The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Dads
If we believe sources such as TMZ, Entertainment Tonight and People Magazine, Jon Gosselin, of Jon and Kate plus 8 fame, has very little contact with his children. According to his twin 16 year old daughters, they haven’t seen him in over a year. If he is slowly withdrawing from his children’s lives, he certainly isn’t alone in that behavior. Some studies show that a full two thirds of children have virtually no contact with their fathers at the two years post-divorce mark.
Although statistics are changing, women still receive primary custody of the children in most cases and fathers usually have visitation every other weekend. In the first year following a divorce, non-custodial fathers maintain a good level of contact with their children. However, studies show that after two years there is a dramatic drop off in fathers’ involvement. Knowing all the benefits of children having competent fathers in their lives; improved psychological health, fewer behavioral problems and better peer relationships, it bears examining the reasons many fathers disappear from their children’s lives.
Being taken from the role they know to a part time parenting role is very unsettling to fathers. They are no longer a primary parent and have a lesser control and influence over their children. Seeing them so infrequently, they feel a loss of power to influence the outcome of their children’s lives. With only 48 hours every other weekend they hate to spend their limited time being the disciplinarian and their role becomes ambiguous. Eventually they find themselves entertaining their children, becoming the proverbial “Disneyland Dad.” It’s a challenge to form a deep relationship bond with such short time constraints so they gradually spend less and less time with their children.
Having a hostile ex-spouse that makes contacts with the children difficult is also a variable that negatively influences a man’s motivation to maintain contact. If the situation is extreme the father may feel that his ex is brainwashing the children against him and the kids and his ex are “teamed up” against him. If every pick-up and drop-off are hostile encounters, some men choose avoid it all together. Sometimes it’s a subtle form of maternal gatekeeping; changing plans at the last minute, not having kids ready for visits or making criticisms of the father in front of children. Research shows that when men are faced with the battle of a difficult ex-wife regarding custody issues, they tend to react in one of two ways; they fight ferociously to maintain their father-child relationship or they withdraw completely, severing ties with their children.
The re-marriage of the mother can prompt a change in the relationship between father and child. Having another man living with his children, taking over his role as the father in the home is disheartening. Some fathers feel their role is no longer relevant, that they are now redundant. They feel unnecessary and so they abdicate their position of parent.
When a man remarries, it can change the father- child dynamics significantly. Unless the new spouse is very supportive, visitation often decreases as the man struggles to manage the demands of a new wife, step-kids, and sometimes a new baby. The new wife often doesn’t want reminders of his past relationship around and rather than fighting, it’s easier to avoid conflict and move on to the new family, leaving the children from his first marriage behind.
Gradually fading from the children’s lives is the easy way out in the short term but for the child’s long term benefit, it is essential to maintain a stable father-child connection. Co-parenting effectively is challenging but it can be done. Both parents must put aside pride and ego and act in the best interest of the child. The payoffs will be significant for all involved.