Adopting Daddy

Dear Mr. Dad: When I married my husband, my biological son was 5. My husband adopted him two years later. My husband is financially and spiritually supportive, but he doesn’t seem interested in playing or doing “dad” type stuff with our son. I would love for him to initiate catch, going to batting cages, or anything family oriented, but he doesn’t. I’m starting to resent that all he wants to do is work on the house on weekends. Help me understand him.

A: There are all sorts of reasons that could explain your husband’s behavior. When he became part of your son’s life, he had already “missed” five years, along with the familiarity, confidence, and competence that comes from being there from the very beginning. As a result, he may simply not know what to do with the boy. This is especially true if he was an only child or had little or no experience with young kids.

Your husband may be afraid that if he tries to do dad things with his son, he’ll be competing with the boy’s biological father (or the memory of him). That’s a competition he can’t possibly win (even if it’s happening only in his mind). He may be afraid that if he gets to know—and love—your son, that the boy won’t return the feeling.

Another possible explanation is the relationship he had with his own father. If it was rocky–or just plain bad–he may worry that he’s doomed to repeat the pattern. Chances are, he won’t. Men are capable of using their own fathers as models—positive or negative. And research shows that most guys who think their fathers did a rotten job, end up making fatherhood a priority in their own lives.

It could also be that your husband’s distancing himself from your son has to do with the fact that the boy is adopted. For a lot of people, adopting is a fall-back position, something they consider only after they’ve exhausted every possible way to have children naturally. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with adoption–I think it’s an incredibly noble and selfless act (unless you’re a movie star or pop singer trying to keep herself in the news). Have you discussed having children together? Could your husband be mourning the loss of his biological connection to the future?

I’m betting that he really does want to have a relationship with his son. But, to sum it all up, he’s either afraid to or doesn’t know how. So the big question is, What can you do to help him build a relationship with his son? The first step is to talk with each other. Have you actually come right out and asked him—in a non-judgmental way—what’s going on? If any of the scenarios I described above are true, there could be one more layer of complexity: he doesn’t want to feel weak or needy or incompetent in your eyes. So he retreats to an activity he knows he does well—working on the house.

Next, whenever you’re with your son, talk dad up, things like, “Daddy’s really good at that. Let’s go ask him to help you.” At the same time, initiate a dad-like activity for the three of you, and then slip away, leaving dad and son together. And finally, let your husband know that he doesn’t have to amuse your son all the time. All the boy really wants is to feel loved and needed by his dad—and mowing the lawn with dad can be a ton of fun..

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