chapter  24
12 Pages

Experiencing the Absent Father: In Sight and Inside

One morning an analysand, a married mother, arrived in my office tired and mentioned that the family had been annoyed to be awakened before 6:00 A.M. by the noise of the garbage being collected. The only family member not annoyed was hertoddler daughter, almost three, who emerged from bed in a sunny mood, exclaiming: "Daddy, this morning you were outside singing!" This little girl, secure with both parents, has an inner representation of a singing Daddy that turns garbage trucks into music. This is not the case for most children of divorce. This chapter discusses the impact of divorce on children's external and inner encounters with the father who is no longer at home. I focus on the relation to the absent father because in the majority of cases the mother is the home parent. However, although disruptions in maternal and paternal functions have different developmental impacts, many similar issues are at stake when mother is absent. I will consider how the child's experience of the father is also affected by the particular ways the child's mother, the rest of the family, and the broader social network view

320 Lora Heims Tessman

The consequences of divorce for a particular child are as diverse as are cultures, families and marriages. A circle of influence includes the parent's individual and cultural values, as well as those aspects of parental character that determine what range of emotions can be borne by them. For example, the child's experience is affected by whether a parent can allow for the vulnerability of grieving, or emphasizes and values only active modes of coping. When divorce forces a family into poverty, with a change of neighborhood and a depleting workload for the mother, the child may experience a different degree of demoralization than when a supportive social network can be preserved. My discussion will be biased in the sense that it is based on clinical experience with children in families with enough cohesion so that at least one family member brought the child for psychological evaluation or psychotherapy because of evident emotional difficulties. The children I will refer to were seen either in the psychiatry clinic at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, which offered short-term, limited service, or in private practice, which offers more leeway for suiting the treatment to the needs of the child and family. When an opportunity for extended psychotherapy could be sustained, the yield was often considerable.