When I was 20, I lived overseas as an exchange student and had a whirlwind romance that resulted in a shotgun wedding. Our marriage quickly became unhappy: my ex-husband often accused me of carrying another man’s baby and repeatedly stated his belief that I had trapped him into marriage. My mother-in-law stated on several occasions she believed I had got pregnant to trap her wealthy son.
I decided to move home to live with family after my ex packed my belongings and delivered them to the house of a friend, whom I was visiting. I was five months pregnant. I gave birth to our son in Britain. My ex-husband was unhappy about my move and what was already a difficult relationship became one where we could not communicate without him being abrupt and abusive. He came to see our son shortly after the birth, but soon returned to his country. I obtained a divorce soon after.
Six years on, I am engaged and expecting a new baby. My son considers my fiance, with whom I have been since he was two, to be his daddy, although he knows he has a father “who helped Mummy make me” living overseas. My ex-husband has never paid child support and has rebuffed our two attempts through intermediaries – the last, two years ago – to be part of our son’s life.
However, he does send an annual letter to our son (via my parents’ address) on his birthday. I do not feel they are age-appropriate; they always contain sentences such as “since you were taken away from me”. But he does also state that he really misses and loves our son, and that he would visit if it weren’t for his dispute with the UK government (I presume over child-support payments).
I don’t know what I am supposed to do with the letters or what to make of them. I am reluctant to allow my son to read them (he knows they exist, but has not asked to read them), because I do not want him to view my ex-husband as a parent figure when I cannot count on him to consider our son’s best interests. When is a good time and age to let my son see the letters? The only thing I have ever said to my son to explain why his biological father is not in his life is that we were both very young when we married.
I worry that my son will resent me when he is older for not doing enough to help him to have a relationship with my ex-husband.
We have absolutely no control over what our children may or may not resent us for.
It’s tempting to hide unpalatable truths from them, but I would advise against it. That doesn’t mean you have to lay out the whole sorry affair for him to digest at too tender an age. But sometimes, in trying to protect children, we give them half truths that are far more damaging, because they tend to fill in the gaps with things that may be more fantastical and ultimately more harmful.
I can see that this is a dilemma for you, underpinned by fear, which is affecting how you behave. Fear (like guilt) stymies confident behaviour. These thoughts may be accentuated by your pregnancy.
I think we need to backtrack slightly before we deal with the subject of the letters. I found the description of your ex-husband as someone who “helped Mummy make you” odd. I think a more honest – and ultimately gentler – truth is to say that you were in love, but it didn’t work out. After all, isn’t that what happened? It’s easy to define a relationship by its end, but presumably it had promise at the beginning.
Your ex-husband will share parental responsibility for your son with you, whether or not he was named on the birth certificate (because you were married). This is a right he may never exercise and a right you may disagree with, but nevertheless it is there.
I contacted Stuart Hannah, a child and adolescent psychotherapist (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), who advised you to be “guided by your child’s lead and his curiosity. In ordinary enough development, children become naturally curious.” Hannah recommended that you act as “translator, you may need to emotionally translate [the letters] and soften the blow.”
Also remember your child may not read or pick up on things in these letters that you do. There is no good time or age, other than that determined by him. I wouldn’t sit your child down and make a big thing of it. If he asks to see the letters (and he may not), look at them together. Only read them to him if he asks you to. Answer his questions as all children’s questions should be answered: simply, factually, gently. Don’t pre-empt. Don’t answer questions he hasn’t asked. Don’t be scared. You aren’t responsible for your ex’s behaviour, only your own.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 19 September 2014.