As Father’s Day approaches, it’s a great time to pause and reflect on the contributions that dads make to their daughters following divorce. The media often portrays a demoralized and demeaning image of divorced fathers. The typical divorced dad comes across as an immature, self-centered, irresponsible blockhead. When was the last time you read a story or saw at television show about a caring divorced father who was in touch with the needs of his daughter? Fathers and daughters suffer from assuming the worst about dads after a family dissolves.
In my attempt to understand the obstacles faced by fathers after divorce, I spoke to several dads who were eager to share their stories. Brian, in his late forties, never remarried after his four year marriage to Felicia dissolved – making regular contact with his daughter Amanda a priority. Brian describes his split from his ex-wife as contentious, saying “I made a point of recognizing that I’m going to do whatever is in Amanda’s best interest. So even if I’m getting a line of baloney from my ex that she doesn’t want to come (for a visit), I’m going to respect that. I’m not going to be a disruptive element in Amanda’s life.”
Amanda, age seventeen, was an infant at the time of her parents’ breakup and the custody arrangement was fairly traditional – with her spending every other weekend and one weeknight with her dad. Brain has worked hard to reduce conflict with his ex-wife and reports swallowing many words and biting his tongue in an effort to keep the peace. With intensity in his voice, he says, “I always say to Amanda, you do what works for you. I’m not going to feel slighted or upset – do whatever works for you.”
One of the biggest challenges Brian and other dads face is the stereotypes that exist about divorced fathers. It’s crucial to examine our beliefs and attitudes about the role of dads after divorce if we are going to break down barriers that create distance between fathers and daughters. In my opinion, fostering alienation between a daughter and her dad is one of the cruelest and most selfish acts a parent can do to their own child. Society perpetuates a negative view of dads post-divorce. The exception is the movie Spanglish, director James Brook’s poignant portrayal of a father who is a far better parent to his daughter than her mother.
What girls and women need is a loving, predictable father figure – whether married to her mother or divorced. Some dads are better able to relate to their daughters and make them a priority, rather than vanishing or distancing themselves. The following statistics may surprise you. Nearly one third of the daughters in our country have divorced parents. Roughly 85% of kids live full-time with their mother after divorce; only 5 – 10 % live at least a third of the time with their dads.
What are some of the barriers that prevent dads and daughters from maintaining a close bond after parental divorce? Many experts cite the importance of a divorced mom promoting her daughters relationship with her father. Whenever possible, mothers need to encourage their daughters to sustain regular contact – such as phone calls, holiday time, and special occasions. It’s also important for moms to eliminate negative comments about their ex-husband so her daughter doesn’t feel caught in the middle between her parents. Lastly, fathers who remain an integral part of their daughter’s life after divorce can promote a loving relationship that endures through rough patches.
When parents divorce, children are forced to give up their sense of control. Let’s face it, divorce is a decision made by parents – not children. Divorce is a painful experience for everyone but children and adults raised in disrupted homes often feel the sting of divided loyalties. Loyalty conflicts are frequently at the root of a father/daughter wound because daughters of divorce feel they have to choose between their parents. Since daughters are particularly vulnerable to conflict between their parents, it’s important for parents to be cordial and to avoid arguments. This Father’s Day, let’s celebrate dads like Brian who make their daughters a priority!
Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW
Are you a divorced dad or a daughter of divorce who would like to speak out on this issue? We’d love to hear from you!