Divorce and Absent Parents

Two Parents Fighting Over Child In Divorce ConceptNot everyone has these issues, but as a child of divorce and emotional abandonment, I have a few strategies to help bring your children through a divorce in a healthy way. 

Some of these strategies I learned from my mother, who actually did a wonderful job of avoiding saying negative things about my father. However, she was only able to do that by not saying much at all.  It was like he didn’t exist.  I shared my younger half-sister’s father for a few years and didn’t really know the difference until that marriage fell apart and it became clear to me that “He” was not really my father at all.  I was a little too young to ask many intelligent questions about my father, and a bit too involved in surviving the fallout for a few years.  When I was seven, my mother married again and I had another step-father to deal with.

As I mentioned before in this blog, my father was never part of my life and that was his choice.  I reached out to him after meeting him at age fifteen.

He decided to file for my custody after being informed that it was being temporarily assigned to my manager so I could perform in nightclubs as a minor.  His previous participation in my life up to that point was sperm donation and the fifty dollars per month the Navy garnished from his wages for my support and well-being.  We met the first time in a crowded courtroom where he served as his own attorney.  It was not a successful venture for him. He requested to meet me after the session (my guardianship was in fact awarded to my manager) and I agreed.

He came to our house and I gave him an impromptu concert which brought tears to his eyes.  I don’t think he had realized how well I could sing, and he may have realized, just a little, how much he had missed.  We parted on amicable terms, promised to keep in touch and I received a few letters after that but it was clear that this was no involved father.  His capacity for love and approval (things I thrive on as an extroverted performer) approached the levels found in your average rutabaga.

We had no real relationship.  No birthday cards or gifts, and he never even mentioned that I had living grandparents. Mom’s side were both gone by then. It finally occurred to me that might be the case in so I asked my mother and she did the research to put me in touch with them.  I developed more of a relationship with my father’s parents who lived in far away Oregon than I ever did with him.

I also discovered that I had a half-sister by my father through another marriage who was a few years younger than me. I reached out to her in my mid-twenties while I was traveling for business.  We met in person once in San Francisco, but it became obvious that we had little in common and that her antipathy toward our father was much stronger and had eaten at her like acid.  She believed that if one of us had been a boy; he would have stayed with that marriage and that child.

I don’t know if she was right, but I find it ironic that if it is, God saw fit to give him only daughters. Then I had two daughters and my half-sister had four daughters.  No male progeny here, bucko!  In any case, that “Emotional Bank Account” was low to begin with and when he ignored the overture I made to him after the birth of the girls, displaying his lack of interest or enthusiasm about these utterly amazing creatures that were his grandchildren….that was when I cleaned out the account and closed it.

He committed suicide in prison at 59 after an utterly unbelievable chain of events.  When his brother called with the news, I was shocked since his mother had been telling me he was working in Saudi Arabia for the last couple of years.  She didn’t want to tell me the truth about where he was because she was ashamed, but emotionally I felt nothing at all.  No trust had been built with me and no trust had been given.  I was sorry for their loss.

Granted, mine was an extreme case, but I have seen other friends go through divorces with distant or absent Dads or Moms who show up now and then. I have seen the child put on a happy face during the visit, and then seen his or her eyes when the parent disappears again, and I know with certainty that there is a bill coming due to that parent they will someday have to pay.  It will be paid in anger, hurt, distance from the child or grandchildren when they may want it most, or perhaps worst of all, total alienation and being left alone at the end of their life.  Unless the child gets help and processes all of that anger and hurt and is able to forgive, it will be a hole in their heart as well and may affect every relationship they ever have.

Sounds pretty dramatic, doesn’t it?  I can say with all honesty that even in my fifties, I still have a sorrow for a missing Dad. I know I was probably blessed that he was not in my life, and my mother made a great choice by leaving him, but the lack still exists and the closest substitute I ever found was my father-in-law, who was incredibly generous and so larger-than-life that he had more than enough love for everyone. His son takes after him in all of the important ways.  I sometimes envy my children the father they have grown up with, enjoy, are shaped by and emulate.

So what takeaways can I share with you here if you are going through a divorce and have children?  Here are a few:

  •  Keep your priorities straight.  No matter what your spouse decides to do, your first priority must be the welfare of your children and raising them well with love, rules, boundaries and principles.  None of this will be easy, and particularly if yours is not an amicable divorce and your spouse is trying to win their affection by giving them presents, freedoms, etc.  Remember that rules mean safety and safety means love to a child.  The initial “no-rules” and taking advantage of the other parent may seem like fun to them at the other house at first, but will soon wear thin and they will find themselves gravitating to yours if you are consistent.
  •  Refrain from confiding in your children.  This is very hard, especially mother to daughter, but remember you are the parent.  It is neither fair nor constructive to take your daughter’s childhood away so that you can have a “best friend” during a difficult time.  This is what your friends and therapist or counselor are for.  Let your children be children and do your job.
  •  Refrain from negative comments about your spouse, even if you don’t agree with him or her.  Make sure your discussions with them are private and insist to them that they remain so for the good of the children.  Again, they deserve their childhood and they will worry enough about you and will even feel that they may somehow be to blame for the breakup, so don’t make bad things worse.
  •  Keep reassuring them of your love, but not with inappropriate gifts, things, or privileges.  Stay consistent and communicative, even when you don’t feel like it.  When things get to be too much, take a time out and tell them that is what you are doing.
  • Stay alert for signs of depression or inappropriate behavior in your children that may need more help than you can give alone.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Your school has counselors who can help and there are many services to reach out to.  Sometimes just talking to another person who has no stake in the situation can make all the difference.  Sometimes it is just time for a mentor and that can be arranged as well.  A friend of mine lost a child to depression after her divorce and she said.  “I thought it was just the teen thing kicking in.”  Read and be aware of the warning signs and don’t take their threats as idle.  If they make some casual comment, make it very clear that you will not take it as an idle threat and that you are making an appointment with someone immediately, etc.  Even if they were just testing the waters or kidding around, they will now know you take it seriously and will address it, so it is not a joke they want to make.
  • Practice self-care.  There is an old saying that caregivers die young, and I don’t doubt it.  It is stressful being a single parent and you will have to be vigilant to find opportunities to do some self-renewing activities whenever it is possible.  Take care of your health and rest as much as possible and co-opt your children to help you live a healthy life.  It will be great role modeling for them as well.

As they get older, teach them to help you cook healthy meals, go and do active things together and enjoy your life and memories.  You will all be the better for it and meanwhile, I will pray for either very amicable divorces or the lack of need for this post at all and a long healthy marriage for everyone out there!

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