Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a single dad — my wife left me with the baby right after our son was born. He’s now 4 and keeps asking where his mommy is. I try to keep in touch with her and ask her to spend time with her son, but she’s not interested. I’ve also been dating a lot, hoping to meet women so my son can have some positive female role models in his life, but no luck yet. My son clearly wants a mom. But what I’m most worried about is that he’s not sleeping, eating, or behaving like other kids his age. What should I do?
A: First things first: If you think your son isn’t sleeping, eating, or behaving normally, you need to make an appointment with his pediatrician. Now. These things could be related to the absence of his mother or they could be symptoms of something more serious. Either way, you need to rule out any physical problems and/or get a referral to a mental health professional who specializes in children.
Even though he’s only 4, your son has noticed that most other kids have a daddy and a mommy, so it’s no surprise that he’s curious about why he’s missing half the package. Keep your answers short, honest and to the point. When he asks, “Where’s my mommy?” or “When is she coming back?” Tell him that mom lives somewhere else and that you don’t know when she’ll be back. Remind your son — whether he directly asks or not — that mom not being there is not his fault. Kids often blame themselves for their parents splitting up and you need to nip that in the bud.
It’s going to be hard, but you also need to keep a lid on your emotions. It’s tempting to tell your son that his mom is a deadbeat and doesn’t ever want to see him. But even if that’s true, by articulating those ideas, you may be doing some serious, long-term damage to his self-esteem and negatively affect his future relationships with women. As a dad, your primary goal is to guide your son from young child to confident, healthy, well-adjusted adult. If you genuinely can’t come up with answers to your son’s tough questions, consider booking a session or two with a therapist who has experience with divorced parents.
Now, about all this dating you’ve been doing. That’s very important for your mental health. But be careful about introducing your dates to your son. Every girlfriend he meets will raise his hopes that he’s about to get a mommy. And every one who disappears will shatter those hopes. Should you date? Absolutely. You have a right (one might consider it an obligation) to be happy and to have a loving relationship with a wonderful woman. Just be careful and selective. There’s no hurry.
Whether or not you find the right woman (and I’m sure that you will), you’re right to try to give your son some positive female role models. Do you have a sister, mother, aunt, cousin or good female friend who would be willing to take your son out for some quality time with the opposite sex? Of course, they won’t replace a “real” mommy, but these relationships can be important.
You’ve got a definite challenge ahead of you, but there are solutions. To get the ball rolling, start by making that call to your son’s pediatrician. Once you take that first step, the next one and the one after that will be a lot easier.