Father’s Day: A Sunday devoted to dad is coming up shortly and my clinical mind scans through father files looking for relevant information. Strangely, one oft-repeated phrase leaps out at me; “I don’t want to lose my children” – something that many fathers have said in my office when facing the possibility of a divorce. These dads get it. Divorcing dads are different from divorcing moms because typically they do lose the ease and access to their children that characterizes the shared family life.
Hustling to Catch Up With Dad: In my private practice, and I can’t speak for other parts of the country, when couples split up, the parenting arrangements depend a great deal on who is most available to fulfill the daily requirements of parenting school age children. In this community that available parent is most often the wife. There are cases where both parents are sufficiently available to divide the week in half, allowing each parent to retain the role of the primary parenting body half of the week. But for many, that is not practical, so dad visits occur on weekends with perhaps a school night visit when possible. If dad travels or lives at a distance, time with dad can be even trickier. What is most “lost” for dad and his children is the powerful fact that he no longer resides in the home that his children return to each afternoon or evening when they have completed their school day, their sports, music lessons or play dates. Nope, that dad is visited by his children in some other setting where the kids are hustled in for the daddy fixes that they all so badly need.
Preserving Father’s Day All Year Long: “I don’t want to lose my children” is often stated as the curtain is about to fall on a marriage. And one wonders if that worry, had it been more in the forefront of dads’ and moms’ minds during all the years leading up to that moment, might never have been uttered.
Too Late: A family unit usually involves a common abode, a shelter shared by its members until the younger members grow up and move out to locate their own abodes. When dad’s roof is different from that of his children, something is lost, for good. That ease of family, room-to-room, common surfaces, shared places, is lost. “I don’t want to lose my children” can’t be an afterthought. For both parents, it is the phrase that should be written inside the mind’s eye, never to be obscured by other distractions, never buried under a pile of wish fulfillment. Yet, somehow through the course of a marital life span, the danger of that possible outcome does not supersede all other issues. Many couples have presented themselves in my office, after years of unhappiness, with one member virtually out the door, while the other is still in shock.
Who isn’t listening? Who isn’t communicating? Sometimes the wife is done, having tried to raise the flag of alarm, that the marriage is dying while her spouse is pursuing his career, his ambition, his worrisome load of providing for the family. Sometimes it is the husband who has tried to reach across the aisle, to the wife who sees him as uncaring, unavailable, who cannot translate his hard work into signs of love and dedication to his family. Or the husband who has lost his marital compass and finds the “comfort of strangers” over facing what is missing inside him, his ego, his sense of self, or his marriage. The betrayal, once revealed, may be impossible for the wife to get past. And he has lost his children.
Every Child Knows Where Daddy Lives: The marginalization of “dad” is something that often follows with these words from the moms: “He was never home anyway. It is no different for the kids. Or for me. He was never there.” But that is not true. Not really. No matter how each family tries to minimize the agony of this loss, every child knows where daddy lives, whether he is home, traveling or on his way. The shared roof is a compelling component of parenthood. And when that no longer is where daddy lives, the kids know.
Conflicting Priorities: Mending One Heart While Wounding Others? Terminating a marriage is perhaps the most painful event in one’s lifetime. And fathers and mothers look for ways to mend their shattered spirits, wounded self-esteem and broken hearts. Determined or desperate or both, to find healing through acceptance by another, and with the awesome power of online dating, off they go to meet and fall in love again. But where are the children? A father who is now a bachelor may need to watch that he doesn’t marginalize his relationship and time with his children while attempting to fill a hole in the heart, reduce the loneliness of this new life and repair a battered self-image with the heady flight of romance and sex. After a divorce, “I don’t want to lose my children” has to shift from fear to action: the action of making them the priority relationship which will take more work, more time and more commitment than ever before. And the ex-wives committed as well, to helping their children keep that special link to dad, every day of the year. Ultimately though, it is dad’s responsibility. That’s just how it works.
Prevention: So what is my point this Father’s Day? Simply this. Never minimize the importance of a present dad. The message for Father’s Day is that dads count a lot. And both mom and especially dad need to remember that working on your relationship with your spouse, sooner than later, no matter how scary, inconvenient or expensive that is, will protect your Father’s Day. It won’t be visiting day with dad. It will be a family celebration under a shared roof.
Happy Father’s Day Dads. We need you with us all year round.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012
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