Telling My Son the Truth About His Dad

I can't shield him from his father's illness forever

Photograph by Getty Images

My ex husband moved out of state when our son was 3 years old. During the past four years, his monthly visits became quarterly, biannual and nearly nonexistent.

When his dad does show up infrequently, I am grateful and silent. This is the best that his dad can do, and I accept it. Still, I march in the parade of hope. With a smile, I mention his dad once or twice a week and try to monitor my kid’s feelings.

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He is only 7 and unable to articulate complex emotions like disappointment and fear. After one of their rare weekend visits, my son Lexington often gets sad and angry for days, wondering, “Why can’t it always be like this?” I just hold him while he cries.

One day, my ex and my son were having a marathon phone call. I walked by Lex's room and heard him say, "If you have to move out of your house, why not move here? There are only seven people and we have room for 10." I have no idea how he derived the occupancy ratio, but the gesture was so loving that I did not correct him. A few minutes later, Lex passed me the phone. His dad confirmed one of my worst fears: After struggling with mental illness for years, he reached a new bottomless pit. He was living in a homeless shelter and applying for food stamps.

"Why does daddy disappear for months at a time?"

I spent years battling his manic depression during our marriage. Now that there is distance and time between us, I know that the battle is useless. The disease always wins. Instead of paying me child support, I send the father of my son $50 whenever I can. I resent his illness, not him. I am grateful to have the resources to help however I can.

Still, my kid believes that his dad is made of magic. I cannot tell him that dad can’t visit because he does not have any money due to the fact that he quit his job during a manic fit. I can’t reveal that this is not the first or last time that this will happen. In a couple of years, he will ask me deeper questions like, "Why does daddy disappear for months at a time?"

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When he is old enough to even try to process my answers, I will tell him that his father has a brain disorder that sometimes destroys his life. That his daddy is a beautiful soul and creative being who loves him very much.

Between now and adulthood, I protect the image of his hero. I recognize that, soon, I will have to start to telling more truths, more often.

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