Deadbeat dads, ghost dads, Disneyland dads, Santa daddies: The divorce culture is rich in labels, especially ones that reduce men to negative stereotypes.
Some may be warranted, but the trouble with simplistic labels is that they rarely shed light on the complex truth of reality.
What is forgotten is that fathers have their own painful adjustment to divorce that is different than that faced by mothers.
I have heard some of that truth from men who write to me and agree to tell their stories.
If the stereotype is that men have a tendency to suffer in silence, the reality is that they no longer want to.
"Dads are tired of being overlooked, and they're fed up with the negative labels," says Alyson Schäfer, a psychotherapist, parenting coach, author ( Breaking the Good Mom Myth) and host of Rogers TV's The Parenting Show. "They 're desperate to stay in touch with their children," she says of the fathers who seek her guidance.
Warren Farrell, a San Francisco-based researcher and author of several books, including Father and Child Reunion: How to Bring the Dads We Need to the Children We Love, says many fathers have to make a challenging adjustment when they enter the post-divorce landscape in which they are often the non-custodial parent.
Some of them grew up with the old-fashioned notion that a father's love is expressed solely through what he provides financially, he points out. But divorce puts an end to the division of labour between spouses.
Just as mothers have to make the transition to single household head, so do fathers, and for them, that often means an increased involvement as a parent on several levels - emotional, social and financial.
He becomes both Mr. Wallet and Mr. Mom.
The shift also causes some men to question themselves as parents, Dr. Farrell notes. "Dads are bad at explaining the value of what they are doing. They're just good at doing what they do," he says.
The involvement of fathers is key to the wellbeing of children, his research shows. "When a father understands that, he has a sense of mission."
The struggle in divorce is that parents are not always trying to help one another be the parents they want to be, and one becomes suspicious of the other.
Dr. Farrell talks about a situation in which a father may encourage a child to go to the park to play. If the child is hurt in some way by other children, a father may intuit that while it is not desirable, there is some valuable lesson in learning how to choose the right kind of friends. When the child returns to the mother on Sunday night, however, all she sees is injury. Blame is then placed on the father for letting something happen to the child while on his watch.
Difficult as the transition
is, many fathers I spoke to tackled it with courage. "We
all have to learn to adapt. This is not a gender thing. It's a
human thing," says Ian Harvey, a Toronto freelance journalist whose 11-year marriage broke up in 1991 when his
children were five years and
18 months old.
At first he was overwhelmed, and in the first few months moved back to his childhood home with his father. "The kids would come on a Friday night, and they were little, and all over the place. It was very difficult," he says, admitting that he often sat on his boyhood bed and cried. But things got better. "I am obstinate. I wasn't going to quit," he says.
He got his own place. On the Friday nights of his weekends with the children, he would wait until after rush hour to drive the distance to the suburbs to collect them, so that he wouldn't be in a bad mood when they climbed into the car. "You do what you can to reduce the stress," he says.
He found his way as a single dad. "You don't make promises you can't keep," he offers. He learned to compartmentalize. "You are always worried about them, but you can't go out and park outside their mother's home. That's stalking."
He refused to give in to the guilt that can give rise to the Santa daddy, who overcompensates by showering the children with presents. "My kids will tell you that they didn't get the best of everything. They got bikes, but not new bikes."
Experts will talk at length about the value of non-programmed, non-Disneyland-dad time. "Just hanging out with the kids is when things that are hard to talk about surface," Dr. Farrell says. "This doesn't happen at the zoo. It doesn't happen when the TV is on. That's just a distraction."
Many of the fathers I spoke to came to understand this. "You can't have a conversation with them if they're staring at a tiger," says Paul, a newly separated father of two children, aged 3 and 5.
But he points out that fathers often feel anxiety about how to ensure their children are happy.
"At first, I was fearful about not knowing what to do," he admits. "I would wake up in the morning on a weekend with them and think, 'Okay, I have to have the whole day planned, breakfast at 9, lunch at 12. Some activity in the afternoon.' "
Now, they talk about what they feel like doing, and sometimes that's just playing with their toys. Dad has realized he doesn't have to perform.
It is also worth noting that there wasn't a father I spoke to who didn't talk about the difficulty dealing with a mother who acts as a gatekeeper, policing what the children eat, what they do, and when they go to bed. It's not unusual to hear fathers say to their young children, "Tell Mom you had your fruit," when feeding their children.
Let's just hope these mothers are acting out of love for the children, not out of a desire to control and marginalize the ex. Whatever the motive, it is not helpful.
As Dr. Farrell explains, "If a father is made to feel like just a babysitter, then that feeds into his feelings about lack of value."
Still, there are many who learn to reduce conflict with their ex-spouse to ensure smooth parenting. They also learn to become less defensive about their parenting style. Many are more evolved, more philosophical, than many mothers I know, expressing spiritual principles of parenting that reminded me of something Eckhart Tolle, the Vancouver-based spiritual teacher and author, wrote in his book A New Earth.
"The child has a deep longing for the parent to be there as a human being, not as a role, no matter how conscientiously that role is being played."