As a psychologist who works with families, I know that it can be difficult for dads who only see their kids for a few days every month to feel like a parent. It might be because of conflict with their mom, or because your own schedule makes it difficult to free up an entire weekend to spend time with their kids. Some dads begin to feel that they don’t know their children and feel uncomfortable interacting with them the way they would if they spent more time together. Every situation is different, making it impossible to give specific advice to readers, but there are some general strategies that I’ve found to be helpful over the years.
- Know your role. You may not have the kids every day, but you’re still their dad, and if you have partial custody, you have an ongoing job to do. They may be angry with you after the separation; I think a lot of parents after a divorce worry about setting limits with their kids, who might express a preference for their other parent when they’re punished. It’s OK to set appropriate limits and rules (in the end they’ll probably appreciate it). The other part of knowing your role is remembering that as a parent with partial custody, your job is to be there not only for the fun stuff, but for the day-to-day things as well. Volunteering to take them to a doctor’s appointment or to get their eyes tested might reduce stress for their mom, and it can also remind the kids of your role as a parent.
- Prioritize. You have your own life now; as Tom Waits said, you don’t have to ask permission if you want to go out fishing. You may be involved in a new, intense relationship, have duties at work, or have repairs to make on your new home. You might prefer to put aside your old life and move on, and you could, if you didn’t have kids. When your children don’t live with you full-time, you might forget about soccer games, class plays, or any number of things that are important to your children – but they won’t forget. If they expect you, it’s important to live up to those expectations! Your actions really do speak louder than words.
- Use your acting skills. After a separation, parents often take on duties that used to be covered by their partner. Maybe their mom used to read their bedtime stories after you gave them a bath. Now when they’re with you, you might be responsible for everything! It might not always feel comfortable or natural for you at first, but it should get easier if you keep working at it. It’s OK if it feels like you’re pretending at first.
- Keep your mouth shut. It might be tempting to say negative things about your kids’ mom, if only to justify the separation. This can put the kids in the middle of your conflict, making them feel that they have to take sides. No matter who wins that fight, the kids usually lose. Keep your opinions about their mom to yourself, or seek support elsewhere to avoid putting your kids in what may be an extremely stressful situation.
- Write it down. For some dads who don’t see their kids every day, it might be helpful to set aside some time to write to them about their day. You might never send them these notes about your life, but the exercise could still be worthwhile if it keeps them front and center in your thoughts.
These are only a few ideas, and they may not fit well with your situation. The bottom line is, if you love your kids, but they don’t live with you full-time, it takes work to maintain a relationship with them. In the long run, it might be an investment that pays off!
Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.