Fathering Non-custodial Children (for Divorced Dads)
"The most important...work you and I will ever do will be within the walls of our own homes."-Harold B. LeeContent
OverviewNon-custodial fathers start out with two strikes against them. The first strike is that even under the best of circumstances, many fathers struggle to be actively involved with their children. The second strike is that when divorce occurs, nearly 90% of fathers live apart from their children. Researchers stress the importance of a fathers' continued involvement in their children's lives, regardless of the marital situation (Gerson, 1997; Doherty, 1997).
Other research suggests that many men do want to remain committed to their children, even when not living with the mother and child (Rhoden & Robinson, 1997). Biller (1993) also suggests that separated and divorced fathers tend to feel better about themselves and their relationships with their children when they have regularily shared child rearing responsibilites. However, other research also tells us that fathers who do not live with their children will have minimal contact with them. Even with these difficulties, some fathers remain actively involved and build strong bonds with their children.
Biller (1993, p. 227) suggests that although there are many interacting influences that impact how each child will adjust to divorce, none is more important than having continuous positive involvement with the father, as well as the mother. These strong connections are beneficial both to the children as well as the father, and they help both to deal with the challenges of changing family circumstances.
An assumption of most parent is that they will have a relationship with their child that consists of spending time together in the ordinary ways, such as bed and meal times; that families interact with each other daily. By their frequency, these events become so ordinary that they rarely stand out as notable. The term"prosaics" refers to the common or ordinary, and in family life, there is much that is prosaic. However, when divorce disrupts family structure, it also substantially diminishes family processes, many of which are prosaic.
How can fathers who don't live with their children "be there"? How can they be good fathers during specified times or intermitent intervals? How do they create the prosaics of family life from a distance and on their own? Below are some stories of how some fathers who don't live with their children try to deal with this challenge, to find the ordinary connections in an extraordinary situation.
StoriesNon-Custodial Fathers are faced with many challenges the first of which is to be actively involved with their children's lives. Even under the best of circumstances this can be difficult. However, non-custodial fathers are now realizing that truly the most important things that can be done are the little ordinary things. In reality, it is the little things that are missing and need to be done.
In this example of ethical work, a child expressed appreciation for the little things that her father did to be a part of her life.
"Since my parents' divorce, my two brothers and I have lived with my mom. We were all teenagers at the time and didn't want anything to do with my dad. There seemed to be a big generation gap between my dad and us kids. However, he never gave up on us. He would stop by to visit us every few days since he lived close by. He would call to talk to each one of us and he never hung up the phone without telling us that he loved us, even though we hardly ever returned the kindness.
"He used to call us and offer to let us use his car on the weekends just so he would have a chance to see us. We were ungrateful, but still he offered. We were all confused and hurt that our parents would get divorced for what seemed like no good reason. I know it has been a real struggle for my dad, especially with the cold reception he has received from all his children, but now that we're older and living lives of our own. I'm glad he didn't give up on us. I know he loves us and it's fun to have him be a part of our lives.
"Now when he calls, I've learned how much it means to him to have a good conversation with us. I think that growing up has made it easier to understand him and get along with him. I appreciate all he's done for us because if he hadn't tried to keep the relationship alive, it would have died."
The little things in a child's everyday life are often the hardest things that fathers have to cope with when first separated from their children. In fact, it is the little things in their lives that often carry the most meaning to a father. In this next story, a father expressed the difficulty he had in missing out on the day-to-day activities that carried meaning in his life, the challenge of relationship work.
"It was a tremendous feeling of loss for me. Even more so, it was a tremendous regret. To think about what it's like when children first get up in the morning and they're kind of sleepy-eyed and to give them a big hug and a kiss to be with them at the end of the day and to have dinner with them on a regular basis. The ability to just "have" all the little thing.
"The opportunities to express love and to give them a hug and to smile and ask them a question....just to be interested in what is going on in their everyday school lives, and all the little school programs that they've done that I wasn't able to fly in for that were happening all the time. I always felt a tremendous sense of loss and that hurt."
Another father expressed his feeling of discouragement in missing the little things, in the challenge of ethical work.
"I always experienced a tremendous feeling of sadness and hurt. I always had a feeling that no matter how hard you were trying and no matter how much time, there's no way you can turn one or two visits a month into normal parenting. No matter how you cut it, you come up short and you feel it. You always come up a day late and a dollar short. It's a tremendous sense of hurt. You want a full experience as a father, you want them tofeel full love and you want them to feel it continually."
Oftentimes, children don't understand why a divorce occurred, and who, if anyone, is at fault. It is essential that through this difficult time in children's lives that fathers do the "little things" that help them realize that they are still loved and appreciated. It is these "little things" that can start rebuilding their world that has been broken into many pieces, much like broken glass. More importantly, you can start rebuilding your relationship with them. This story is an example of spiritual and relationship work.
"I was the first child to fly back and visit Dad after the divorce. Several months had passed, I was nine years old and unaware of why the divorce occurred, but that trip left some significant impressions upon me. Although I didn't know the reasons, I knew Dad had somehow messed up because Mom cried a lot, moved out of the old house as quickly as possible, and didn't want to speak to him. That first night with Dad, we drove back to the cold, empty house which our large family had filled only two months earlier, and I felt keenly strange to see the few pieces of new furniture sitting in the living room. It was already late as we knelt down to pray together, but time suddenly didn't matter as Dad broke into sobs about half-way through the prayer.
"I had never seen my father cry before. In fact I grew up with his voice echoing through my mind, "we don't cry." I opened my shocked eyes to confirm the tears I'd heard in his voice, but seeing the strong, invisible father I'd grown up with suddenly appear vulnerable and afraid caused me to cry my own tears. He told me how much he loved me, how much he missed us kids, and with those simple words from a choked voice, I could sense his deep remorse and pain. Dad had messed up, but obviously felt sad for having done it. More importantly, though, my strong and strict father did miss me, did love me, and did cry with me that night as we knelt in prayer."
After a divorce is complete, fathers struggle not only to spend quality time with their children but also quantity time. Many fathers feel that they need to do great and extravagant activities to show their love to their children. While there is nothing wrong with this, many fathers are realizing that children thrive off of little activities that build strong bonds of love and respect. Activities that define their relationship and that are only unique to them. In this example of recreation work, a father tells of his experience with his children.
"There have been a lot of good times. Something that they love to do with me is to go climbing. I think that is an emotional experience for me and I've tried to, in a way, instill that in them. We love to get out in nature and walk around Timpanogos Caves, or up the trail on the back side of Mt. Timpanogos. It's an emotional experience for them because it's part of what was taking place before I was separated from their lives. It's just a bonding experience."
Although many non-custodial fathers live thousands of miles away from their children their relationship with them can grow. In this example of mentoring and ethical work, one father told how he has been able to be a positive influence on his children's lives.
"I found the best way to have a positive impact on my children was to call them on every Sunday morning. I called every morning to set up a pattern. I knew on Sunday, the children should be rested and under little stress. When I was on the phone I tried to be a counselor who listened instead of giving advice. Later I would write a letter and give advice. By writing one can read what they are saying to their children and often will decide to rewrite some of the phrases. This helps you eliminate emotions that often arise in discourse between parent and child."
Another father noted:
"I would always call and chat with them on Sunday morning. I used Sunday morning as the rates were lower, and the children were likely to be home, and rested after a good night of sleep. To call on a week night after a long and stressful day would not be relaxing time for either them or me. This pattern has continued for 22 years to the point if I don't call on Sunday to check on their week they feel ignored."
Other fathers have found creative ways to show their love to their children and that the children had an important place in their lives. In the end, it is these little things that the child picks up on and enhances the relationship. In this example of stewardship work, a father shows his dedication to his children.
"I knew it was important for children to have parents who care, so I tried to let them know that. After the divorce, the first townhouse I bought had three bedrooms. I put the boys' names on one bedroom door and my daughter's name on another. They always knew their dad had not abandoned them and they had a place to live if needed."
Adversities are things that non-custodial fathers face when they are trying to be a part of their child's life. No other trial is more difficult than when a child doesn't want his or her father to be a part of his or her lives. In these cases, patience, love and little acts of kindness can go a long way. One child related her experience with her father, in this example of development work.
"Growing up I was very close to my mom; I was the baby of the family and my mom always tried to be as close to me as possible. I only saw my dad on the weekends when we would stay at his apartment or when he would come to my soccer and basketball games. My dad went to almost every single one of my games when I was young, which I think was his way of trying to show me how much he cared. This really did mean a lot to me, but I still did not feel that I could comfortably talk to him. When I got around my dad I would close up and not talk to him very much. I left all of the talking to my older brother.
"I guess you could say that I was on "my mom's side" because I listened to her talk about my dad and naturally I believed that everything that she said was true. I never let my dad into my heart until I was forced to move in with him when I was thirteen years old. I was dreading this move at first, and the only reason that I was going to live with him was so that I could be with my older brother. At first it was really hard and I wanted to cry every time he tried to talk to me, but over the five years that I have lived with him we have become very close.
"We have had the opportunity to talk about what happened between him and my mom and I have been able to forgive him. I cannot even imagine what my relationship with my dad would be like if I had not moved in with him. Our relationship is so much stronger and I am just happy that I finally have a father in my life."
Not only is being a non-custodial father lonely, it can also be heart-wrenching as fathers have to return their children home after visitation rights. One father expressed his difficulty in this example of relationship work.
"It was so depressing when I would take them home....it still is. My ex-wife can attest to that. There are still times I take them home and it really upsets me. I don't know if that will ever go away. I don't think that it will. I don't think I'll ever get used to that. Every time I take them home they both say, "we don't want to go," and then cry. I made a point to tell them how much I loved them and that it wouldn't be too long till I'd see them again. I'd tell them to be little men. As time passes away, it gets easier, but it doesn't go away."
One father tells about the pain of separation:
"I remember after I moved out of the house, I moved into my parent's house for a short period of time. And when it was my weekend to have the kids, I remember taking them over to a park in Mapleton. And they were just happy to be there. They were just as happy as could be, playing on the slides, swinging on the swings. And I remember myself sitting there watching and crying because of what I was missing."
Another father expressed his feelings of not being around for everyday happenings:
"(It) was really hard right at first with the divorce because you go through a period of time where, as a father, you're so lonely in the first place, you want to overcompensate, you want to show the kids that you love them so much and that you care about them so much...you miss that relationship so much. When you go from having them every day, you know, the day to day things, as a father you miss tucking them into bed, saying their prayers, reading a book. It might just be coming home from work and asking them how their day at school was. It can be anything like that."
Even after a divorce, fathers who are involved with their children assist not only with their children's adjustment to the divorce, but also increase their own satisfaction with the transition into a new family arrangement (Pasley & Minton, 1997). In this example of relationship work, This father used creative ways to keep in touch with his children on a regular basis:
"I bought the boys a computer and signed them up for an on-line service so that they had e-mail. This way they learn about computers and also have access to me anytime that they feel like. It's fun seeing them trying to spell things and having them write about what they do that I usually don't know about because they've forgotten that stuff by the time they see me again."
Snarey (1993, p. 37) suggests that the father-child relationship is no less important than the mother-child relationship. In this story illustrating the importance of mentoring work, a divorced mother of two expresses sadness that her boys could not have their dad around all the time and appreciation for his devotion to his non-custodial children.
"When I was first getting to know the man who later became my husband, I was very impressed with the way that he treated children. He had lots of nieces and nephews that lived nearby and was always coming up with wonderful plans that delighted them. It was fun to anticipate how he would be with our own children, and I looked forward to sharing parenthood with him. In time, we had two sons of our own. Randy was great with the boys, he always had lots of creative ideas for things to do with them and things he wanted to build for them. I've never seen a father spend more time planning ways for his children's lives to be fun and stimulating.
"When I was nursing our first son, Randy found a way to make an electric breastpump out of a little twenty-five dollar Coleman air-compressor. This meant that I could easily pump a bottle and he could feed his son."
"Trevor thrived and loved this thing we put him in that was called "Johnny Jump-up." His dad soon got the idea that stationary jumping was not exciting enough and rigged up a system of hooks and pulleys so that Trevor could bounce across the room when he was several months old. We could pull him way back on the pulley and release him to go zinging across the room -- he would squeal with delight. (Is it any surprise that he loves roller-coasters?) The boys loved switches, so dad made a little box that was all switches and lights and buzzers that they could push and flip to their hearts content.
"As they grew, Randy built them a playhouse of his own design; it started simple with lots of room to expand. There was a sandbox and rope to climb, but best of all was the slide. A long, wide slide that was made out of an old countertop so that both could go down together and it would never get hot and burn them. It was hinged at the top so that a wading pool could go under it, and in the winter it could be removed and taken to another playhouse built in the basement. They loved it!
"Unfortunately, as wonderful a father as Randy was, it didn't carry over into his role as a husband. He never seemed to feel the same love and attachment to me as he did to the boys. This was a sad experience for me, but I wanted my boys to have a father and felt that love for them was more important than love for me. He was an excellent provider and I was content to have what I did, even if it didn't live up to my childhood dreams. Perhaps if Randy had not been the kind of father that he was to our sons, it would have been easier for me to say that it wasn't worth it, but they were happy and chubby and they adored their daddy, so I thought that it was.
"Still, in time Randy felt that he could no longer tolerate marriage and wanted to leave. It was heartbreaking for me to have this happen to my family, but most heartbreaking of all was watching the boys cope with it. They were only one and three, but they would chase their daddy's car down the street and cry, or they would stand in the window and scream for him to come back. I would hold them and cry, too. It still makes me sad to remember how their little hearts seemed as if they would break. I didn't like him much then. It was hard enough for me, as an adult, to cope with the loss, and I was so angry that he would and could hurt my two precious children and I could not stop him.
"It has been seven years since that time. Sometimes a VERY LONG seven years, as the boys and I have lived alone all those years. Their father lives an hour away and is as active in their lives as he can be at that distance. He is the most involved, caring divorced father that I have ever known or heard about. For that I am thankful; it eases the trauma of divorce for the boys and for me! Just last night we had the pinewood derby and Randy came with the cars that he and they had built. They had spent a lot of time on the cars and over the past couple of years Randy has learned lots of ways to make cars that go fast! The boys won first and second place, the first time they've even placed and it was just fun for all of us.
"I'm glad he is there for them, although I can't help but feel that they have missed out. More than anything I wanted this wonderful father for my children. More than anything I wanted them to have that example in their home. I can give them many things as a mother, but I can't give them a dad that comes home everyday. That still makes me sad."
Parenting from a distance, no matter how great or small, has it's unique challenges. "Fathers can and do redefine themselves in ways that allow them to stay engaged and feel good about fathering [despite the] overwhelming obstacles brought about by marital transitions" (Pasley & Minton, 1997). We are currently in the process of building up our section about non-custodial fathers and invite you to share your story with us.
ConclusionJust as a person listening to the radio must carefully tune into a station in order to understand the information, so must non-custodial fathers consistently be in tune with their children's lives. Even though thousands of miles can separate him from his children he can still tune his heart and mind toward them, by avoiding changing stations so as to avoid the pain of not being with his children on a daily basis. These fathers must make sure that they always have their radio turned on and tuned into their child's life.
"If they do, they can share in the beautiful moments of joy, as well as the heartache. However, if they are not tuned in now, they will realize that when they want to be heard and listened to, no one will be at the receiving end; rather they will only hear static.More metaphors about fathering
Learning and Application ActivitiesPlease complete one of the following: