Editor’s note: The following post does not discuss the permanent loss of a parent through death, though we do intend to devote a future post to this topic.
Though it wasn’t often part of direct story lines, single motherhood was very much at the heart of the hit 1990s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. In fact, aside from The Bernie Mac Show, it’s one of the only high-profile, pop culture examples of black communal parenting. As the show’s iconic theme song explains, Will’s single mom sacrificially sends him to live with wealthy relatives in a better neighborhood because their own West Philadelphia community is a riskier space for young black men to navigate.
The show only touches on the complexities of this arrangement a handful of times. On episodes where Will’s mother visits, she is quick to remind him of his roots and that this highfalutin living situation is only temporary. At one point, after seriously dating and contemplating remarriage, she asks Will to return home (presumably because, a marriage would mean a live-in father figure for him). And it becomes clear over the course of the series that sharing custody of one’s child with extended family can be a real gamble.
But there are also times when having male role models or “social fathers” as a consistent presence is an indisputable win, no matter how complicated. And the above clip, where Will’s biological dad shows up and vanishes, is an example.
When the episode debuted in May 1994, the “how come he don’t want me, man?” scene was the subject of intense buzz and community conversation. Both touching and emblematic, Will’s monologue gave voice to many viewers whose own absent or semi-absent father situations were similar.
But Uncle Phil’s silent gesture of support, affection, and understanding was equally buzzed about. Too often, when a child faces a parental rejection, there’s no Uncle Phil present to embrace him.
Father absence, it should be noted, is not usually as absolute as cultural assumption would have us believe. Non-custodial parents more commonly drift in and out, in cases where clear visitation schedules are not legally set and adhered to.
The damage this causes can be just as bad — and in some cases worse — than absolute parent absence. The rising and falling hopes may train children to anticipate disappointment and to become skeptical of the adults in their lives.
We asked a few members of our community how and when to explain why a non-custodial parent is absent. Based on their feedback, here are a few tips that may help single parents navigate this family dynamic:
- Many children first become aware of a non-custodial parent’s absence at age 4. Their social cognition is becoming more acute, and their interaction with other children via school and communities provides them with exposure to a variety of different family structures. At age 4, it may be difficult to tell children why a parent is not a consistent presence. In the event that the parent is occasionally present, perhaps starting by saying, “He/she will visit as often as he can,” could work. This implies that the parent will make an effort to show up, even if circumstances (real or imagined) disallow a more consistent effort.
- In the event that the parent is completely absent, one mother suggested explaining that the parent isn’t able to be present. Whether this inability to engage is emotional, circumstantial or physical, this may be enough of an explanation in toddlerdom.
- As the child grows older, most parents agreed, it is imperative to let him form his own opinion about the absent parent. Talking negatively about the parent to the child is always a bad idea — even in the interest of “truth-telling.” Find a way to explain why the parent is not present without vilification.
- To that end, it’s also unhealthy to keep your own frustrations about a parent’s absence entirely to yourself. Find a trusted family member, friend, therapist and/or ally who is willing to be a listening ear. Voice your frustrations as often as necessary, but never within earshot of the children.
- If a parent is willing to engage via letters, Skype or social media, but physical distance, incarceration, or other prohibitive circumstances disallow a more consistent presence, encourage the engagement the non-custodial parent is offering.
- No matter the situation, make certain you (and every adult in your child’s life) understands that, even if a father is completely disengaged, the child is not “unwanted.” Point out often how loved and appreciated the child is by all who are actively engaged in his or her life. This will not necessarily lessen the sting of the absence, but it provides an alternative means of love and support.
What do you think of these tips? Do you have any you’d like to add or an experience you’d like to share about navigating parent absence? Comment below!