Dear Carolyn: My ex just missed my daughter’s birthday. He was supposed to see her today and apparently forgot all about it. She’s 5. I’m just so sad for her right now. I shouldn’t assume this will become a thing, but I’m having trouble dispelling visions of a disappointed child for years and years when her inattentive dad forgets.
A dad who doesn’t show up is a major source of disappointment, yes.
But so is a firmly held expectation that he will show up when his actions say otherwise.
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And while you can’t make her father show up, you absolutely can help your daughter avoid building expectations of him that he will likely never meet.
You can do this for her kindly, too, without bashing her dad. Where you might be tempted to say in frustration, “Let’s see if your dad decides to show up this year,” instead you can take care to say as little as possible beforehand about his planned visits. With a 5-year-old you can say nothing at all, for example – and if her dad shows up when he told you he would, then, yay.
As your daughter gets older, you can graduate to giving notice that’s as offhand as his history of showing up: “Your dad said he might come by later, if he’s able to.” That not only builds in the possibility of a no-show, but it also places the responsibility for his absence on a vague “ability” to. As in, you don’t hand your daughter chances to blame herself. This phrasing has the benefit of being true enough, since being too inattentive to keep his promises is just another version of being unable to.
As she becomes more aware and, presumably, able to express her own frustration with his unreliability, you can give her a way to understand him that bypasses blame for acceptance and understanding. “I know it’s frustrating. He has been absent-minded for as long as I have known him, though. I also know he loves you dearly, so it’s about him, not you.”
And finally, as annoying an extra burden as this is for you to carry, always have a Plan B for days when her father’s supposed to show up. Why curse the darkness when you can go to a matinee.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.