Ditching the deadbeats

I have a single parent question which I’ve never been able to resolve properly for myself: it’s a situation I’ve seen many families struggle with but I can’t figure it out.

Is a lousy dad better than no dad at all? I always thought not. I always believed that what a child needs most of all is to know that everybody present in their lives is committed, devoted and strong enough to lean on. But am I just kidding myself? Does an entirely absent dad (or mom) cause more damage?

(Disclaimer: feel free to replace “dad” with your relevant deadbeat – mother or father, it could be either.  It could be uninterested grandparents, too.)

What do you do when the other parent is simply not interested? Never mind financial support, that’s beside the point here. I’m talking about that desperation you feel when the other parent doesn’t love them like they should, and no amount of family counselling or Jerry Springer brawling will change that. When scheduled visits are skipped, invitations to school functions ignored, and months go by without a word. When without your effort to keep the momentum going, the whole relationship would just disappear.  It’s heartbreaking stuff, even if the child is still too little to understand.  So what do you do?

Of course you don’t badmouth the errant parent – you don’t need a psychologist to tell you that would be wrong. You make excuses, manufacture stories about why there was no visit this week. You plaster that brittle sunny smile on your face and insist that of course Daddy loves you. You say yes to any requested visit because once a year is better than nothing. And you never, ever let your child see you angry.

How far should you go to encourage their relationship?  How long do you try? What if the child is actually better off without the influence of the other parent, anyway? Can you let it fizzle out quietly, without trying to make it right?
Do you have the right to ever stop trying? Are you ever allowed to ask “Why should  I  be the one to make this happen”?  If the other parent won’t build the relationship, does it become your job to do so?   If they don’t WANT to be a parent, how can they ever be a good one?

Should you eventually lay down that ultimatum – shape up or ship out? If you tell the wayward parent to bugger off – are you denying your child a piece of themselves? Or are you protecting them from hurt, disappointment and instability?  Which is more important?  Just thinking about it makes my head hurt – it’s such a big nasty knotted question.

It’s easy enough to break contact when they’re little. At that age, they don’t miss what they’ve never had. It gets more complicated as they grow up. The old hollow excuses don’t cut it anymore and then you have to decide how honest can I be without influencing them either way?  How do you tell a child their parent didn’t see fit to do the hard work, to make things happen, to pick up the phone?  How do you turn excuses into acceptable reasons, when no reason will ever be good enough anyway? 

I don’t have any answers.  Does anybody? Maybe only our children themselves, twenty years from now?

Read more by Tracy Engelbrecht

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