In last week’s blog, I talked about the sad fact that half a million elderly men aren’t in touch with their children partly because divorce courts in the ‘70s – when judges were less sympathetic to fathers’ and children’s needs – awarded custody to mothers in a way that left even the most devoted dads high and dry in terms of access.
Today, the divorce system falls over itself to ensure “absent” parents – usually fathers – are given generous contact rights to their children. Yet still, and sometimes tragically, the system falls down. This week we learned that Brian Philcox apparently gassed himself and his young son and daughter in his car on Father’s Day, allegedly because he was in despair over a bitter divorce battle and feared he would lose the children and have to hand over the family home to his estranged wife.
While uncommon, such terrible actions are increasing and they highlight that even in today’s enlightened age there are dads who believe – rightly or wrongly – that the law will not protect their interests.
Whatever the circumstances of this particular tragedy, there are many men who desperately love their kids and are driven to distraction by the ramifications of divorce.
Just as unhappily, but at the other end of the spectrum, are fathers who, when a marriage breaks down, literally walk away from their children.
Media reports about the rise in gun and knife crime lead to the conclusion that the perpetrators are all too often teenage boys and young men who have grown up without proper parental guidance. The popular press often alleges that either the dad wasn’t involved in the child’s life from the start or else he walked out when the boy was barely a toddler.
The result of paternal desertion on children is incalculable and the statistics tell a sorry story: economically poor, fatherless kids – especially boys – do less well at school, are more prone to behavioural problems and are more likely to fall prey to gang culture, crime and alcohol and drug abuse.
Some fathers simply don’t care, but many men who absent themselves from their children’s lives do so because they believe they are acting in the youngsters’ best interests – the kids have a “new” father in the shape of their ex-wife’s new partner; the natural father wasn’t much good as a parent while they were at home, so how can they be any good as an absent one? Or they have moved far away – or are caught up in their career – and don’t believe the limited time they can give their children is beneficial to either.
All these reasons might be understandable, but they are deeply flawed: keeping in contact with your children – even if you’ve technically “walked out” – is a key to ensuring those children grow up emotionally healthy. However guilty or useless you feel, it is better to retain links with your offspring than to disappear completely out of their lives.
A major cause of distress to children of broken families is the erroneous belief that they – the kids – were to blame for their parents’ separation. If one parent disappears off the radar, that feeling is likely to be reinforced.
And, of course, however “noble” a father’s reasons for absenteeism might be, a child will simply feel abandoned, guilty and unloved.
I hardly need to go on. Divorce can be a traumatic event for children even in the easiest circumstances, where both parents retain a pivotal role of loving support: in the worst it may lead to lifelong, inexorable grief and confusion.
* Next week: How absent fathers can maintain links and build bridges with their children