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Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW Headshot

The Forever Dad: Shattering the Myth of the Self-Centered Dad

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What kids need is a loving, predictable father figure -- whether married to their mother or divorced. I don't think anyone can argue that point. However, I believe that divorced dads are often portrayed in the media in a negative light. For instance, Alison Patten's article The 'Uncle Dad Syndrome' posted on HuffPost Divorce recently depicts divorced dads as irresponsible blockheads.

The media often portrays a demoralized and demeaning image of divorced fathers. The typical divorced dad comes across as immature, self-centered, and irresponsible. When was the last time you read a story or saw a television show about a caring divorced father who was in touch with the needs of his children? Fathers and their kids suffer from assuming the worst about dads after a family dissolves.

Consequently, it's important to counteract the negative press given to fathers post-divorce and to mention all of the "Forever Dads" who aren't immature, irresponsible or self-centered. What exactly is a "Forever Dad?" They are the ones who don't disappear. The dads you see at dance recitals and soccer games. They try hard to maintain a regular visitation schedule and call when they are running late. They thrive on watching their kids grow and support their healthy development.

In an attempt to better understand the obstacles faced by fathers after divorce, I interviewed several young adult women and their fathers who participated in my research study. The following is a summary of the characteristics that the father-daughter pairs mentioned during our interviews.

A competent dad:

• Considers fatherhood an honor, a privilege, and a lifetime commitment.
• Believes he plays an important role in the life of his kids.
• Values input from his children's mother and speaks well of her.
• Puts his kid's needs first and practices positive parenting.
• Enjoys spending time with his kids.

One of the most outspoken dads I met with, Brian, in his late forties, was eager to tell me about his close bond with his daughter Amanda. Brian personifies a father who is devoted to his daughter and wants the best for her.

Brian never remarried after his four year marriage to Felicia dissolved -- making regular contacts with his daughter Amanda a priority. He describes his split from his ex-wife as contentious, saying "I made a point of recognizing that I'm going to do whatever is in Amanda's best interest. So even if I'm getting a line of baloney from my ex that she doesn't want to come (for a visit), I'm going to respect that. I'm not going to be a disruptive element in Amanda's life."

Amanda, age 19, was an infant at the time of her parents' breakup and the custody arrangement was fairly traditional -- with her spending every other weekend and one weeknight with her dad. Brian has worked hard to reduce conflict with his ex-wife and reports swallowing many words and biting his tongue in an effort to keep the peace. With intensity in his voice, he says, "I always say to Amanda, you do what works for you. I'm not going to feel slighted or upset -- do whatever works for you."

One of the biggest challenges Brian and other dads face is the stereotypes that exist about divorced fathers. It's crucial to examine our beliefs and attitudes about the role of dads after divorce if we are going to break down barriers that create distance between fathers and their children.

In my opinion, fostering alienation between a child and his or her dad is one of the cruelest and most selfish acts a parent can do to their own child. Society perpetuates a negative view of dads post-divorce. The exception is the movie Spanglish, director James Brooks' poignant portrayal of a father who is a far better parent to his daughter than her mother.

What are some of the barriers that prevent dads and kids from maintaining a close bond after parental divorce? Many experts cite the importance of a divorced mom promoting her child's relationship with her father. Whenever possible, mothers need to encourage their children to sustain regular contact with their dads -- such as phone calls, holiday time, and special occasions.

It's also important for moms to eliminate negative comments about their ex-husband so her kids don't feel caught in the middle. Lastly, fathers who remain an integral part of their child's life after divorce can promote a loving relationship that endures through rough patches.

When parents divorce, children are forced to give up their sense of control. Let's face it, divorce is a decision made by parents -- not children. Divorce is a painful experience for everyone, but children raised in disrupted homes often feel the sting of divided loyalties. Loyalty conflicts are frequently at the root of a father/child wound because kids feel they have to choose between their parents. Since children of divorce are particularly vulnerable to conflict between their parents, it's important for parents to be cordial and to avoid arguments.

Non-custodial fathers, I believe, get a bad rap because divorce really disempowers them from being "half-time" parents. Instead, the emphasis is often placed on financial support. I would like to suggest that the emphasis should be equally placed on dads balancing time with their children and meeting their economic needs.

In his landmark book, Always Dad, Paul Mendelstein advises divorced fathers to find ways to play a crucial role in their children's lives. He suggests that they call a truce with their ex-spouse -- to put an end to active fighting and to collaborate. While this is may be a challenge at times, collaboration with an ex paves the way for greater cooperation in the future. Children flourish best when raised by both a father and a mother -- whether in a divorced or intact family.

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