Disengaged Dad

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Oct 2002

We have two children(6 and 4.9 years old) and my husband has a busy work schedule. Typical family situation I would guess. My worry is that he spends very little to none time with them. Even when he is not working he chooses to do something else rather than reading them a story or just talking to them. I'm not talking about taking them somewhere which happens very rarely and for no more than half and hour. He says he gets bored :-( but I would think is because he does not really engage in interacting with them.

He does not have other hobbies (other than computer), he does not like to take a walk with us, he just wants to be left alone to focus on his work or a computer game (ocassionally) or some errands.

I think it's sad. Children will grow and he won't even know it. PLease help with some advice for me and/or some books titles. Am I alone in this kind of situation ? Should I insist he becomes a real part of children's lives ?

Thank you.
virtually single Mom

I would say yes, you should insist that he become part of the children's lives -- but you can't just demand that he start enjoying being with them. You will probably need to have a real heart-to-heart talk with him: what kinds of things would he enjoy doing with the kids -- or at least agree to try? What things could you do to help him do this? What is it specifically that he doesn't like? (''Boring'' is such a catch-all term, and can be used to hide a number of negative emotions.) Do you suppose that there's some underlying reason, perhaps something that's happened in his relationship with his parents, that has made him reluctant to engage with the kids? It's so important for him to have a real relationship with them, not only for his sake, but for theirs. Kids who have good relationships with both parents are so much less likely to have serious problems as they get older, that he really shouldn't just duck out of this extremely important responsibility. Karen

Wow, what did your partner think when you both discussed starting a family? Does he suffer from depression? Are you frustrated at the lack of shared responsibility? Your posting prompts many questions? If he was my children's father I would want to see a therapist, alone and together to discuss expectations and effects regarding an aloof parent. I would encourage my spouse to evaluate his inaction. If there was no progress I would want to consider separation. I know of several situations where a separation/divorce has actually improved the father's role in his childrens' lives, because he now has to formalize and schedule his relationship with his kids. A sad reality!

Speaking as a somewhat disengaged mom who always finds a million things she'd rather do than childcare, my suggestion is to identify some activities that everyone likes and work them into your regular schedule so you don't have to negotiate them. For example, every Saturday is Family Day and you always have some outing. Go to Tilden and have a picnic, go blackberry picking, go to Alameda Beach, etc. You can't force someone to have fun and engage. But you can figure out what they think is fun (even if not as much fun as solo activities) and do that.
Mom who'd rather be on the computer

Your description of your husband matches my brother-in-law to a tee, down to the computer games. Like you, my sister refers to herself as a ''married single parent.'' In this case, my b-i-l suffers from depression. Now that he's finally in counseling and taking antidepressants, he's a bit more engaged, though still far from the active parent one hopes for. So in their case, he's having to deal with his own issues before he has any emotional energy to spend on his kids. Of course your husband may not be depressed, but if he is, insisting he spends time with his kids won't do any good anyway. Best of luck to you---this situation is _hard_.

Your husband sounds as if he is fatigued or depressed or both. How 'bout an agreement that he gets some scheduled alone time but has! to carve out time for the children, as well. Additionally, if you suspect depression try to get him to a mental health professional and/or supplemental exercise. I wish you luck

I believe a disengaged dad has a lot to do with his own experiences with his father and what he expects a father's role is. Having conversations with him regarding his childhood might help. What did he like about his dad? What did he dislike? Some dads whos own father's weren't involved believe their sole responsibility is to financially support the family and that is it. It's a very limited, traditional viewpoint. With some conversations reminding of how it is to be a kid, focusing on how his childhood was and what would have made it better, might help him to focus on his kids. Susan

This issue so resonates with me. I feel like my husband is in a permanent state of distraction. With just a few minor adjustments - such as substituting ''computer'' for ''television'' - I could have easily sent in this question. It's as though my husband occupies some parallel universe. Him and us. He has a demanding job, most certainly, but somehow that has long served as a pretense for unplugging at the day's end. There is always something more interesting to do than to be in our world (our totally great kids are 7 and 9) and I share the deep concern that he and the kids are really missing out on one another in deeply important ways.

What to do? I think I have learned that I cannot micromanage this. At one point, I suggested that my husband and daughter have a special night out once a month, even creating these monthly coupons that she could redeem for her special evening. This went no where. It seems that if the kids are willing to do what he wants, run his errands, then that's ok, but he doesn't seem able/willing to enter their world.

One thing that has worked: leave town together. Remove hubby from 510 area code, from cell range, away from remote, and when we do this - which is to say when we go camping - we enjoy a sense of unity that eludes us in the city. So perhaps the thing to do would be: think outside the box. What times bring joy and togetherness? Accentuate the positive. Support those special one on one activities. For me, leaving town always helps my husband and kids come together, for I am such the default in family life and when I'm away, they depend on their own resources, and actually fare quite well.

I really look forward to other parent's reactions, advice, and support on this difficult issue. Thank you for raising the subject, and I hope you find some positive solutions to this challenging and painful situation. Another sometimes single mom

Specification to the ''Disengaged Dad'' posting: I forgot to mention that my husband's Dad died when he was 10 and his Mom never remarried. Also, from his Mom stories I understand that his Dad was pretty disengaged too. So indeed, he never really seen a husband-wife in his household or really experienced child-dad relationship when he grew up. But how can I make it better in our lives and for our children ? He seems very reluctant to any advice, even from his own Mom.
the original poster

I sympathize with you very much. I've been in a very similar position since my daughter was born. My husband does participate (in small doses), but has managed to find new 'interests' that take up more of his time and are not 'family activities'. I have been equally frustrated trying to figure out what could get him more involved with his family but have found more often than not that it comes down to selfish reasons. He could make the time, but choses not to. I can't say i have advise to give you, but i wanted you to know that you aren't alone in this situation. I think there are a lot of mothers who manage to raise a family as 'single parents' and for the most part are frustrated by their partners lack of participation. I'm not sure if you said in your posting whether this was a new thing or whether this had been going on since your children were born. I hope you are getting emotional and financial support and hope that you can figure out a way to get your husband involved. good luck

It sounds like your husband has gone into parental auto-pilot. I imagine he learned how to be a dad from his own father, where else? When my husband grew up, dads sat around, drank beer, did their own thing, and ignored the kids. Thankfully we've established a dialogue about this, because he does slip into auto-dad. He does acknowledge his desire to be more engaged than his own father, but it requires dilligence and constant awareness. A big part of him feels like it's ''not his job'' to take an interest. It would be helpful if your husband had some dad friends that he could spend time with. Watching other fathers engage with their children might cue him in. Maybe you could invite some dad friends over with their kids. I hope you can work something out, but regardless YOU sound like a wonderful and attentive parent. MEG

I'm not saying that this is the cause of your problem, but I'm a little guilty of being a disengaged dad. One of the reasons for this, which took a while to uncover, is that I'm basically a lazy person. So, after our daughter was born, when my wife took over so many of the kid-related tasks, it was easy for me not to participate. In a way there was no way around this since the baby was nursing and I had to work. However, the years passed and my wife, in my mind, was very strong willed about how to do things. Being lazy, I didn't fight this. But, as a result, I missed out on a lot. I'm not blaming my wife, because she has done a great job, but I wonder if other dads fall into this rut too.