The tragedy of the absent father

The tragedy of the absent father

This is not a post about autism per se but rather some observations and thoughts on a phenomena I have observed since becoming involved in the world of parenting kids with special needs.

Over the last couple of years my wife and I have met many other parents of kids with special needs. These people have formed a vital part of our support group and it is absolutely true that no one else “gets it” like other parents in a similar boat. A special bond of understanding exists between us and our new group of friends. It’s a group that none of us wanted to ever belong to but now that we have had membership thrust upon us the group is of immense value to all. They are affectionately known as the “the autism massive” * by me and my wife.

*Note the “autism massive” includes parents of kids that have issues other than autism so it would more accurately be the “special needs massive” but the Bean is autistic so that’s our name for this gang.

In addition to the “autism massive proper” I have had many discussions with other parents online. Again this “cyber autism massive” has been an invaluable source of comfort, support and advice. With anything from swapping tips about coping strategies to just venting about various frustrations the denizens of the various interweb sites I frequent have been a huge source of strength.

Where are all the dads?

During all these interactions with many different people I have noticed something strange about both the massive proper and the massive cyber. Most of people I talk to are women. When I say most I don’t mean 60% or 70% I’d probably put it more like 90%. So my question is where are the dads? Clearly 50% of the parents in our situation are male so where are they all? I have no issue talking to women but the dads are conspicuously absent from these groups and this deserves an explanation.

I have explored this topic with some of the cyber massive at various times and some interesting theories have been suggested. One was that men don’t like to talk about such things, that we are somehow emotionally retarded. Well that might well be true to an extent but I don’t think it really accounts for the whole discrepancy of numbers. Certainly my experiences on line in other topics of discussion have been the exact opposite with a men making up most of the population.

Someone else suggested that men have big egos and so are more likely to feel ashamed of having “disabled” kids and so are often in denial of the facts. Well I had to bat that one down right away cos for every egotistical male like this I’ll give you a precious mother who can see no wrong her little darling. I’m sure both stereotypes exist with some frequency but I would suggest they cancel each other out resulting in no particular propensity towards such delusions along gender lines.

All that being said I have to admit that fathers are genuinely not as involved in “autism world” as the mothers are. I have indeed heard many tales of woe from frustrated mothers whose other halves are, it seems, in denial of the facts about their kids. But I refuse to believe that this is down to the male ego. So what goes on?

The patriarchy strikes again!

Well I think partly the phenomena can be explained by good old sexism and the hangover from our patriarchal past. It is still very much the case that child rearing is “woman’s work” in our society. Whilst we have certainly made much progress in terms of equal opportunities for women we only just started to dent the cultural norm that it is the women that look after the babies and small kids. Even in my circle of ultra-liberal educated friends it is still the case that the vast majority of the child caring is performed by the females.

We see this unfortunate fact supported and perpetuated by the law. Firstly there is a massive inequality in parental leave (women get a year men get 2 weeks). Secondly there are unequal child custody laws. Women tend to get the kids in the event of split up with 92% of single parents being women. All this underpins the social norm that child care is “woman’s work”.

Note: The “inequality” in child custody cases may well be because women tend to the majority of the child care before any marriage breakdown and hence it is in the interest of the child to stay with the primary carer. Nonetheless this statistic shows just how skewed our society is when it comes to child care responsibility.

As a side note this inequality of child rearing is, in my opinion, the most important feminist issue to address in the 21st century (well for the first world countries anyway, I guess getting the vote and being allowed to drive is somewhat more of a pressing issue in some parts of the world!). Until we get equal child care sharing women will always be paid less than men because they are simply more risky prospects to an employer. All other things being equal do you promote a 30 something man or a 30 something woman to a senior position knowing damned well that statistically the women is far more likely to take significant time off to look after kids? Until men are doing 50% of the child care employers will always penalise female employee s, not through sexism per se, but through cold hard economics! Until this is addressed there will never be equal pay or promotion opportunities for women…. but I digress.

So as I was saying, part of the phenomena of the low turnout for my sex in the autism community is that many men are just not as involved with their kids as their spouses. This then means that they are less likely to accept that something is “wrong” and perhaps live in an extended state of denial for longer. Certainly I had my own head up my arse with regards to the Bean’s autism for a while (see this post for more details). For about 6 months or so my wife was telling me that there was something up with our son but I refused to believe it. This was primarily because it was she that was with him day in day out and so she could see what I could not, namely that he was very different to other kids. However I got on the same page as my wife after a few months and I think most dads do so this eventually. So the extended denial period can’t really explain the whole absence of men from the discussion. The problem is bigger than simply a delay in getting on board with the situation.

Meetings, meetings and more meetings

One of the things about having a kid with special needs is that the situation precipitates an awful lot of meetings. Over the last couple of years I have lost count of the number of times we have met with doctors, speech therapists, occupational therapists, hearing tests people, paediatricians, health visitors and of course many people from the early years special educational needs team. There is a whole team of professional working with Bean and at the last big powwow there were 8 of us in the room for 2 hours discussing Bean, and two people could not make it!

Now these countless meetings present a very real problem for working dads. As discussed above our misogynistic society still dictates that women do the bulk of the child care and a direct consequence of this is that the men still do the bulk of the bread winning. Countless meetings do not fit well with ones duties as a bread winner particularly in a traditional office environment.  If one has an understanding boss then may be the first 5 or 6 mornings off be given with good grace but by the time of the 10th half day off patience will be wearing thin and trust me by the 10th meeting we are not even getting started yet!

So the bread winner of the family is faced with juggling his desire to attend meetings about his child and with his duties to actually bring home the bacon. Often the bacon wins out and this means the father misses out on meetings and so becomes less and less informed on his child’s situation.

A further complication to this it has been my experience that almost every professional involved with Bean has been female. Now as I said I have no problem talking to women but there are some potential communication issues between the sexes. There is a natural bond between mothers and many of the female professionals involved with Bean are mothers themselves so I think perhaps this means my wife can talk more easily to them than I. It would be really nice to have a chat with a professional who is also a fellow father.

So what are the consequences of all this?

The above describes a situation where a very vicious circle can be set in motion. The father is forced to juggle his work commitments with “being involved”, he misses several meetings about his kid, he is thus less aware and informed. This in turn leads to the mother making most of the decisions which alienates the father more and leaves the mother feeling frustrated and unsupported.

As a consequence, my discussions with the mothers of the cyber autism massive have constantly revealed extreme frustrations at their partners. The mother’s feelings of isolation are a very common theme. In many cases the cause of this is deemed to be some character flaw in the father. It is all too easy to attribute blame and again this helps fuel the cycle of isolation. All this has a huge impact on the relationship between the parents just at the time when they most need to be strong and united.

So what’s the answer?

Well I can only say what helped me and my wife. So for what it’s worth, and at the risk of sounding clichéd, I would suggest that couples in this situation keep talking. Whilst it may be very frustrating for the mothers who feel like they are unsupported by their other halves remember it is probably just a isolating and bewildering for the man.

When we were not communicating well and I still had my head up my arse about the Bean’s autism my wife was feeling the following.

  • He does not care about our kid enough to be involved
  • He does not care enough about me to support me
  • I am sick with worry about our son
  • I feel alone just when I need him most

At the same time I was feeling

  • She does not understand I’m trying to keep it together and keep my job so I can support my family.
  • She does not seem to understand the pressure this whole situation puts me under.
  • I am sick with worry about our son
  • I feel alone just when I need her most

The important thing to note is that the last two points are the same for us both.  Whilst the precise feelings and thoughts will vary from couple to couple I am sure that the last two points will be pretty universal. Both parents will be worried and both will be feeling alone. The joint concern for the child is, of course, the key to getting the communication going and once this starts the feelings of isolation will lessen. But it takes one person to put aside their feelings of resentment and actually listen to the other nonjudgmentally. I can’t emphasise the word nonjudgmentally enough. It is the judgement and blame that fuels the vicious circle. One person, and it does not really matter which, needs to be take the bold step of putting aside blame and their own feelings of frustration and really listening to their partner. Sympathise, empathise and let them know you understand and in most relationships this will be reciprocated – you need to give to get as the saying goes. Once this dialogue starts you can have an adult to adult conversation and really start getting to grips with the situation as a team. Remember no parent of a kid with autism has the luxury of wallowing in self-pity and heaping blame on their partner, your kid needs both of you.


  1. Yes.

    In a magazine it was said “The most important thing is to love the other parent/your partner”

    and shared concern does that really well.

    And that really is a big up to the massive – Miriam Gwynne is the person who introduced me to you.

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