Dear Emma, WTF?!
I have a 4-year-old son. His father and I were never married and broke up a few weeks after I found out I was pregnant. After my son was born we tried to work things out but we were fighting so much, and my ex had no money to contribute — and little interest in being involved. I cut ties and he never made the effort to stay connected, and neither did he.
Now my son is in preschool and sees all the dads dropping off and picking up their children at school, and has started asking if he has a daddy, where he is and why he has never met him before. I have diverted the conversation by saying, “Well some children have a mommy and a daddy and some children like you have a mommy and a grandma and grandpa.” This worked for a while, but he is still inquisitive about the topic.
A week ago he said that a boy in his class told him that my son had a dad, “because everyone has a mother and a father.” He asked if that was true, and I hesitantly said, “Yes, you do.” When he asked where he was, I answered “I’ll share my daddy with you.” He was content with that answer but I know this is not the end of it and I no idea how to reply. I don’t want him to think that he has a father who doesn’t care about him, but I also don’t want to create expectations that he will see his father in the near future. I have no idea what to say or do.
I can tell you really want to do the right thing, but like so much about single motherhood there is often not a clear path. Also, our own feelings dictate how we parent. Case in point: When we as mothers are not ready to face the truth, we muddle what we share with our kids.
You harbor some shame and guilt about the situation. That prevents you from being straight with your kid. Maybe you feel bad for not choosing a better man, or finding yourself in an unplanned situation, and less-than perfect scenario for your son. Do you feel guilty for not making more of an effort to stay connected with your ex on behalf of your son?
First, contend with your feelings about the situation. You don’t have to do anything except just acknowledge they’re there. There are no wrong emotions. (I’m Ok, You’re OK — remember?)
I suggest being really, really honest with your kid. Just be real. He is asking questions because he is ready for the truth. The truth is that he does have a dad, but his dad is not involved in his life now. Maybe in the future the father or your son will choose to reach out to the other and forge a connection — but as you say you don’t want to give him false hope.
Just deal with the facts as they are now. Answer his questions as he asks them. Don’t try to make the picture any better than it is.
Tell you son: “You do have a dad, but he is not involved in our family now. I was in love with him (or care for him, or whatever you honestly felt), and we made you, and I am so grateful that we did.” Then share about his dad — what he looks like, and his personality and what he did for work, and maybe some of his traits he shares with your son. If you have pictures share those too. Don’t romanticize it — he is a man with flaws (including that he isn’t involved with his kid!) but your son has a right to know what you know — delivered in age-appropriate doses.
It sounds like your kid has a lot of love in his life, and for both of your sakes’, emphasize to your son who his family is, who loves him, who he can count on, and that ‘family’ can mean so many different things. Then point out some other non-traditional families you know. Do this for his point of reference, but yours as well — heal your own complicated and hurt feelings around this, and it will be easier to help your son manage his.
The fact that you seeking answers and help and are worrying shows what a wonderful mom you are. You’re doing a great job.
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.