Jai Breitnauer on what happens when male role models start disappearing from a child’s life.
Recently, we saw a ghost from the past. Once a regular visitor to our home, there just after the birth of our first child and a constant presence for more than a decade, this individual disappeared from our lives a couple of years ago when he and his partner split up. Marriage breakups aren’t fun for anyone: the couple themselves, the family supporting them, the friends who feel torn in two. In this case, a child was also involved, which is always heartbreaking.
What we didn’t realise was the impact this had on our own kids. But as the front door opened a few weekends ago, and our 10-year-old saw this long-lost ‘uncle’ for the first time since 2016, his reaction was to rush forward, throw himself at this man he so obviously adored, and give him a big hug and kiss.
It was unexpected and a lot to process, but it’s not the first time something like this has happened. Last November, when my boys saw a friend’s dad who hadn’t been on the scene for several months after a relationship ended, they rushed out of our car before I’d even stopped properly and threw themselves at him. As I watched the joy flood their faces, it struck me that we’d never really explained where he’d gone. This was a guy we used to walk to school with, who brought picnics for the children to share in the playground. This was someone who was important to us, and yet, as far as the kids were concerned, he’d just disappeared.
The ‘disappeared dads’ bother me. It’s not just because our kids had lost a great mentor and friend who was once important to them. It’s because of what their absence is teaching our boys. After all, they haven’t really disappeared – it’s just that our access to them has been reduced or removed.
I fear that sends the wrong message that men are free to come and go as they please, while women remain the anchor, and anchored to, the home.
The reality of a heterosexual break up isn’t always a 50/50 split, or thereabouts, of care. But even when it is – at least to my children on the outside looking in – the dads still disappear. They often take the children for weekends and holidays, meaning their presence at school or weekday activities is reduced. Dads often move out of the family home, meaning that playdates are usually facilitated by mums, and “the dad’s house” remains this place of mystery, reserved for his own children. It was only when my son said, after seeing a disappeared dad, that he “should tell ‘Sarah’, she must wonder where her dad is all the time” that I realised that he didn’t know about the “secret life” she had with her dad at the weekends. He genuinely thought her dad just left and never came back. What impact did that perception of events have on him?
My friends are wide-ranging in terms of their family make-up. We know single parents with no parenting partner, grandparents taking primary care of their children, LGBTQ+ couples with kids of their own fostered and from previous relationships. We openly discuss all these different family setups with our kids. But of the heterosexual couples we know that have split, it seems our family has, by and large, maintained a relationship only with the mum. The dad suddenly becomes a distant and untouchable creature occupying the shadows, and that seems a huge shame.
I’ve asked myself why we lose touch with the dads and I don’t have a clear answer. As families have become more nuclear and the need for privacy – at least in the pākehā world – has become more pressing, I think we may have lost sense of what connecting with adults outside of immediate family means to our children. Interestingly, we haven’t lost the connection itself (or at least, the kids haven’t). Watching our children develop meaningful relationships with other adults in their lives has been a joy, especially as they’ve grown older and developed friendships with adults not immediately associated with us.
The importance of male role models to all children, but especially boys, has been well documented and evidenced. A quarter of children in the US are parented solely by their mothers with no access to their father at all. In New Zealand, the majority of teachers, especially at primary school, are women, as are most support workers such as school administrators, teaching assistants, cleaners and kids club supervisors.
For those whose family set up doesn’t involve a man for whatever reason, this means their children are getting very limited exposure to male role models. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I’m not judging those who don’t have men in their life for whatever reason (and I’d like to acknowledge at this point that not all role models are good role models). But when a child does have a positive male role model who suddenly and inexplicably disappears due to a relationship breakup, the impact could be long-lasting.
I worry it’s something we’ve grossly underestimated. The issue of toxic masculinity is wide-reaching, and both girls and boys need to see a positive version of manhood modelled well. The disappearing dad model doesn’t feed into this positivity at all.
From now on, I’m going to treat the issue of the disappearing dads differently. I’m going to be honest with my boys about where they’ve gone. That means for those dads who’ve perhaps taken the opportunity of a relationship break-up to step away from some of their shared parenting responsibilities, I won’t make an effort to be kind. I need my boys to understand the minimum of what’s expected of them.
Where there are dads who are very much on the family scene but not on our scene, I’ll make sure my kids understand that they’re still there for their ex-partner and children in important ways. I think demystifying this is one essential way we can have an honest discussion with our kids about why relationships end, how it’s not a scary thing it’s just life, and how the way you behave during and after a break up defines you as a person.
I’m also going to make a concerted effort to keep in touch with these important men. It can be hard when couples you’re friends with split up. Traditionally we’ve been lead to believe we have to pick a side, and, of course, there’s the judgement women have faced in the past if they’ve made an effort to keep in touch with a friend’s ex (a “hussy” my mum would say). But I think we’ve all moved on from that now. It’s 2019, we understand that people of different, attracting genders can be really be just good friends.
From what I can tell, the way people behave around couples who’ve separated hasn’t changed much in recorded western history. But for most of our friends who’ve split up, there’s been limited acrimony. It’s just another bend in the road of life, so why do we feel we have to shy away from one half of that former estate? By recognising the impact this has on our own kids, and rectifying it, we’re also helping to change the perception of what a heterosexual break up means, and helping to promote the very real responsibility both parents have to their children even when their own partnership has ended.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.