ASK LINDA, PSYCHOTHERAPIST, SINGLE MOM:
My partner Jane and I planned to have a baby together, and she carried our son, who is her biological child. When James was 9 months old, Jane – who never really took to being a mom – told me she couldn’t deal with parenting anymore and she abandoned us. I think she may have been suffering from depression. James is now 17 months and I’m the only mom he can remember. It seems pretty clear Jane is not coming back, at least not anytime soon. How should I talk about this with my son as he grows up?
First, please know that although it’s more common for fathers to leave their children, mothers do it, too. This choice – child abandonment – is about the individual parent and their mental health and coping skills, not about you or, of course, your child. There are many single dads out there who have been left to bring up their kids, who have the same questions your son will likely have.
It is very important that your child hears a cohesive, consistent, and honest story from the beginning. Secrets and lies can be very damaging. Don’t wait to have a big conversation in grade school – incorporate parts of the true story from the beginning. This means that you, your family and friends need to be on the same wavelength, because he will ask everyone as he grows older.
Reassure him: ‘I will never, ever, ever leave’
It might go something like this, and will evolve in stages as your son gets older and asks more questions: “Both of your mommies wanted you very, very much. When you where born Mommy Jane didn’t feel well. She went away to get better. She didn’t explain why she needed to go away, so Mommy Emma doesn’t really understand it. All I know for sure is that I will never, ever, ever leave you for any reason. However, I do know that Mommy Jane loved you. For some people, it is really hard to be part of a family. Yes, it also makes me sad and I also miss her. Let me show you this story book that I made of us before you were born and tell you some of my favorite stories about her.”
You may feel very hurt by and angry about Jane’s actions, and understandably so, but it’s important, as in any parental breakup, to keep the child’s needs in mind. In this case, even though James may not remember Jane, she did provide 50 percent of his DNA and she was a presence in his early life. It may be tempting to downplay her role in order to protect him, but Jane was not an egg donor or a surrogate. She had planned to be and was a mother, and then she abandoned that role. That’s not a truth you’ll be able to hide forever. This was a loss for James and must be handled honestly. Also, if James learns negative things about Jane, since she is is biological mother, he may feel that part of him is “bad.” So that’s why it’s crucial that he hear positive stories about Mommy Jane.
Help him feel a positive connection to that side of his family
It’s also important that he have contact with Jane’s relatives, if they agree to it. Sometimes in these cases, the extended family will distance themselves from the child, out of embarrassment or denial. If that happens, make it clear to them that the door is always open, by sending holiday cards or emailing photos periodically.
As your son gets older he may ask if Mommy Jane is going to come back. You might think about answering something like the following, “I really don’t know, but if she does ever come back that will be something we all can work on together.”
He may very well want to search for Mommy Jane when he is older. If he does, help him set expectations of both the positive and negative situations which might arise. Help him find support groups that help children who are searching for missing parents and attend with him. Empathize and join him in his journey as much as you can. Help him see the part of him that is his Mommy Jane, by consciously mirroring her positive behaviors and characteristics and sharing as much of her story and history as possible with him.
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