I found out that my ex-husband had a daughter with his high school girlfriend a week before our wedding. Some people would say I should have walked away then and maybe I should have — but I was already three months pregnant with my oldest kid, so it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
The reason I didn’t find out about his daughter until a week before our wedding was that he was an absent father to her. He didn’t see her, call her, or even pay child support for her — not even after we were married and I would specifically set that money aside so that all he had to do was send the check every month.
So when I decided to file for divorce, I knew one of the consequences of that decision was that he would disappear from my kids’ lives. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly. I debated whether my happiness should be put ahead of my kids having a father. I wondered if his absence would really be noted given how uninvolved he was when he was living in the same home. I questioned whether the infidelity and abuse he subjected me to was really as bad as I thought.
In the end, I decided that both of my children and I would all be better off without my ex in our lives. I knew that if I was wrong and he chose to step up and do what was right, I wouldn’t stand in his way. But I also knew that no matter how it turned out, divorce was the better choice for myself and my children.
But knowing what to do about an absent parent is hard. What do you say? What do you do?
Over the years, here’s what I’ve learned.
The court system only goes so far
Whether you’re trying to get your ex to see your kids or trying to get the child support they’ve been ordered to pay, the court system can only do so much. My ex has been put in jail at least a dozen different times for contempt and failure to pay child support — and yet after more than a decade of not paying, it was only about three years ago that he finally started paying. And that came only after I stopped having him held in contempt for failing to pay because it wasn’t changing anything.
It can feel frustrating because the courts are your only real option for getting anything done. But the power the courts have is still limited. There are only so many options they have for forcing your ex to be a responsible, active, and involved parent. If your ex doesn’t care and isn’t scared of or intimidated by a judge or jail, you may just be beating your head against a brick wall when you try to use the court system to force your ex to do the right thing.
You have no obligation to facilitate their relationships
Some exes just disappear completely, like mine. Others have excuses. And in either situation, you can feel like you have to try to facilitate a relationship between them and your children. You think for your children’s sake, you should schedule the visits, make the phone calls, or take other steps to make the relationship happen.
But you have no obligation to facilitate the relationships between your ex and your kids. That is your ex’s responsibility. And while you might think you’re doing what’s best for your kids, consider this: Is it really best for your kids to have a parent who is only there because the other parent forced them to be there?
If your ex wanted to be an involved parent, they would be. If they choose not to be, it’s not your job to try to “fix” that.
You are responsible for not interfering in the relationships
While it’s not your job to facilitate the relationships between your ex and your kids, it is your job to stay out of the way if they do decide to get involved. This means not hiding phone calls, letters, cards, gifts, and other contact your ex makes from the kids. It means not actively trying to prevent a relationship as well as watching yourself to make sure you don’t subconsciously do things that would interfere.
It’s easy to tell yourself that you’re protecting the kids when you try to interfere and prevent that relationship after the other parent has been absent for a long time. And in some cases, you might even be right. But if you truly believe that the kids need to be protected from your ex, you should talk to a lawyer and go through whatever legal steps may be required to do so. Never take it upon yourself to simply act on your own because that will open you up to your ex claiming you alienated them from the kids — and you’ll have given them the proof they need.
You don’t need to upend your life for the ex
Some absent parents aren’t completely absent. They mostly aren’t around but every now and then, they poke their head back in just to look good or stake their claim. In an attempt to not interfere with their relationships with the kids, you can go too far. When your ex suddenly pops up out of nowhere, you don’t necessarily have an obligation to cancel everything and let them see the kids.
Vacations, family reunions, a long awaited and saved up for trip to a theme park or the zoo or the beach — if your ex suddenly shows up and wants to see the kids when you’ve got big plans, you don’t need to cancel to accommodate your ex. You can offer alternative dates instead. Even if the plans are smaller, like going to soccer practice, you can invite them to meet you there rather than pulling the kids from practice.
You need to be honest with the kids
When the other parent is absent, kids can sometimes ask some really hard questions. Those questions can be especially hard when the only answer you can give is, “I don’t know.” But as tempting as it might be to tell the kids your ex died or will come see them soon or is working a lot right now, unless you know for a fact that it’s true, you shouldn’t say it.
The truth is you are not in your ex’s mind so you don’t know why they aren’t around. You have your suspicions and those suspicious might be right — but they’re not fact. And if you tell your kids something that isn’t true, you give both your ex and the kids a wedge to drive between yourself and the kids. Admitting you don’t know might be the harder answer, but if it’s the truth, it’s what you need to say.
But don’t be brutally honest
In the rare instance that you do know something, but it would be hurtful to the kids, keep it to yourself. Whether it’s that your ex told you they would never come see the kids or that they canceled a visitation with the kids to go on a date instead, the kids don’t deserve to be hurt like that.
This can be a hard one to handle because telling the kids the truth would show them what kind of person your ex is and it can feel like knowing that would be better for them. It can feel like knowing that their other parent doesn’t care about them would be better for them than hoping things will change. But it’s not better for them. And in the end, it’s not better for you either because you have to be there to pick up the pieces of those little broken hearts.
So if you know something truly hurtful, keep it to yourself.
Encourage the kids to talk to you
It can be hard to answer the questions. It can be hard to listen to the kids talk about loving a parent who isn’t around, missing that parent, wishing they could see them. But as hard as those things may be for you, it’s much harder on your kids to feel like they need to keep their feelings and questions to themselves because it will hurt or upset you.
Encourage the kids to talk to you. Whether it’s to ask a question or to tell you how they feel, encourage open communication between you. Answer their questions to the best of your ability, validate their feelings, and just be there for them. Not only will they remember that you were the parent who was there, they’ll also remember you never tried to erase the other parent from their lives.
Don’t cut off extended family
Your ex may be your child’s other parent, but they also have a whole extended family: grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins — perhaps even half-siblings, depending on the circumstances. And it’s understandable that when your ex walks away, you’d feel like you need to protect your kids by keeping away the rest of your ex’s family too.
But your ex’s decisions are their own — and the rest of their family may not agree with what your ex is doing either. Your kids deserve to know their family, and even if your ex has disappeared, you shouldn’t cut off their family. If extended family shows interest in your kids, encourage those relationships. While you may choose to limit contact or supervise visits to ensure your children’s safety, don’t cut off others who can love and care for your children.
Don’t fake your ex’s presence
Birthday cards without a return address. Christmas presents with the other parent’s name in the “From” section. Postcards or emails, text messages. There are lots of ways to pretend that your ex is thinking of the kids without actually being present. But if you start down that road, you create bigger problems.
First, you’re creating false hope for your kids. Each fake card, text, or gift lifts their little hearts up thinking that maybe Daddy or Mommy is about to come see them. That might seem like a good thing, but when they’re disappointed yet again to not see the other parent, it’s not going to seem so good.
Second, you’re giving credit to someone who isn’t there. If your ex does decide to come around again at some point, they’ll have no idea what the kids are talking about when they mention the cards, gifts, and letters — but they’ll gladly take credit. And it can backfire on you if they go to court.
Consult with a lawyer
When the other parent is absent, it’s always a good idea to consult with a lawyer when anything changes. Whether it’s the ex coming back around, a decision to move, or something else, understanding exactly what you are legally allowed and/or obligated to do is critical to protecting your kids and your custody situation.
Whether you keep a lawyer on retainer who is familiar with your case or simply find one to consult with when needed, you should always make sure you are protecting yourself legally. Don’t just look up the laws in your state and try to interpret them on your own. Get legal advice from a lawyer so you can be sure you’re doing the right thing if you ever need to defend your actions to a judge.
Your kids will know who was really there
I know the struggle of trying to do the right thing when your ex skips out on the kids. You constantly debate with yourself whether one thing or another is truly the right thing or if you’re justifying it to do what’s easier or safer.
But no matter what happens, your kids will always know who was really there for them. They’ll know who wiped their tears, helped with their homework, and made sure they were always fed, clothed, and sheltered.
Even if they one day build a relationship with the other parent, it won’t change everything you’ve done for them. It won’t change their love for you or yours for them. Trust that you don’t have to show them anything about your ex. Whatever relationship they may have with in the future, your children will still remember that your ex wasn’t around for them when it counted.
Don’t give in to the desire to try to erase your ex, even if they’ve already done a good job of erasing themselves. In parenting, it’s more important than ever to be the bigger person.
Wendy Miller is a freelance relationship writer & meditation teacher. After years of settling for abusive and otherwise toxic relationships, she got fed up. Using meditation and other tools, she got to work on healing herself, setting boundaries, and only engaging in relationships (romantic and otherwise) that bring her joy. She wants to help other single parents find the love they seek, including and going beyond romantic love. She lives in Florida with her two sons, where she homeschools while solo parenting, while surrounded by what feels like a zooful of animals.
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