When my son’s father decided four weeks before his birth that he didn’t want to be part of our lives I was devastated. How would my son grow up without a dad? What would this mean for him? Would he feel abandoned? What kind of a man would he grow into?
The hurly burly of the early years meant I didn’t have a lot of time to think about these questions with the reality of full time work and full time parenting governing my waking moments.
By the time my son became a very verbal four year old the first signs emerged that he felt different from the other kids in child care. “So your partner works in the opal mines?” his caregiver asked me one evening at pick up time. I realised that I hadn’t spoken about his dad at all. Not in the positive, not in the negative. Just not at all. No wonder the kid had developed a rich fantasy life about this important missing person in his existence.
It was time to change. I began by dropping dad’s name into general conversations. I added information about him at opportune moments: “you like riding your new bike – your dad was a dedicated bike rider”. Gradually my son began to ask questions of his own, the most important being “so where is my dad?”
At four years a response like: “oh, he lives in Canberra” was enough. However his curiosity grew and eventually we had more specific discussions, not just about dad but also about our family type and what makes us a family. I concentrated more on who was IN our family with readily accessible photograph albums and family stories rather than staying focussed who was missing.
The New Zealand based Skylight Trust* has more ideas to promote positive connection in families with absent parents:
- Share positive character and personality traits that identify the parent
- Give your child photos of the parent and maybe even possessions of theirs if possible
- Memory scrapbooks with photos, positive stories and good memories about the absent parent help
- Let them know they are loved and what a great son or daughter they are and even how proud of them the other parent would be if they were there
- Avoid being negative about the absent parent
- Keep connected with the absent parent’s side of the family if possible. If this is not possible speak warmly and positively about what you know about the extended family.
- Children and young people need to be told and reassured that their parent’s absence is NOT THEIR FAULT. It hasn’t been caused by anything they did or didn’t do, say or even imagine or wish.
Should the absent parent ever return to the young person’s life keep your child’s welfare as your highest priority. Look after yourself during this time and seek support from family, friends or get professional help as this can be an extraordinarily difficult time.
Even if the parent is absent because of domestic violence, they are incarcerated or there is a court order preventing contact with the family try hard to talk about these things in a matter-of-fact way. Don’t make your own emotions part of what your child has to deal with. Try being as even-toned as possible wherever the parent is and let the child have whatever age appropriate information you do have. (You might have to practice being even-toned in the bathroom mirror).
Does my son grieve? Does he yearn for the dad he never had? Does he wonder what kind of a dad he will be? Yes he does and it hurts. Grief and loss is part of life and I cannot change that for my son. I can continue to walk alongside him and support him while he feels his loss. I can continue to provide healthy male role models and positive experiences for him while he figures out who he is.
My little boy is 18 now and becoming a man. He still talks to me about important things for him and I glow when he talks about the kind of a father he wants to be one day.
How have other parents tackled this issue? I’d love to hear.