The Forever Dad: Shattering the Myth of the Self-Centered Dad

By Terry Gaspard, LICSW

What kids need is a loving, predictable father figure – whether married to their mother or divorced. I don’t think anyone can argue that point. However, I believe that divorced dads are often portrayed in the media in a negative light.

The media often portrays a demoralized and demeaning image of divorced fathers. The typical divorced dad comes across as immature, self-centered, and irresponsible. When was the last time you read a story or saw a television show about a caring divorced father who was in touch with the needs of his children? Fathers and their kids suffer from assuming the worst about dads after a family dissolves.

Consequently, it is important to counteract the negative press given to fathers post-divorce and to mention all of the “Forever Dads” who aren’t immature, irresponsible or self-centered. What exactly is a “Forever Dad?” They are the ones who do not disappear. The dads you see at dance recitals and soccer games. They try hard to maintain a regular visitation schedule and call when they are running late. They thrive on watching their kids grow and support their healthy development.

According to Dr. Linda Nielsen, professor of Education at Wake Forest University and author of Myths and Lies About Dads: How They Hurt Us All, the root of the problem is the stereotypes we have about men. During a recent interview with me she explained, “If we believe the negative stereotypes about fathers, we’re not going to change the policies, laws, and restrictions we are putting on each other.”

Dr. Nielsen continues, “As long as we believe that mothers are superior to fathers, we won’t be able to change the belief that dads are not capable of raising children.”

An international authority on father-daughter relationships and shared parenting for separated parents, Nielsen writes, “The majority of American children spend part – or almost all of their childhood living apart from their fathers. Because these children’s relationships with their fathers are more complicated, more fragile, and more likely to fall apart over time, they are especially vulnerable to being damaged by our society’s negative beliefs, unfounded assumptions, and demeaning stereotypes about fathers. If these children lived with their fathers in the same home, they would at least have the first hand, day to day, “evidence” that the myths do not apply to their dad.”

What Are Qualities of a Competent Father?

In an attempt to better understand the obstacles faced by fathers after divorce, I interviewed several young adult women and their fathers who participated in my research study for my book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Long-Lasting Relationship.

The following is a summary of the characteristics of competent fathers that the father-daughter pairs mentioned during our interviews. Their names and details have been changed to protect their confidentiality and identity.

A competent dad:

  1. Considers fatherhood an honor, a privilege, and a lifetime commitment.
  2. Believes he plays an important role in the life of his kids.
  3. Values input from his children’s mother and speaks well of her.
  4. Puts his kid’s needs first and practices positive parenting.
  5. Enjoys spending time with his kids.

One of the most outspoken dads I met with, Brian, in his late forties, was eager to tell me about his close bond with his daughter Amanda. Brian personifies a father who is devoted to his daughter and wants the best for her.

Brian never remarried after his four-year marriage to Felicia dissolved — making regular contacts with his daughter Amanda a priority. He 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 upset when my ex says 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 19, was an infant at the time of her parents’ breakup and the custody arrangement was traditional – with her spending every other weekend and one weeknight with her dad. Brian has worked hard to reduce conflict with his ex-wife and reports swallowing many words and biting his tongue 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.”

As Dr. Linda Nielsen highlighted during our interview, one of the biggest challenges Brian and other dads face after divorce the belief that they are not competent to care for their children. That is why it’s crucial to examine our mindset that translates to “dads don’t matter,” according to Dr. Nielsen, if we’re going to break down barriers that create distance between fathers and their children.

Barriers to a Close Bond Between Fathers and Daughters Post-divorce

What are some of the barriers that prevent dads and kids from maintaining a close bond after parental divorce? Many experts cite the importance of a divorced mom promoting her child’s relationship with her father. Whenever possible, mothers need to encourage their children to sustain regular contact with their dads – such as phone calls, text, holiday time, and special occasions.

It is also important for moms to eliminate negative comments about their ex-husband so her daughter does not feel caught in the middle and experience loyalty conflicts. Lastly, fathers who remain an integral part of their child’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 raised in disrupted homes often feel the sting of divided loyalties.

Loyalty conflicts are frequently at the root of a father/daughter wound because kids feel they have to choose between their parents. Since children of divorce are particularly vulnerable to conflict between their parents, it is important for parents to be cordial and to avoid arguments.

Non-custodial fathers, I believe, sometimes get a bad rap because divorce really disempowers them from being “half-time” parents. Instead, the emphasis is often placed on financial support. I would like to suggest that the emphasis should be equally placed on dads (and moms) balancing time with their children and meeting their economic needs.

In recent years, divorced or single parent fathers have become increasingly aware that they are an important ingredient in helping their daughters become self-confident women. Since a father-daughter wound can impact a daughter’s future, it is important not to believe negative stereotypes (or blame dads unjustly), and to encourage close bonds between fathers and daughters after divorce.

To find out more about my research, order my book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy Long-Lasting Relationship.

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**Terry offers coaching to individuals and couples about divorce, marriage, remarriage, or relationship issues. She is also an expert on matters related to children of divorce and the challenges facing adult children of divorce. You can sign up for low-cost coaching here. In most cases you will be able to meet with her within a week.