Ask Mr. Dad: Keeping close with long-distance parenting

Armin Brott
Armin Brott

Dear Mr. Dad: My ex and I share custody of our son (age 6), but because we live a few hundred miles apart, I sometimes don’t get to see him for a few weeks. My wife was the one who moved away after we broke up. In between, I really miss him and I worry that he’ll forget who I am or won’t want to see me when we finally get together. I sometimes feel like giving up. How can I stay connected when we’re apart for so long?

Great question, one that also applies to single moms and anyone else who has to spend extended time away from their children – military service members, for example.

As hard as those separations are, the good news is that not being together physically doesn’t mean you can’t be together emotionally. The even better news is that while it’s not easy to keep those bonds strong while you’re away from your son, you can – and do – play an important role in his life.

And it’s vital to both of you that you not give up.

Here are some steps you can take to stay involved.

▪ Try to see him more often. If you and his mother get along, tell her how much you miss your son and ask if occasionally she could meet you somewhere midway. Offer to pay her expenses. If driving that much is a problem for her, consider making more frequent trips yourself.

The extra time you’ll get to spend with your son will far outweigh the sacrifices you make in terms of time and money.

▪ Know what’s happening in his life. Again, if you and your ex get along, ask her to tell you what your son is up to, how he’s doing in school, who his friends are, what sports he’s playing, and so on. If she won’t, contact his teacher and the school principal and ask for report cards, notices of school events, vacation schedules, etc.

But understand that school officials may be reluctant to get involved in a less-than-civil divorce situation. So have your joint custody decree handy and be prepared to email it.

▪ Keep in touch every chance you get. Phone calls and Skype give you and your son a chance to hear each other’s voices, tell stories, or just talk about random things. You could even watch a favorite TV show together and mutter comments to each other during the show and talk over the commercials.

Put those calls or Skype chats on your calendar. Kids love routines, and the more regular the calls, the more he’ll look forward to them and the more excited he’ll be to talk to you. Be sure to work out a schedule with your ex so you won’t be calling in the middle of dinner, homework or soccer practice. If the mom answers the phone, always be nice.

Two important caveats: First, phone and Skype contact is in addition to – not instead of – in-person time. Second, these calls are for dad-child conversations. Schedule your adult conversations for another time.

Your son is a little young for his own cellphone, but in a few years, you can add texting to your communication arsenal. In the meantime, make sure he has your phone number memorized and knows he can call you anytime.

If you can’t call, send email or, gasp, an actual letter. In most cases, you won’t need your wife’s permission and you won’t need to adhere to a schedule. Keep things short. Tell your son about something funny that happened to you, and you should always ask a few questions, which will encourage him to respond.

But keep in mind that what he wants to know is that you love him and that even though you’re far away, you’re always going to be a part of his life.

Armin Brott is the author of “The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be.”