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Child Feels Abandoned by Father
Q: I am a single mother and have been in turmoil over the response my son had to his father moving to Seattle. We live in Alabama and Jacob has not seen his father since May 1995. Jacob is now four and a half years old. When I told him that his dad was moving to Seattle (from Boston) he was very upset. He cried and then he stopped, wiped his tears, and announced that if his dad did not want to live with us then he wanted a new daddy. His father has limited contact with him and it is usually based on the guilt he feels for not having been in contact with him. I am not receiving proper support or medical insurance and though I don't speak to my son about my frustrations with my ex, I know he picks up on it. Jacob is very bright and he has never, until now, taken this separation personally. How can I best insure that Jacob will not grow up feeling cheated or abandoned by his father? The truth is that I only want positive things to happen to this wonderful boy who got stuck in the middle.
A: I believe a child's abandonment by a parent is perhaps the most grievous loss a child can suffer. It's probably worse than a parent's death because, in most cases, a parent's death is not willed by the parent. A parent does, however, willfully abandon a child. There is no way that you can offer Jacob an explanation, now or later in his life, that will bring him true comfort, peace, and a feeling at some level that he wasn't loved very much by his daddy. Kids who are abandoned feel unlovable, unimportant. So we are talking about damage control here, explaining to him at his current age in a manner that will allow him to be hurt as little as possible and to heal as fully as possible. Truth-telling that is healing is the best route. Even if Jacob has been abandoned by dad, your raging and/or denunciation of his father could make Jacob try to defend his father against you and see you as the reason his dad left. Kids will take that reality over the worst one -- dad left me because he doesn't love me or want to be with me. On the other hand, if you minimize and/or come close to lying about his dad's true faults and selfishness, you run the risk of having Jacob think his dad was a pretty nice guy who you (mom) drove away. It seems at first glance that you can't win in this situation. With healing truth-telling you can begin the task of helping Jacob come to grips with this permanent unhappy reality. You can help him to not blame himself or anyone else for this situation. You can begin to talk about the hurts and disappointments that sometimes can come with love.
Your talk with Jacob might resemble something like this: "When I first met your dad and began to love him he was ... (here you mention the positive things that drew you to him and caused you to fall in love with him, if you did). As we spent more time together, and especially after you were born, I realized that he really wasn't going to be a good father for you or a good husband for me; he just wanted to keep doing things that weren't grown-up. He was a person who just wasn't ready to be a daddy or a husband with a family. I wanted to be a mommy and have a family. For a long time after he left, I felt really sad and lonely and I got very angry with him, like you probably do, for leaving us. But after a while, I knew that you and I were not the reason he left. He left because he couldn't love us and take care of us -- I guess he just wasn't ready to. I thought your dad would make a good father and a good husband, but I made a big mistake. So if I ever love another man, I will make sure that when he loves me, he will also want to love you and be a good daddy to you. That's a promise."
Take your cues from your son as to how much he really needs to know; reassure him in many ways of your love and that you are here to stay; expect him to be angry, sad, confused; and don't try to pretend that you are just fine with all this. This move is part of an ongoing series of events about dealing with feelings that will teach your son that there is pain in life and that in time we will heal. Good luck. I know this little guy will get the best of your love, empathy, and support.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.