Q: This will be the first Father’s Day since divorcing my abusive ex-husband, the father of my two children. My children witnessed him abusing me, but he’s still their dad, and he’s still in their lives, though sporadically. I don’t know how to navigate this day—do we ignore it or do I let my kids celebrate it? They’re 4 and 6. -K.C.
For a survivor mom like yourself who has escaped abuse, Father’s Day can be a triggering holiday. It can bring up feelings of sadness, guilt, lingering anger or resentment. For some, it might be a yearly reminder that your children’s father is no longer in their lives. It’s OK to grieve this loss of a happy marriage and family that you wanted and didn’t get.
Even if your children were not abused, you said they witnessed the abuse. This can manifest in them feeling anxious, insecure or depressed, and can result in them acting out or even being aggressive. Luckily, removing them from the abuser is the first step to healing, so you’ve done half the hard work already. What you want to focus on this Father’s Day is the positive—how much you have to be thankful for and how loved your children are, despite the circumstances.
Rosemary Lombardy is the author of Breaking Bonds: How to Divorce an Abuser and Heal. She suggests making the day about gratitude rather than grief.
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“Gratitude gives space for new, wonderful things to come in your lives. Show [your kids] how grateful you are to have them in your life,” says Lombardy. She suggests doing this by letting them pick out an activity that they want to do on Father’s Day in order for them to take some control of the day.
“Go bowling, get manicures, have a picnic, see a movie, play card games—it’s a way to create some new memories, but also get them absorbed in something.”
Ultimately, whether or not the day includes your children’s father in some way should be up to your kids, says Lombardy.
“Children need some sense of control over their own lives. They need to have their own path and their own relationship with their dad, if they choose to,” she says.
This could mean letting your children call their father, draw him a card or see him in person, as long as it is within the bounds of keeping them safe, both physically and emotionally. It could also mean allowing them to not do these things if that’s also their choice.
To gauge their feelings on this day, open up the lines of dialogue. Consider sitting down and asking your children about their feelings on this day. Give them the space to express any concerns, fears or questions they have. Children are frequently much more perceptive and aware than we often think, and letting them express these emotions and ask questions as often as possible will inevitably help with the healing process. You may want to read our piece, “8 Ways to Talk With Kids Exposed to Domestic Violence.”
Keep in mind too, K.C., that as your children grow up, this day could have triggering effects. Brian Martin is a survivor of childhood domestic violence, or CDV, and as a result, went on to found the Childhood Domestic Violence Association. For anyone who grew up with domestic violence—including adult survivors like himself—he says it’s important to remember the following every day: “A child is never responsible for causing or stopping the actions of adults. You’re not guilty for what happened in your home. Once you understand this truth, you will be fully free.”
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His other recommendation: Share. “Open up and share your thoughts with another. Share with yourself in the form of writing a letter to yourself as to the type of [parent] you want to be or aspire to be or about the type of father you want to have in the lives of your children. Read that letter aloud in the mornings and evenings, as this becomes your vision of possibility.”
If you find yourself struggling in your new role as a single parent, K.C., don’t fret. The transition will get easier over time as you navigate this new reality. Read “Keeping Your Cool as a First-Time Single Parent” for tips on staying calm, cool and collected when things feel overwhelming. Good luck.
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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