It’s hard work being a parent—even with a supportive co-parent. And without one, it kind of feels like Mission Impossible, except it’s not impossible. All over the country, millions of parents are doing their best to fill two pairs of shoes and to field the questions of inquisitive children who want to know where their other parent is.
Sometimes, parents die. That’s a special situation, but other times they simply choose not to be active in their children’s lives. Out of immaturity, irresponsibility, emotional hang-ups, addictive lifestyles, or plain old spite for you, some parents just don’t do their jobs, and it’s infuriating. Enough to make you want to cry. Enough to induce one of those old school temper tantrums, like falling-on-the-floor-kicking-and-screaming-until-a-big-snot-bubble-forms-on-your-nose kind of temper tantrum. But I don’t even have to tell you. You already know the feeling.
And to make things worse, here comes your beautiful, innocent little child, looking for answers. He wants to know why other kids have two parents while he only has one. He wants to know where his father is and why he isn’t around. These questions cut like a dagger to the heart, and if not handled correctly, they can cause a lot more emotional strife—for you and your child. But fear not. Follow these guidelines to make the best out of such a difficult situation.
DO NOT speak poorly of the parent in front of the child
Chances are, you child knows nothing about DNA, chromosomes and fertilized eggs. She doesn’t know the technical explanation of how she came to be, but she does know she’s half you and half him. That’s just something they can feel, and so regardless of if children actually know their other parent, they still identify with them. For that reason, you have to bite your tongue. If she hears you talk about how worthless her father is, she can’t help but to conclude that part of her is worthless too.
DO be as honest as is appropriate for your child’s age
There’s no need to create fairy tale stories that cast the parent in a positive but completely unrealistic light (i.e. “Your father is a superhero who saves people all across the world”). You can be honest without going into unnecessary detail. If your child asks where the parent is, it’s ok to tell them you don’t know or to tell them where the parent is. Just reinforce that the parent does love them. Try to be as upbeat and matter-of-fact as possible. If your child sees that you get upset every time they broach the subject, they won’t do it anymore. Then they’ll be left to draw their own conclusions about why the parent left. More often than not, they will conclude that it is their own fault. Don’t know what to say? Try something like, “I’m not sure where he is, but I know he loves you a lot. Hopefully he’ll be able to tell you that in person one day.”
DO NOT hold your child emotionally hostage
We’re meant to connect. We’re hardwired that way, and if we don’t have the proper people around to make those connections with, it is easy to make improper ones with our children, particularly our opposite-sex children. I get concerned when I hear mothers jokingly saying things like, “I don’t need a man. I’ve already got my little man right here.” Your child is not a surrogate partner. He isn’t there to “fill you up” or make you happy (though children do make us parents quite happy). That’s a lot on a little guy to be emotionally responsible for his parent, to feel like he has to make her happy because no one else is there to do it. You are the adult, the responsible party, not him. Genuine happiness comes from within. You need to be able to create and maintain your own happiness so your child is free to do the same.
If you’re having a particularly hard day, don’t make your child feel guilty by saying things like, “It’s just you and me. You’re all mama has.” That puts the weight of the world on their little shoulders. If they notice you are sad and ask why, give an answer that allows them to stay in a child’s role. Say something like, “I’m just having a frustrating day. That happens sometimes, but it’s okay. I just need to relax a little and I’ll be good as new!” Even if that’s not 100% true, you should still get the message across that “mommy is going to be okay and this isn’t your problem to fix.” One day in the distant future, your child will need to detach and form his own family. Children who have been held emotionally hostage have a challenging time doing that.
DO give your child the space to express his feelings, good or bad
If children (and people in general) aren’t able to express themselves constructively, they most certainly will do it destructively. Of course you want the former. In an attempt to protect our children from sadness, anger and disappointment, we sometimes find it easier and less awkward to avoid the topic all together. That only makes it easier for you, not the child. Take advantage of natural opportunities to talk to your child about how they feel about the missing parent. If he says something like, “Jimmy’s dad came to school today and talked to the class. It was cool,” use that as a way in. Say something like, “Oh, really? That is cool. Does it bother you that your dad isn’t here to do things like that?” When your child sees that you’re comfortable talking about it, they will be more likely to bring it up on their own whenever they feel the need.
DO NOT discourage or be offended by your child’s loyalty to the other parent
You changed all the diapers. You buy all the food. You wipe all the tears. Yet and still, she loves HIM. What’s up with that? Human nature is what’s up with that. The bond between parent and child is amazingly strong and can’t be quantified or even fully explained, so the lack of physical presence doesn’t erase the connection.
Don’t take it personally if your upset child says something like, “I don’t love you! I love daddy!” They don’t mean it. That’s just their way of protecting that connection. Don’t get baited into an emotionally charged, “Well, your ignorant daddy is nowhere to be found,” kind of response. Stay calm and say, “Well, I still love you, and I’m glad you love your daddy.” Then go in your room and have a good cry if need be.
You also shouldn’t be offended if your child tells their friends that the new shoes you worked overtime to pay for are a gift from the other parent. Again, that’s their way of holding tight to that connection. Just let them know it isn’t good to lie, and don’t waste your time worrying about where Billy from across the street thinks your child’s shoes came from.
DO use family and friends as a support system
The other parent may be absent, but good friends and family are always willing to be there for you. They love you, so they will be willing to help out in any way they can. No one wants to feel like a charity case, but don’t turn down the help of those who offer with a sincere heart. (Note: Do beware of people who have ulterior motives and only offer help as an excuse to get in your business.)
Happy children have happy parents, and happy parents use all the resources at their disposal. Upset because your child’s father said he’d do something and didn’t come through—again? Don’t tell your child how mad you are. Tell your family or friends. Vent to them all you want, knowing that the things you say won’t be hurting your child’s sense of self.
DO NOT try to overcompensate for the absent parent
It hurts us to see our children sad. We want their childhoods to be full of laughter and smiles, not tears and disappointment. The undeniable truth, though, is that tears and disappointment are a part of life. They make us stronger, teach us life lessons, and add to our wisdom, so don’t allow yourself to become the super lax parent who only wants to be a friend. Rules and consequences are an integral part of raising well-adjusted, responsible children. No one wants to end up with a brat who cannot handle disappointment and thinks the world revolves around him. That’s not even cute at 5, and it sure ain’t cute at 18! Be stern with your children. They will thank you later.
DO examine your relationship history
This doesn’t relate directly to your children, but it will affect your ability to pick a good mate in the future. They say hindsight is 20/20, so things probably look so much clearer now than they did when you were in the relationship. Did you take the time to get to know the person well enough before you had a child with them? Did you ignore signs that suggested this wasn’t a good person to have a baby with? Do you have a pattern of getting into relationships with the same type of people? Answering these questions can help prevent you from repeating history in your next relationship.