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I recently answered an “epidemic” of questions from distraught mothers who wrote me for advice because a father was coming back into a child’s life after a long absence. These were not fathers deployed in the military who kept in close contact with their children. These were fathers who deserted the family, or were on drugs and not allowed to see their children, or were in jail.

All of them had been gone a long time.  The deserters decided they should now see their child. The drug-takers got clean, and those in jail were released. All were told by the courts they could see their child (I get questions from all over the world so I may not know what state or country these courts were in.) One was required to have  two supervised visits before seeing  the child alone. Others were told it was OK to see the child alone as they were now off drugs and presumably now “good guys.”

One child was two and the father had never seen the child. Several children were under ten and the father had been gone so long that they had no memory of him. Most of the mothers were horrified that this previous no-goodnik had the right to be alone with the child to whom they were an absolute stranger.

One mother was told to bring her two-year-old child to a motel where the father (a total stranger) would be with the child all weekend. Another mother was told to drop her children off at the father’s mother’s house for the weekend. The children were terrified, stayed in their room all weekend, and did not ever want to go back. The grandmother and father said bad things about the mother who in turn said bad things about them.

I am not a lawyer nor an expert on visitation and child custody after a father’s long absence. From my point of view as a pediatrician and parenting educator I can tell you two things I know to be true. 1) Children need both parents in their lives unless one parent might be dangerous to the child’s physical or emotional well-being. 2) In order for visitation to work both “sides” must stop putting the children in the middle.

I always look for what is in the best interest of the child. Children need time with a father but there is a difference between a father and a mere sperm provider who has  been away from the child a long time. On the other hand people have the capacity to change.

I can understand why a rehabilitated father wants to reenter his child’s life. I can also understand why a mother left to raise a child alone is angry, does not feel the father can be trusted, and has a legitimate concern that an unsupervised visit with a virtual stranger is not good for a young child.

Ideally, the mother and father would meet before the child ever met with the father. They would talk quietly, civilly, and without rancor about what is in the best interests of the child. The parents would decide together what to tell the child about the father’s absence. They would vow to stick to the story and never bad-mouth the other. The mother would be present for the first few visits not because the father was considered dangerous but because the child would be frightened with a stranger.

Both parents would have to be committed to loving and protecting their child more than they are to getting even with the other parent. Is this too much to hope for? I hope not!