Divorced on Father’s Day?
Etiquette Tips for Divorced Parents
This June, Americans will fire up the grills to honor the men in their lives. Whether you’re married or divorced, a single dad or a stepfather, retailers expect those eager to honor dads of all kinds will spend more than $9 billion on gifts.
Father’s Day was started as a way to honor a single parent. Sonora Dodd celebrated the first Father’s Day on June 19, 1910 in honor of her father, William Smart, who raised six children after his wife died in childbirth. In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed a law making Father’s Day a permanent holiday.
However, Father’s Day celebrates family bonds that can be especially tough for those who are divorced. If you’re divorced on Father’s Day, statistics show you’re not alone. About 40 percent of America’s children do not live with both biological parents.
The National Fatherhood Initiative reports that more than 27 million children now live apart from their fathers. A survey by the organization found that men who did not live with their children didn’t think they spent enough time with them. About 30 percent of children who do not live with their biological father have no contact with them, and only 40 percent have contact more than once a month.
Fathers can overcome some of the long-term consequences of divorce by cultivating a close connection with their children,” said Ken Canfield, Ph.D., founder of The National Center for Fathering and the new director of the Center for the Family at Pepperdine University.
Fatherless homes account for 63 percent of youth suicides, 90 percent of homeless/runaway children, 85 percent of children with behavior problems, 71 percent of high school dropouts, 85 percent of youths in prison, well over 50 percent of teen mothers. No doubt about it, guilt is the Father’s Day gift that keeps on giving for those who worry that their divorce has wrecked their kids. So, it’s no surprise that 91 percent of those surveyed feel that America is suffering from a “father absence” crisis. Parenting is definitely harder when you’re not physically present. All else being equal, 81 percent said that men perform best as fathers if they are married to the mothers of their children.
Cultivating that connection when there’s divorce requires more than love. “Handling situations where there isn’t an etiquette rule is about understanding how to combine manners with three fundamental principles that form the basis of how we get along with each other — demonstrating respect, showing consideration, and being honest,” said Dr. Cindy Post Senning. Dr. Senning is a director of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vermont, and co-author of six books, including The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children.”
Here are eight etiquette tips for divorced parents to help make Father’s Day special for both dad and kids.
1. Recognize this may be an especially tough holiday for Dad.
While the studies show men have a higher income level than women after divorce, men do worse emotionally than women after a divorce. Divorced men are three times more likely to commit suicide. The National Fatherhood Initiative reports that divorced men also have substantially more problems with alcohol. Canada’s National Population Health Survey found divorced men were at higher risk for depression than divorced women. Research has suggested that loss of custody or a change in parenting responsibilities is one of the most stressful aspects of post-divorce life for men.
“It’s especially risky for men not to be connected with family,” said Vincent DiCaro, Director of Public Affairs for National Fatherhood Initiative. “When men start to become disconnected from family, they are more likely to get involved in behaviors that are going to be harmful to themselves or to their family. They don’t have the institution that was providing their life with meaning and direction. The men really hit hard by divorce tend to be those who don’t have a large support network in place.”
Dr. Canfield agrees. “Men in depression after divorce — it’s big,” he says. “Women are better able to assess their emotional state and more likely to get help. Depression for men is more closely tied to the loss of children than it is to the loss of the marriage. As a result, they may tend to remarry quickly to deal with this but that tends to compound the problem because the children wonder if this marriage will be successful.”
If you’re a divorced dad dealing with depression, create the support system you need so you can be part of your children’s lives. Seek out men whose fathering skills you admire and get advice when you need it. Go for counseling and keep your own emotional bucket full.
2. Give the kids space to be real. Divorce is hard on children.
Research from Iowa State University shows that children of divorce are at a higher risk for adjustment problems because their parents are less likely to be consistent in co-parenting the child. Researchers found the departure of dad from the home increases a boy’s chances of becoming depressed, even when parents remain supportive.
If Dad left because of a girlfriend, the kids may still be angry, particularly if Mom hasn’t moved on. On the other hand, if Mom left because of the boyfriend, don’t expect that the kids will feel like giving their stepdad a Father’s Day present. Many children feel that one parent is responsible for the breakup of their home. Since most children don’t want a divorce, they may feel angry for a while. By and large, this works itself out as the child matures. Little ones who feel they’re responsible for the divorce often work that out for themselves. “Children get more measured views as they get older,” said Dr. Judith Wallerstein, who has spent 30 years studying the effects of divorce on families. She is the co-author of the international best seller, What About the Kids? Raising Children Before, During and After Divorce.
Respect their feelings and the boundaries they need to feel safe. Don’t push things, especially that first year. “Adolescents may feel they don’t want to celebrate days honoring parents because they’re angry with both of them. I don’t think they should try to change that,” Dr. Wallerstein.
3. Settle your feelings about the stepfather.
It can be tough if Mom has custody and the kids see their stepdad more than you. Put the jealousy aside for the sake of your children and find ways to show the stepdad respect for his contributions to your kids’ lives. “Men tend to be very competitive and territorial. But, when they’re parenting the same child, they need to think about being on the same football team, not opposing teams,” said Tom Wohlmut, President of Stepfamily Network.
Wohlmut suggests you ask yourself, “What is the one thing I can do to acknowledge the male father figure?” Children need to understand there is only one dad and one mom and that will never, ever change. But, that doesn’t mean the other male in their life doesn’t have good qualities they can benefit from. You can help your children make cards, gifts, or pictures to honor their stepfather. That way, children are not made to feel guilty for supporting other male figures in their lives.
This approach isn’t guaranteed to work. You can be as nice as possible to your child’s stepdad, and he may hate you anyway. The key is to make sure the kids don’t feel it’s a loyalty test if they appreciate what the stepdad brings to the table. It can be tough to do it but it’s important. Stepfathers may feel awfully neglected on Father’s Day. “If your kids don’t learn good relationship skills from you, then how will they know how to have a good relationship in their future?” said Wohlmut.
4. Don’t let money limit you.
“Divorce is expensive and then there’s alimony and child support. It’s painful to write out that check every month because it reminds you of the failure,” said Wohlmut. After his divorce, Wohlmut found money became a sore point. He learned how to show his daughter, Katie, that there are two kinds of currency in the world. One is money. The other is feelings. “Our value in this society is about how much money I make and how much I owe,” said Wohlmut. “In other countries, it’s about how much of myself I give to others and how much I am loved by them.”
So, if money is too tight, make Father’s Day about the simple pleasures of just being together. Ask your child to read you a story. Go for a walk in the woods. Go fishing. Draw pictures with them and then go get a cheap frame. “You show you value them as a person by how much time you spend with them,” said Wohlmut. Not only that, you’re teaching them real values, something the Iowa State University found is sometimes missing when dads aren’t living with their kids. And if you do decide to spend a little more on a getaway with your children, there are a number of vacation options available to single-parent families on a budget.
5. Don’t let distance stop you.
“Celebrate Father’s Day regardless of whether or not you will see your kids,” said DiCaro. “Send them a card, call them, or send them an e-mail telling them how much you love them and how proud you are to be their dad.”
6. Make way for daddy.
Because she usually has custody, Mom is often the gatekeeper who can either make it easier for Dad to be part of the children’s lives or much more difficult. “In a divorce, it’s helpful to the children if the mother encourages them to participate in the Father’s Day celebration, especially in joint custody families. Where the mother is less friendly that can be a problem,” said Dr. Wallerstein.
Dr. Canfield agrees. “It’s critical for moms to project the positive things about the relationship she has with the children’s father. While mom may need to find a place to process the emotions so she can get to the place of speaking well about her children’s father, it’s very helpful if she can reframe and revisit things that have occurred and speak respectfully about those in front of the kids because divorce hits kids like an earthquake in China. It really helps them adjust if they don’t have to deal with the negative banter.”
7. Practice forgiveness.
If a wife left her marriage for a boyfriend and she’s got the kids, plus alimony and child support, men can feel like they’re stuck paying the price for someone else’s bad decisions. “Many dads are a bomb ready to go off. They’re full of anger, bitterness, and rage. That won’t do anyone any good,” says Dr. Canfield. “Regardless of what happened, they have to resolve the personal emotional issues related to distance or difficulty of divorce for the sake of their relationships with their children. They can start by thinking of her as their children’s mother, rather than the ‘ex.’ If they fail to do this, they lock up their kids and keep them in a protected state where they can’t experience forgiveness for something they had no part in.”
If this describes your situation, there are steps you can take to begin the healing process. Journal. See a therapist. Find a place where you can tell it like it is and process the fury.
Meanwhile, maintain a consistent relationship with your child and don’t get pulled into dissing their mother — no matter what she’s done. When you do that, you put your child in a cycle of despair because you’re constantly saying what a lousy mom she was. For a child to become healed and whole, they need someone who’s walked through the valley of the shadow of death and not been overcome by fear of losing the relationship with the child over something you have done. Put the negative stuff beyond reach. “There will always be a time when the child will come to you and say what really happened between you and mom. They will seek you out but you shouldn’t push that or prompt that,” says Dr. Canfield.
8. Take responsibility to get what you want.
Traditionally, Mom helps the kids pick out gifts for dad and takes care of figuring out dinner. If you’re a divorced dad, you can try asking your ex if she’d be willing to do this. You can return the favor by helping the kids prepare for her birthday or Christmas or any other special day. But, let’s face it, some women will be too buried in their story to agree.
“The relationship gets complicated when two biological parents separate,” said Wohlmut. “If the biological dad is expecting the biological mom to do something to help the kids celebrate fathers, you’re now back into a relationship that didn’t work in the first place.” Wohlmut suggests that the stepmom help the kids get ready for Father’s Day if the biological mom isn’t up to it. “Just make sure she doesn’t tell the kids what they’re going to do without involving them in the decision-making process. She should help them do whatever it is they want to do,” said Wohlmut.
Reach out and ask other men for their help. “Men, for a variety of reasons, tend not to support each other,” said DiCaro. There are many dads who have great knowledge of parenting and good relationship skills. “But, fathers haven’t really been affirmed in our culture. So, they don’t tend to think these skills are very valuable. If you see someone who’s doing a great job as a father, ask for their help in learning the skills that made them successful.
“In the end, it’s about love, respect, generosity, kindness, understanding, and support for one and other to reach our full potential as humans,” said Wohlmut. And isn’t that what good manners are all about?