The true answer to what should single mothers tell their children about their fathers is nothing. There is nothing we can say. It is never okay to tear down the other parent, whether they are active or absent. Children know they are a byproduct of their parents, and tearing down half of their biological makeup means you’re tearing down half of who your child is.
As children grow, they see their parents’ actions for themselves. They don’t need to know the history. They don’t need to hear what went wrong or why it happened. They need love and understanding during the hard times, and they need to know that they are enough.
When my daughter asks why her father is the way he is, I’m honest. I tell her that I don’t know, but I am always here to listen to her. I tell her that she is loved, even if he doesn’t quite know how to show it. I tell her that she is perfect. I hug her, and then I tell a stupid joke to make her laugh. I hold her through her tears, and I soothe her with cuddles and movie nights.
I recently realized that we needed professional help to deal with the emotions and uncertainty she was having and that my half-answers and diversions were not enough. Now, every other Wednesday, she sees a therapist.
They help her work through her confusion, and they give her the tools she needs when she is feeling overwhelmed. My daughter has asked not to see her father for a while, and her counselor has spoken to me about how destructive the relationship is to her mental health.
We’re back to square one, except for this time, my daughter is in control. The power of separation is in her hands, where it belongs. In all those years, I never spoke an ill word to her about him. He spoke loud enough for himself.
How I Handled my Daughter Asking, Where’s Dad?
We’re going to get very intimate for just a moment. I’m going to share with you a piece I wrote to myself ten years ago that I’ve never shared with anyone before, and then talk about how I’ve handled the situation since then.
I hope this helps you realize that you aren’t alone and that while the fears and worries about how our children are affected by absent parents are valid, we have the power to be what they need. We have the power to get them the help they need without ever saying a negative word about their fathers.
So, please sit back, take a deep breath, and go on this very personal journey with me.
June 7th, 2011
That’s my two-year-old in the back seat, my smart and beautiful tow-headed two-year-old. She can sing her ABCs, spell her name, count to ten, and jump off the bed like a maniac. She wakes up every morning with a smile on her face, always asking for hugs. She giggles all the time and rarely cries, even when she falls flat on her face. She’s innocent and pure with an entire lifetime ahead of her, and now the most amazing thing I’ve ever been a part of is sitting in the back seat talking about her father as if he’s dead.
“No baby, daddy’s not gone.”
“Yes. Daddy’s gone. Daddy’s stuck.”
She’s never said anything like this before. Don’t get me wrong, she does ask about him, but it’s always easy-to-answer questions, never statements.
“Where is daddy stuck, honey?”
“Daddy’s stuck in the dark.”
“He’s stuck in the dark?”
“Mmm-hmm. He’s stuck in the dark!”
She gasps and then whispers, “With monsters!”
I’m wordless. My mind has gone the opposite of blank. It’s reeling. Where is this coming from?
Then…”Daddy’s up there.”
“Up where, sweetie?” I can hear a hint of worry in my voice. She’s only two, and I haven’t spoken to her about anything like this before.
“Up there. In the sky. I want to talk to daddy in the sky!”
I can see her pretty little face in the rear-view mirror of my car while we’re riding home from daycare. She’s not upset, just talking matter-of-factly about the man she’s only seen three times in the last two months. I don’t know what to say. For the first time in six months, I don’t know what to say to her. He’s not gone, he’s not stuck, and he’s not in the sky.
This is my daughter’s mind gleaning answers to her questions from all the information she’s begun processing, and that terrifies me. The worst thing is that on some level, she’s profoundly right. He’s been high as a kite, stuck in a rut, and haunted by so many personal demons that I don’t know who he is anymore.
I’m speechless. I’m driving down the road to our new home, our new life, and all of my disappointment in him comes flooding back. Not only has he let me down, but he’s also let her down, too. It makes me sick to my stomach. Why is my daughter saying this?
Her questions used to be so much easier to answer.
“Daddy’s at Uncle Johnny’s, baby. You’ll see him soon. Don’t worry.” Simple, calm, concise, and true with just as much information as she needed. It would flow right out of my mouth, and everything would go back to sing-alongs and child’s play. “I want Care Bears, mommy!”
But I don’t know what to say this time. I don’t have an answer for her, and she’s not asking me a question. Her statements have hit me so hard because I’m scared I’ll still be searching for a response ten years from now. I don’t know if or when she’ll see him again. Those reassuring words just won’t come out of my mouth, and my two-year-old is sitting in the back seat expecting me to say something. I’m even expecting me to say something, but nothing comes out.
I could call him. I want to call him up and make him listen to his child and what she’s saying. I want to make him understand what she’s thinking and why. I want him to comprehend what his lack of priorities is doing to our precious little creation.
I wish I could pick up the phone and dial his number and guilt-trip him into seeing her, but I can’t bring myself to do it. What would I say? “Hi, your daughter seems to think you’re dead. Would it be possible for you to schedule her into your life any time soon?” Would he make plans with her and cancel again? Would he even answer?
So I don’t call. I leave the phone where it’s at, sitting in my lap, waiting for phone calls and texts that have quit coming, waiting for plans to be made and kept. I haven’t spoken with him in over a week. He hasn’t seen her in over a month.
A good three minutes have gone by on our drive. We’re almost home, and she knows it.
“Is daddy coming to the new home?” So innocent, just a question, but a new one, and it hurts. Still, this one is easier. For this one, I have an answer.
“No, baby. Daddy’s not coming to the new home.”
“Yes, he is. Daddy’s coming.” For one heart-stopping second, I think she’s right, that he’ll be waiting on us when we pull up, and I’m scared.
“No, baby, daddy’s not coming to the new home. I’m sorry.”
I’m lying. I’m not sorry he won’t be there. I’ll never be sorry that I finally chose to be the strong, proud, and courageous woman that has been hiding inside of me for the last two years. I’m not sorry that I finally chose to stand up for myself and quit taking his verbal and physical abuse. I am sorry that it’s come to this, though: my sweet, kind, intelligent child is rationalizing her lack of a father.
I’m not ready for this. I’m lying to my two-year-old and apologizing for things that are not my fault. That’s not what she needs. She doesn’t need lies and apologies. She needs her father. I don’t even know why I’m apologizing. Because he doesn’t want to see her? Because he has failed both of us so miserably, so thoroughly? I am sorry for that, but she’s not asking me to apologize for him. She’s not asking me anything. She’s just stating facts.
She’s expressing her wants and desires through her newfound speech, and to her, it’s all very simple. Daddy should be around. Daddy should be at the new home too. Daddy should be a dad. If he’s not, then he must be gone, stuck, or up in the sky.
His excuses were the worst. I don’t have the money; I have no place for her to go; she’s better off with you. At first, I responded by offering money, like he was some kind of babysitter. I didn’t even begin to question where all of the money he’d made the previous week went.
He’d see her when I did that but stopped when I told him I wasn’t giving him money anymore. I can’t afford to give him money to see his kid, and the truth of it is this: the park is free, and so is his mother’s house. The honest truth of it is, after working all week, he should have enough money to see her, to feed her, to have somewhere safe for her to go.
She hasn’t asked me ‘why’ Daddy’s not around yet, but she will. Maybe not today, while riding in the car to our new home, but sometime in her next ten years, she’s going to ask me, and it’s going to hurt all over again.
Out of the million and one reasons, I won’t have a single answer for her. There isn’t a sole response that I am willing to burden my child with. Not now, not ever. She’ll always be better off not knowing. I can hear myself in my head: Daddy should have been a husband, daddy should have put us first, daddy should have chosen us over the drugs and alcohol.
You can’t say things like that to a two-year-old. She wouldn’t understand. No child ever really understands why ‘daddy’ isn’t around. It breaks my heart that this is happening to her. For me, it’s just one more drug-driven slap in the face, but for her, it’s a lifetime of questioning who she is and who she came from. For her, it will define who she becomes, who she falls in love with, who she trusts. It’s going to define every adult relationship she ever has.
By now, we’re parked in the complex, and I’m fighting off tears. I’m used to this question, this one she’s asked every day for months, but now I don’t know. I don’t know where he is. I don’t know what he’s doing. Her declarations on the way home have me so off-kilter that I can’t even give my practiced reply. I’m no longer responsible for his actions or inactions, but somehow I’m stuck with the repercussions of them. His daughter thinks he’s dead.
I hate him for this. I’m stuck with facing a child for the rest of her life and never having honest answers for her. I could make excuses for him. I could lie for him. He’s busy, honey. He’s at work. You’ll see him soon. I’m sure of it. He’s just fine.
The problem is I’ve never been so unsure of anything in my entire life, especially after the cryptic words out of the mouth of my two-year-old. I realize that those answers will only work for so long. She’s smart. She’ll figure out all on her own that my answers are lies, that I have no idea what’s going on with her father.
I don’t know if he’s dead or alive, in jail maybe, or just fine. Just fine enough not to pick up the phone and make plans with his daughter. My very intuitive two-year-old catches sight of my silent tears as I pick her up out of her car seat, so she hugs and kisses me.
I love you, mommy. Do you need a band-aid?
A band-aid. My two-year-old’s solution for everything. I wish I could put a band-aid on this pain. I wish it were that simple. I wish I could hold myself together enough that she wouldn’t see the hurt and confusion on my face. I know I have to be strong, and most of the time, I am. Most of the time, I can swallow my tears and hold them back until she’s asleep, but not today.
I quit trying to reach out after his last excuse. “I have to look out for number one.” Since when did he go back to being number one? When our daughter was born, he lost the right to call himself that, and so did I. We are no longer number one. We will never be number one again. She is and always will be.
Our daughter fits perfectly in that slot for me, as if she were made for it because she was. It was no light decision to bring her into this world. It was no light decision to birth her and breastfeed her and care for her and love her. It was the most significant decision we’d ever made, and we made it together. For nine months, we talked, we painted, we prepared. We bought toys and clothes. We made decisions and promises.
Nothing could have prepared me for this. Nothing could have primed me for how quickly life changes, for how weak his resolve was. Now my daughter gets to face a lifetime of him and his jealousy, paranoia, blamelessness, and drug habits.
I should have known; I should have watched his actions instead of listening to his words. I was just gullible and naïve. I was blinded by love. It sounds so cliché, and it is. My entire life feels like one massively cliché statistic. Divorced. A fatherless child. A single mom at twenty-four. How many times has this story played out? How many children has this happened to? How many men out there have just given up on their children and wives in favor of freedom and a lack of responsibility?
Now, she has to live with the biggest mistake I’ve ever made, and I am so sorry for that. As far as he’s concerned, he’s been reduced in my mind. He’s her father, but to me, he’s no longer a ‘daddy.’ He’s losing that title. That’s a title you get when you put forth an effort and show the love and appreciation a child deserves.
The worst part about it is that somewhere in the back of my head, I know he’s losing it on purpose. I know he’s stripping himself of that title, so he no longer feels the obligations of being her father. I know, in the deepest, darkest part of me, that he was never ready, that it was all me. It was all in my head.
Now, she’ll suffer for it, but I will do my best. I will do my best to shield her from the pain and frustrations he will cause her. I will do my best to love her so much that she doesn’t even notice that all she has is me. I will be enough for my daughter because that is what she needs. I will be enough for my daughter because that is what she deserves. She deserves to be number one. In my mind, she always will be.
I unlock the door and enter our new apartment. Our haven. I kiss her on the forehead.
“I want Care Bears, mommy!”
It’s been ten years since I wrote that—ten long years. I’ve gotten remarried, I’ve gained two bonus children and another bio child. My daughter has been surrounded by love and warmth, yet she still feels like she’s missing some part of her life.
Now and then, she asked me about her dad. He did come around for a while, and he stuck to every other weekend for many years, off and on, so I’ll give him that credit, but he’s still who he always was, and she has struggled endlessly trying to figure out what that means for her. He’s absent even when he’s present, and now that she’s twelve, she’s trying to navigate and understand, and she thinks I have the answers.
I might, but they aren’t mine to share.