I’m having trouble making a decision about my daughter’s well-being. My name is Meredith and I am 24 years old and am raising a 4 year old alone. Her biological father left us while I was pregnant. We now have minimal contact with him. I have since married and am divorcing. During the period of my daughter’s life from infancy to now, she has known my husband to be her father. He has now decided to pull himself away from the father role. The separation was hard. My daughter was always upset and cried a lot. She asks and tells me things about wishing her daddy would come back. What do I do? How can I better explain to her what is going on? She is very smart for four and can understand most anything. Do you think we need therapy? I would like him to continue to see her, but I don’t know if I should just let it go. We are both involved in other relationships and are much happier apart. But I can’t seem to make her happy. Please help.
First, I want to thank you for being such a concerned and caring mother to your daughter at this very difficult transition in her life. One of the hardest parts of being a parent is wanting to protect our children from any pain or heartache. It is especially frustrating when the rest of the world won’t cooperate with our protecting our child. If your husband has no desire to continue his relationship with your daughter, there is no way that you can force it. Even if you could, your daughter would immediately pick up on his resistance to being with her, which would only make things worse. Even if she is a very smart four year old, developmentally, she is only capable of understanding a small part of what is happening. What she can understand is filtered through her four year old eyes. Children, especially small children, think that the whole world revolves around them. This is very healthy and very normal. The only reason that the world exists is to focus on them. The next logical step from there is that they cause everything to happen. This is a good concept to believe when only positive things are happening in their world. However, when something bad or scary or unsettling happens, then the child feels that they have caused that, too. Your daughter may be feeling that she is responsible for the break up of your marriage. It is very important that you tell her over and over and over again that she is in no way responsible for what happened; that the adults made the decision; that there was nothing that she could have done to change the ending of the marriage; that she was and is a good girl, and that you still, and always will, love her very much. You will need to repeat this message to her quite a few times.
As for if you both need therapy, if this has been going on for several months and she is just as distraught as she was when she first found out, perhaps it is time to get professional help. Please call your pediatrician, pre-school, or your church or synagogue for some referrals. If, however, it has still been a short amount of time, just tell her that her feelings are okay, that it is okay with you if she misses her father (be aware if you are sending out mixed signals about this. Do you get angry or tense if she mentions your husband? Do you shut her down?), that you are also sad. Then help her to find other things to focus on: play a game, take a walk, spend some time playing with her dolls with her or whatever your daughter likes to do.
But most importantly, keep loving her and making her a priority in your life and you will both come through this intact and healthy.