Mother Bear v. Ghost Dad: Nobody wins

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

In my previous column, I wrote about the epidemic-sized problem of ghost dads - fathers who disappear from the lives of their children following divorce. Rather than vilify them, I was trying to understand some of the emotions that possibly underlie their absence. Often, the loss of daily contact with their children is so painful, they react by staying away.

The response was enormous. Some men welcomed the understanding and vowed to deal with their loss in a more productive way. Far more blamed the mothers.

Which serves as a reminder of the enduring rancour between fathers and mothers in divorce. Even though blame exists on both sides, it is easier to attack the other than to address one's own culpability. In war, each side thinks of itself as righteous.

But let's be honest: Mothers are not paragons of virtue.

We have all done it.

Ghost dad, not deadbeat related article

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 children.

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 on time.

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 causing.

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.' "


Note this article of Sarah Hamson was "fully moderated" - no doubt very few of the replies were posted.

Here is our commentary which did not appear some hours after posting for approval.


Ottawa Mens Centre wrote:

Sarah Hampson's shows her true colours covered by a very thin veneer objectivity. Her article appears to be designed to throw fuel on the fire of acrimony. For example why now suggest a neutral objective solution, such as removing the genders. Her article promotes the stereo typical belief that children are with mothers and dads are just visitors. She could have used terms such as "if the OTHER PARENT is late," then you should talk about that parent in a positive way. "Lets call daddy on the cell and ask what has happened, perhaps he is stuck in traffic or weather."


Sarah Hampson has an obvious seething hatred towards her ex husband and the fact that she posts her hatred in a national newspapers begs the question of the seriousness of her personality disorder and or mental health problem. What sane person would post about their ex husband "I felt like sending my ex a gift certificate for a session with a shrink."  That is, she is publically defaming her husband, making disparaging remarks about the ex husband and probably the father of her child or children not that I know if she has any but her article suggests that.


This is the WRONG person to be given a national Colum.


Let's get it straight, Family Court is overflowing with cases of women obtain unfettered absolute power by reason of an order for "sole custody". Thatís because our judiciary is riddled with the underbelly of the legal profession who have a pathological hatred towards men. They have established "case law" that says, there is a presumption of sole custody unless the parents virtually agree to have joint custody.  Post any acrimonious separation, it is almost an absolute certainty that an acrimonious parent of either gender will abuse their power, "to get revenge" "to extort money" "to ethnically cleanse the children" and a host of other improper motivations that our Family Court Judges tacitly, indirectly make orders to make sure that the abuse of power continues 


Sarah Hampson's article is an example of the epidemic problem of the promotion of hatred towards fathers. It promotes the notion that men are stupid, incompetent parents.  Just look at all those wonderful successful women in society often happily married. You don't have to go to far to see even the number one star of young teenage girls talking very positively about the role of her father in her life. Would any of these very successful females have learned what a good man is without the benefit of having a loving devoted father?  Just where do you see Sarah Hampson talking about the importance of having a father? Where do you see Sarah Hampson talking about the tragic stats that show women have many times the mental health and personality problems compared to men at around the child bearing years?  Where do you see Sarah Hampson talking about the tragic reasons why women have such severe personality problems that they will alienate their children from the father and get the blessing of most of our corrupt family court judges?

The fact is, many of these abusive sole custody mothers have dysfunctional family backgrounds, often victims of a child abuse by a parent who unfortunately was probably male. Thats a fact , but that is no reason to make a blanket assumption that all men are a risk of being a danger of sexual abuse to a child.  Sarah Hampson's suggestion that her husband see a shrink on a gift certificate is tantamount to making that kind of horrible silver bullet? My god, what person in their right mind would be so STUPID or posses with so much HATRED as to post such a comment about their ex husband so publically.  Just why does Sarah Hampson think she can do this and get away with it? Because she is a "woman" , a "feminist " and because "ha ha" she  "thinks" she can portray a very very thin veneer of objectivity by quoting (probably misquoting) comments, or using out of context, comments made by others.

Not published by the Globe censors

Some of the comments on the comments page related to this article

  1. Alpha Male from nowhere, Canada writes: Agreed. The statement that mother's know their children better is an opinion from a woman, who would not have a clue of the extent of the connection between a father and their offspring simply because she is not a man and does not have the benefit of a man's point of view. No mention was made of the emotional connection, only the physical. Why do men always have to be painted as some sort of transient, disengaged ignoramus these days?
    Oh i remeber the epidemic....female chauvanism. Imagine of a man wrote a similar column saying that they are the superior caregivers of children. Imagine the outrage from femalekind...


  1. John Williams from Ajax, Canada writes: Its amazing how the central issue to this problem for dads is completely ignored. Why do women get primary custody in almost all cases? That is not 'equality' that is bias in the law in favour of the female. A woman has to literally almost cause the death of her children to even begin to lose access to them, whereas a man can be cut-out on a false allegation. The law needs to be fixed immediately. 50-50 Custody. No 'primary custody' for one spouse, unless there is very serious reason for it, and it has to be EQUAL for the men. One wonders which part of the word EQUALITY the divorce feminists don't understand? THAT IS THE CAUSE OF THIS. Its not about some mysterious Ghost Dad metaphysics. Its because dad gets CUT-OUT by the legal system, and abused. Also, the idea that mom is mainly good natured about ex-dad, is wishful thinking girlfriends. Its not little comments here and there. Its the constant bashing of dad almost all day everyday by most of these women, and also EMOTIONAL EXTORTION that occurs by trying to force the kids to love them more than the dad and his new wife. Also, passive-aggressive behavior is just as bad. For example, taking comments from an Ex out of context, without their permission, or without a chance for them to clarify why they said, is very damaging to kids who end up in the middle. The reality is that many divorced women, make being an Ex the focus of their lives, and even their careers. (cough cough). Why not just get remarried, and be happy? Why not consider giving it a rest, and letting kids grow up in peace, and learning how to get along with people? Notice the negative reaction this is getting from countless men? Why? Because it is all just dripping with self-righteous male-blaming. Men get screwed by the legal system on custody every single time, and THAT is the cause of dads getting pushed out of the family, and that creates the toxic emotional environment for the kids.


  1. j s from kingston, Canada writes: wow, great articule! As a divorced father of two pre-teen children I can certainly relate.
    My children did resent my leaving and did make it difficult for me to be a part of their lives.
    I was awarded custody by CAS but the children's mother called during the night threatening to kill herself if our children did not return to her. They were at an age to decide for themselves that they would live with their mother and i respected that. My daughter in particular would not talk to me for many years following the divorce.
    I never gave up however. I sent my daughter a card every week telling her how much i loved her and missed her. I went and sat in my car outside her high school every week for an hour during her lunch break in case she wanted to see or talk with me. She never came, but she knew i was there for her.
    In time, both my children came to realize that i love them dearly and that the issues between their mother and i should not have involved them. They both ended up living with me in the final years of high school.
    Both are away at post-secondary school now but i continue to have a very close relationship with them.


  1. Janet Reed from Canada writes: I've been a couple of sides of the divorce situation. My parents divorced when I was 10 and they both bad mouthed each other all the time. I actually told them to stop many times. I think there are different levels of PAS. My mother was able to get my older sister on her side. This made me feel like I loved the 'bad parent', my dad. I had a special connection and still have a special connection. He's not perfect, but I love him very much. I love both my parents very much. Did my mother know me better then my father, no, they just knew me better. But I did not have that special connection with my Mother.

    My boyfriend is a single dad with fifty percent custody. He adores his daughter and his daughter adores him. He's a great dad and spends as much quality time with her as he can. The mother is also very loving to her daughter and the daughter adores her mother as well. They probably both bring something different to the table, not necessarily because of their gender, but due to personality.

    I have several friends who are dads -- great dads. I don't actually think I know a bad dad. It's an insult to suggest that someone can't parent and be loving because they didn't physically give birth to the child.


  1. John Williams from Ajax, Canada writes: by the way, a very close friend of mine only recently has entered into the divorce process, and they have some kids. From before day one, the Ex-Wife is already starting to bash dad to the kids, all day everyday, to try to gain emotional leverage with the kids. As in...WHO ARE YOU LOYAL TO...ME or HIM? Her lawyers are starting up, wanting 80% custody and money, for no reason whatsoever, he is a great guy, and a great dad. They are trying to destroy him...the mom, and the entire divorce system. So far he is holding strong. He refused to move out of the house, and is living in the basement so he can see his kids everyday. He is refusing to give into the legal threats from vicious and greedy divorce lawyers who wreck people's lives for a living. The worse it gets, the more money the lawyers make, so the divorce lawyers do their best to make everything worse. (there are a few exceptions). But for how long will he be able to hold out? How many years is he going to have to fight, and waste 10's of thousands of dollars? In this case, it obvious that he is a much more competent parent, much more stable emotionally and in every other way. He should be getting primary custody. But will he? Are you kidding? Like the writer says, the female has different body parts, so that makes her better, right? That is Equality? No, that is discrimination, writ-large. Its time to end the War-On-Dads. Its time for custody to be 50/50, in time, in living, in money. If the women makes more money than dad, then she has to pay the piper. See how she likes that. The hypocrisy is stunning. They call for Equality in one-breath, and in the next breath they say women are 'special' due to a couple of body parts. Well, men also have different body parts as well. And the DNA is 50-50. So custody has to be 50/50. If moms got cut-out of custody like men did, then the story would be about Vanishing Moms.


  1. John Williams from Ajax, Canada writes: Here is a quote from John Milton that sums up what has happened to dads from the biased legal system. The system has treated wonderful dads worse than serious criminals, and destroyed their access and right to being a father, and then they act surprised that the fathers access and connection to the children is damaged? This quote explains the stunning hypocrisy and arrogance of those talking about Ghost-Dads.

    'They who have put out the people's eyes reproach them for their blindness.'
    --John Milton


  1. The Bubble from Canada writes: Kill
    Yes my ex tried to kill me in front of my daughter because my son wanted to live with me. The Crown let her off with a fine.
    I've never touched her, I never say anything bad about her, the system simply ruined my daughter because she was afraid that if she lived with me her mother would do to her what she did to her son and I told my daughter no matter what I would love her unconditionally. My daughter just wanted to have a mom and a dad.
    If you threw me in jail for a thousand years I will never be able to remove the contempt from my soul I have for the Ontario Legal System.




  1. Kenneth Sitter from writes: It really sounds as though Hampson is working through her own issues here. Too bad if so, because the topics are very important to explore but her eagerness to refer to her own experience tends to colour them and water the the content. There's a lot more detail to Ghost Dads and Mother Bears than has been mentioned.


d z from Canada writes: Mothers are not the only ones who make the meals, do their children's laundry, tuck them in to sleep, etc. after divorce. BOTH parents are 'single parents' while raising their children after divorce. The comment that Dads have all of the fun is utterly disingenious and reflects a pervasive myth about divorce and fathering which all too many mothers are apt to perpetuate. It accompanies the martyr syndrome and many divorced mothers' victim attitude. It is not helpful at all because it only serves to undermine and belittle father's contributions to their children's lives. The stereotype of the father being late to pick up the children is also one played over and over... ignoring all of the times the mother is human too and often ignoring the reality of the father's responsibilities towards financial contributions to the family.. sometimes work responsibilities may result being 'late'.

  1. michael bedard from Canada writes: 'The response was enormous...'

    Many articles describe fathers as unfeeling creatures who drift off in pursuit of self-indulgence after divorce. Perhaps the 'enormous response' contradicts this stereotype.
    Be careful, Sarah, you may inadvertantly reveal more of the truth; and I assure you, the powers that be are not ready to face it. 'tis a deep, deep wound you scratch at.


  1. Wasabi Jones from Canada writes: John Williams from Ajax, Canada writes: 'Some men should take this stuff to the human rights tribunals, and right to the supreme court. This bias has to be fixed, the war-on-dads can't continue like this.'

    Are you kidding? That would be akin to asking a hungry shark to take care of your gaping flesh wound.