We have all done it.
Ghost dad, not deadbeat
The ex has promised to pick up the
children on a Friday night. He is late. The children sit by the
window, waiting and worrying that maybe dad won't come.
And what do we say? Something less than
charitable about him, muttered under the breath.
"The custodial mother who continues to
fight the divorce issues through the children as a means of
revenge is contemptible and real," wrote one father, who
concedes that his involvement as a parent decreased with time
because his children expressed enormous resentment against him.
Of course, the problem of bad-mouthing
the ex is not exclusive to mothers. Divorce and child
specialists are quick to point out that in high-conflict cases,
both parents are often guilty of disparaging the other.
"Some parents are so angry with the ex,
they want to punish them," says Richard Warshak, an American
psychologist and author of the best-selling book,
Divorce Poison: Protecting the
Parent-Child Bond from a Vindictive Ex.
But since mothers are granted primary
custody of the children more often than fathers, they spend more
time with them, which, in turn, can lead to more influence.
That, at least, is what many ghost dads argue.
At the extreme and uncommon end of the
continuum, the problem is called parental alienation, and Dr.
Warshak is not the only expert to consider it "a pathology, the
most under-recognized form of child abuse. In essence, it is
manipulating children to be agents in their own deprivation."
Far more pervasive is the habit of
making a little comment here and there, uttered in frustration
or anger, that can cause the children to question the merits of
one parent. Even a seemingly innocuous comment by the mother -
referring to the other parent as "your father" instead of dad,
for example - suggests to the child that something is amiss.
Before the teenage years, when they begin to make up their own
minds, children look to mothers for clues, obvious and subtle,
on what or who may be dangerous. It is a blow to their
self-esteem to have one parent criticized as children
intuitively know that they are a product of both.
Why do mothers badmouth their exes in
front of the children?
Well, some of the resentment against the
father is simple. Mothers feel they are the ones who must do all
the work, both as good cop and bad cop. No amount of support
payments can compensate for the emotional strain of raising
children by yourself. They must supervise the homework, mete out
punishments, make the meals, do the laundry, and be the loving
parent who cajoles and encourages and tucks the children in at
night. What was once parcelled out between two parents falls on
her shoulders. Dads get all the fun times.
Soon after separation from my husband, I
called him with some worry about our three boys, then all young
teenagers. "If you can't handle it on your own, then just let me
know. You don't have to have custody," he replied tartly.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem of
divorced parents. They rarely work as a team any more, and
there's a strange and unwarranted competition for love of the
Women can also get stuck in the role of
victim. Several fathers I spoke to describe their ex-wives as
being unable to get over their anger and pain, even 20 years
after divorce. "Emotionally, she can't be in the same room as
me," one father laments of his former wife. The children, now
grown and thriving, feel they will never be able to have both
parents at their weddings or other family events.
"For people who are struggling with a
traumatic separation, in order for them to manage the
intolerable feelings of loss, they often do a reconstruction of
reality and begin to see their ex-husband as a bad man," says
Linda Chodos, a social worker and family therapist in Toronto.
Men and women develop divorce amnesia -
forgetting that they once loved the ex enough to get married and
have children together.
Mostly, though, the anger directed at
fathers is due to what I think of as the mother bear instinct.
Fathers are equally capable of being
good parents. When Bob Geldof, singer, divorced dad and fathers'
rights advocate, speaks about "the perverse notion [in the
family court system] that men themselves, by virtue of their
masculinity, are unfeeling brutes, incapable of love or clear
displays of affection," I don't think there's a woman alive who
wouldn't feel compassion for their anguish.
But the truth is, mothers know their
children better. We had them in and through our bodies. The
attachment is primal.
We can diagnose infants' problem by the
sound of their cries. Within days of their birth, we know their
bodies like maps, the crinkle in an ear lobe, the tuft of hair
on top of the head. We talk about their bowel movements like we
used to analyze novels. Motherhood is a strange and wonderful
thing: both expansive, in its experience of unconditional love
for another, and boringly reductive.
It leaves us a trembling force of
protection and knowledge, and unfortunately, in divorce, that
deeply connected relationship mothers have with their children
can become a liability when dealing with the fathers.
"Dads don't want to hear suggestions on
how to care for the children," says Constance Ahrons, author of
several books, including The Good
Divorce. "They see it as criticism." What should be helpful
is seen as an attack. A mother's advice or complaint is a
reminder of the marital relationship they no longer want.
I would also argue that a mother's anger
spikes when she perceives injury being inflicted - such as when
she watches her child's disappointment when dad doesn't show up
If there were an easy solution, there
wouldn't be an army of parenting and child specialists eager to
help divorced parents. But one thing mothers can do is remember
that protection of their children includes trying to avoid
scrapes to their hearts, which they can be equally guilty of
Dr. Warshak even provides a script.
"When the father is late, the mother has a choice. She can
criticize him and say, 'Oh, he's such an irresponsible guy and
he cares more about his girlfriend than he does about you.' Or
she can think about what she would say if they were still
happily married and she didn't want to undermine the child's
respect for his father. She might say, 'Oh, dad is always late
for things. Lots of people are. I wish dad were better at being
on time. But he'll be here soon. Let's find something to do
until he arrives.' "