Fathers, by their absence, have a huge
and overriding presence in the lives of their children. Ghost
fathers haunt them.
These disappearing dads are not
deadbeats. They pay support; their current address is known. But
what can mothers do? To help enforce support payments, there is
a government agency. But who can help with the plea: "Please
make my ex see his children more?"
I am not talking about abusive fathers.
Everyone agrees that children are better off to have those men
out of their lives.
But the fathers who simply fade away?
They are black holes, with the potential
to suck much of the devoted, compensatory efforts of the mothers
into their centre.
I am one of those mothers. I have three
It's true that some men are pathological
in their ability to divorce their children - the kids are lucky
if they get a card on their birthdays and are rarely, if ever,
invited to visit.
But there are many divorced dads who
fail to remain involved in their children's lives for reasons
that have more to do with the emotional restrictions of their
gender than an absence of love.
"It's difficult for men to express their
hurt," explains Calvin Sandborn, author of
Becoming the Kind Father, and a
professor at the University of Victoria who participates in a
weekly men's group.
For much of his life, Mr. Sandborn
emulated his alcoholic father's example of hiding emotions,
which he believes was a factor in the breakdown of his own
marriage after 25 years and three children.
Mr. Sandborn credits the need to learn
how to express his emotions, in the aftermath of his divorce,
for the bond he enjoys with his three daughters, 25, 21, and 16.
"My relationship with my kids is way
better than it would have been if I hadn't gone through that
process," he admits. "I was an ignoramus as far as what was
going on in my inner life."
Men see their lives in terms of doing,
not feeling, he says. "We have been taught to regard ourselves
as a body with a job to do, like a machine ... to cut ourselves
off from our heart."
Anger is a substitute for heartbreak, he
says. Instead of expressing to their ex-wives how terrible they
feel about losing daily contact with their children, they view
the vulnerability they experience - not being in control of
their emotions - as an assault on their masculinity.
"A man feels sadness," Mr. Sandborn
says. "But on some level he thinks, 'I'm not supposed to feel
sadness,' so the way men react is to blame the person who is
making them feel sad. They get angry. There's an adrenalin rush.
And that makes them feel powerful again."
Tellingly, in a study conducted by
Constance Ahrons, an American author of several books on
divorce, including The Good Divorce
and We're Still Family, men who have
faded from their children's lives reported anger at not having
sufficient time with their children following separation. They
disappear because of repeated feelings of loss with occasional
To a woman, that seems completely
backward. Someone deals with feelings of loss by creating more
But that is only one contributing factor
to the phenomenon of ghost fathers. According to experts,
conflict over child support, perceived court bias toward
mothers, stepfathers who usurp the biological fathers' role, the
custodial mother moving away and remarriage, which brings added
responsibilities, can also play a part. There is also the
problem of custodial mothers criticizing the father in front of
the children, which encourages his marginalization.
Another issue many divorced dads face is
a difficulty in creating intimacy with their children.
"Dads are often less experienced as
parents because, in the marriage, they were not the primary
caregiver. That's just how the couple divided up the
responsibilities," says Barry Willie, founder of a divorced
fathers' group called Kids and Dad in Kitchener, Ont. "We have a
course called Redefining Yourself in which dads have to think
through what they want in a separated family."
I'm not saying that single mothers
should become enablers of their ex-husband's lack of
responsibility. Many women who have been in unhealthy marriages
know that excessive compassion for their husband's actions is a
form of permission for the poor behaviour to continue.
At a recent party, I was explaining to a
divorced dad how hard it is to understand why fathers often
choose not to be as involved as possible with their children,
even when the mothers do everything to encourage and facilitate
"It's about cruelty," I said.
"No," he replied, rather sadly. "It's
In the world of masculinity, you're
either a winner or a loser, he suggested. It's black and white.
Divorce is seen as failure, ergo you're a loser. Who wants to be
reminded of that?
The revelation practically knocked me
off my high heels, and I was overcome with generosity for these
ghost fathers. I felt like sending my ex a gift certificate for
a session with a shrink.
Generation Ex looks at what parents can do to compensate for
fathers who disappear.