My three-year-old’s birth father now wants to be involved

Though I have told my daughter about him, he is still effectively a stranger to her

The ideal is to negotiate with your daughter’s father and reach an agreement about what is best for your daughter

The ideal is to negotiate with your daughter’s father and reach an agreement about what is best for your daughter

 

Three years ago, when I was on holiday in England, I had a brief relationship that resulted in me becoming unexpectedly pregnant (due to contraception failure). After much soul-searching, I kept my baby and and am now delighted to be a single mother of a beautiful girl.

I did tell her father when the relationship was over. He accepted my decision and backed off during the pregnancy (I think he might have preferred if I’d had an abortion). He did keep some limited contact over the years and I sent him photos and met him once or twice with my daughter.

Recently, he has moved to Ireland with his work and is now saying he wants a lot more involvement with my daughter. I initially refused and he has begun court proceedings. I’m not sure what to do. Though I have told my daughter about him, he is still effectively a stranger to her and I am unsure about sending her off to spend large amounts of time with him when she is so young and they have no relationship. My solicitor is advising me to try and reach some sort of agreement before the court imposes an arrangement.

What do you think I should do? What is in the best interest of my daughter?

Your circumstances are much more common than you might appreciate. Whereas in the past men might have backed off completely when a partner became pregnant after a brief relationship, nowadays they are coming forward and saying they want an active role in parenting their children. In theory, this is a good idea for children, who might gain access to two loving parents to care and provide for them in the long term.

In practice, it can be quite a tricky arrangement to negotiate. You have the challenge of two parents who barely know each other having to co-operate together in the most challenging of all roles as co-parents. You also frequently have the situation where there is a delay in the father getting actively involved, which means the child does not yet have an attached relationship with him. This can result in the child experiencing separation anxiety and stress for the mother.

I’m glad you are focusing on the needs of your daughter as you consider these issues. Her interests lie in maximizing the benefits of her birth father being involved while managing the particular challenges in the least stressful way possible.

Arrange to mediate

The ideal is to negotiate with your daughter’s father and reach an agreement about what is best for your daughter. I would strongly recommend you use the services of professional mediator, who should be able to help you navigate this process. There is a free national mediation service run by the Legal Aid Board (legalaidboard.ie) as well as a number of private services.

To negotiate effectively, it is important to 1) start positively (eg appreciating his desire to be a father in your daughter’s life; 2), listening carefully to what he wants and what he can provide; 3) being clear about what is important to you, eg your daughter’s well-being; 4) exploring solutions that are as “win-win” as possible; and 5) being prepared to talk again and to keep the lines of communication open.

Build a co-parenting relationship

For your daughter’s sake, it is important that you strive to get on with her birth father. While you are not together as a couple, the ideal is that you form some sort of friendship, or at least a good “working relationship” as co-parents. One of the advantages of the fact that you were not together as a couple is that you may not have as much emotional baggage or hurt to overcome as you work together as parents

Gradually increase contact

When changing contact arrangements, the ideal is to do this gradually, especially as your daughter is so young. The first step might be a regular meeting time, when you and your daughter meet him together. This would best be in your home, where she might be most comfortable, but it can also occur elsewhere if that is easier, such as a playground.

In these meetings, make sure to allow time for your daughter to play and talk with her father as you take a back seat and let them to get to know each other. The next step might you going to another room for a few minutes to let them play, followed by her father taking her off to a playground for a short time before bringing her back to you.

Building these times up slowly, following your daughter’s pace is the key. This will become easier as she becomes more comfortable and as her father gets to know her better.

Support the relationship

It is important to remember that your daughter’s father will likely need a lot of support to grow into the parenting role. He may not have any experience of getting on with or managing young children, and like most new parents will have to learn gradually. Generally, it would be a good idea for him to build his own support network of family and friends as he begins to take more care of his daughter. He might also benefit from attending some professional supports and services (as you might also).

There are a number of courses for separated parents, such as Parents Plus (parentsplus.ie), which I was involved in developing.There are also advice lines such as onefamily.ie. I suggest you share this answer with him if this helpful.

Negotiating your daughter’s father role in her life will take time and patience and will require your support. The good news is that if all goes well, his involvement should be a support to you and your daughter in the long term.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker, psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He has published 14 books, including Parenting When Separated – Helping Your Children Cope and Thrive. See solutiontalk.ie.

Send your parenting queries to health@irishtimes.com

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