A lot of men who are divorced with children feel guilt. A lot of guilt. Whether it’s because of the divorce itself, or not spending as much time as they’d like with their kids, or the knowledge that their kids are suffering in any way because of mom and dad not living together… guilt is a really common experience for divorced dads.
For me, one of the biggest challenges of being a stepmom has been watching my husband struggle with these feelings, and watching the ways it impacts him – his self-esteem, his confidence, and his parenting, not to mention how it impacts our marriage. It feels like no matter how many times I tell him he’s an amazing dad, or how often the kids tell him they love him, it doesn’t get through to him. He lives with his guilt, in his guilt, and burdened by his guilt.
Why dad is feeling this way
Divorced dads often feel guilt because of their feelings about what their kids are going through, and the changing dynamics of his relationship with them (perhaps seeing them less, and not living with them in the “family home” anymore). Sometimes this guilt is brought on purely by dads themselves, and sometimes they are made to feel this way by others – his children or perhaps a conflictual ex-wife who makes him feel he is not doing enough.
How it impacts your relationship and the family
Daddy guilt can impact everyone in the family. Of course, it impacts the dad, as he suffers with these feelings, often times unnecessarily. My husband is such a wonderful father, and his kids love him so much, that I can’t understand where these feelings come from. However, I wasn’t around right after his divorce, when the kids cried every time he left, or every time he dropped them off with their mom… and I cannot imagine how hard that must have been for him.
When dad feels guilty, his relationship with stepmom is affected. She is trying to form, develop, maintain a relationship with a man who is in emotional distress. She may be trying to coparent with a man who is reluctant to set boundaries, structure, and expectations for his children – for fear that the kids won’t want to see him, or that he will hurt them further (it doesn’t matter how unrealistic this is, if it’s how he feels). Sometimes stepmom will try to compensate for his lack of parenting by taking on a stronger parenting role. In many cases, this is a bad idea, and will backfire on stepmom as the kids rebel against her authority. This can be really tough for stepmoms to navigate.
What can you do to support him through this
Unfortunately, you can’t take away your man’s guilt. You can make sure there is open dialogue and communication between the two of you, so he can share his feelings and you can acknowledge them. You can reassure him that he is a loving dad who is appreciated, and a wonderful partner for you. If he has an active relationship with his children, you can be supportive of him seeing them and spending quality time with them. If he does not have a close relationship with them, or they do not always want to see him, you can support him in fixing this relationship, if appropriate, and on focusing on himself – doing things he enjoys and building his confidence in other ways.
What you need to do for you
No matter the situation, you can’t pour from an empty vessel. I know, how many times have you heard that one?? But it’s true. You can support your partner, but you also must make sure to take care of yourself. Take time for yourself to practice self-care, and to foster your other relationships with friends and family. Above all, DO NOT take over a parenting role to compensate for his guilty parenting if it doesn’t work for you. You are not obliged to step in and take over, and unless you have a very close bond with your stepchildren, it may backfire on you. For me, I had to step back considerably from my parenting role, because I couldn’t make up for my husband’s guilty parenting. He’s the parent, it’s his decision. Not my circus, not my monkeys – as they say. Take care of yourself, focus on your marriage, and be very clear about your boundaries and participation in your stepfamily.
Guilt is a tough emotion. But that’s okay, because stepmoms are tough women.