Helping children deal with an absent dad
By Shoshana Magnet
This one is close to home. I long for narratives that do not treat family reconfiguration and breakdown as something that only happens to other people. COVID-19 ushered in a new era of family breakdown, symbolized by comedian John Mulaney when he introduced his latest comedy special with the equivalent of “Haven’t seen you in a while. How are you? Gotten divorced?” Children urgently need narratives that help them to deal with divorce and family reconfiguration in ways that acknowledge its pain. We need picture books for kids that feature more than “happily ever after.”
When reading books on divorce to a class of kids, I felt this lack keenly. A small boy didn’t bother to raise his hand before calling out “Where are the stories about divorce where you don’t see the dad anymore?” I asked who else wanted a book like that. A few children raised their hands. Searching for books about unhappy divorces yielded too few results. That is why I wrote my own book, My Sometimes Dad.
This book took two years to write and much of it comes out of the mouths of children who have struggled with inconsistent, no-longer-available parents. We don’t have the phrase “deadbeat dad” for no reason, and this book aims to put pictures and words to the complex realities of loving someone who may not be able to be there for you, the “sometimes” parent. Some “sometimes” parents leave a marriage, some disappear into addiction, some are right there in the living room but remain aloof, unconnected. “Sometimes” parents aren’t there for their children.
Illustrated by the incomparable Haeon Grace Kang (also author of The ABCs of Women in Music, with Anneli Loepp Thiessen), My Sometimes Dad talks about the painful attachment of a child to a parent who is inconsistently present. Excitement to see the parent, grief, rage, confusion and love are all present – often in a single moment.
This book also features a dad who is a trans man. In this time of increasing homophobia and transphobia, children from queer families are often made to feel more different. We need books that celebrate pride and multiple kinds of families. And we need books that acknowledge queer families do not always work out. Just like heterosexual families.
This book begins with a little boy who is trying to understand the abrupt change in his relationship with his dad.
“My dad used to live here. But now he doesn’t.”
This boy’s dad doesn’t have a special place for him at his new house. The parents of his friend Jason are also divorced, but Jason’s dad is more present – at his house, he has a bed for Jason, toys, a special chair. For Jason, though, it’s still not the same: “I don’t have much stuff there,” he says. “One or two toys, that’s it. They’re old. I don’t even like them that much anymore.”
Jason’s dad used to be so much more attuned and connected.
“When my dad used to live here, he played with me a lot. He made good breakfasts. And he always let me choose what I wanted to watch on TV. He was the gentlest at putting band-aids on. Mom’s the worst at that, but dad was the best.”
Sometimes, inexplicably, things change. It is confusing for a child when a parent’s capacity inexplicably changes. Sometimes the old loving parent is so far gone – dead, it seems, even while they are still alive.
My Sometimes Dad explores the contradictory emotions that children can feel around “sometimes” parents.
“I feel like I wait all week to see my dad. I’m so excited when I see him pull up. But then it’s weird. When I get into the car and he says, ‘Hi buddy,’ and all of a sudden, I’m so mad. It’s like I have a dragon inside me. It wants to say, ‘You are the worst dad ever!’ or ‘Hello, I hate you!’”
Sometimes the dragon is more sad than angry: “Why did you leave, dad? Why did you leave me?”
I wrote this book for all the children who need to hear that divorce and the disengagement of a parent is not their fault. For all the kids and grownups who have struggled with “sometimes” parents, this book is from my heart to yours.
My Sometimes Dad can be ordered at www.picturebookstogrow.com/store.
Shoshana Magnet is an author, mother of two and a professor of feminist and gender studies at the University of Ottawa. Her research is on feminist approaches to children’s mental health, and she writes a listserv on picture books.
My Sometimes Dad,
by Shoshana Magnet,
illustrated by Haeon Grace Kang. Ottawa, Picture Books to Grow, 2023.