbreaking topics I'm asked about is dealing with fathers who don't see their kids regularly. A mom shared 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:

Be empathetic. Here, a dad explains: “Why I don’t see my son.”


Reasons a dad does not fight to be involved

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. Unfortunately, our culture dismisses fathers, and fatherhood. Think about the typical TV dad: Homer Simpson, or Al Bundy, Ray Ramano. Nice guys, but bumbling idiots, and as parents, clearly inferior to mothers. Divorce and family courts reinforce this stereotype, defaulting to visitation and custody schedules in which dads are relegated to every-other-weekend “vistors” with their own children, and told their greatest value to their children is as a breadwinner (the other side of this coin is that women are shoehorned into the primary caregiver role, and forced to be financially dependent on men. More on this in: Close the pay gap? Get dads involved? 50-50 visitation and no child support).

Other reasons dads don't see their kids

  • Drama with their kids' mom is too much
  • They did not choose to be a father in the first place. As women have constitutional reproductive rights, fathers do not. While access to abortion is woefully on the decline in the United States, most women can abort if they choose. Men cannot, and be forced to financially support a child, regardless of his wishes to be a father.
  • They feel incapable as a father. The reasons are countless: Poor self-esteem, no social, cultural or family support in fatherhood, little practice in day-to-day parenting.

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.

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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).

What to tell your kid when their dad is not involved

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 fatherlessness. 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.

When co-parenting fails

29 ways to co-parent like a pro—even when your ex is a crazy narcissist

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.

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.

Practice forgiveness. Practice empathy. And activism. 

Consider this excerpt from The Kickass Single Mom, my bestselling book with Penguin:

There are many ways you can do this, but in Valerie’s case, she actively reached out to her ex and explicitly supported him in being a better father. It worked:

The best advice after my divorce was from a counselor. I was complaining about the burden of having my kids most of the time because my ex (going through a period of self-loathing, pity, and guilt) was not taking the time to be with them.

She told me that my kids needed me to be 100 percent of the mom I could be to them, but being 150 percent of the mom they needed would not compensate for their dad being anything less than 100 percent of the dad they needed. I would be better off investing that extra 50 percent helping him be a better dad.

Something clicked in me and really shifted my perspective. It began with a discussion I had with their dad: “Our kids need more time with you. Our kids need you more involved in the day-to-day of their lives. Our kids need you to be 100 percent of the dad you can be. How can I help you?”

And I kept asking. Finally, one day he asked me to help him move furniture into his apartment so he could make it more of a home for them. I packed up some toys and clothes (and even dishes and cups the kids liked using) and took them to his apartment. I encouraged him to coach our son’s baseball team and I helped with its administration. I encouraged him to take one of the kids to dinner to spend time one-on-one with them while I kept the other two. He became more confident as a parent. Once I started to give, he started to give.

That was more than five years ago. Our co-parenting relationship is balanced and in a very good place. It has been for a long time now—sometimes I forget it wasn’t always.

One of the most important things you can do to support your kids’ father’s parenting is just that: Allow him to parent. Presuming he has not been legally proven to be an unfit parent, you must operate from the premise that he is capable of keeping the kids alive and is allowed to make all decisions when they are in his care. If you eventually have a great co-parenting relationship, you may find ways to cooperate on special diets, bedtimes, and discipline. Otherwise, he is allowed to be whatever kind of father he likes during his visits. This includes feeding them fast food, letting them stay up late, and letting them spend the night at his sister’s house even though you hate her so much about that thing that happened at your wedding.

Do not call or text him or the kids frequently during their visits. Except for unusually long visits—which could be more than three or four days for very young children, or more than several weeks for older kids—do not call, FaceTime, text, or otherwise ask to engage with the kids. You must allow their dad to get into his own groove of parenting without your interference, and your kids should be allowed to get into the groove of life at their dad’s house.

I understand that you may miss them and worry they are having experiences that you will not share. I appreciate that this can be sad. But this is part of separated family life, and the sooner you embrace the wonderful benefit of having an actively involved, loving dad and fill your kid-free time in a meaningful way, the sooner these absences will stop being sad, and all parties involved can relax and flourish in the rhythms of your life. Plus, your children will sense if your calls stem from your own broken heart, and feel a need to care for you. That is not children’s job.

Ready to take action? Join — an activist org devoted to changing policy, law, culture and attitudes around parenthood. Time for 50/50 default parenting!

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':

Related movies and books on single motherhood, divorce and co-parenting:

Recommended shared parenting documentary: Divorce Corp

Kickass Single Mom, Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children, By: Emma Johnson

Blend, The Secret to Co-Parenting and Creating a Balanced Family, By: Mashonda Tifrere

Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex: What to Do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You, By: by Amy J. L. Baker, PhD and Paul R Fine, LCSW

Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing, By: Dr. Richard A. Warshak

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, noted blogger, and bestselling author. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, 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.  Find out Emma's top Single Mom Resources here.