Talking to your child about an absent father
The big question
I always knew the day would come, but not this soon. Although it is the last conversation I ever want to have with my son, it is an inevitable one. I reassured myself that when the day came, I would have my speech ready. I imagined that maybe we would talk over pizza with chocolate on standby. Or perhaps I would have a surprise tucked away in my bag to temporarily mend his bruised heart, although it would likely be my heart that needed mending.
But the first brush with a difficult conversation to come played out nothing like that. We were in our living room, and I had just placed his after-school snack in front of him on our cocktail table that he commandeers for his toys. I flicked on the television, and as I whisked by, he asked matter-of-factly, “Mommy, I don’t have a daddy?”
I froze. It was as if someone had shot me in the back rendering me temporarily paralyzed. My face burned. My heart raced. My breath left me. As I slowly turned to face him, I secretly hoped for the floor to swallow me whole. I searched his eyes for any indication that it was a question asked and quickly forgotten. But it was not. His eyes told me that he wanted an answer. And what I came up with was, “It’s just you and me, Boo.” I wasn’t brave or strong enough to begin the “You do, but . . .” conversation. So I hedged.
“OK,” he said before popping a pretzel in his mouth and zipping his cars around the table. I sighed, thankful that this is where the conversation would end—at least for now. But my relief will be short-lived. There will be another day when he will ask the same question with a greater knowing and need for much more detail. He will have specific questions that require specific answers, and I will have to give them. But he is not alone. My son is one of many children being raised by Solo Moms who will one day ask, “Where is my dad?”
What Solo Moms can tell their children
And while we Solo Moms may not have the perfectly crafted words, what we can tell them is that they have a father. Everyone does. Some fathers and mothers are able to be happy with each other and stay together, and others are not. We were not. Because your happiness and well-being are the most important things in this world to both of us, we had to part ways, but never will we part from you. In fact, we are able to love you better because we are not at our worst.
Or we may have to explain that their father has always been absent—through no fault of their own. For reasons best known only by him, he was unable to be part of your life. Don’t ever make his burdens yours by believing that you were undeserving or unworthy of his love and support. His decisions have nothing to do with you and everything to do with him. As best you can, do not hold bitterness in your heart. Doing so will hurt you far more than him. If anything, he deserves your sympathy for missing the opportunity to watch you grow into the amazing kid you are. And keep an open heart. Life is a mystery. What is true today may not always be the case. There may come a day when you two will reunite and reconcile, or that day may never be—but either way, know that you are loved infinitely by me.
And for the children whose fathers departed far too soon, tell them only something as powerful and permanent as death could keep him from you. It would have been his greatest joy to watch and guide you through all the changing seasons of your life. Cherish the special moments you shared, even if only a few. Those were gifts. And remember all the lessons he taught you; they will continue to guide your way. When the world hurls its worst and you begin to fall to your knees, let him be the one who motivates you to get up and try, again and again. Make him proud by becoming all that he ever dreamed you to be.
These are conversations we Solo Moms will one day have to have with our children. Never were these talks wanted or intended, yet they will be necessary. And there are many of us. According to Single Mother Guide, the 2015 US Census Bureau reported in its single mother statistics that of approximately 12 million single-parent families, more than 80% were headed by Solo Moms. And one in four children under the age of 12 is being raised without a father. Of single mothers, 49% have never been married, while 51% are separated, divorced, or widowed.
No matter how you came to be a Solo Mom, whether you never married, are divorced or widowed, or a dad was never intended to be part of your family, the most important thing is that your children feel and know that they are loved. As parents, we are not able to control everything that happens in our children’s lives, but we can control how they make it through life’s challenges. Helping your child understand why he or she does not have a dad at home is no easy conversation. But with honesty, open communication, and lots of love, you and your children will make it through just as you always have—together.
Check out Sister Chat to find out how other moms handle this question or a host of other situations.
Terri Linton, ESME’s Incarceration Resource Guide, is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where she is currently pursuing a master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction writing, and a graduate of Rutgers School of Law-Newark. Terri is a freelance writer and professor of criminal justice. She hosts and produces the podcast She Roads with Terri Linton, where she interviews women about their journeys of endurance and resilience. Terri’s writing has appeared in Ninth Letter, HuffPost, Motherly, and Mamamia. You can connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.