And where is Dad in all this? I see a lot of step-family members in the work I do, sometimes as couples, sometimes as adult survivors, most often as stepmothers blaming themselves. So let’s take a common situation and just for today let’s concentrate on Dad. We’ll call him Geoff. Let’s say Geoff’s marriage to Lorna was rocky. Geoff meets Babs and falls in love. The rocky marriage becomes a shipwreck. Geoff leaves and lives with Babs. He has been honest. He pays proper maintenance. He has ceded the family home to Lorna and his children and now lives in reduced circumstances. Geoff should be able to look himself in the eye, shouldn’t he? So why isn’t everything okay at least for Geoff?
Geoff is not okay because he is trying to leap over the stage where he feels a lot of pain in response to the pain he has cause his children (and yes, even Lorna). He knows his children are hurting and angry with him. Why does he choose this moment of all moments to step down from doing some proper fathering just when his children need it more than ever? I’ll tell you.
Geoff is not doing much fathering because fathering includes being the bad guy and saying no and have you done your homework and you can’t speak to your teachers like that and I’m not buying new trainers today and of course you can’t smoke in the house and on and on and on telling them all the stuff they don’t want to hear. Parenting involves being super unpopular and Geoff can’t afford to make himself even more unpopular because he’s already the bad guy.
Geoff sees less of his children than he used to, less than he would like. The children do not like his new flat with no garden. They tell him so. Their weekends with him are boring and yet they have to be ‘special’ because their time together is limited. How can Geoff risk his children sulking during their one weekend a fortnight with him by denying them what they think they want? The last thing he wants is for them to go back to Lorna and say they don’t want to visit Dad again. So he capitulates and buys them stuff, takes them to MacDonald’s, let’s them stay up and watch unsuitable TV. In fact Geoff begins to behave like a mate and not a Dad. Lorna feels he tries to buy his children’s love and that she doesn’t have the funds to compete. In addition Lorna now feels like the only parent because Geoff is taking a break from parenting. A bad situation has become truly horrible. And children with a living breathing father are trying to parent themselves because their Geoff feels too bad to do it.
You see Geoff isn’t trying to make his kids feel better by indulging them. He is trying to make his own horrible feelings go away, the horrible feelings he has when he sees his children in pain. (The only person who can see this clearly is the luckless Babs and of reasons we will come to, she is not a good person to tell him.)
What does Geoff need to do? What can Geoff do? It’s really simple. No, not easy, but simple. Geoff needs to be honest. Starting with himself he has to admit that his new life and his new love are happening alongside the terrible pain he feels in seeing his children in pain.When Geoff sees his children showing him how hurt and angry they are – fighting, demanding stuff, treating him like dirt – he needs to remember that what they are telling him is how hurt and angry they are. He can safely ignore the content of the demands. Instead, Geoff can explain to them in simple words that he feels terrible that he has hurt them and he knows they feel terrible and he is sorry. He can normalise their anger and hurt. He can demonstrate that he accepts that this is how they feel. This means that they can accept that this is how they feel. This acceptance is a process not an event. It may take 12 months. Geoff may encounter a lot more hurt and anger in the shape of bad behaviour before the children settle down again. Children recognise the truth immediately as we all do. Although they may be hurting and angry at least they are not utterly bewildered by their feelings. Dad has made sense of them and honoured their bad feelings. He hasn’t tried to lie to them and make the bad feelings go away.
They may kick off but they have’t lost their Dad. He is still recognisable as a father and for this they are relieved. If Lorna still has a charitable heart, she will also know that Geoff is doing his bit and not leaving her to be the only parent.
Next time I promise we will address the step-mother caught up in this maelstrom. What can the unfortunate Babs contribute to this situation and what is she going through?