Why I'm being honest with my son about his dad's faults

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

I'm a firm believer that people are all doing the best they can with the tools they have, and that's the view I always take when it comes to my son's father.

I know I probably sound patronising, but as the parent who is constantly picking up the pieces as my ex disappoints our child over and over again, it's the best line of thinking I can come up with. 

Joe* and I separated when our son Finn* was two, and I have always been the lead parent. I have no doubt Joe loves our son, but after spending eight years living with him and trying to make our relationship work, I know he's not great at accessing his feelings and listening to the needs of others. He's crap at showing up when it matters. Actually, he's crap at showing up at all.

Finn*, who is now 15, used to spend a couple of days each week with his dad, and the rest of his time with me, but lately he has been asking to spend more time with me because he doesn't want to be at Joe's. Kids aren't stupid – they know when they're valued and respected, and when they're not.

The pair used to be close. When Finn was little, he used to have a lot of fun with his father. His emotional needs were simple, and all he wanted was love, time and attention. Joe is a fun guy – it's why I fell in love with him in the first place – so as long as Finn's needs weren't too complex and the sun was shining, all was right with the world.

Now Finn older and his life has become more complicated. He's had a lot of mental health issues over the past couple of years, and has had medical appointments weekly or fortnightly for that entire time. Joe has turned up to one appointment. 

Joe is going through his own tough time in his life, with a shaky marriage, two young babies, and a fair bit of financial stress. 

I've always known my ex can be moody and emotionally distant – but since he's hit some hard times, he has been using alcohol as a way to cope, and has had little patience for a precocious teenager with mental health issues. 

As someone who grew up without a relationship with my father, it has always been important to me to support Finn's relationship with his dad the best I could. I wanted them to be close, and I vowed early on to never let Finn hear me criticise his father.


But lately, Finn has been coming home from his dad's place and telling me stories of interactions that have made me reconsider.

Joe has a few too many drinks and criticises Finn, telling him his depression and anxiety aren't real and that he just needs to try harder. He also refuses to accept that Finn is gay, telling him he's way too young to know for sure.

The constant lack of support and acceptance has worn Finn down to the point he has been questioning himself, and that's what has led me to start talking about Joe's shortcomings with his son.

The last thing I want is for Finn to think Joe's behaviour is because of something he has done wrong, so I've started talking to him about what I find inappropriate about his dad's behaviour. It's a tough line to tread and I know it's fraught with the danger of having it misconstrued as the malicious rants of a bitter ex. But I won't stand by and watch my son internalise his father's ordinary parenting, and think it's because of something he's done.

So we talk about what Joe has and hasn't done, and I peddle the line that I believe he's doing the best he can with the tools he has right now. I tell Finn it's not his fault that his dad is drinking and stressed.

I tell him he's a good person worthy of love and attention, and that his dad just doesn't always know how to express his love or his frustration that other things aren't going so well.

I tell him that his dad just needs time and he'll come around to accepting that his only son is gay. 

I'm buying him some time in the hope that he'll sort himself out before it's too late for him to salvage their relationship. And I'm doing my best to raise a young man who knows his true worth all by myself.

*Names have been changed.