Care and Feeding

I’m Not Sure How Much Longer I Can Protect My Daughter From the Truth About Her Mother

It’s only a matter of time before she asks.

Man carrying daughter on his back.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jokic/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter Anna is 6 years old and the light of my life, but as a single father, I worry that I will not be able to field the questions from gossipy parents about “where her mother is” any longer. Anna has never met her mother Mary and I haven’t even told her her name.

The truth is that my daughter’s conception came at a very dark period of my life when I had just lost my long-term partner. Mary was an acquaintance of mine who I knew always liked me, and encouraged me to drink away my feelings with her. In my time of loneliness and desperation, we soon entered an extremely toxic relationship where we enabled each other’s poor decisions. Mary got pregnant and that was the wake-up call I needed to get sober and give her an ultimatum that forced her to get sober (albeit briefly) too. It destroyed our relationship but it was for our unborn daughter, something that Mary never seemed to care about. As soon as she gave birth to Anna, she was out of my life and Anna’s too.

I’ve never told Anna about Mary and she hasn’t asked either, but now that she’s in elementary school, I worry that this peace won’t last long. I have some mothers telling me “a girl needs a mother/woman in her life” and of course, Anna’s classmates themselves have asked about her mother, to which she has no response. I can tell she wants to know desperately and it’s only a matter of time before she asks. I don’t want to tell her about Mary—instead, I want to tell her about my deceased long-term partner, and frame him as her “other parent.” Would that be so wrong? I knew my partner extremely well so I’d be able to answer any questions she might have… On the other hand, how can I even begin to describe Mary, who I barely knew before and definitely don’t know now?

—A Lie to Save My Sanity

Dear Lie to Save My Sanity,

I understand the impulse to sugarcoat things and try to spare your daughter some pain, but in an age when 23andMe regularly serves up DNA bombshells, the odds of your lie being exposed and causing her to resent you are high. More importantly, Anna deserves the truth. Honesty is the antidote to shame and self-hatred.

Obviously, you’ll want to give her an age-appropriate amount of information—you may say something simple like, “Being a parent is a very hard job, and your mom wasn’t ready to be a parent yet.” Explain that families are all different and equally valid, whether kids live with just a mom, just a dad, a grandparent, or any other combination. Answer her questions as honestly as you can and validate her resulting feelings. The absence of a parent is a loss and she has every right to be upset, angry, or confused. Make sure that she understands that her mother’s absence is not her fault.

When she’s older, you may want to share more details, while doing your best not to speak negatively about Mary. You may feel ashamed of your story, but as a fellow parent in recovery, I think our kids can benefit from knowing that we have made mistakes and were able to get help to learn to lead a healthier, happier life. Your story begins in darkness, but by pulling yourself into the light, you’re providing a positive example for your daughter.


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Several incidents in the past year have me wondering if I have a future with my wife. Last summer we went to a village festival with friends and took our kids along. My wife had too much to drink and ended up sloppy drunk and puking on the train while our kids looked on. We explained this as a one-off: Have you ever seen your mother or father drink too much in the past? No. Was one of us responsible and looking out for you? Yes. I was very disappointed and expressed as much to my wife.