Jesse came to therapy with an important project in mind. Mine was not the first office he’d been to. He’d already been in a rehab program where he kicked a 10-year drug habit that had ruined his health, his marriage and his relationship with his parents.
He was now back to community college where he was using his brain for scoring As instead of a drug buy. He had stuck with a 12-step program that worked for him. And he had already done several rounds of intensive therapy. He had definitely turned his life around in a big way. So why was he coming back for more treatment?
“I need to connect with my kids,” he said. “I don’t want to blow it.” His story is sad and not uncommon. At only 19, he married his pregnant girlfriend. They fought a lot. Money was tight. He fell into drugs. She got pregnant again. They fought some more. She was lucky enough to have parents to go home to and she did. They divorced. He bailed.
Jesse worked for a time as a bouncer, a landscaper, and a maintenance man. Nothing lasted as his drug habit became an addiction. He ended up homeless for a time and on the streets. At some point, he realized that everyone he was hanging with was, in his words, “a loser” and that he wasn’t any better. By now his kids were 10 and 9 years old and he hadn’t seen them since they were babies. He decided he wanted to see them.
He contacted his ex-wife and she told him in no uncertain terms that she didn’t want him to have anything to do with the kids unless he cleaned up his act. To his credit, that started him on the road to recovery. After three years of hard work, he wants to try again. His boys are now 13 and 11. He’s aware that with the passing years, the distance has grown into a gulf. Is there any way he can make amends? Will his kids let him? What does he have to do to get his ex-wife to even let him make the attempt?
Good questions. It’s a sign of his readiness to reconnect that he is even asking them. He’s not blaming his ex-wife. He’s not expecting the kids to be happy to see him. He doesn’t have unrealistic expectations. Having grown up and cleaned up, he does want to know his children and to be part of their lives if he can be. Now only 32 years old, he has a long life ahead. If he does this right, he could be a real dad as his boys traverse the teen years and become adults. He’s willing to do the planning and to take the time to do it right.
Abandoned kids are hurt kids. Even if their mother is okay with a meeting, chances are the kids will be mixed in their reactions to the news that he wants to see them. They are likely to be curious. They are equally likely to be angry and wary. So Jesse and I talked. He had homework to do before he could make contact.
Jesse didn’t have any idea of what to expect from a pair of boys who were moving into their teens. His first assignment was to find out what is usual for boys that age. Memory of his own boyhood was a fog of early experimentation with alcohol and marijuana. Hopefully, his kids hadn’t fallen in with the same kind of crowd. He needed to know what boys usually do in sixth and eighth grade and what might interest them.
He also needed to know more about his particular kids. He arranged to have a talk with their mother. She was understandably angry. She’d been raising these kids alone, without financial or emotional support from him for well over a decade. How could she trust him now?
A substantial check did help as a start. That, and the promise that now that he was clean, sober and employed, she would get the child support she needed. “Better late than never,” she said. She was willing to talk. We set up an appointment to help them start. When she heard all he had already done to clean up his act, she was tentatively willing to support some contact. Understandably, she wanted to protect the kids from disappointment or further pain. Understandably, she wanted him to go slow and to be careful.
In this case, the mom had done a great job raising two rambunctious boys. With help from her folks, she’d been able to give them some stability. Her dad had given them lots of attention. They were doing okay in school and both were involved in hockey. Every now and then, they had said something about their missing dad. Not surprisingly, they didn’t remember him as a person; only as a dad who had left them.
We spent time in session helping Jesse catch up with his children’s childhoods. His ex-wife brought pictures, report cards and stories. At times, she couldn’t stand it. She would get angry and resentful. Who could blame her? With the memories of the kids’ growing were memories of going it alone.
Jesse could have bailed on the project. He didn’t. He listened to her anger. He didn’t defend his behavior. He apologized. He knew he had a lot to apologize for. He remained steady in wanting to not miss the second half of the boys’ growing-up years.
With a lot of work on both of their parts, the two were able to come to agreement and to then talk about a plan for reintroducing him to his children. “Go slow,” I cautioned. “These kids have lives and friends and things they are obligated to do. Don’t expect them to drop everything for visits with you.”
Jesse and his ex-wife were able to come to agreement about how to introduce him. It went as well as could be expected. The kids were cool at first but curious. He sincerely apologized for what they all had missed and asked them to give him a chance. He then made plans to start attending their hockey games and to see them for a few hours on Sundays after practice. It didn’t always go well. Sometimes one or the other of the boys would have a meltdown and let him have it. He heard what they had to say, agreed they had a right to say it, and asked how they could move on. The kids responded as only kids can. They were willing to try again.
Jesse told me he hoped that eventually they’d want to spend longer stretches of time with him but for now having some time with them at all was great. He understood that a relationship would have to grow and couldn’t be expected just because they shared some genes.
Fast forward a couple of years: This story has a happy ending. Jesse did continue to man up and to become the kind of dad he wanted to be. As he got to know the kids, they all found surprising things they had in common. One of the boys became interested in basketball as well as hockey, something Jesse had at one time wanted to do. They put a hoop up on his garage and the two of them played “Horse” for hours. The other boy was more studious and was showing an early talent for math. Jesse didn’t get it but did understand it was important to his son. Instead of distancing, he took a class himself and worked on being supportive of his son’s emerging talent.
Can fathers like Jesse really make up for lost time? No, not really. He and the boys missed a lot. The boys don’t yet accept discipline from him but they do listen to his stories. They sometimes don’t want to go with him when he invites them to spend a weekend together. Nonetheless, he is becoming an important person in their lives. He’s been honest about how and why he let them down. Hopefully, that will keep them from making the same mistakes.
To her credit, the boys’ mother has been able to forgive him. But she is also clear that she won’t ever forget his abandonment. Jesse says he understands and accepts that. She has been able to make room for him to have a role in the kids’ lives. She has benefited by getting some much-needed time off and much-needed practical and financial help. He has the chance to be a dad. He is enormously grateful.