What is a father? We often think, “Well, it’s a guy with kids”. Sure. But if you think about it, it’s clear that men are parenting in many different kinds of family circumstances today.
Some situations promote father involvement.
A small but growing group of men stay home while their wives go out to work.
Some families do off-shifting — during the day Mom’s home with the kids while Dad works. When he comes home, she goes to work and the roles are reversed.
Many fathers are choosing to work at home and so have more opportunity to spend time with the children and get involved in family routines.
Single dads raising their kids on their own, which happens to be the fastest growing type of family in Canada (not the largest number, but the fastest growing – Statscan 2006)
Other family circumstances make involvement more difficult.
Many fathers don’t live with their children. Some men are living with and helping to raise their partner’s children from a previous relationship. In any of these situations, the main goals of a father don’t change — but there may be special challenges.
Many fathers now live in what we call blended families. Some men instantly become stepfathers when they marry a divorced woman. You could be in a family with your wife’s children from a previous marriage, your children from your previous marriage and/or children that you had together. If your new partner is the stepparent, your involvement will be very important to your children as they get used to living with her. If you’re a stepfather, your first task is to form a relationship with your partner’s children. (This also applies to adoptive fathers.) Kids need time to warm up to a stepparent.
Don’t try to do it all at once. Start from where the children are. Find out what hobbies or activities they enjoy and be interested and supportive, whether it’s hockey, gymnastics, dolls or video games. If your stepchildren have a good relationship with their biological dad, it’s best to respect and support that relationship. If there is conflict between your wife and her ex-husband you’ll have a very fine line to walk. There’s no easy answer. As much as you might like to, you can’t fix the problem yourself. Your best contributions are these: Try to stay out of the conflict yourself and be prepared to support your partner by offering an understanding shoulder when she’s upset or by taking the kids out for awhile when she’s had some difficult issues to deal with.
Getting to Know You
When Albert moved in with Erin he couldn’t wait to start acting like a dad. He thought her ex-partner was too easy on the kids and thought he could straighten them out a little. But it wasn’t working. When he’d bark at the kids, they’d just cry and run to their mother. And she kept telling him to butt out. “Leave their behaviour to me. They don’t really know you yet. I don’t want them to be afraid of you.”
Albert thought about it and saw that she was right. He left most of the discipline to Erin — backed up her rules, but concentrated on spending time with his stepchildren. They played games, read stories and watched TV together. Albert realized that he had to establish a feeling of trust before he could move on to discipline.
Divorce is never easy. And it’s hard to be a parent after divorce, especially if you don’t see your children that often. Some fathers gradually drift out of the picture because they say they can’t bear the pain of not seeing their children enough. That may ease the pain, but it means that the children lose their father completely. And most children do want a relationship with their father after divorce. Keeping up that relationship can be complicated by conflict with your ex-wife.
One issue that becomes difficult is communication. Even divorced parents have to communicate sometimes. That’s hard to do for two people who wish they never had to see each other again. But the place to start is to think less about winning and losing, and more about how everything you do will affect your children. The best chance you have for maintaining your relationship with your kids comes when you can reduce the amount of conflict you have with your ex-wife.
If you need help with that (and many people do) community services can help you find professional mediators trained in helping people to resolve conflicts.
Working It Out
After the separation, Pete and Nina could hardly speak without fighting. Pete felt Nina wasn’t being fair about his visits with the children and Nina thought his demands were unreasonable. Eventually both realized that their tension was affecting their kids. They went to see a family mediator who acted almost like a referee. The mediator helped them work out a parenting plan that spelled out things like when the children would be at each parent’s house and how decisions would be made about their health and education. With the mediator’s help they also came up with a schedule that worked a little better with Pete’s work hours and agreed on some ground rules about what they would and wouldn’t talk about in front of the kids.
So no matter who you are and what type of situation you find yourself in, you are still dad. And we hope you get some time this Father’s Day weekend to be the dad your children are looking for.
Happy Father’s Day from the Father Involvement Initiative – Ontario.