Thursday 20 September 2018

Dear David Coleman: I was extremely close to my ex's daughter and she always called me Papa. Should I keep calling her?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. A few months ago, I broke up with my girlfriend of three years. We lived together for three months. She has a daughter who is now four years of age. The daughter doesn't know her biological father, and has always called me Papa. We were extremely close as we Skyped regularly. When we talk now, she is always very excited, but on a few occasions when I initiated the call, she seemed a little upset to begin with. Should I keep contact, or is it better to let myself recede, or will she feel that I have abandoned her? I don't know what to do.

David replies: In many ways, it isn't fully your choice about whether to maintain contact or not. I think this is a decision you should jointly discuss with her mother. What her mum wants is critically important.

However, for the purposes of this response to you, I don't have access to her mum's opinion. Everything I say here needs to be taken into consideration with her and her views. In fact, it is interesting that you don't reference her mum's opinion at all. Have you had any conversations with her about this?

From your own perspective, I think you need to think not just about the here and now, but about the long-term relationship you might want to have, or be able to have with her. If your relationship with her mum is quite positive, despite the break-up, then it might be possible to continue to be successfully involved in her daughter's life.

If things are already strained between you, then it might actually become more problematic as time passes and so if contact dwindles between you, then it will probably also dwindle with her daughter, as such a young girl will be quite reliant on her mum to facilitate telephone calls, video chat or actual meetings.

You might also want to think about whether you want to be a dad at this stage in your life and whether you are prepared to continue that role for all of your life. While your willingness, or your desire, to continue to be involved in her life is quite noble, you need to consider how practical it will be in the years to come.

If you are prepared to become a surrogate father for her, then that is a life commitment, not just a commitment to being available for a few years.

So, for example, if you start a new relationship and either that woman also has children, or you go on to father your own children, will you still be able, or willing to be, as committed to this little girl and her needs, as you might be now?

There is no reason that you can't continue to be a very successful step-dad to this girl, but how will you also accommodate any future men that your ex-partner may go out with? What if someone else also wants to be a step-dad to her? If her mum finds a new partner for life, then it is highly likely that he will take over the dad-role that you have taken on to date. Since you are not her biological dad, her mum may not accord you the same status in terms of trying to facilitate continued contact.

From this little girl's perspective, it is great that she has had a positive relationship with a man, even to the point that she was able to see you as her dad. The energy and approach that men can bring to relationships with children is different to the one that mothers and women can bring. That is why it is typically good to have the balance of mothering and fathering for children.

However, there is lots of research evidence to show that children can also cope well, and flourish, in single-parent households. So, in that regard, she doesn't necessarily need you.

Even if she does miss you a lot, right up to and including feeling abandoned by you, her mum can soothe and help her to regulate those feelings. Even if she does feel let down by you, her mum can help her to process all of these kinds of strong feelings.

So, when you are discussing all of this with her mum, you need to be clear to distinguish between what elements are about meeting your needs and what elements are about her daughter's needs.

Some of your altruistic efforts to stay in touch with this little girl may in fact be doing more for you than for her. While this isn't a bad thing, it is just important to be able to be aware of it in deciding how to move things forward.

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