Thursday, December 17, 2009

What to do when Daddy's in Jail?

The first time my X landed in jail, it was two days before the girls' birthday party (their bdays are 6 days apart), a party that he'd promised to attend. I had two choices: I could lie to the girls, tell them he couldn't make it which would make them question their own value if their father voluntarily did not attend, or I could tell them the truth.

After mulling it over, talking to friends, family and my own therapist (and wishing that someone had written a parenting book on the subject!), I opted for the truth.

They were turning 7 and 4 at the time. They were scared for him, they were sad, they were upset, and knowing the truth didn't stop them from looking for their dad every time the door opened at their party. Still, when caller id displayed "LA Prison" when he called them, I knew I'd done the right thing.

It was hard to explain check forgery to them...they didn't even understand the concept of checks at the time. It was easier to explain that they could go see a "feelings doctor."

It's five years later, and I've had to tell my daughters at least 3 more times that their dad is in jail. Once was on my youngest daughter's birthday the following year. The last time was a couple of weeks ago. They cheered. They cheered again when he was sentenced to six months.

My youngest will tell you that she loves her dad, but she doesn't miss him when he's gone. He no longer lives in L.A., and it helps that we've made no plans for the girls to see him in the last year. Most of the time, they go about their daily lives, excited about upcoming events, immersed in their friendships, anxious about tests, content in their existence.

When he's not in jail, he'll call on the weekends sometimes. And sometimes he won't. For all the information that's out there about the need for consistency with children of divorce, he simply can't. And I myself have ignored some "expert" advice by being honest with my children that they deserve better. My younger daughter (9) told me that she might deserve better, "but he doesn't deserve me." I told her that she's absolutely right.

They cheered that he's in jail because they needed that sense of justice. As the years have gone on, as they've felt the injuries done to them and X's family, they are angry. They are angry and scared and sad and have to filter a lot of emotions about someone that is supposed to be there for them unconditionally. They love him. After my younger daughter said that he doesn't deserve her, she went on to talk about the times he made her laugh.

They have been in and out of therapy ever since. And while I at times have felt like a failure, having a 5-yr-old in therapy, I've also been grateful for the support. It's not always easy to detach my own feelings when I see my children cry over the father that I gave them. So I know that it's in their best interest to speak to a professional from time to time.

They also have to struggle with how much of this to share with or keep from their friends. I know that they've tried it all: being totally open with friends, and enduring some hurtful remarks from kids that don't know any better, they've tried creating a fantasy father to present to their friends, and they've tried just keeping it all to themselves. My oldest daughter now has a few friends that she can trust with her confidence, and continues regular therapy sessions to keep her stable. It looks like my youngest daughter will be following suit.

I don't have any conclusions. Only time will tell. Still, my hope is that dealing with these issues so early in life will nurture their development into compassionate, fair human beings that see a whole person. A convict will not just be a convict to them. A drug addict will have a family. A family will be people that you may love unconditionally, all the while maintaining a healthy distance, when necessary. The world was never black and white to them. And that just may be the best lesson of all.

Originally posted on LA Moms Blog, Dec. 17, 2009.

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