“Can I call Mom?”
I recently had a conversation with a frusterated single Dad that revolved around this question his kids asked daily. His Ex had primary custody, the kids spent more time with her than him, yet they were always asking to call her on his time. Making matters worse, he never received a phone call from them over the long stretches they went without seeing him. Why don’t they miss me, he wondered.
This is a common frustration with non-custodial parents, and the meaning behind it is not what you think. Just like their parents, children experience a whole slew of emotions when their home becomes divided. They witness their parents angry with each other, and they often feel helpless as to how to improve the situation.
When a common challenge presents itself to two people, more often than not there is a clear front runner. It’s just a natural occurrence; survival of the fittest. One participant appears to handle the difficult situation better than the other. This happens with divorce most of the time too, and it starts from day one. One party has to be the defendant, and one has to be the respondent. These titles slant the playing field from the start, and paints a picture of instigator vs victim.
For the lucky divorcees, they are able to properly grieve and cope with the end of their marriage, and eventually begin to embrace their new definition of life. In moments of sadness, they are capable of putting on a happy face for their kids and provide them the stable and comforting home they so desperately need during this time of change. The kids see their strength, and they view this parent as healthy, happy, and content.
I asked this single Dad sitting in front of me if that description fit him. He said it did, that he shielded his kids from moments of pain and that he generally was beginning to thrive in his new life. He got back in touch with old friends, finally joined that local flag football league, and had high hopes for his future.
I asked him, with leaving his emotions at the door, to describe his ex-wife’s experience with their divorce. He pondered in silence for a moment.
“She’s struggling. She’s never happy. I haven’t seen her smile in months, and often times she’s crying at the front door.”
“If you are able to gather that conclusion from the thirty second interaction you have with her every other weekend,” I explained, “can you step into your kid’s shoes, and imagine the conclusions they themselves are making?”
Their mom was sad, and they saw it. Daily. They hear her crying at night, and they’ve seen her break down over hidden reminders of what life used to look like for all of them. She’s been forced to go back to work full-time, and she’s struggling with balancing her new schedule and being a good mom to her kids. The kids sense her exhaustion. Instead of reading the paper on Sunday mornings, they see her now clipping coupons, and looking for upcoming sales on groceries. They sense her stress, her worry, her need to feel loved and that she is doing something right…
Kids are powerless in divorce. They can’t replace the spouse that no longer lives with them, but darn it, they will try.
“Your kids don’t call you daily because they know you are okay. They don’t feel the pressure to be your sounding board, or your buddy. They are free to be your children, and only your children. They are not your therapist or your only source of happiness. They see you smiling, and they sense the positive outlook you have on life.
When they think of their mom, they see sadness. They worry about her getting through the day, and they’ve seen many tears fall from her eyes. They feel the burden of role reversal…in a sense, they themselves have become the parent to a weak, whimpering child. They need to nurture them. And they do so, by calling and checking in, sometimes multiple times a day.
So you see, Single Dad, your kids don’t call you often because you’re doing a fantastic job being a single dad. You’re thriving, you’re happy, and you’re moving on with optimism. Your kids see that, and they may not recognize it now, but that is a huge weight off their shoulders. Their Dad’s okay, they don’t need to worry about him.
A lack of calling does not translate to a lack of love. It’s their way of showing you thank you. Thank you for surviving the divorce. Thank you persevering forward, and thank you letting me have a care free childhood in your house. And someday, the phone will ring and it will be your kids telling you just that.”