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Dilemmas: Does she love our children?

Is a mother's presence necessary to children's happiness, even if she doesn't seem to enjoy their company?

DEAR VIRGINIA, I'm worried because my wife, whom I love very much, doesn't seem to want to spend time with our two children. She works all the time, often going away, and rarely giving them a call.

I work too, but try always to get back early and spend time with them, but she doesn't seem to be interested. She says she's exhausted. I feel the children are suffering without a mother's presence and love. But she just says they're fine. What can I do?

Best wishes, David

I don't think there's anything you can "do" to change the situation. But perhaps a decision not to do anything might be more constructive than just doing nothing in a laissez-faire kind of way. And anyway, are you sure it's the children who are suffering, or are you remembering the lack of attention you found in your own mother when you were small? We project so much onto our children, and identify with them so strongly, that it's often difficult to tell where we end and they begin.

Remember, your children have never known a mother's total involvement with them. So how can they miss something they've never experienced? It's thought that children can cope with extremes, as long as they're consistent. If their mother is warm, cosy and lovely -- that's fine. If she's cold, distant and withdrawn, that's fine, too. Well, fine-ish. However, if one day she's warm and cosy and the next day cold and withdrawn, that causes trouble. When the coolness sets in, children know what they're missing and wonder if they're responsible for the change of moods. They become anxious and nervy, never knowing what side of their mother they'll be faced with each morning.

And who knows, perhaps your wife is one of those women who are really dreadfully incapable with their children when they're small, but quite wonderfully understanding when they start to grow up. I've seen mothers who appear to be hopeless with their babies, but brilliant with their teenagers. I've also seen the reverse -- mothers who adore them when they're tiny and lose interest as they start to develop into individuals.

It sounds as if your children know where they are. Presumably they're looked after during most of the day by someone who's fond of them. You're clearly a doting father. Your wife isn't cruel or sadistic -- just rather uninterested.

Now, it might help you to understand your wife's attitude if you could find out more about how it felt for her, being a child. Was she neglected? Who was the main care-giver of her two parents? Did she have a loving role model of a mother she could copy? Perhaps a little more awareness of how her past has shaped her feelings today might help her unbend a little -- or, at least, result in your comprehending how she got to be the way she is.

Obviously this isn't an ideal situation, but bar telling her that you feel the children would like to see more of her, and planning timetables that would enable her to see them more -- which is, of course, an option -- you can't force her to feel involvement and affection where there isn't any. And maybe, as long as you adore them, which you clearly do, the situation doesn't matter quite as much as you think.

This is modern life

It sounds as though you're doing a great job of being a father. But, when it comes down to it, you're doing the job that most working mothers do -- balancing the demands of your working week with the needs of the children, and immersing yourself in your children when you're at home. While your wife has taken the role that most fathers find themselves in: putting work first and being less involved in family life.

In other words, you are parenting in the same way as most families, it's just that the usual gender roles have been reversed. Is this a problem? Many parents would envy you.

There are men who'd love the chance to spend time with their children instead of working all hours. And there are certainly many mothers who would envy your wife for being able to pursue a career (it sounds as though this is a career rather than just a job) while safe in the knowledge that the children are getting care from a loving parent -- you!

Personally, I would prefer to think that families can be like this and thrive on it -- if not, then what hope for gender equality?

But of course your first concern is for your children. Do they really seem unhappy? Do they yearn for their mother? If so, then you and your wife need to address this together. But don't assume they would be happier if they saw more of her -- they may be just fine.

>Jane, Dundrum

Children can adapt

Your wife may be right when she says the children are fine. Most working parents are exhausted and most children learn to fit in around the family routine, whatever it is.

Your commitment to spending time with the children probably compensates for your wife spending less time with them. I am sure she loves them just as much as you.

Perhaps you should suggest a regular family outing or activity that involves all of you once a week or once a month, and that should keep everybody happy.

> Maureen, By email

Don't guilt-trip her

What you don't say is whether your wife has any choice but to devote all her time to her work. Could you manage on less money? If she has to keep on working at this level, it is unfair to add guilt to her burden. If not, then let her know that you'll support her if she wants to change things.

> A Murray, By email