[Editor's note: this letter has been condensed.]
I'm worried about my son's relationship with his father. His father and I split when I was only 4 months pregnant. His father is actually married to someone else, during the time of our relationship they were separated, he was living in his own apartment....Upon finding out about my pregnancy, the estranged wife threatened to take his other 3 kids away across the country if he did not come back to live with them and cut ties with me and the baby.
Now our son is a toddler. His father comes to visit a couple times a week (at most) and he pays child support. The problem is that while he wants a relationship with our son, his visitation is unreliable. His other children (ages 4, 6, 8) do not know they have a half sibling, and he keeps his visits secret from his wife. The support agreement has no visitation agreement written into it. When he visits, I often have very little notice or he cancels last minute. The visits are also often very short (like 20 minutes). I'm a single, full-time working mother to a toddler, schedule changes are not easy to accommodate, and they disrupt my son's daily routine. He gets very agitated when his father leaves....
I'm wondering what is best here. I want my son to have a relationship with his father, but I fear the one that he has will only be disruptive and disappointing. I'm also extremely uncomfortable with my son being a "secret." I do not want to enable his father's behavior, but I also do not want to prevent a relationship that maybe in the future could be normal. What is the best course of action here? Thank you for your insight.
From: The Other Son, North Shore, MA
Let me start by saying that your evaluation -- of wanting your son to know his dad; not wanting this to be a secret -- is right on the money.
I shared your email with psychologist Leah Klungness, author of "The Complete Single Mother," my go-to person for single-parent issues. Here are highlights from our conversation:
LK: This mom needs to sort things out now, while her son is young, for three reasons:
1. Her son will have questions in the not-too-distant future. 2. The fall-out from revealing the secrets will be on the mom. 3. It makes a better, more loving narrative for the child to have lived with the truth for as long as he can remember.
BFM: What do you mean by "fall-out"?
LK: If she isn't truthful with her son, when he does find out the truth, it's not only a shock to him, it's also a shock to their relationship: How can he trust her again? How does he know there aren't more secrets she's hiding?
Giving him the narrative now -- "When you were born, your father and I decided....." then it's just his life, in the same way as we tell children from the start that they are adopted. It's not the fact of the matter that becomes developmentally disruptive to a child, it's the shock of learning that you've lived a lie.
This dad is not going to be able to keep this a secret. Everybody has an iPhone, everybody is a videographer. Sooner or later, someone who knows him from one life is going to see him in the other one: "What are you doing in this part of town?" Does he always intend to see the boy in her home, in secret? That's not realistic and it sends a message that his connection to the child is shameful. But my real point is that because of the Internet, he's not going to be able to keep his secret life secret.
BFM: The toddler is so agitated after the father's visits because it's a disruption to his schedule and routines...
LK: Maybe his visits interrupt his napping, or eating, or whatever. But it's also over-stimulating. It's as if the dad is trying to cram six European cities into four days. It's just too much at once. He's trying to do all his parenting into a short time -- to be playful, to be physical, to be loving. In 20 minutes....?
BFM: OK. So what do you advise this mom?
LK: Arrange a meeting with the father in a neutral place, without the boy. In a non-accusatory, non-judgmental way, present him with the facts: "Your son is growing up, he will have playmates who have daddies and he will ask questions: 'Why doesn't my daddy live with me? Why doesn't he take me to the zoo? Why doesn't he pick me up at daycare?' Your son needs you to work this out so your visits can be predictable. So I can say to him, 'Your dad will be here on ......'
Say to him clearly, "I'm not going to keep this secret from my son. When the questions come up, I will answer truthfully. Why doesn't daddy sleep here? Because some mommies and daddies do not live together. Where does daddy live? He lives with another family, and you have a half-brother...".etc...
Give him time to think it through. Give him 60 days.
LK: Which brings us to a really important point. In that interval, she needs to consult with a family attorney. Is the father on the birth certificate? What's her custody status? It wouldn't be the first time I've heard of a mom in this situation finding herself sued for custody."
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