The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Men Behaving…. May 18, 2011

Although I have a huge pile of paper on my desk and a very long to-do list, it seems that this may be a good time to write about a topic which is today in the news.

Yesterday, when I first saw the Arnold Schwarzenegger story, I was tempted to fire off a post on the subject, given that it is one with which I am intimately acquainted. And yet, I held back, knowing that I had more to say on the event than the predictable and understandable rants that one might expect. And last night, as my still-husband juggled care taking duties of his two very young boys while trying to communicate with his eldest son by Skype, once again it hit me. The situation throws the family into painful turmoil, yes, but beyond the obvious, it causes the father of the unexpected children his own kind of pain and suffering.

Many times I’ve considered Fareed’s side of this equation. It’s got to hurt to be a father who loves his child, but can’t be with him. I feel Elihu’s sadness when his father says he has to go at the end of a phone call. I also sense Fareed’s feelings of sorrow and powerlessness. Only today he sent an email expressing his concern over things that Elihu and I had recently dealt with, and while these were now history in our fast-moving life, they were yet unaddressed in Fareed’s world. As I explained, we simply cannot catch him up on everything that we experience; we can’t communicate every trauma, dilemma, sickness or difficulty – or even the tiny triumphs and discoveries. There’s just so much life that goes on. If a parent is not physically there, it’s just a matter of simple logistics. Fareed loves his son, yet there he is. Caught in the fallout of his own creation. He simply cannot be a live-in dad to two young families at the same time.

For the father who doesn’t entirely want to be there – that may be another story. And while I find it hard to believe that a father wouldn’t want to know about his children’s lives, at least deep down in his heart, I do believe that for some fathers it’s not a priority. (My own feeling is that shame, dysfunction or economics might hold some dads back from being more involved with their estranged children.)

But Fareed is, and I defend him often on this point, a father who loves his children. In fact, I can’t quite understand how he feels so deeply for his daughter Brigitta, when she hardly knows him as a ‘real’ dad, but rather as simply her biological father. I can perhaps understand his need to know her when I examine how I myself might feel if a biological child of mine was removed from my world. I don’t know that I could bear it. He once broke into tears, saying to me that he hoped one day I could meet her and accept her. I’d told him I was working on it, and I was. This is all a very, very difficult process. It’s hard on the wife who finds her world absolutely smashed in an instant, yes. It’s also an enormous burden on the father of the surprise child. Really all one can do is take a breath, and wait for the passage of time to wash mercifully over the broken hearts.

Why should I feel any empathy for these careless men? Really? Yet I do. A moment after the news about Arnold’s love child sank in, I thought ‘how much pain he must have been in all these years’. He had to be apart from a child he created, plus he had to bear the burden of that secret and keep it from his own family. What a horrible situation to be in. Yes, he, my husband and SO many other men have behaved like short-sighted, selfish asses. But look, their hearts are now broken too.

And the children? I know that I have guided my own to find a place of compassion and understanding, as I myself have tried hard to learn those things too. One of my oldest, and dearest friends is the product of an extramarital affair. This person has managed to grow into an exceptional adult – a good friend, loving spouse, and wonderful parent – and has found a way to make it work. This friend chose to close all possibility of contact with the father, and this was what worked in this situation. I imagine there are many ways to make it work. Certainly many children have grown up in a fatherless household. Our own President Obama did.

I also imagine this is a much more common occurrence than we’d think, however, if you google the subject, there’s not a whole lot of support for the single moms that result from the man’s indiscretion (believe me, I’ve searched). I remember in one such search coming across a comedian going on about what an upstanding guy he was. He was married and had no ‘outside children’. That stopped me in my tracks. There was a contemporary term for this? ‘Outside children’? You mean that it’s so common that we might just assume a regular married guy may well have ‘outside children’?? Man, where had I been? I guess all you have to do is take in a couple of Jerry Springer episodes to know that it goes on routinely, and all over. But how does it all end? We all hear the titillating tales, but soon after they’re lost in the wash of incoming news. After some personal exploration into these stories, I’ve come to realize that in the end, if you can’t afford a really good, committed attorney, the resulting single mom ends up in a far worse economic situation, whether she was the wife or the extra marital partner. And the only payoff is…. you got it, the gift of raising her child. The man may be able to pay his bills, but he must always live with the pain of being an absentee dad. The mom may now live on food stamps – but she’s there when her son loses his first tooth…

My dear friend, the one who was raised by a single mom, was in this case a child of the ‘other woman’. It puts a strange spin on my perspective; for she – the ‘other woman ‘ – was an excellent mother, yet it was the ‘other woman’ who utterly changed my life and broke my heart. So how to view this ultimately? I can’t say I’ve found an answer. I struggle with it almost daily. My feeling is that whomever rises to the responsibility of providing for the child is doing the right thing, whether that be in form of providing money for living costs, physical custodial care, or simply encouraging the child to have a healthy relationship with the now-absent parent.

No easy answer. Maybe next time try a condom. Just sayin.

 

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