Opening Up About the Absent Parent
By Vanessa Palencia
There is something admirable and raw in coming clean to your child and demonstrating love towards the absent parent despite the pain and betrayal they might have caused. It’s only natural that we want to keep our children from feeling the same pain we felt, but I believe that we underestimate our children’s strength and grace, especially when it comes to opening up about the absent parent.
How do I go about it?
Is there a right way to do it?
What if I’m trying to protect my child?
Is it okay if I never tell them?
These are all questions I’ve heard whenever the topic comes up and thoughts that have crossed my mind before too, so I know that there are parents out there that struggle with these very same issues. While I can’t claim to be an expert in child psychology, I am a mother who speaks from experience, and experience, to me, is extremely valuable.
As I’m sure most single parents know, the thought of ever talking about the absent parent is such a dreadful feeling. In a perfect world, we’d probably avoid the situation entirely without any fear of repercussions, but this isn’t a perfect world. Ever since my child was 2 years old, I’ve been running ‘the talk’ in my head. I’d play out every possible scenario and carefully plan every word I’d say. I even made a vow to myself that I’d never paint my son’s biological father in a negative image, because I knew from my own experience how detrimental it is to have parents talk smack about each other. I didn’t want that for my son. But despite running these conversations in my head, when the time came, I stumbled over my words and didn’t know where to start.
The day my son found out about his biological father was the same day that we applied for his passport. I had spent an exorbitant amount of time preparing all of the necessary paperwork for this and had tucked them neatly in a little plastic folder that I clung to my chest. I was fearful that they’d somehow float away and ruin our chance of getting that passport, so my mind wasn’t anywhere near the dreaded ‘father’ topic. But then when the lady at the counter asked for the father’s signature (she assumed my fiancee was his father), I was taken by surprise and had to explain that my son’s father was not present. The confusion that flashed across my son’s face broke my heart, but that’s when I knew that it was time to tell him the truth. I had successfully avoided the ‘father’ topic for six years of my son’s life, and I probably would have gone on longer, but fate had other plans.
So when we returned to the car, I took a brief moment of silence before turning around and facing the situation.
I kept it short and sweet, because I knew that while it was time that he knew about his father, he was still too young to understand everything. So staying true to my vows, I kept everything strictly informative. I explained that we became parents too young and that he didn’t think he was ready to raise a baby. I told him his name, where he lived, and even showed him a photo and then held my breath as I waited for the questions that I thought he would have, but all he asked was “Why did he move there?”
I laughed and kept it brief by saying that that’s where the rest of his family lived, and he was perfectly content after that. No further questions or concerned looks.
The way that my son gracefully handled the information only reaffirmed my beliefs that children are simple creatures who only require simple, honest answers. As adults, we sometimes make it a bigger deal than it really should be. But we have to remember that the kids don’t want to be dragged into our drama-filled past, nor do they want to be choking on our emotions towards the other parent. So while there are many ways you can approach this, there are three things you should always uphold.
Be simple, truthful, and neutral.
I can’t tell you when the time is right or if your situation is the exception, because every family situation is different and the maturity of the child definitely factors into it. But what I can say is that, unless it proves dangerous to the child, you must eventually tell them the truth. Because even if you end up with someone who fits perfectly into your family and does a beautiful job as a father, keeping the truth about your child’s past is just as painful as lying to them.
If possible, it’s also best that you work through any negative feelings or grudges before having this conversation because despite our best attempts to conceal them, our emotions have a way of working themselves into our words and actions, which makes for an overall unpleasant experience. It’s helped me to see the other parent as any child would a human being: full of love and forgiveness for their past actions.
So whenever that time comes, don’t fret. Take a deep breath, keep it simple, and speak with love and kindness. You might surprise yourself with just how easy it can be.