why absent father

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:

“My ex-husband doesn’t see his child”

The woman's 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

I'm working on that brand of empathy 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.

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 “visitors” 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:

Ex feels there is too much drama with kids’ mom

On the surface, “too much baby mama drama” is a petty reason not to have a relationship with your children.

But dig deeper, and you will find many men explain a history of police involvement, restraining orders, and mothers screaming at them in front of the kids. “I worried that all the conflict was hurting the kids more than if I didn't see them, so I stepped away,” one man told me.

Of course, that is just one side of the story. You, the mom, certainly have your version of events. But consider his. Just consider it.


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Ex did not choose to be a father in the first place

Roe v. Wade means that women in the United States have a legal, constitutional right to abortions. That means that women in the United States have a legal, constitutional right to decide if she wants to be a mother or not. While conservatives slash away at that right by closing abortion clinics, state by state, women's access to abortion is dramatically reduced, in practicality.

However, men have virtually no reproductive rights. If a woman gets pregnant, she can choose to carry the baby to full-term, put a man's name on the birth certificate (or not — her choice), and take him to family court for child support and visitation. The father in these cases has no rights whatsoever about deciding whether or not he wants to be a father. He can be criminally charged if he does not pay court-mandated child support.

While there is no legal repercussions for a non-custodial parent abandoning their child, it is unjust to expect any person, of any gender, to take responsibility for a person they did not choose to bring to this world.

Ex feels incapable as a father

The world tells men they are incompetent, bumbling parents. Think of Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, Ray Ramon — even good-hearted Dre on Blackish are all fumbling, lesser parents compared with their competent wives.

This is not surprising in a time when we still herald the stay-at-home mom as marytr-saint, and defer to women as the primary parent in every family — married, separated, divorced or otherwise.

If you were the primary parent during the relationship, and your ex now has just a few days per month with the kids, it is unreasonable to expect him to get into a groove as a father, understand his kids needs and wants, and understand and grow as a dad. In fact, men often report being much better parents after divorce for all these reasons.

Malicious mother syndrome

Malicious mother syndrome is a real medical condition in which one parent is revengeful towards the other, especially in cases of divorce. Parental alienation is a key example, though any display of revengefulness that makes a relationship with the children can be a symptom of this disorder.

Ex is a deadbeat dad

I have been reading the research on this topic, and interacting with single moms and single dads for nearly a decade. There are very few fathers who actively choose to bring a child into this world, and then choose to abandon that child without any good reason.

There are many men who want to be involved, loving fathers who cannot afford to pay the child support sum ordered by the courts. That does not make him a deadbeat, or a bad father who should not be allowed to see his children. Unfortunately, those two functions are often connected: Men who cannot afford to pay child support and are at risk of being arrested for arrears. That dad is not likely to go to family court to fight for more time with his children, out of fear of jailtime for child support arrears.

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Absent father? How moms can support fathers

First, let's address the fact that the “deadbeat dad” stereotype is just that: A a trope, for which the history and explanation is complicated. Edward Kruk, PhD, a shared-parenting advocate, and divorce expert, writes in Psychology Today:

Despite President Obama’s 2011 Father’s Day lament on the irresponsibility of “deadbeat fathers” footloose and fancy-free from taking responsibility for their children, in fact the two major structural threats to fathers’ presence in children’s lives are divorce and non-marital childbearing. More often than not, fathers are involuntarily relegated by family courts to the role of “accessory parents,” instead of active caregivers.

This view persists among many, despite the fact that fathers in two-parent families, before divorce, typically share with mothers at least some of the responsibility for the care of their children. This is both because fathers have taken up some of the slack while mothers work longer hours outside the home, and because many fathers are no longer content to play a secondary role as parents. Most fathers today are keen to experience both the joys and challenges of parenthood, derive satisfaction from their parental role, and consider active and involved fatherhood to be a core component of their self-identity.

Whereas parents in general are not supported as parents by our social institutions, divorced fathers in particular are often devalued, disparaged, and forcefully disengaged from their children’s lives. Researchers have found that for children, the results are nothing short of disastrous.

Father Absence, Father Deficit, Father Hunger
The vital importance of paternal presence in children’s lives. Psychology Today

Kids who miss their fathers is just a surface symptom of deep psychological and societal issue that results when one parent is missing completely or partly from a child's life. It is not just that the father (in the majority of cases) is not present to be involved, teach, care for and share in financial responsibility.

That child for their entire lives is plagued with the question: Why doesn't my father love me?

Princeton University scholars' meta-review of 47 studies, The Causal Effects of Father Absence, found that children raised without regular father involvement suffered:

  • Increased behavioral problems
  • Greater likelihood of smoking, drug use and underage drinking
  • Lower chances of graduating high school, or attaining college educations
  • Less likelihood of working as an adult, and adult who were raised without the involvement of their father had lower job statuses than those who had involved fathers

More research on fatherless daughters and sons finds:

What can moms do about fatherlessness?

The biggest change that must take place before fathers will be equally involved is to change our laws and culture to respect men as equal parents to mothers.

This will not happen overnight, but changes inside of individual families contribute to informing those around us, the courts, the judges and attorneys and mediators with whom we interact, and friends and family members who observe how we behave in our co-parenting relationships. This can include:

  1. Aim for a low-conflict / separation. Divorce and family courts are designed to make attorneys rich by incentivizing all parties to fight to win. If possible, opt for an amicable breakup, in which everyone walks away with a fair deal, and equal time and responsibility for the children. There are several quality online divorce services that can help. CompleteCase is an excellent online divorce company >>
  2. Aim to be financially independent of your ex. Money exchanged between parents increases conflict between co-parents. Studies find the more conflict between parents, the more likely the father is to check out of the children's lives.
  3. Stop trying to micro-manage your ex's parenting. If you are in a relationship with him, let him take full responsibility for caring for the kids when it is his turn — he may not do it your way, fail, screw up and try again — just like any parent. If you are separated or divorced, don't call the kids all the time when they are with him, or otherwise control his parenting.
  4. Focus on mutual respect and truly equal, shared co-parenting.

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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.

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 several years I have let go of a lot of the rage I harbored for my ex over all kinds of things.

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. 

How to get dads involved

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:

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.

Advice for mothers raising sons alone

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 MomsForSharedParenting.org — 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.


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

Wealthysinglemommy.com founder  Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist and author. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Emma's Top Single Mom Resources.