The Ghost Dad Phenomenon

They are the ghost fathers, the ones who disappear from the lives of their children in the years following a divorce decision. According to experts, fatherlessness is an epidemic problem. But let me make a radical proposal: Rather than vilify them, which feels easy, perhaps we should try to understand them. And yes, it is a male problem.

“There’s a pretty good body of research that non-custodial mothers, who are smaller in number, are more likely to be involved with their children, post-divorce, than fathers,” says Nick Bala, a family law professor at Queen’s University in Kingston.

Mothers deal with the epidemic in silence, understanding the deeply painful irony – something Senator Barack Obama, whose biological dad disappeared from his life when he was 2, alluded to in his eloquent autobiography, Dreams from My Father. In the book’s preface, the Democratic U.S. presidential hopeful writes that, upon the death of his mother, he thought “had I known she would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book – less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single most constant in my life.” Fathers, by their absence, have a huge and overriding presence in the lives of their children. Ghost fathers haunt them.

These disappearing dads are not deadbeats. They pay support; their current address is known. But what can mothers do? To help enforce support payments, there is a government agency. But who can help with the plea: “Please make my ex see his children more?” I am not talking about abusive fathers. Everyone agrees that children are better off to have those men out of their lives. But the fathers who simply fade away? They are black holes, with the potential to suck much of the devoted, compensatory efforts of the mothers into their centre. I am one of those mothers. I have three grown boys. It’s true that some men are pathological in their ability to divorce their children – the kids are lucky if they get a card on their birthdays and are rarely, if ever, invited to visit. But there are many divorced dads who fail to remain involved in their children’s lives for reasons that have more to do with the emotional restrictions of their gender than an absence of love.

“It’s difficult for men to express their hurt,” explains Calvin Sandborn, author of Becoming the Kind Father, and a professor at the University of Victoria who participates in a weekly men’s group. For much of his life, Mr. Sandborn emulated his alcoholic father’s example of hiding emotions, which he believes was a factor in the breakdown of his own marriage after 25 years and three children.

Mr. Sandborn credits the need to learn how to express his emotions, in the aftermath of his divorce, for the bond he enjoys with his three daughters, 25, 21, and 16. “My relationship with my kids is way better than it would have been if I hadn’t gone through that process,” he admits. He was looking for articles about divorce in order to gain divorce help for men in his situation. “I was an ignoramus as far as what was going on in my inner life.” Men see their lives in terms of doing, not feeling, he says. “We have been taught to regard ourselves as a body with a job to do, like a machine … to cut ourselves off from our heart.” Anger is a substitute for heartbreak, he says. Instead of expressing to their ex-wives how terrible they feel about losing daily contact with their children, they view the vulnerability they experience – not being in control of their emotions – as an assault on their masculinity. “A man feels sadness,” Mr. Sandborn says. “But on some level he thinks, ‘I’m not supposed to feel sadness,’ so the way men react is to blame the person who is making them feel sad. They get angry. There’s an adrenalin rush. And that makes them feel powerful again.”

Tellingly, in a study conducted by Constance Ahrons, an American author of several books on divorce, including The Good Divorce and We’re Still Family, men who have faded from their children’s lives reported anger at not having sufficient time with their children following separation. They disappear because of repeated feelings of loss with occasional visits. To a woman, that seems completely backward. Someone deals with feelings of loss by creating more loss? But that is only one contributing factor to the phenomenon of ghost fathers. According to experts, conflict over child support, perceived court bias toward mothers, stepfathers who usurp the biological fathers’ role, the custodial mother moving away and remarriage, which brings added responsibilities, can also play a part.

There is also the problem of custodial mothers criticizing the father in front of the children, which encourages his marginalization. Another issue many divorced dads face is a difficulty in creating intimacy with their children. “Dads are often less experienced as parents because, in the marriage, they were not the primary caregiver. That’s just how the couple divided up the responsibilities,” says Barry Willie, founder of a divorced fathers’ group called Kids and Dad in Kitchener, Ont. “We have a course called Redefining Yourself in which dads have to think through what they want in a separated family.” I’m not saying that single mothers should become enablers of their ex-husband’s lack of responsibility. Many women who have been in unhealthy marriages know that excessive compassion for their husband’s actions is a form of permission for the poor behaviour to continue.

At a recent party, I was explaining to a divorced dad how hard it is to understand why fathers often choose not to be as involved as possible with their children, even when the mothers do everything to encourage and facilitate visits. “It’s about cruelty,” I said. “No,” he replied, rather sadly. “It’s about shame.” In the world of masculinity, you’re either a winner or a loser, he suggested. It’s black and white. Divorce is seen as failure, ergo you’re a loser. Who wants to be reminded of that? The revelation practically knocked me off my high heels, and I was overcome with generosity for these ghost fathers. I felt like sending my ex a gift certificate for a session with a shrink.

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