Tuesday 12 December 2017

Is it worth taking a risk and letting my daughter’s father back into her life?

David Coleman

David Coleman

Is it worth taking a risk and letting my daughter's father back into her life?

My six-year-old daughter doesn't know her dad. I'm sick of having dreams of her father arriving in my small village and demanding to see her. I'm sick of worrying about him putting the blame on me for their lack of a relationship if she goes looking for him later in life. So today I took the bull by the horns and I phoned him and asked him what's the story, nicely. It's four years since I've heard from him.

He said he does want to see her but felt it had been best not to because my family doesn't want him in the picture. He reckoned it would cause too much hardship for my daughter and I to go against my family. I think it's a lazy excuse for having no contact in such a long time. Anyway, since he does apparently want to see her I want to do this properly. Should I get legal advice and set up guidelines for access with him? Presumably, if he is serious he should agree.

The bottom line is I don't want her hurt emotionally if possible. But I also think she should know her dad. What do you think? Have I opened a can of worms and is this worth it?

For now the evidence you have is that your daughter's father has not made any effort to see her. He has his excuse, which you feel is weak. While he says that he would like to meet her, on your invitation, I can see why you are nervous about taking his word that he is now interested in her.

I think it is a good thing that you are re-establishing an opportunity for your daughter to get to know her father. Aside from avoiding his blame that you prevented a relationship, her learning about who her dad is is a good thing in itself.

You seem worried that he will prove to be unreliable and I am guessing that is why you are considering setting up legal guidelines for the meetings. However, if you and your ex-partner are not in conflict then it is unlikely that you need to set legal restrictions or regulations in place for the amount, or nature, of the time they will spend together.

Sometimes creating a legal framework can antagonise a situation and actually create hostility. So, if you think that you get on well enough with your daughter's father then it should be enough to sit down with him and discuss the issues.

Your two main tasks are likely to be ensuring he understands the seriousness of, and commitment involved in, establishing a relationship with his daughter and agreeing between yourselves how you would like to organise their time together.

If he is determined that he wants to see her now, then he really is making a lifetime commitment to her and he needs to know this.

Perhaps again that is why you feel you would like things arranged legally, believing that a court-determined contract might increase his level of commitment.

In reality, he must make an emotional and practical decision that is internally motivated by a desire to know his daughter and be involved in her life. No amount of external, even court-ordered, motivation will compensate for this genuine internally motivated desire. You may feel reassured if you can believe that he really will be committed to her.

"Doing things properly" regarding the planning means agreeing how their relationship can slowly, but reliably, be built. In arranging this I think it makes sense to be pragmatic but I don't think it needs to be legalistic.

Remember, when planning, that your daughter doesn't know her dad yet. When she anticipates meeting him she might become very excited but be equally nervous. So it will be important for her to have you with her for her early meetings with him, until she can get to know him, like him and trust him.

Assuming they do get on well enough (and you can judge this while you observe them together), then you can progress to one or two-hour visits for her on her own. You can locate those meetings at your home if your daughter will feel happier, or at a neutral venue like a park or playground.

As their relationship builds they can spend more time together and she may be happy to go to his home to hang out there (assuming you are happy for this too).

A big issue, as they get to know each other, will be about the regularity of his contact with her. My guess is that he wasn't very responsible when you became pregnant; perhaps this is why your family have disapproved of him. But six years have passed and, in theory, he may have changed and matured.

Only you can decide, after meeting and talking with him, whether this is the case and whether it is then worth taking the risk of letting your daughter know him.

You are right to worry that, if he proves to be feckless and unreliable, it will potentially be hurtful for your daughter. If she comes to trust him and then feels let down or betrayed because he either doesn't turn up to meet her or doesn't follow through on his promises, it will be hard for her.

Establishing a father-daughter relationship is a big deal for all three of you and you are right to plan carefully. Her dad needs to realise what a potentially central figure he can become for his daughter and he needs to be ready to step up to that challenge.

If you feel comforted by engaging a solicitor to agree the terms of their access, then do set that up. What is most important, whatever way you decide to arrange things, is that her dad proves himself to be up to the role.

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author

Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence

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