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A Disenfranchised Dad

January 6, 2009
How to Talk to a Disenfranchised Father
Monday, March 05, 2007
 
"If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it."
-Lemony Snicket.

A disenfranchised father is an adequate father who has been unreasonably and unwillingly removed from his children’s life. By "adequate", I mean a father like any other, a father who cares for his children, who sees himself as a valuable part of their upbringing and who has invested a significant part of his identity in his role in their lives.

By "removed", I mean that he no longer lives with his children, that he is reduced to a visitor in their lives or possibly prevented from seeing them altogether. He has no say in what happens to them. The mother works to keep him out, limits and controls their interactions, she likes it that way. To her, "the best interests of the child" are what she wants, period.

Many believe that the system is supposed to prevent this sort of thing from happening. That if such a father, loathed by his ex, can find no support in the courts, then there must be good and valid reason. These people are sorely mistaken. They have no understanding of the gaping holes in family law.

By default they believe that the problem of absentee fathers must be the fault of the fathers themselves, single mothers are saints fighting the good fight against tragic odds and through no fault of their own.

A father who has gone through the worst of this may have "trust issues". He has probably spent a lot of time among supposedly professional people who have examined him closely and found him wanting according to standards impossibly higher than those to which his ex is held (to which nor even should be held any typical parent).

People he thought he could trust have lied to him, have given him false hope and have actively worked against him, only for him to realize too late and leaving him with only resentment.

He will have spent a lot of time in an environment where the only appropriate response is outrage and yet any sign of anger from him would have cost him dear. The stress may have been too much and he may have expressed that anger and then seen the satisfied looks of those who look for excuses to do their awful work.

An angry word may have been enough, he didn’t need to actually get violent (although that would have produced all the more satisfaction and definitive result).

He may seem obsessed, only able to talk about one thing: the betrayal to which he has been subject. Alternatively, he may not want to talk about it, having learned that most people can’t take it, can’t accept the obvious pain he feels and melt away leaving him alone with it. "I’ve got my own problems, I can’t get involved with that", or "I wish he’d just get over it".

They wish he’d just get over the loss of his children.

He may be a strong enough person that it no longer shows at all. Until you dig a little, if you’re so inclined and if he is inclined to let you.

Sometimes, to lose a child like this, especially in the event of a complete lockout, is compared to the loss of a child to death. Not so. That would be what the philosophers call a category error. The circumstances and consequences are completely different.

The death of a child is forever, it is final, it is by definition resolved even if the consequences are not, it must be survived, and those who are left behind must try to rebuild their lives without the dead child. Everyone with an ounce of humanity is sympathetic, tries to accomodate it.

Disenfranchisement, by contrast, is ambiguous. The child is not there, but is elsewhere. Many do not know if they should feel sympathy or not. They don’t think "there but for the grace of God go I" because they know they’re good parents, and there’s no risk and, after all, he must have done something wrong, mustn’t he?

There is always hope, for those who have not had to spend years trying to maintain hope, even after years of no contact, because the child is not dead. If he does have contact, it may be difficult. He may have to run the gauntlet of the ex’s bile (as she pockets the child support check – you think she should thank him? That’s what the man says he owes her).

He gets limited time, perhaps supervised, shoving down his feelings, to engage the child who would otherwise engage by default, whenever he or she was ready. How long do you think he should tolerate it? How long would you? Why should you have to tolerate anything? Why should he? Or his children?

The tiredest cliché a disenfranchised father will hear and keep hearing as long as he lets on what has happened: "Don’t worry, they’ll come back to you, just wait and see". This is poor comfort for two reasons.

First, it’s a statement of faith, not fact, and his faith has taken a severe beating. He may have believed in justice, the good motivations of psychologists, the objectiveness of court personnel. But the system that was supposed to prevent this, either did nothing of the sort or actively caused it. The society that touts the value of family life proves itself a deranged lunatic by doing nothing to preserve it.

You want him to believe that his children will somehow absorb the importance of a father in their lives while not actually having one around to show them? That it should be somehow instinctive and one day they will wake up and realize this, tell their Machiavellian mother where to shove it and run back into his arms?

The other reason for this "wait and see" being bad advice is that it takes no account of the lost years. In advance, it shrugs them off and resigns to their being lost forever. Not just the normal security that the children should have as they grow in knowing that their father is there by their sides, but also the satisfaction and love that a father should feel in having his children near so he can watch over them and calm and keep them from their fears. All this is lost, not fully appreciated until it is gone, and only really by those who have lost it.

How do you talk to such a man? It depends, in part, on your own resources. How much of his anger are you willing to explore? That may seem odd, why should he get angry at you? Once you show some sympathy, you may find that his anger comes to the fore. He can’t get angry at the people who deserve it. They have power over him and his children.

Show him some sympathy and he may let that anger show, not necessarily at you, but in front of you. Are you man or woman enough to take it? It’s difficult to express anger without offending someone, will you take it at face value or look for the deeper meaning he hasn’t the lucidity to express?

Grief? He surely feels grief, and surely you’re old enough and experienced enough by now to have been able to comfort the grieving and to have felt some yourself. But what if that grief goes on for years? What if it never really goes away but becomes a permanent wound that won’t heal? He can’t visit a gravesite, he can’t really mourn.

What, after all, does he have to mourn but the loss of something that, however improbably, could come back any day? Every time you see him, you will be conscious of his pain, even if he isn’t. We all assess each other by what we know to have happened to each other.

One thing he may need more than anything else (besides his children) is validation. His self-image as a man and as a father has been under sustained and ongoing attack. Powerful people have either found him wanting or not found the spine to help him when they could (or should). The erosion on his sense of self worth is inevitable.

All around are conflicting indicators of what he must do – shrug it off, take it like a man, grow a pair, don’t give up on them, do everything that you can, fight!, don’t fight!, never give up, build a new life, keep calling them, give it up. Whatever he does, it won’t be the right thing (and there’s no shortage of judges), but he has to do it anyway.

Perhaps the most meaningful thing you can say is: "what has happened to you is wrong", it’d be nice if you believed it.

 
A disenfranchised Dad
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