Absence usually means a "lack of," however, absent parents are often more complicated than that. My oldest child is 5 years old and contact with his dad has waxed and waned dramatically, from seeing him daily to only every few weeks.
Most recently, the irregularity lacks pattern—at times it's been every few months, once there were three visits in as many months, other times, long stretches of no contact, anything from five to 18 months. In such cases "sporadic parent" is a more accurate term and unfortunately is a reality millions of children face.
Dealing with an absent or sporadic parent is impossibly hard. Whether the situation is stable or not, continued discussions are needed as your child's understanding changes. This type of loss requires time, love and support to process.
Almost five years into our reality, my son has experienced many reactions: the "clinging to mom" stage, the "endless crying" stage, the "relentless questions" stage and the "exacerbated with dad" stage. In time, no doubt, we will experience many more stages too.
I'm open about this behavior and I'm often met with the suggestion that stopping contact would be better. It would certainly be easier for me, and quite probably my son, in the short term, but it's a decision that a mama has to make. As mothers, we have to choose the option we're most able to accept, and the one we will be best able to explain to our children because we believe it to be the best for them.
One of the hardest things with this is the uncertainty—it's incredibly challenging when you don't fully understand why, let alone if, or when, he may return. My son's story may have an unexpected (positive) twist. It may not. Regardless, I need to support him to accept his story however it unfolds. I reconcile this with the fact that even if there was no contact, my son would still long for his father so there would be a relationship of sorts, despite the absence of any actual relationship. When things become difficult and I wobble in my decision to allow contact, I remind myself of this. I didn't choose for his dad to drift in and out of his life, but I have chosen to deal with it as best as I can.
Learning to support my son through this has been a huge learning curve. Initially, I avoided the word "Dad," changed words in stories and emphasized the importance of moms instead. Then one day after nursery he announced, "Some children live with mommies, and some live with mommies and daddies."
I was proud, emotional and guilt-ridden all in one. While I was thinking he didn't know what a dad was, he'd worked it out and normalized the absence of his own. I needed to be more proactive if I was to give him a fighting chance of making sense of his own reality, and so I started talking and we haven't stopped since.
My son was around two and a half when his dad disappeared for long stretches. The explanation for the absence was difficult, there wasn't only one factor, but such complexities are hard for young children. I wrote a "daddy book," which outlined my son's arrival, including daddy's excitement, before explaining that "daddy became ill" and couldn't see him. He added to the story, "Daddy reads me books" and drew pictures (thunder and lightning and daddy with chickenpox'. I tried to keep the book honest and understandable.
When his dad disappeared for a year and a half the book enabled long conversations about "Daddy's illness" and I added details as appropriate. It was hard to watch his little face crumple as he tried to comprehend and, although it would be easy to see these tears as a negative, they weren't. The absence is negative, but I can't change that. So long as my son keeps talking and showing his emotions, I know I'm doing something right.
On a practical level, I've tried to buffer my son from the disappointment of canceled visits. I rarely tell him his father's coming until I know he's on his way. Even then, I term it as a possibility and never give false promises. When his father tries to do exactly that at the end of a visit, I reiterate, "He will try to come."
We have another baby in the family so things are more complicated. I've promised my eldest we'll make a new daddy book. A book which will tell the story of both my boys' creation and the people they call family. Although an absent, or sporadic, parent isn't something we'd wish for our children, we can help them accept this as their normal.
In my son's case, I believe it's helping him to understand his dad. As hard as these experiences are, they're helping him become a caring child who can interact with different people and situations. Ultimately, I hope my son will learn how to navigate his relationship with his father in a way that's positive for them both, and whatever the outcome may be, I'll continue to catch him.