Whether through divorce, deployment or frequent travel, some dads live away from their children for long periods. Despite what we may think (or others may tell us) living away does NOT prevent a vibrant, loving and lasting relationship. For several years, I've offered some ideas for how to keep the connection strong--ideas that were developed with the help of several very wise & brave divorced dads.
I get grief about these tips sometimes--a topic I'll address in a future post. Meantime, here are the first six of my "12 Tips for Live-Away Dads." (pronouns alternate between daughter and son, because the tips are meant for dads & stepdads of both).
HANG IN THERE FOR THE LONG HAUL. Living away is tough. So is raising a child from two different homes. My involvement in my child's life may be different than my dreams for the two of us when he was little, but it is no less important. I meet my responsibilities, including child support, without resentment. Both his mom and I remain tremendous influences in his life. I stay calm, committed, loving and loyal toward him-and do what I can to help his mom do the same. If abuse or abandonment happen, my child needs me to protect him, but he also needs to make peace in his life with that relationship.
ENCOURAGE HER BOND WITH MOM. My child's relationship with her mom is different than her relationship with me. My child needs to participate fully in it, even when that's hard for me (or her). I encourage communication between her and her mom, recognizing that I'm not responsible for their relationship. If my child is more comfortable talking about certain things with her mom than me, I respect and encourage that.
DEVELOP HEALTHY SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL SUPPORTS FOR MYSELF. It's normal to struggle sometimes with anger, loneliness and other difficult emotions. But I'm careful not to work those feelings out through my child. I meet my adult emotional and social needs maturely with healthy adults.
REMEMBER THAT MY CHILD LIVES IN TWO HOMES. The hours before he leaves my home and after he returns are a time of adjustment (and sometimes grieving) for him. I respect that he may or may not want to talk right away about his time with his mom; I let his take the lead. I don't pry for information or play down his feelings. He may sometimes be upset or moody when he leaves my home or his mom's, sad that he has to leave either of us "behind."
FATHER THE BEST I CAN WHEN MY CHILD IS WITH ME. I can't change how her other parents raise her or make up for what they do or don't do, so I focus on what I can control: my own actions. I'm not judgmental about their parenting because no one (including me) is a perfect parent. I trust that her mother and I are each trying our best. I parent her calmly; give her choices; have clear expectations; show affection, patience, love and trust--without demanding perfection. I encourage her to communicate with and trust both of her parents, even (maybe especially) when she makes mistakes. I give her healthy attention when she's with me and when she's away (using phone, Internet, mail, etc.).
DON'T TRASH MOM. In word and gesture, I speak well about my child's mother even when I'm angry at her -- and even if she speaks poorly about me. If I have trouble speaking well, I will wisely say little. Negative talk about my child's mom is a little wound to my child, causing him to think less of himself, his mom and me. Trashing his mom or step-parents through words or gestures (in public or at home) humiliates my child and damages my family. No matter the circumstances of our divorce, I respect that his mother's new family is now part of my child's family. I'll keep my child out of the middle, even if others don't, and I'll resolve adult conflicts away from him so he can be the child.