DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #47: The Reckoning

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Dear Sugar,

I am the lucky mama of one darling baby and oh, how I treasure every moment! Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on how you look at it—the baby’s daddy does not follow suit on treasuring every moment.

Baby’s daddy lives in another state. He left while I was still pregnant and did not attend our child’s birth. Though he proclaims via e-mails every six or so weeks to care for his child, he does not pay child support, nor has he seen his baby since mere weeks after birth (our baby is now over one). He has never even called to find out how his child is doing.

My question is this: am I obligated to send pictures and keep him updated about his child since he sends somewhat pitiful e-mails every couple of months about himself? I am heavily leaning towards no updates, but I would gladly take into consideration the opinion of a lovely sweet pea, such as yourself, Sugar.

I want to do what is best for my little bundle, even if what I want to do is kick the baby’s daddy in the groin with steel-toed boots, screaming, “What the HELL is the matter with you, you narcissistic crazy!”

Whew. That felt good to say. Let the healing begin!

Joy & love, dearest Sugar,
Oh Mama

Dear Oh Mama,

Do you own a pair of steel-toed boots? I do. And I’m happy to loan them to you so that you can properly kick the ass of that fool. Your rage is justified. Your angry astonishment over your baby daddy’s failure to be a true father to your beautiful baby makes all the sense in the world.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter one fig.

At least not in the face of what’s at stake for your child if you choose to let your perfectly reasonable fury guide the decisions you make when it comes to the way you conduct yourself on the subject of his or her father. That this man is your child’s father is one of the most essential facts of his or her life. It remains a fact no matter what happens—whether the man with whom you’ve reproduced ever has a relationship with your child or not. One day, years from now, your son or daughter will have to account for his or her father (and for you, as well). There will be a reckoning. There is always a reckoning. For every one of us. Accounting for what happened in our childhoods and why and who our parents are and how they succeeded and failed us is the work we all do when we do the work of becoming whole, grown up people. That reckoning is especially fraught when a parent has failed a child and so I advise you to: a) do everything in your power to thwart a fail between your child and his or her father and b) keep yourself from failing, should the father of your child persist in doing so.

It’s apparent that you’re struggling with the rage and disappointment you rightly feel toward your baby’s daddy. I don’t fault you for this and no one would. But what’s your fault and what isn’t is beside the point. The point—as you state in your letter—is what’s best for your child. You asked if you were obligated to send pictures and updates in response to the intermittent emails the father of your child sends you and my answer is yes. Not because you’re obligated to the man—you owe him nothing—but because you’re obligated to your child. Given the fact that Baby Daddy sounds like only a pathetic fuck (rather than an abusive one), the best thing you can do for your sweet baby is nurture a father/child bond, especially this early in your child’s life.

As you’ve so depressingly detailed, it hasn’t begun well. Baby Daddy has thus far failed on every front. This is not your responsibility, but it is your problem. Your efforts in the direction of inclusion, communication, acceptance and forgiveness could lead to a positive relationship between your child and his or her father that profoundly affects the course of his or her life. Or not. We can’t know yet. But it’s a big enough deal that I strongly encourage you to try.

I don’t say this with a light heart. It would be much more fun to kick this guy with your steel-toed boots. I would be happy to help you do that. I understand how outrageously unjust it is that you should be expected to respond to this “narcissistic crazy” with grace and integrity. But every now and then each of us must do so, honey bun, and this is your time. This is when it counts. Because, of course, you aren’t doing this for you—you’re doing this for your child. I know you know this already. I can tell that you’re a great mom. Your good mom-ness shimmers right through your letter. And now—appallingly!—I implore you to see what you can do to help the man who knocked you up to likewise shimmer.

Our kids deserve that, don’t they? To be loved shimmeringly? Yes, they do. So let’s get to it.

The first thing you I advise you to do is compel Baby Daddy to pay child support. This can be done through peaceful legal negotiation or you can sue his ass. Either way, I encourage you to do it through formal channels, rather than personal agreement, so that you have recourse should Baby Daddy fail to pay. By requiring this man to contribute financially you’re not only protecting your child, but also communicating two important facts: that you expect something from Baby Daddy and that he owes something to his child. If he’s any sort of decent fellow, he’ll hand over the dough without too much protest. If he’s a good guy going through a rough patch, he’ll thank you later. I encourage you to hire an attorney immediately.

The second thing I advise you to do is compose an email addressed to your child’s father that: a) compassionately acknowledges his absence in his child’s life b) asks directly about making arrangements for a visit and c) provides an update on your child’s personality and development. Attach a couple of pictures. Tell a few stories. When I say “compassionately acknowledges,” I mean: does a little dance around the fact that Baby Daddy’s not stepped up as a father so far. I mean: gives him some room to change. I mean: does not imply that you might team up with an advice columnist to kick his teeth out with some very serious steel-toes boots. I mean: be your best, most gigantic self. Which sometimes, for a tiny bit, means faking it. As in: Hello, Baby Daddy! I hope you’re well. Baby is getting so big and more beautiful and amazing every day. Even though our relationship is a thing of the past, it’s important to me that Baby has a relationship with his/her daddy and, based on what you have written to me in your emails, I know it’s important to you too. I want to set a date for a visit.

The third thing I advise you to do is arrange for childcare for a few hours on a regular basis so you can go out with your coolest friends and rage with them about all the hurt and anger and befuddlement you have over the fact that a man you once slept with—the man who is biologically half of your precious child!—is a complete jackass. This may seem extraneous, but it isn’t. It’s a vital piece of the survival puzzle. You must find a place to put your negative feelings about the father of your child. If you don’t, they will rule you. Very likely what has gone down between you and Baby Daddy has only begun. Even if it goes well, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are many times over the coming years that you’d like to throttle him. If you don’t find a place to put those feelings, you may not be able to keep yourself from putting them on your child.

And that’s a terrible place to put them.

A couple of years ago, I read the findings of a study on the effects of divorced and separated parents talking negatively about their exes in the presence of their children. I tried to locate it when I was writing this column so I could cite it properly and quote it directly, but I had no luck. That’s fine because what I remember about the study most vividly is really just one thing: that it’s devastating for a child to hear one parent speak ill of the other. In fact, so much so that the researchers found it was less psychologically damaging if a parent said directly to the child: you are a worthless piece of shit than it was for a parent to say: your mother/father is a worthless piece of shit. I don’t remember if they had any theories about why that was so, but it made sense to me. I think we all have something sturdier inside of us that rears up when we’re being attacked that we simply can’t call upon when someone we love is being attacked, especially if that someone is our parent, half of us—the primal other—and the person doing the attacking is the other half, the other primal other.

I know of which I speak. My own father was a destructive force in my life. If you made a map of my life and traced everything back—all the moves and decisions and transitions and events—my mother mustering the courage to divorce my father when I was six was probably the single best thing that ever happened to me.

My father got my mom pregnant when they were both nineteen. They weren’t very much in love, but abortion was illegal and my mom wasn’t willing to go away to a home for wayward girls and give her baby to someone else, so she married my father in a quickie wedding. He abused her for the next nine years, over the course of which she had three children—my two siblings and me. So many hard things happened. I have so many horrible stories about the years with my dad. But those aren’t the stories you need to hear.

What you need to hear is how much, as a child, I loved him. My father. My dad. My daddy. The love I had for him was tremendous, irrefutable, bigger than my terror and sorrow. I could not keep myself from loving my dad. It was simply there. To not love him had never occurred to me, no matter how ugly it got. I hated what he did to my mom and my siblings and me. I wept and shrieked and hid and got age-inappropriate headaches and peed my bed way beyond the age that’s normal. But he was my father and so when my mom finally left him, I begged her to go back. I mean, I begged her in a way I have never begged anyone for anything in all of my life. I sobbed my six-year-old girl brains out because I knew that if it was really over, if my mother really left my father, I would no longer have a dad.

And you know what? I was right. After my parents divorced, I no longer had a dad.

I’ve seen him three times since then—short, scary visits during which bad and sad and creepy things happened. But mostly there was nothing. No dad. There was only the great fatherless alone for years of my childhood, during which I lived in cheap apartment buildings occupied by other children of single mothers, most of whom also had little to do with their fathers. A couple of times a year an envelope would arrive addressed in my father’s hand to me and my siblings. It would be waiting for us in the mailbox when we returned from school, our mother at work. My brother and sister and I would rip those letters open with a glee so entire that a surge of something runs through my body still, as I type these words.

A letter! From our dad! Aletterfromourdad!Fromourdadfromourdadfromourdad!

But of course we should have known better. We knew better but we couldn’t bear to let ourselves know. The envelope had our names on it, but the letter inside was never for us. It was always something else and always the same thing: a nasty and vulgar diatribe directed at our mom. How she was a whore and welfare mooch. How he should’ve made her get that illegal abortion years ago. How she was a horrible mom. How he would come and get me and my siblings when she least expected it and then she’d be sorry. Then she’d pay. Then she’d never see her children again. How would she like that?

The thought of my father kidnapping me terrified me more than anything. It was with me always, the prospect of being snatched. I readied myself, playing out intricate fantasies about how my siblings and I would escape, how I’d get us all back to our mother at any cost. We’d walk across the country barefoot if we had to. We’d follow rivers and hide in ditches. We’d steal apples from trees and clothes from clotheslines.

But our father never took us. He never had any intention of doing so, I realized one day when I was twenty-seven. He never wanted me! I thought with such clarity and surprise and grief that I instantly broke into sobs.

Will the father of your baby ever father his child, Oh Mama?

We don’t know. That letter hasn’t been ripped open yet. Anything could be inside. People change. People make dreadful mistakes and then repair them. Men who are distant when their children are babies sometimes turn into wonderful dads. Others continue to be only more of the same. Whatever happens, you will do right by your child by keeping whatever you feel about his or her father separate from the choices you make and actions you take in regards to his or her relationship with his or her dad. Your behavior and words will deeply impact your child’s life—both how he or she feels about his or her father and also how he or she feels about him or herself.

My mother never spoke an ill word about my father to my siblings and me. She had every right to hate him, to turn us against him, but she didn’t. It wasn’t that she lied to us about him. We spoke often and honestly about the hard things we’d witnessed and suffered at his hands. But she didn’t demonize him. She cast him as human: complicated, flawed, and capable of redemption. Which means, in spite of everything, she made it possible for me to love my father, this absent man who was half of me. When I was a child and asked her what had made her fall in love with my dad, she thought of things to tell me, even if she couldn’t rightly remember them anymore. When I was a teenager and we argued about her refusal to condemn my father, she told me that she was grateful for him because without him she wouldn’t have had my siblings and me. When I was just barely becoming a woman and my mother knew she was going to die, she stroked my hair and told me it was okay if I wanted to reach out to my father again, that I should always be open to the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation and change, and that doing so was not a betrayal of her, but rather evidence of the woman she’d raised me to be.

It isn’t fair that she had to be so kind to such an unkind man. I hope she raged about him to her coolest friends. As a single mother—and by that I mean truly a mother alone like you, Oh Mama, one who does not share custody or co-parent—she had to be her best self more often than it’s reasonable for any human to be. And you know what’s so never endingly beautiful to me? She was. She was imperfect. She made mistakes. But she was her best self more often than it’s reasonable for any human to be.

And that is the gift of my life.

Long after she was dead, it was her words and conduct that formed the bridge I teetered across to heal the wounds my father had made. That’s the gift you have to give your child, regardless of how your baby’s father decides to conduct himself, regardless if he ever steps up and becomes the father to your son he should be. It’s what most of us have to give a few times over the course of our lives: to love with a mindfully clear sense of purpose, even when it feels outrageous to do so. Even when you’d rather put on your steel-toed boots and scream.

Give it. You won’t regret it. It will come out in the reckoning.

Yours,
Sugar

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