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How dads who can't be with their children can be 'with' their children
December 17, 2002
by Warren Farrell, Ph.D.

'Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the house
not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse

Home Alone Dad
no kids could he see
life had no meaning
why should he be?
Divorce leaves men ten times more likely than women to commit suicide. The "ten times" ratio is under normal circumstances of divorce. No season is less normal, of course, than the holiday season -- long-known as a breeding ground for depression and suicide. And for millions of men this double jeopardy of being a divorced man during the holidays is magnified when he has children he cannot see -- the holidays are the season of the Home Alone Dad.

The children may be with their "new family" (usually mom, her parents and perhaps a new partner). To the Home Alone Dad, the holiday is missing its heart -- missing the beat of his children's needs and the gift of their holiday smiles. His gifts may be with them, but theirs are not with him. The result?

Some dads disappear into a bottle. Others attempt to disappear into the small screen, but each holiday commercial ambushes him with images of small children expressing the joy that is a parent's reason for being. Though the purpose of the ad is to sell a product, its effect is to sear his soul. When the result is suicide, a child is not only deprived of a dad, but, for the rest of her or his life, the holidays trigger trauma.

If our antennae should be especially high for signs of suicide among divorced dads during the holidays, what are those signs?

The research for Father and Child Reunion led me to this conclusion: the most important sign is no sign. When women are in crisis they reach out; when men are in crisis, they withdraw. The most desperate form of outreach is attempting suicide, a mostly female behavior; the most desperate form of withdrawal is committing suicide, a mostly-male behavior. The best contribution a friend can make is to pro-actively think of the fathers we know who may be without their children on Chanukah or Christmas, and reach out to them.

What outreach is the most effective? It will be tempting to invite the Home Alone Dad into your family celebration. While that is far superior to his being home alone, the most important gift you can give is encouraging him to make plans ahead of time to be with his children. Remind him to never underestimate the cumulative effect of Christmas lights, trees, commercials, and parties -- by Christmas, the accumulation penetrates even the thickest defense mechanisms of denial.

During this same period, mom is usually in overwhelm mode -- often juggling accelerated demands to attend school plays, arrange for presents, family... Her focus is unlikely to be on the feelings of her ex. If you are a friend of the dad who has the trust of the mom, this is the time to call the mom, and work out a way the dad can be with his children -- if not on the holiday itself, on the day before or after. If that is impossible, be creative in making dad feel wanted and needed. People who feel wanted and needed rarely commit suicide.

What can a man do to help himself -- something to be "with" his children if he cannot be with his children? Let me offer the "Top Ten Ways of Being 'With' Your Children When You Cannot Be With Your Children."

Dads tend to give gifts of money, not love. This reinforces the image of dad-as-wallet. Dads can change that image by giving a gift of themselves to their child. Here are his Top Ten suggestions, in Dave Letterman-reverse order fashion:

10) Tape record a loving holiday message, listing the ten best things you love about your son or daughter.

9) Have a photo of you and your child reproduced on a mouse pad. That way he or she will be running their hands and eyes over it every day.

8) Buy some clay, Make your son or daughter a statue (however inept) of a pet gerbil they cherish, the dreamed of horse you can't afford, or any memento of a special time you've shared.

7) Send five "opinion emails," asking your child her or his opinion regarding:

"My favorite movie is _____ because _____" "My favorite animal is _____ because _____" "I like it best when mom _____" "A good teacher is a teacher who _____" "The best sport is _____" "I like/dislike church because _____"

6) Do a video of yourself, showing your son or daughter your favorite memorabilia from their childhood (a soccer uniform, a trophy) and share what each memory means to you.

5) Tape a song from you about the relationship between you and your child. Make it funny (e.g., give yourself a "take-off" name of a group or artist [Me2; Yo Yo Pa]; make it self-effacing (if you can't sing, make a joke out of it). Put the tape in a player your child can use in private to reduce his or her embarrassment factor (and yours).

4) If you've got the courage, send three "Truth or Dare" cards to your child. Begin each card with a "dare" statement -- inviting your child to fill in the "truth" and send the card back to you. "Dear Dad, What I dare you to understand about me is..."; "Dear Dad, What I dare you to apologize about is...'; "Dear Dad, I dare you to listen to this..." Your gift to your child is your 100% assurance that she or he will receive no response except thank you.

3) Create your own greeting cards and send two or three to your child over the holidays -- one sentimental, one funny, one outrageous. Don't enclose money -- keep the child focused on the sentiment attached!

2) Leave a loving message on your child's answering machine -- a different one every day between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day -- or for the eight nights of Chanukah.

1) Hide post-it notes around your child's room, each one with a different appreciation message. Number the post-its, putting the first ones in easy places, making the hints as to where to find the next one tougher and tougher. Have a small holiday gift at the end of the trail.

The deeper purpose of each of these is to give a son and daughter a new view of dad as a giver of love, not just money. This gives your son a new view of what he can be and your daughter a new view of the qualities she looks for in her husband.

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