Sunday, October 19, 2008

Long Distance Parenting

The last entry reflected on the people who, for diverse reasons, are not living near their children. Not everyone is cut out to be a parent, and the decision to accept that one is not going to be part of the life of one's child is a difficult one. But what about the other side of the story? It may be hard on the adult, but it is even harder on the kids. So folks, I may understand, and even sympathize with the fact that you are an absentee parent, but that doesn't let you off the hook.

No matter how conscientious the absent parent is, no matter how diligent about the calls, visits, days/weekends out, remembering birthdays/holidays, the relationship with the child has been irrevocably changed. The child's worldview, sense of natural order, faith in the world he or she knows and loves, and the belief that mummy and daddy will always be there, have been altered. Trust has been broken. This reaction isn't about reason; it is about emotion.

My sister was 6 when our parents split up; I was 10. At first our father would call, he would take us out for the day, the weekend. The calls, the visits grew less frequent. He met a widow who had three children, and he married her. He started a new life, moved to a different municipality. His new wife was nice enough, and my sister and I got along with our stepsiblings. Eventually he moved to the other side of the country and gave up the pretext of staying in touch. The last time I saw him was in 1982. I called him while I was out west on a student exchange.

My sister never forgave our father for leaving --not so much for leaving, as for letting go. I don't think it bothered me as much. I was never particularly angry about it. It is not like he spent that much time with us even when my parents were married. I guess I always looked at the separation as an adult issue that didn't concern me which, if you think about it, is kind of bizarre in itself: how could I consider that my father's leaving didn't concern me? Let’s phrase that differently: it was not about me.

Years later, after I had my second child, I sent him a video of my kids and my life. He was away on vacation when it arrived. My stepsister acknowledged receipt. I never got any response from my father though. If I were to analyze what kind of impact growing up with an absent father had on my life, I would say that I learned emotional autonomy. I learned to not depend on anyone else for emotional support. This can be a good thing. The negative side is that I find it difficult to trust and depend on someone else. Actually, I don't have that problem with my women friends. It's just men I don't trust.

A friend of mine saw his children this week. It was been six years since his separation and although he has kept in contact, they live in different countries and visits are infrequent. His daughter is now 10 and his son is 15. He said that it was awkward seeing them, which I can appreciate. His daughter was open and willing to engage, but his son was not. Considering that a lot of parents have trouble relating to their adolescent children, I can't say that I find this surprising. On top of all the regular teenage angst, this boy is probably haboring a good amount of resentment, anger, betrayal, alienation, and lack of trust. This friend also writes a blog. I pointed out to him that over the course of the past year, he has mentioned his daughter a number of times, but he never mentions his son.

The adult bears the responsibility for upholding the relationship. It takes a lot of effort to be part of someone's life when you are not present, as anyone who has even been in a long-distance relationship knows. If a long distance relationship is hard to sustain with another adult, why would you expect that they would be easier to sustain with a child? The onus is on the parent who has left to establish and maintain contact with the child, because no matter how diligent the absent parent is about staying in touch, the child will perceive the situation as abandonment, and usually the child will blame himself, or else actively shut out the parent. Why would a child want to cultivate a relationship a parent who won't be there for him when he needs him?

I think of friends of mine who live far from their children and none of them are people I would describe as "deadbeat dads": they are conscientious, sensitive, caring people, which is why I think it is all the more important that they not lose contact with their children. But the fact of the matter is: the longer a person stays away, and the farther away they are, the less present they will be. Memory fades, feelings fade. Out of sight, out of mind.

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