Tell Me About It

It breaks my heart that our son will not have a committed father in his life

Tell Me About It: In three years, he’s never brought him to see his grandparents and none of his friends seem to know my little boy exists

PROBLEM: I am a single working mother with a three-year-old son. The relationship with the child’s father was relatively brief and ended several months before our little boy was born.

The end of the relationship wasn’t really that acrimonious. We had little in common and he demonstrated he was not that interested in becoming a dad. He didn’t attend the scans or offer to help to prepare my apartment for the child’s arrival. He is a competitive athlete and academic, and at the time I was pregnant he was training for an international competition and in the midst of an important piece of research that took precedence.

Since our son was born, he has contributed very well financially, but he hasn’t sought any kind of formal custody arrangement. About once a month, or sometimes longer, he texts me and asks if he can see him. So far, I have never refused and a couple of times I have returned back to Dublin at short notice from the country to ensure that a visit happens. The child’s paternal grandparents have never met him and whilst I am told they are aware of his existence, I cannot be certain that they are.

He doesn’t have any pictures of the child on social media and none of his friends have ever contacted me to congratulate me on the birth or to check how the child is doing. It is not a case that I hoodwinked him into having a child. We discussed it and at the time he seemed to be very enthusiastic. It breaks my heart that our son will not have a committed father in his life. The last couple of times he visited, the child was delighted to see him but seemed very anxious getting into his car – the first time, I didn’t pay too much heed but the last time the child was distraught. I know he is not a great driver and I wonder if there may have been some kind of accident when he had my son in the car. Of course, I need to know this information, but I am so afraid of confronting him because I am worried that he will just see coming to visit as a hassle.

My friends say I am lucky that I don’t have the opposite problem of having a former partner demanding full custody.

I know this will never be the case, but it would be nice if our beautiful son was more than a brief distraction from his academic and sporting pursuits.

ADVICE: There seems to be contradiction in the story – you say you both discussed having a child and he seemed enthusiastic but also that he was not that interested in becoming a dad. This contradiction seems to be continuing in that your ex demonstrates some interest in his son, but it is on the basis of when it suits him, and he has not involved either his family or friends in his child’s life.

The issue of confrontation seems also to have existed in the relationship from the start – you say it was not acrimonious – and I wonder if your fear of conflict is now part of the pattern and the impact of this is that your son might be at risk. He may be at risk of bad driving, but he may also be at risk of not being acknowledged fully and this is likely to become a much larger issue as he grows older. Of course, it is good that your son has a relationship with his father and that he is being supported financially but this is not your ex being kind – this is the minimum of his responsibility and it is upheld by the law. It may be time for you to risk further rejection by pushing the boundaries of your ex’s involvement and to finally know where he stands in relation to parenthood.

Your son will learn that he has to behave well and not demand any extra attention if he wants to have a relationship with his father – is this fair on him and what will the consequences be for him? As your son’s champion, you will need to create a situation where some serious issues are discussed. You have many discussion points to choose from: risky driving, lack of acknowledgement of his son and haphazard arrangements for meeting. If your ex will not engage with these issues, you may need to restrict his access or be less obliging in facilitating his parenting. Your son needs to have parents who put him first, whom he can trust to turn up for him and from whom he can assume financial and emotional support. While you do all these things, your ex needs to be awakened to these responsibilities.

The risk is that he disappears from your lives but if he is such a fair-weather father, perhaps it is better to know and deal with this while your son is still so young, and you can mediate the effects. You can focus on having strong and loving male role models in your son’s life through uncles, close friends and your own father. Ultimately, the choice is your ex’s, but your avoidance of conflict is facilitating a very uncertain situation for your son and teaching you both that you need to play small so that you are cared for – this is not true.