Here’s a common scenario in a globalised world. A marriage founders. Along with the split, one of the partners takes a job overseas. There is no problem there, except when children are involved.
Let’s say it’s the father, with children who stay with their mother. At first the divorce goes well enough. His kids get to see him regularly. All that changes when he moves to Sydney, or Singapore or Dubai. With the best will in the world, he sets out to manage this.
Like dads across the world now, he plans his holidays to fit in with school term breaks back home, often because his children are too young to travel on their own. It’s generally a given that they won’t have gone to live with him because courts in New Zealand are reluctant to allow a child to leave the country permanently without the agreement of the parent here.
But coming home, as people have found, can now be different. Being natural and spontaneous with the children is harder. A lot of the awkwardness of separation cannot be avoided but it has to be mitigated.
You may in the dark part of your heart feel freer without children but the chances are that is outweighed by love. You will miss them, sometimes terribly. And you can be assured they will miss you. You can manage this, for them and for yourself but it involves work, maintaining a network back home.
Regular calls to the people in their lives will create affection in your kids because they will know. Even if you aren’t speaking to your former partner, there may be neighbours you can phone or email. You aren’t asking anyone to take sides, you are just staying in touch.
Contact should be regular, reliable and interesting
Long-distance contact has to be regular, reliable and interesting. Children know if you’ve just picked up the phone to call them without having thought about what you will say. We all grew up reading books about fantastic fathers who told their kids tall tales from their pasts or simply made their working life sound more exciting than the humdrum routine it actually was.
There is no reason why you cannot do a version of that. Kids love stories, and they need to learn about their parents’ lives.
Raising children is often a burden, whether you are married or divorced – the need to pay the bills and carve out a career, and still be an attentive, loving mother or father. This guilt is magnified when you live far away from daily family life, with its opportunities for small renewals of love and closeness.
What children want and need from absent parents is vitally important. An absent dad may think, simply, that his kids want to see him as often as he can arrange. He may not bother really to consult them. If he does, he may be surprised by what he hears. It empowers children, and hugely increases trust if their thoughts and wishes are taken into account.
There is good news. A report in the Guardian newspaper found nine out of 10 dads do stay in touch with their children. The bad news is that such contact is irregular for 49% of these men. New Zealand’s census figures suggest 30% of our families have Mum or Dad going solo.
Thankfully, there is a lot of support out there. Sole parents are mostly women, so men need to do a lot more to remain in their children’s lives. Initiatives like Auckland’s Waitakere-based charity Big Buddy are invaluable. A great buddy is better than a bad dad. But there is no reason we cannot have better dads, whether they are absent or not. Places like this are a good start.