“My daughter Y. is 5 and has never really seen her father. He left when she was a baby. Every now and then she says “My dad doesn’t love me” and it seems she blames herself for not having a dad. I have tried to explain that not all mummies and daddies live together and her dad had to go a very long way away to work. She just says “Why doesn’t my dad come and see me?” I don’t know what to say. The truth is he lives nearby and has no interest. He has a new wife and family. His wife approached me in a shop once. Should I tell the truth?”
It takes two people to bring a child into the world but, increasingly, a child is raised by only one. There used to be the idea that if a child only knew one biological parent the existence of the other would not matter. However, as Brendan Mac Carthy has pointed out, there is not so much a one-parent family as a two-family child. For however well one parent shoulders the emotional, economic and social tasks that child-rearing involves, there is always the shadow of the missing person. At times, the shadow of the missing person can be a more powerful influence than that of any presence regardless of the love and sensitivity of the care-taking parent.
How can we understand this? The young child cannot imagine its parents as separate beings involved in their own problems. For the child, any break-up or death feels directly connected to their own bad thoughts. Reassuring comments, such as the ones Mrs P. tries to give, can never help. To her daughter the absence is seen as evidence enough that she is not like other little girls with fathers and her preoccupation with what she did wrong.
In addition to the omnipotent childhood way of thinking, there is the important issue of identification. A child wants to visually know who it has come from and what its emotional and physical inheritance is.
May, aged 16, never saw her father when she was a child. Like Mrs P’s ex-husband he had left home before she was born. There was just one photograph of him. “Even though Mum had done everything for me and I didn’t even think I would like him I was desperate to see for myself what he was like. When I did finally find him it was such a relief just to know what he looked like. We did not really have anything else in common”.
Mary waited until she was 16 because her mother only felt able to support that search then. To find out about a painful family circumstance involves all the members of the family. If it is too painful for the parent to manage they will then not be able to support their child’s investigation and the feelings it will evoke. If a parent cannot manage to face something there can nevertheless come a point when the child’s emotional needs are so powerful that they have to take precedence.
14 year old John brought his worries about his missing father to the attention of his male class teacher, not by his words, but by his disturbed behaviour, stealing and learning difficulties. His stealing was slowly understood as a way of showing he felt something had been taken away from him. His mother would not allow any talk about the missing man and had thereby unwittingly wiped out part of his history and knowledge. He finally sought his father even though his relationship with his mother suffered for it.
The meaning of the absence for the care-taking parent needs understanding. Where two people reciprocally end a relationship there are less raw feelings left than where one person feels abandoned by the other. If there is a death, the surviving parent of a good-enough marriage continues some strands of the parental couple and the grief involves work through the good and bad points of the dead partner. Where there is instead grievance, there is usually much less talking to the child and a more polarised view is given of the absent parent.
Mrs P. sounds as if she has not come to terms with the end of the relationship. She says the father is away working but her mood allows the child to understand the truth that he is not coming back to them. She says he has no interest but she also briefly mentions an approach by the second wife. Does this mean the father is struggling to come to terms with his past via his new wife? We cannot tell because Mrs P. was not able to take that exploration further. Perhaps it feels too difficult for her to think of her husband re-married or the child of her first marriage having to face step-siblings and a step-mother.
There are various options. Mrs P. could seek some help for herself in working through what she feels about her broken marriage. Some private exploration for herself, without her daughter present, would provide a space to understand more fully the situation she and her daughter are in. Alternatively, she could be seen with her daughter. She might find it easier to speak of these matters with another adult present. A parent on their own can need support at different difficult moments from other adults.
Mrs P. sounds ready to take some action. In starting school her daughter is intelligently observing and seeing the different kinds of families there are. Of course it is always painful when a relationship is broken; however, the particular distress Y. faces is from her own mistaken ideas rather than in the actual facts and these cannot be dealt with by explanation alone. Eventually she will need to see and hear more from her father to come to terms with the reality. It is also possible she has picked up the secret that her father is nearby and that is adding to her grievance. If Mrs P. manages to get help now her daughter will hopefully appreciate the love that she has received. However, if the daughter has to experience not only her own grief but her mother’s unspoken grief too more problems will be built up for the future.