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Fathering in Challenging Circumstances

Fathering Special Needs Children
Fathering Non-custodial Children (for Divorced Dads)
Fathering Adopted Children
Fathering in Economic Hardship

Fathering Special Needs Children


When fathers learn that their child will have lifelong special needs or that they have a dangerous illness, their reactions can range from shock, to acceptance, to greater love. Fathers often try and meet these challenges with courage and ingenuity. Many fathers are highly committed to their special needs children and devote long hours to the physical and emotional care of their children (Brotherson & Dollahite, 1997).

While there is relatively little research on fathers with special needs children, in most cases, whatever the nature of the child's handicap, there is a much greater likelihood that the children with attentive, encouraging fathers will eventually make successful adjustments, cope constructively, and develop healthy self-esteem than children who suffer from lack of paternal support (Biller, 1993, p. 216). Brotherson and Dollahite (1997) also add that generative fathering has a profound impact on the development and happiness of the father, as well as the special needs child.


Many of the stories in this section illustrate ethical work, as fathers appropriately choose to meet the needs of their children. Although describing his daughter's birth defect, this father expresses his joy at having the opportunity to adopt.

"Christina has a congenital defect, which is not really genetic, but it's something that happened in the womb. What happened is that somehow she got what's called an amniotic vant [?]. There are two causes for that. Either the leg, which is involved, was connected to the amniotic membrane, which is the inner lining of the sac, or they believe that the amnion sends out fibers to reabsorb some of the nutrients in the amniotic fluid and somehow they got wrapped around the upper portion of her lower leg.

"It acted somewhat like a constriction band. She's had two surgeries now and has to go on for a third. In the first surgery they did a Z-plasty [?] where they removed the constricting band. In the second surgery they operated on her foot to help release the Achilles tendon and the medial tendon on her foot, because it was pulling her foot in. When they did the Z-plasty they discovered that she has no lateral muscle to her foot, meaning no opposition to help pull her out, so she has this problem. She wears a brace.

"However, that doesn't slow her down. We knew about it from the day that they called us with the possible adoption. We had contacted this agency in Mississippi and they said that they don't adopt to families who are Caucasian--they mainly put these black children in black homes. But when they came up with this child, knowing they wouldn't have a place for it and we'd just talked to them, they called us back and said, "Are you still interested? We have this child and she has this special need." At first we didn't even know what it was because it's a very rare condition.

"So, we tried to find out some information. As far as attitude is concerned, I think that we were kind of excited about that here's another baby. You take the chance that any baby you adopt or have born might have problems, and that wasn't a factor. We were looking for a child with problems. It was more excitement than anything else. . . . She's walking, she's running! She falls down once in a while, but it doesn't slow her down. She's developing at a normal rate."

Brotherson & Dollahite(1997) found the father's attitude and commitment toward the special needs child to strongly affects the way the rest of the family, especially the mother, adjusts to the challenging situation. In an exellent example of development work, Bill talks about the death of a child and how it has helped him and his wife, Marci, cope with the special needs of their newest child who has Down's Syndrome:

"[A]bout a year before Neal, we had another child that was born twelve weeks early that didn't survive and did die. I think that gave us strength. It was hard. It was hard to hold a little baby and have a doctor ask you, "Should we try and revive this child? If we do, this is the quality of life it will have." Then, to be forced to make that decision on the spot based on your feelings and advice from the experts, that maybe that isn't what we should do at the time--it was tough. It was real tough. That's probably the hardest decision I've had to make in my life. They never revived it.

"You could see its little heart beating a little bit, not really breathing, but just there while we held it for a few moments, another boy. Marci just went into the hospital for a checkup and never came back out, having the baby a few hours later. I got there in time after I was up in Layton doing some work. I got a call that said, "Your wife is having a baby," yet I knew that she was three months early....You can't describe feelings and you can't explain them, which is why a lot of this is just based upon your personal beliefs.

"A lot of times that's all that you've got. But the whole feeling between John, the one that passed away, and Neal, the one that lived, was totally different. I think that we had to experience the pain of John dying so that we could give the proper emotional support to Neal when he needed it."

Brotherson & Dollahite (1997) state that fathering special needs children requires "generative ingenuity" (p.104). This father tells how the simple joys of fathering brought him closer to his special needs child.

"Just seeing him progress a little bit we've had fun. He's very simple at this point, and so just playing with him on various occasions where he started to respond or come back with a new reaction has been fun. I've had a couple of good times changing his diaper, because you can get in his face and be fairly close to him, and he's actually started talking or babbling for me. On the changing table I can usually get him to start babbling right back at me. . . I've been working on this thing of him showing me his tongue.

"You have to get his attention first, but if I get him going then I might be able to get him to show me his tongue. That's the only thing we can get him to show us. You can't get him to touch his nose yet, or his ear. For a while there we were asking, "How big is Jeff?" and he'd actually raise his hands in the air. But, he's dropped that response entirely. So, the only thing I've gotten that's a definite response to a question or input is, "Show me your tongue." We'd sit there and stick our tongues out at each other."

Having a child who needs to have medical treatment can be difficult on parents. Snarey (1993, p. 94) found that as men became devoted to being a father in these difficult situations, they saw it as a choice and became deeply committed to it. This work then served as a continual growth promoting experience. The following story is an example of how a father found empathy and compassion in viewing his child's condition:

"She had a lot of spinal taps and a lot of bone marrow draws and a lot of shots, and we were there, at least one of us and usually both of us for every shot she ever got--for every X-ray treatment, every radiation treatment she got, we were there. And she really wanted us there....I was always there for her. I didn't get to be with her as much as her Mom, of course, because I wasn't home during the day. But Megan got my time....[S]he had leukemia and I was going to make sure that I spent time with her. I could be there for her. I think I was able to give her empathy.

"There were times in the midst of all the treatments that you just try to push it to the back of your mind and forget about it. As a matter of fact, we lived much of those 2-1/2 years without thinking of her as having leukemia. We did our best to forget it....It was a natural thing to try and repress it, to forget about it as much as possible, and I would at times feel that was unfair to her....But mentally we could do that. We could just choose not to think what that was to Megan, and what it was like to get those shots. I pressed that down....Then from time to time I would think how unfair that was. Megan can't do that. Megan can't dodge those needles.

"We make her hold still for those needles. So from time to time I just had a crying spell. I'd just sit down and have myself a "remember" of what she was going through. I tried, despite the pain to myself, to keep in touch with what she was going through, to be there and to empathize."

"Physically caring for a child's needs, however mundane, symbolizes the love a father can express through his fatherwork" (Brotherson & Dollahite, 1997, p. 101). This father talks about his love and commitment in caring for his daughter, Megan, when she was in pain.

"I've just about spent my life caring for and nurturing Megan, when I wasn't at work. Maybe the hospital is the part we like to forget but can't. When her pain got to the point that she couldn't go to the bathroom, I was the one that got to do her bedpans for her. She would only let me do it; I was the one that did that. It wasn't a thing for Mom, and she didn't want anybody else in the room.

"She kicked everybody out of the room--nurses, Mom--Mom had to be outside the door, and I would get the bedpan as best as I could under her bottom without hurting her. Moving the sheets hurt her. It was not a good thing. But she let me do that for her, and I was able to take care of her needs, and it helped me that I was the only one she'd let do it. That was kind of neat. You wouldn't expect bedpan shuffling to be a wonderful memory, but it was. She trusted me to do my best job to not hurt her, and that was special to me that she let me do that."

These last three stories describe the experiences of fathers who have learned about their child's special needs. Some of the fathers have never experienced an exact diagnosis for their child, and yet they know, because of experience with older children, that something is not quite right with this child.

"We've actually never found out. I was sitting on the couch when I first became aware. Because all of our kids were early readers and early speakers, such as our other boy was doing the sounds and begging for alphabet help at 2 years, we were sitting on the couch and I was doing the sounds with him. I was trying to teach him the sound of "b." He was just obstinate and said "No," in a cheerful way, but his body went stiff and he would turn his head and refuse to look at me.

"I don't know if that was the realization but I think that was the beginning of it. I realized that he was different than the others. Actually, if there was a moment it was when Miss Sharon at school said, "We think he has autistic tendencies. I'm fairly confident." But with that phrase she also said, "I'm very confident he can grow out of this and deal with it." Actually it was a reassuring thing and my body relaxed when somebody said to me that you could deal with those autistic tendencies. To me the second experience was a positive moment."

Fathers sometimes have healthy children who develop a problem that affects their capabilities, and yet have hope that with help and work they may progress normally.

"When he was a year old he was talking like any normal kid. He was starting to say words and then all of a sudden there was nothing. We tried and tried to get his ears cleared up with antibiotics, etc. and it didn't work. It was really kind of hard when you see other kids his age talking and communicating, and Luke would just sit there and do nothing. Physically he was fine. He could run and jump and throw.

"Of course, he threw a lot of tantrums and stuff like that (he got a lot of exercise!), but it was hard. I guess I'm kind of proud but I always wanted to be the best at what I did, and I thought, "Poor kid, now he's got to go through school and he'll be behind." But then I decided he could catch up if we work with him, and so we've got to do it now and hold up our end of the deal. At first it was kind of hard, but it doesn't bother me now. . . probably because of what I've seen him do and how he can learn.

"He doesn't have a learning disability, he's just had a hard time hearing and now he's got to catch up. At least, I don't think he has a learning disability because he learns pretty quickly. Now I've seen that it will work out."

Some special needs children have suffered critical illness at the beginning of their lives and others will live with the results of these early illnesses the rest of their lives. In this example of development work, a father adapts to varying and difficult situations:

"Jeremy was born ten weeks early and at the time he was born he had a lot of infection throughout his body, in his bloodstream and everywhere. My wife hadn't had trouble in her pregnancy, but she woke up at 3:00 one morning and had a temperature and she said, "Paul, I think my water broke." So, we went down to American Fork Hospital and they told us, "Well, just prepare to stay here. We're going to keep you here down in bed for four weeks, six weeks, or just as long as we can until that body grows as well as it can. We'll keep you monitored." That was at 3:00 in the morning and 12:00 the next night she started to develop a temperature.

"They said that they didn't know if the baby was causing the temperature or if she was infected, but that if she had a temperature and there was some infection the baby would be better off outside of the womb than inside. So, at that time they decided that they needed to get the baby and have her deliver it. They took her over to Utah Valley Hospital and three hours later she delivered Jeremy. They induced her and she was able to have him naturally. When he was first born all that we first knew was that he had a lot of infection. The doctors had a real hard time fighting the infection and they didn't know what caused it or where it was going.

"One of the weakest points of a premature child is the respiratory system and the lungs, and the doctors had to be so aggressive fighting the infection that he developed lung problems where his lungs actually collapsed on him. So, they actually paralyzed Jeremy for an off and on period of two weeks and machines were breathing for him. That was real hard because you look at this little, poor, innocent child and he is not even moving. You know that the only thing keeping him alive is the respirator, breathing in and out, and you are helpless. From there he developed hydrocephalus and it wasn't until we were ready to take him home that it suddenly came into effect. He had a "Number 4 brain bleed."

"Well, what does that mean? It meant that his head was going to swell and they had to relieve the pressure, so they put in a Myer reservoir which they tapped with a syringe a couple times a day to relieve the pressure in the brain. That didn't take care of itself so they had to put in the shunt to relieve the pressure. The hardest part about this whole thing was that it never seemed to end. Those three months before we brought him home were the longest three months of my life, because it was just one thing after another. We learned a valuable lesson and were very happy that we had the doctors that we did, but all they can give you is their best guess.

"It's not a science based on concrete facts and they don't always know. They're not always right. But, we still don't look at Jeremy as a disabled child. He has been diagnosed with having cerebral palsy, so we still have a few challenges ahead of him, but it is not apparent to me as a father yet. At least, I don't see those disabilities. He is slower and doesn't do the things that other children his same age do, but he is progressing and coming along."


FatherWork with special-needs children should and can be as wonderful and varied as special-needs kids themselves are. Fathers of special-needs children are ordinary men doing both ordinary and extraordinary things since parents of special-needs kids do the same things other parents do but usually have added burdens (and, often, added joys). Fatherwork with special-needs kids can be like the Special Olympics. Fathers can coach children to develop skills and confidence, provide opportunities for accomplishment, give encouragement and supportive cheering along the way, and present them with rewards for effort and accomplishment.

Every special-needs child deserves a father that runs and jumps with her through the challenges of life, one that enthusiastically hugs him at the end of each little success, one that hangs medals on his neck with pride and love in his eyes, and one that, through his constant encouragement and love, places a continual stream of flowers in her hands. Your child (and all special-needs children) needs the coaching, cheering, encouraging, and assisting that you uniquely can give.

More metaphors about fathering

Learning and Application Activities

Please complete one of the following:

1. Think of an experience in which you or your father (or some other father you know well) demonstrated relationship work in fathering (commune, comfort). Write about this experience and submit your story to us.

2. Discuss the concept of relationship work in fathering with a spouse, friend, or co-worker, including the challenges of the human condition that make relational work important (isolation), the attendant needs of the next generation (intimacy and empathy), fathers' capabilities and responsibilities (commune and comfort) and the intended results of ethical work (loving fathers and caring children). Send us a brief (about one page) "report" about what you learned from this experience via email.

3. The terms, commune and comfort, associated with relational work, are quite broad, and in professional and educational settings it is usually important to be specific. Drawing from your personal and professional background, make a list of six specific ways that fathers can demonstrate their capability and responsibility to commune with and comfort their children and the next generation. Send your list to us via email.

Fathering Non-custodial Children (for Divorced Dads)


Non-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 parents 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 intermittent 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.


Non-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 to feel 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 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 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 every day. That still makes me sad."

Parenting from a distance, no matter how great or small, has its 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.


Just 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 Activities

Please complete one of the following:

1. Share a story or experience about how the "little things" have made a difference in your relationship with your child.

2. Interview a child who has a non-custodial father on what that child's needs and wants are. Next find out the special ways these needs are met, how the child wants them to be met and which one the child appreciates the most, and why. Send your brief (about one page) "report" about this experience to us via email.

3. Think of three creative but simple activities that non-custodial fathers can do to enhance and strengthen their relationship with their child. (Activities that are unique and fun that will bring them closer together.) Be sure to include age-specific activities, and then send your activities to us via email.

Fathering Adopted Children


Adoption is a challenge and a joy for families. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, 345,000 families have adopted children in their household. Often, families have been waiting years to adopt children and have had to go through rigorous interviews and stacks of paperwork. International adoptions are becoming more popular as eastern European countries open their borders. Adoption brings challenges similar to those of having a newborn such as learning how to care for the child, figuring out what each parent will do, and creating a place in the home for the child.

Despite these similarities, adoption also has some intrinsic differences. New parents are confronted with figuring out how to develop a bond with an adopted child, how to share information about the child's origin, and how to help this child relate to other family members who might not approve of or understand the adoption. In the case of international and cross-ethnic adoptions, parents also need to decide whether to teach the child his/her native language, culture, and heritage. Even though these challenges are difficult, fathers do enjoy and learn from their adopted children.


When asked about a positive experience with his wife, Isaac talked about their spiritual experiences with adoption. Spiritual work is an important part of fathering.

"I'll give you the last positive experience we've had. All of my life I've thought about adopting a child. Somehow we got involved in an adoption group. I went deer hunting and when I came back she had gone to LDS Social Services and told me Sunday morning that we were adopting. The most positive experience I've had with her is learning that her inspiration is sometimes greater than mine. I was upset because she kept putting it off.

"But looking at it now, when it was right she knew it and called, and we got him. It was the right baby. That has happened, obviously, in the last eighteen months, and that has been the most positive thing. I was upset because I couldn't understand why she was waiting, but then one day it was just a change. I didn't even want to know about it. But she was right, because as soon as she put in those papers it happened. She had seen Elijah in dreams and kept saying, "Haven't you dreamed about him?" I'd say, "No," and she'd say, "Well, why not?" That's the way it was, but she knew him.

"When she put the papers in and decided, she clearly had the inspiration for it. Then one day from work, a couple of days after she'd finally done it, I felt Elijah's spirit for the first time. That was a week before he was actually born, and I almost started crying. I knew it was the baby that I was feeling. I knew it wasn't the Holy Ghost, I knew it was the baby. It was the strangest feeling, and that's when I got my first confirmation, but she had had it all along. I have to trust her inspiration."

In an example of relationship work, a daughter tells the story of how she was adopted and how much this means to her.

"My life began in South Korea in 1972. Shortly after I was born, I was abandoned on a corner in the streets of Inchon, Korea. I was discovered by a police officer, and was taken to a local orphanage. My story is a common one for many Korean girls born during that time. Many mothers abandoned their baby girls because of poverty, but would keep the much preferred boy babies born to them. The orphanage I was taken to was full of babies.

"I was very sick, and did not have a very good chance of living because of the poor conditions that existed and the lack of medical care. During this time, my [adoptive] father was serving in the Air Force and was stationed in Korea. Upon the suggestion of my [adoptive] mother, he looked in orphanages for a baby to adopt. Shortly after I had been brought to the orphanage, my father came there, looking for a baby. He walked up and down the rows of bassinets that filled the huge room that was twice the size of a basketball gym.

"Every time he walked by me, I would look up at him, and he knew that I was the baby that he was supposed to adopt. It took awhile for all of the paper work to go through, so meanwhile my father cared for me. He was able to give me the medical care I needed, which saved my life. He was totally responsible for me and my care, because my mother was on the other side of the world. Finally, after eight months, I was able to go to America to meet my mother and my new home.

"My family always jokes that my father gave birth to me, because of the unusual circumstances in which I was brought to be with my family. My mother missed the first eight months of my life, but my father was there and was the one who brought me home to my mother. In most cases it seems to be the other way around, with the mother being primarily responsible for the infant in those early months, with the father occasionally assisting. I think my experience caused my father and I to develop a special bond. After he brought me home, he continued to care for me when he could, and felt a closeness to me that he had not felt with his other two children."

In another example of spiritual work, another father related his spiritual experiences with adoption.

"Our children are eleven and eight, and we'd been trying to have another for six or seven years and hadn't been able to. My wife has had three miscarriages in that time and it just wasn't working. We couldn't really find any medical problem or solution, so we started thinking about adopting. We went and talked to LDS Social Services and because we had two biological children we would only qualify through them for a special needs child, an older child or a mixed-race child. We started to pursue this and were going to adopt a mixed-race child. We were just starting the process and it looked like it was going to be a long time, if it ever succeeded at all.

"Some friends of ours that were also interested in adopting called us and were going to Russia in December. This was at the end of October. They said, "We're going to Russia in December and are going to adopt a baby." My wife said, "Well, that's nice." They said, "No, you don't understand. You are going to Russia with us." So, we did. . .

"Before all of this happened and before we ever started looking into adoption, my wife one night early in the morning woke up from a deep sleep and she woke me up. She said that she had been awakened by a child calling her and she knew it wasn't either of our two children. It was very distinct and really left an impression on her, and that was when we started looking into adoption. A little later I had a dream one night about a little, blond-haired and blue-eyed boy. I came in the house after work and this little boy took me by the hand and led me through the house, and was jabbering and pointing out things.

"He was just holding me by the hand and taking me through the house. That was really distinct too. We didn't know what was going on. . .

"We were in Russia in the city of Magnitogorsk, which is halfway around the world from Utah. Midnight here is noon there. We had been in Moscow for several days and then we'd traveled to Magnitogorsk, and we'd actually been in Magnitogorsk already for a full day when we finally went to the orphanage. We were terrified and we didn't know what to expect. All we'd seen of her was this little fifteen-second video clip and that was basically all we knew about her. So, we didn't know what to expect. They brought us into the orphanage and we went all the way through this old building where the orphanage was located.

"We went back into an office and the director of the orphanage and one of the doctors that worked there came in and talked to us for a while. We had a translator with us, a girl who we had with us from Moscow, and she spoke English very well. She translated for us because nobody else spoke English. We tried to make small talk for a while and finally they sent this old lady to go and get Anna. They brought her in and her hair had just been scalped, just a crew cut. Her head had been shaved on the sides and she had a flat-top on the top. It was probably because it was easier to care for and keep clean. She had a little blue dress on but it just hung on her because she was so tiny, and some really heavy leather shoes. They brought her in and set her down on the floor and she walked over to us. She went to my wife and just looked at her, so Kristy picked her up and she didn't mind. She was really sweet. Then I took her and she started to cry because there were never any men in the orphanage. She never saw a man and so she was afraid. I picked her up and she kind of started to whimper, so I handed her back to Kristy and she sat on Kristy's lap while we talked. I had a watch on and I took my watch off and gave it to her and she played with that. I had to win her over but it only took a few minutes, then she came to me and was fine. She got down and just started running around the office, wanting to play with everything. She was very curious."

In another example of relationship work, this father also described his adoption experience as being like the birth of his other children.

"I would say it was comparable to the birth of our other children in a lot of ways. When Erika was born she was born at a birthing center with a midwife. After Erika was born I took her, bathed her, dressed her up and cleaned her up properly while they were taking care of my wife. It was like that for me. I think it's been hard for my wife. The bonding process has been harder for my wife with Anna, because for her it is much different than giving birth to a biological child.

"There are two years of history and growth that we know nothing about and don't have any connections to, so it has been hard for my wife not to have that attachment and the attachment of actually giving birth. She is very patient and loves her very much, but it has been much different for her. But for me I almost feel like, in a sense, that it's like I got to give birth to Anna. Not that I did so in any real sense, but I was very involved in finding her, figuring out how to finance getting her, calling Russia every other night trying to arrange everything, etc. I was at least as involved and probably more so than my wife was, so to me she is very much mine. In that way I really like it."

Later on, this father also discussed some of the challenges of an international adoption.

"It is somewhat different because we had a pretty good idea of what those problems were before we ever met her. We knew that she wasn't going to be able to speak English, we knew that she was small and not as far along developmentally as we would expect an American two-and-a-half year old to be. So, it didn't come as a big shock. I think that if my wife were here she would tell you, and she is right, that there have been times when it's been kind of hard to recognize that there are concerns.

"She is a beautiful little girl and we love her very much, but there are some problems and things that we need to deal with. We've got to work on the fact that she doesn't know how to form a bond with us. There are behavioral things that she has to learn and we need to have a plan of how we will handle discipline, teaching, etc. We have to recognize that there are some problems which have to be dealt with and we can't let them go. I probably haven't recognized that as much as my wife has."


FatherWork extends itself beyond human bounds of creation and into the hearts and minds of children. Many families choose to graft branches into their existing family tree or may need to graft in order to have a family tree. As the new branch is grafted in, special care must be taken to ensure the new branch "takes root" within the family tree. It is essential that the nourishment that is provided from the tree's deep roots is passed on through the newly forming network of internal connections; these are connections of love, understanding, and support. Fathers, you are a source of these essential elements for your child.

You will find that as you give of yourself, the branches of your family tree will flourish and return to you the type of life-giving love and support offered best by a family.

More metaphors about fathering

Learning and Application Activities

Please complete one of the following:

1. Interview a father who has adopted a child about the rewards, challenges, and hard work of fathering an adopted child. (Or, if you have adopted a child, "interview" yourself.) From that interview, select an interesting or poignant story or experience and submit that story to us.

2. Develop a new metaphor that captures an important aspect of fathering adopted children and submit it to us via email.

3. Think of three unique activities for fathers and adoptive children to do to help create a stronger relationship between them. (Be sure to include age specific activities.) Send your activities to us via email.

Fathering in Economic Hardship


Economic hardship is a common challenge many fathers face. Even with a steady job, there just never seems to be enough money to go around. Fathers who face economic hardship often find that they must figure out what their "value" really is. A common belief is that a father is a failure if he can't provide for his family. Questions like, "Am I just a paycheck? How will we make ends meet? and Where am I going to find another job?" are often asked with painful searches for the answers.

How a father responds to these kinds of situations is very important. Fathers can still make choices to care for many of their children's needs regardless of how much money they have. In fact, economic hardship can be an opportunity for fathers to get closer to their children by being more involved in their day-to-day lives. Learning to value and maximize the situation a father finds himself in is the key to overcoming the challenges of financial strain.


Michael Lamb (Parke, 1996, p. 51) explains that there are three types of interaction that fathers have with children. Fathers directly interact with their children, are available for interaction, and care for their children's needs through taking responsibility. This third way is an important part of stewardship work. Although a father might think that he is not directly involved with his children when he is working outside of the home, it is involvement. One father told about the sacrifices that were made for him so that he could have a better life than his father did.

"It takes continual effort, and there are these two poles that are tugging at you. You've got family, and you've got your profession and your education, and you can't abandon either one. It's very easy to fall into the profession. My Dad, I think, he had seven children and a job that didn't pay all that much, and so he was repairing violins and restringing bows, working in the Navy Reserve, etc. I remember him having three or four different jobs at one point, in which he would do something.

"But he needed that, you know, he really did. It wasn't easy for him keeping the family fed. So, he had to spend a lot of time. He recognized this and he sent us to college, and paid our tuition for those of us that didn't have scholarships. He gave us a stipend every month to live so we wouldn't have to work, so that we could study, so that we could get out and get good jobs. It really boggled my mind when I graduated with my master's degree and found out that my starting salary was about equivalent to what my Dad was earning right then, and it's doubled since then. He really had to struggle hard, and he wasn't able to take the time."

In an example of mentoring work, this father also discussed how he was supported in college by his father.

"I remember as my twin sister and I were leaving Saudi Arabia, where we had just spent the summer for the first time ever, we were leaving to come to BYU (the two of us--actually she was going to Ricks, and I was going to BYU). There was the question of the station wagon, which was still here stateside, and who was going to get it. There was a little bit of arguing going on about who should have the car. I remember my Dad saying that maybe we ought to give it to the one who had the scholarship, and wasn't costing as much money to support. It made me feel like he valued me, like I had been approved by my father.

"In that same conversation and context, he was talking about how he really wanted us to succeed in school, so that we wouldn't have to struggle like he had. It was just. . . it was a boost, it was a push. I felt like as I left the nest that I could succeed, that my Dad was behind me and he wanted me to succeed, and he believed that I would. It was just a neat feeling."

In another example of mentoring work, one father found himself in a tough financial situation and was helped by his father.

"They give it back. As much as you give your parents, they find ways to give it back. Seven years ago I was in a partnership in construction and it went sour. The company got into a bad situation and, with out going into a lot of detail, the bottom line was that I left. All I had known was construction for five or six years, since I'd been home from my mission [for his church]. I didn't know anything else, and construction was gone. There were no homes being built, no job opportunities, and I'd soured on it from what happened. Basically what ended up happening is that I ended up losing a home from it, was unemployed, and didn't have money.

"I learned from my family that they are survivors. You face situations. Nothing is ever critical. There's always a tomorrow. You're not going to die, etc. Yes, it might be important or a sticky situation, but you'll face it and tomorrow you'll go on. For the first time in my life, I didn't feel like there was a tomorrow. I had no money. I had bill collectors coming to the door. When it really got to me was when I realized that I didn't have enough money to buy a loaf of bread to feed my wife and my one child at the time. When you are put into situations like that, you lose all self-confidence and all feelings of self-worth.

"You're just devastated and you really feel like you're not worth anything. It was at that time. We realized that we didn't have enough money to buy a loaf of bread. My father could sense that something was wrong. They didn't know how bad it was and they didn't know what the situation really was, but they just showed up with some groceries. They acted as if "We don't know what you need, but we have some extra and here it is." It's probably one of the few times that I've cried in front of my father."

Economic hardship sometimes leaves children with wonderful memories about their fathers.

"When I was a young girl my family did not have much money. My father worked hard to get us what we needed, but with four small children and not a big income we did not have many extras. One Christmas when I was about eight or nine I really wanted a play stove. My parents told me that Santa tried hard to get every little girl all that she wanted but it didn't always work out. I remember thinking I really wanted that stove, but even if Santa could bring me some dishes or play food it would be alright. On Christmas morning there was a big white stove under the tree for me, and some dishes! I was so excited. It had turning dials and everything.

"I'd never seen a stove so neat--I was so lucky! In later years I came to know that my Dad had built the stove out of a piece of plywood and bottle caps for dials. He painted four black burners on top and it even had an oven with two shelves inside. He spent very little money and probably not all that much time, but to me it meant more that he'll know. My stove was the best and most original on the block, and the one made with the most love. "


FatherWork in economic hardship calls for creativity, sacrifice, and resourcefulness. Sometimes a father might feel like he is running the Boston Marathon as a three legged race. When he steps up to the starting line, his partner, financial stress, ties a rope around their legs. In the distance, this father can see the finish line that inspires him--caring for his children's needs. The gun goes off and everyone else seems to be sprinting by leaving him in the dust. As a father works to manage financial stress, he is able to move more quickly and can even lose this partner. It might take longer and have to be run (or even walked) in a different way, but the finish line can be met.

His children's loving faces will cheer him on to cross the finish line and join them in celebration. Fathers then will receive the reward of knowing that his children have a chance in life because of his committed work. Hard work, simple acts of love, and sacrifice will show your children that you love them as you struggle to overcome economic hardship.

More metaphors about fathering

Learning and Application Activities

Please complete one of the following:

1. Think of a story, personal or professional, related to fathering during economic hardship. Submit that story to us.

2. Interview a father going through economic hardship. Send your brief (about one page) "report" about what you learned from this experience to us via email.

3. Think of three no-cost, fun activities for fathers and children to do during times of economic hardship to help create a stronger relationship between them. (Be sure to include age specific activities.) Send your activities to us via email.