Just after her son turned one, Nikki N. and her husband separated and divorced, and her ex "simply vanished and moved to another state." Now, two years later, Nikki's son has started asking where his dad is.
His questions make this Circle of Moms member feel sick: "His father has made it clear by his absence he does not desire to have a relationship with him," she says, adding that she has no idea how to "properly" handle telling her little boy that his father chooses not to see him.
Nikki N.'s dilemma is one faced by many moms who are raising children alone. In some cases the heartbreak is caused by an absent father who doesn't want to be involved. In others, the mom may have adopted a child or chosen another pathway to becoming a solo parent. Either way, moms who are raising their children without the help of a partner tend to be acutely sensitive to the deep wounds the father's absence can have on the emotional well-being of their children.
Here, Circle of Moms members offer their thoughts on how to help your children cope when their father is not involved in their lives.
1. Tell the Truth
Though many moms' inclination is to protect their children from whatever will hurt them, it's not a good idea to lie to them or withhold too much information about their father and why he is not involved in their lives, say moms like Eugenie N. She advocates delivering the facts in a sensitive way, being careful not to overshare.
She also warns moms against telling a fateful lie to protect their kid's feelings: "Whatever you do, please do not say that daddy is dead. Children usually resent their mom when they get older and the truth comes out, and it usually does." Instead of pretending the dad doesn't exist, she suggests:
"I would probably explain to them that being a parent is not an easy job and that some parents are just not ready. As a child gets older, if the parent is still not around you could give them a little more detail as to what happened or why he was not there." Sina S. also is a big believer in telling the truth. "They may not like what you have to say, but they would probably appreciate it more if you told the truth."
2. Don't Bash Your Child's Father
It's also important to be positive when you are delivering the truth to your children, as they are looking to you for reassurances that they are going to be OK without a dad, and that it's not their fault that they don't have one, recommend moms like Val K. "Be supportive and do not talk bad about [the dad]," she says.
Ericka B. agrees with this approach and says she was careful to present a positive spin on their father's absence when she explained it to her kids:
"I was honest with my daughters when they asked because I felt that was the best thing for them. Their father and I broke up for a multitude of reasons, the most important one being that he was an irresponsible jerk (not that I put it to them that way) but they know that he was not ready to be a father and therefore I decided it was best to raise them alone."
Rachel B. also worked on a positive spin for her son: "Whenever he asks about his dad, I just tell him that his dad wasn't ready to be in our family yet. I also reassure him that just because he isn't ready now doesn't mean that he is a bad person." The important thing, she adds, is to help your child feel that he has what he needs in you, which is "all that counts."
3. Explain That There Are All Kinds of Families
Some kids get very sensitive about the fact that their dad doesn't live with them because they feel all the other kids at school or in their neighborhood have two parents living at home, moms like Carrie M. point out. That's why it is especially important for moms to point out that there are all kinds of families, from those with divorced parents to single-parent homes with adopted children to moms who have chosen to have a child through a sperm donor or alternative birthing situation, says Carrie M. who adopted her son by herself.
"He was about three when he asked why we don't have a dad in our family," she says. "I told him at the time he came in my life I was in a place in my life where I was an alone mommy. But, I also told him that God had the perfect man in plan for us and when Mommy and that man were ready . . . to meet we would. I have my three brothers, four uncles, and many male cousins in our lives to help guide my son as he grows in his life."
Some moms like JuLeah W. have made a point to educate their children on the cultural and situational diversity of families since they were very young. "From the time my child was very young I read books with her, watched movies, met people from different cultures and countries, and in general learned about different families from around the world." She explained to her child: "Some kids live with their grandparents, some with foster parents, some with aunts and uncles. Some kids live with one mom or dad, or two moms or two dads." And she adds: "I don't think of it as a 'missing' father. That implies the father ought to be there and the kid is missing out on something."
4. Remind Your Kids That You Love Them
It's also very important for single moms to remind their children that though a father might not be involved in their daily lives, they are loved unconditionally by their moms, suggest many Circle of Moms members. "I know it breaks our hearts that our little ones will probably grow up in the knowledge that their fathers didn't want them, but they will also know that their mommies have more than enough love . . . and our relationship with our kids will be stronger because of it," says Tina H.
5. Expect the Questions to Continue
Moms also need to be patient, as a child's questions will never entirely go away. Marie B. has endured many nights of tears — both her own and their children's — trying to cope with the feelings of abandonment that result from a father who is absent and uninvolved:
"My son went through many nights crying asking if his dad loves him and why he never comes around. The only thing I could do is talk to him to try to get him to understand. That's the hard part, because they sometimes don't," she shares.
Kelli H. offers some reassurances: "Hang in there, my son will be 16 next month and has never seen h is real father," she says. "The questions are hard to answer and will break your heart at times, but do stay positive about [your child's father]." Your kids will eventually "figure out what kind of man he is," on their own.