If you have left the family home and want a good relationship with your children after they’ve grown up, don’t behave badly when they need you. You won’t get away with it: with your children, bad behaviour always comes back to haunt you.
Women leaving their kids is rare and usually due to depression or a breakdown. I’m talking about the more common scenario of dads who leave, then make mistakes that inevitably unfold, like a Greek tragedy.
Invariably, these could have been avoided with insight. But in the long run they do terrible damage to the father and child relationship. So, if you want to avoid the pitfalls, these are my three good rules.
1 Don’t let geography be the problem
You had them; stay near them. My ex moved to the States when his sons were three and six. He’s been there ever since, and they’re 20 and 23 now. You can’t get back time and you can’t rebuild memories: you were either there or you weren’t.
The story of a family is like a tapestry made in little stitches every day. That’s where the texture and richness lie. It can’t be made up in ‘quality time’ a few weeks a year.
Shortly after his 20th birthday, my youngest, musing on his father being absent from his life, said: “All those people I was over the years that got me to being the me I am now – he missed them. That’s his loss.”
When my eldest was seven and realised his father would be living 3,000 miles away he said he didn’t want to live without him. After every annual holiday he’d be inconsolable for a while – and then he learnt to get on with his lovely life here. But not many fathers want their kids to learn how to be without them.
He also had to live with other kids seeing the absence of a father in his life. One day, when he was 13, one pointed it out: “You don’t have a father, do you?”
“Yes I do, he just works in the States.”
“But it isn’t like me having a father who’s here, is it?”
Later, my son realised that of course his dad didn’t have to work there: he chose to go. So, dads who want to stay dads: don’t go. Not miles away.
Not unless you want this to happen: when he was 15 my son came off the phone to his dad and remarked that their relationship consisted of seven-minute phone calls. He said: “I time it. We only have enough to say for seven minutes.”
Then, when he was 17, he told me he’d had his childhood, and he’d had it without his father being in it.
Oddly, he was more settled after that. I think that throughout his childhood he’d hoped that his adored dad would come back to live near him. But he didn’t. So something he had long yearned for could now never happen, and he had to come to terms with it.
2 Don’t marry a difficult or insecure woman
Explain to your current partner that you have other claims on your love and time which must be respected. Ann has a former husband who didn’t do this properly. She says: “One day our daughter was very upset about being bullied at school, so I called him to discuss how we should handle it.
“But he ignored the problem and said: ‘Look, Ann, my new wife doesn’t like me talking to you. Don’t phone again.’”
It had never occurred to me that he wouldn’t want to know straight away what was going on in their lives; that he would put her jealousy before his children’s wellbeing. I told him he’d lose touch with them and the connection would be gone.
But she had laid down the law. He said: “She’s my future, you’re my past. Only call me if it’s life or death.”
Of course, Ann can’t only be his past because she is the mother of his children. The new wife has prevented him from knowing what’s going in their lives as it happens. And, says Ann, she has robbed him of the pleasure of being able to talk about them to the one person who cares as much as he does, and who knows what they’re doing.
“It made it harder and more lonely for me, but from that time on, he didn’t know what was happening in their lives. He got old news from the kids, so they had no adult insight or his input. It meant he had no real understanding of what the issues were, so lost the deep connection.”
Kate also experienced a wedge being driven between father and kids. Her daughters would come home and say that dad’s new wife left her sexy underwear in the bathroom. The girls felt unsettled by seeing a new side of him, and found it hostile and excluding because his wife was flaunting a power over him that they didn’t have.
Kate says: “Ten years on, they still resent her and feel odd around him.” Though their father may have had his head turned by lust, he should have been aware of what was going on.
3 Be fair with money
I believe children shouldn’t have a lower standard of living than the father if parents split up, but that can be what happens. The courts allow it because our legal system is allied to capitalism, and the courts want the main earner (usually the man) to work, so they make it worth his while.
Keeping settlements legal is just the baseline, not necessarily the moral ground on which you want to be if you want your children to love you. They become the toughest judges because they see what’s really going on.
Sue’s ex is a banker who left his family to set up with someone else. Sue, who had given up her career to take care of the family, because seriously and incurably ill. She now had little earning power.
He then arranged his financial affairs, as many highly paid men do, into share options and bonuses because they don’t have to be declared as regular salary to the court.
He also ran up ‘debt’ to invest in property and pensions and so on, so it would look as though there was very little cash left. Although Sue was very sick (or maybe because of it), he regularly dragged her back to court to reduce the maintenance payments, claiming a change of circumstances.
His first family became second rate in their living standards. Though he had three properties and money was no object, Sue and the children went from well off to living on benefits. Helping them would not have stretched him financially, but he (and his new wife, who didn’t earn) were determined, saying: “Understand that we don’t want to pay you.”
Over the years, his daughter noted the discrepancy in standards and, when she was 19, ceased contact with him. When he later did talk to her, he asked: “What did I do wrong?”
“The money,” she said. “Mum is ill and you kept dragging her to court to make us poorer. My step-brothers live better than us because of what you earn and because mum looked after us. Why should we be second best?”
If a man has been ‘clever’ and ensured that his first wife and their children don’t get much, he’ll have his money but risk missing out on the value of a relationship with his kids. That may not be a situation you want, particularly in the years ahead when your kids think of you as the man who wasn’t fair to them.