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What to Say to Your Kid When a Parent Leaves

I would argue it's not your job to explain it. Your job is to pick up the pieces and do your parenting job in spite of their absence. Your job is to demonstrate your love in the love language of cleaning up barf, and making dioramas at 1 a.m., and packing lunches.
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The blog Scary Mommy recently ran a moving essay by Eden Strong entitled "Why Did Daddy Leave Us?" Strong runs a blog called "It's Not My Shame to Bear."

It's familiar territory for many divorced folks. Abandonment. Heartache. Explaining the workings of a disordered parent to an innocent child. Been there, done that, had the custody trials...

Strong writes:

'I love you. I am so sorry that daddy made a choice that hurt us when he left, but this was not your fault. He is not a bad person, he just made a bad choice that hurt a lot of people and I am really sorry that it hurt you. I love you. I love you more than any daddy ever will because I will always love you the most!'

That's what I said, but what I wanted to say, what was rolling around in my brain and filling up my heart in ways that hurt so much I was sure my heart might actually explode, sounded more like this;

'Daddy left us because he is selfish. He left because he never should have had kids in the first place. I wish every day that he could see the damage that he has done to you, the damage that he has done to our family. He is a horrible excuse for a human being, he is a waste of working organs, I hope we never see him again, and quite frankly we are all better off now that he is gone.'

But really, what do you say to the wide eyes brimming with tears that are looking up to you? What do you say to a child who carries half the DNA of a person that causes your heart the daily battle of learning to forgive?

This is such a no win.

He is a bad person. Why did Daddy leave us? Because Daddy is a jerk. That's the sucktacular thing about this situation. If you go with the "he's a good person" narrative, you have to gaslight your own kid. Daddy is demonstrably NOT a good person. Love shows up. You go with that crap of "daddy's not a bad person, he just made a bad choice that hurt a lot of people" your kid is going to naturally wonder what bad people actually look like if they aren't people who chose to hurt others. Who does this? Good people?

The fairy tale children's lit is pretty clear on this. The Big Bad Wolf blows down your house. The witch poisons the princess with a poison apple. The wicked stepmother doesn't let Cinderella go to the ball.

They're villains because they do villainous things. Nobody is putting footnotes in there about how the wolf was badly misunderstood and wasn't getting his needs met, which necessitated destroying homes. No, character is understood through actions. Children intuitively understand that bad people do bad things.

Oh, but as adults we're supposed to have a more nuanced view of the world. Love the sinner, hate the sin. Things aren't so black and white.

I don't know, call me stupid, but I think abandoning children is BAD. It makes you a BAD PARENT, a bad person, and someone I never want to sit next to on a park bench. I don't want to smell the stench of your narcissism. I don't want to read your Facebook posts about your self-inflicted pain and your fabulous younger girlfriend who gets you, and your yoga retreats. I think you suck.

But your child doesn't. No, that kid still wants to love you. Poor kid. Poor little chump.

What do you tell that kid? Daddy is not a bad person, he just made a bad choice?

You do that, your child has to do the mental gymnastics of reconciling love with abandonment. The friction of that kind of cognitive dissonance messes people up. I bet many of us had some kind of childhood message that people who hurt you didn't really intend to hurt you. Who are you to have boundaries against people who hurt you? Just make your needs smaller, don't offend, eat the sh*t sandwiches. Comfort yourself with the notion that despite the evidence, really deep, deep down there somewhere this hurtful person "loves" you.

Made you perfect bait, didn't it? By adulthood you're just so used to a messed up kind of love that doesn't really look like love. The kind of love that "hurts lots of people" but isn't "bad."

But the alternative sucks too! Tell your child that Daddy is bad, you risk alienating parental affections. You rock their little worlds. They aren't ready for nuanced morality. They want the steady narrative that Daddy is still a good person who loves them. Which means that you -- you the person Daddy walked out on too -- you have to fight against the child's natural conclusion that if Daddy is good, I must be a very bad child, and that's why he left. Of course, every day you fight your own thoughts that you weren't worthy, you weren't enough. So you fight the battle for both of you -- Daddy left, but it doesn't mean we're bad.

It just means Daddy is indifferent to us. And indifferent to his responsibilities. We don't really matter to Daddy.

But you can't say that.

No, you have to bolster that kid day in and day out. You have to show up and do your damn parenting job. Love shows up. Every day you punch that attendance card, because you love.

So how do you explain an AWOL parent to a child? You don't. It's not explainable.

Moreover, I would argue it's not your job to explain it. Your job is to pick up the pieces and do your parenting job in spite of their absence. Your job is to demonstrate your love in the love language of cleaning up barf, and making dioramas at 1 a.m., and packing lunches. Your job is to be there, and not explain some idiot's absence.

I think you simply say, "I have no idea how or why your father did this, but I am here for you, and I would never leave you." It's the truth.

The child has to figure out their own relationship with the crappy, missing parent.

Oh and it will just kill you to watch it. You'll want to throw yourself on those grenades of abandonment. The father who promises to come to the kid's violin recital and never shows. Then makes some lame excuse over the phone and your kid chokes down his disappointment and says quietly, "Oh, that's okay." The guy who cancels Thanksgiving last minute because he's going to a wedding that weekend with his girlfriend instead. The dad who hasn't talked to his son in over a year, and doesn't even text on Christmas or his birthday.

These are just vignettes from my life. I'm sure you can add your own horrors of oblivious, selfish non-parenting. I file these problems under "The Unending Punishment of Breeding with a F*cktard."

Eventually your kid figures it out. Daddy sucks.

It's not the end of the world, people! I know it feels that way, but your child figuring out the limitations of a parent's "love" is not going to kill them. I'm a little further out, almost an empty nester, and I can tell you that life will reconstitute itself for your children just like it did for you.

My son has a lousy, mentally ill father. But he has me. I'm not perfect (apparently I don't buy the right sort of frozen pizza), but I show up. I love. My son has his grandfather, his coach, his boss (who is teaching him construction). He's got a bunch of solid, decent men in his life. Most of all he has his step-dad who models integrity and showing up too. Who shows my son what it is to treat a woman right.

So many blessings! We cannot control the missing, crappy parent. But we can fill our child's life up with the blessings of good people. We can model what healthy love looks like. And that begins with never, ever confusing abandonment with real love.

Tracy Schorn is the author of "The Chump Lady Survival Guide to Infidelity." This post originally appeared on her blog "Chump Lady."

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