When he wasn’t golfing or playing softball, my ex spent his time at home watching TV while I was taking care of everything child-related. I felt better after the divorce since at least I didn’t have to be confronted daily by his neglect of our children. Recently, though, I’ve been seeing a man who has two young children, and though we haven’t met each other’s children yet, when I hear about how involved a dad he is, I feel sad that my children will never have a dad who builds blanket forts with them, reads to them, or even takes them out to toss a football around. But my friend once told me this is “their normal,” so they don’t really know what they’re missing. Turns out — not true.
The other day, our neighbor who does after-school care for my kids called to ask me if everything was okay between them and my ex. My 7-year-old son had told her that he wished her husband was his dad and asked her if there was any way that could happen. I feel so bad for him, but I don’t know what to do. Do I need to get my son, or maybe all three children, into therapy? Should I try talking to my ex about this? Push for family therapy? What’s my next move?
Concerned Parent: I’m so sorry that your ex-husband had a very different idea of being a father than what he led you to believe when you were engaged. Unfortunately, his behavior seems to indicate that reaching out to him wouldn’t be productive; he went through a whole divorce rather than step up.
Your family therapy idea is sound, since at least one of your children is aware that his father has rejected the family. They deserve to feel seen and heard in a constructive environment, and you all deserve help in finding a way forward together after this man chose to opt out of your lives. Even after therapy, “their normal” might not be precisely what they wanted, but you can craft a new normal with them that reassures them that they are so loved even though their father is mostly out of the picture.
I hope you might also consider solo therapy, so that you will have the tools to ensure that future romantic relationships you have will be a positive addition to your children’s lives, should you reach the point of introducing them.
Concerned Parent: As truly difficult as this is, this seems “normal” for a child your son’s age who has experienced something like this. Just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it’s okay or easy, but given what you’ve shared, I don’t think you need to be alarmed. You can say something empathetic like “Joe is a really nice guy and it makes sense you would want someone like that in your life. It’s okay to feel sad that your dad isn’t in your life.” You can empathize without making any promises or working on solutions, since I’m guessing just validation would go a long way.
You can ask your son if he would like to be in therapy for a place to talk about these feelings, but please don’t force him if he doesn’t want to go. I work with a lot of kids who were forced to be in therapy and later avoid therapy as adults because they had such a bad experience as a kid (yes, kids that young can not want to be in therapy). Therapy for you could be helpful if you’d like support navigating these conversations. You also have a lot of feelings (of course you do! You’ve been really strong in a hard situation) and a therapist could give you space for this as well. Wishing you the best!
— Sending good thoughts your way
Concerned Parent: Lots of kids wish their parents were different in some way, so this is a great opportunity to start a conversation with your son to ask him what he’s thinking. You may find that there are some things on his wish list that can be fulfilled by you or another caring family member, friend, coach, etc. Of course, there’s no substitute for his father’s attention, but you can’t change your ex’s behavior. Demonstrating care for your son’s feelings sends a powerful and lasting message that his feelings are important to you.
Concerned Parent: Unfortunately, I can relate to your children. I also have a dad who is uninterested in any sort of parenting or involvement in my life. I think you have already taken some amazing steps toward advocating for your children. You left him, and that shows them that his behavior was unacceptable. I would suggest the next step is to talk to them about it. Ask them how they feel, and acknowledge and validate their feelings. Verbalize that they deserve a dad who is able to show up for them, AND that they can count on you to show up for them. And part of your non-negotiables for a future partner can include a dedicated parent. Regardless of biology, the person that consistently loves and shows up (physically, mentally, emotionally) for the children is the person they consider their parent.
I would advise against pushing your ex to spend time with them. As someone whose mom consistently pushed my dad to spend time with me, even as a child I could tell, and his lack of interest was obvious and ultimately hurtful.
Every week, we ask readers to answer a question submitted to Carolyn Hax’s live chat or email. Read last week’s installment here. New questions are typically posted on Fridays, with a Monday deadline for submissions. Responses are anonymous unless you choose to identify yourself and are edited for length and clarity.