Q: My ex-husband and I have been divorced for several years, and he has very rarely seen our daughter. She was just diagnosed a few days ago, and suddenly he wants to be with her 24/7. I know he’s legitimately concerned, but could this change create even more stress for her right now?
A: It’s completely normal — and perhaps even expected — that seeing your ex-husband again after such a long time would cause you to feel uncomfortable, especially under the circumstances. Many moms I’ve worked with describe how coming into contact with their former spouse, just as they are trying to get a grip on their child’s diagnosis, suddenly makes all those old feelings of rejection and anger seem fresh again. It’s no surprise that this double whammy of stress can lead to some pretty troubling emotions.
However, is your daughter experiencing the same emotions? Don’t be surprised if the answer is no. What we frequently see when an estranged parent shows up again in a child’s life post-diagnosis is that the child is actually quite excited and happy to see the parent. Rather than feeling negative stress, your daughter may be feeling relief and even joy over having her father by her side. In some cases, children even voice the belief that their diabetes somehow “brought my dad [or mom] back to me.”
On the other hand, there are children who will feel anger and resentment toward their estranged parent. And to complicate matters, a child may be reluctant to share her true feelings — positive or negative — with either parent. A child who is happy to see her father may not tell her mother because she doesn’t want to upset her; the child may also be harboring fantasies that her parents will now get back together. Likewise, a child may not want to make any negative comments about her father for fear he will leave again or because the child is worried her feelings will provoke an argument between the two of you.
To get a handle on what your daughter may be thinking, try setting up a solo meeting for her with the social worker or psychologist assigned to your diabetes care team. These professionals are trained to work with children on all kinds of issues, including family dynamics and situations just like the one you find yourself in. Parents can also benefit from one-on-one counseling to address their own issues. At some point, it may be suggested that all three of you meet together for family counseling.
Does all this seem like too much effort right now? In the long run, it may not be. As I tell the families I work with, the more people who love a child and are there to care for them, the better. Being the primary caregiver to a child with type 1 is not an easy task. If your ex is committed to learning about diabetes care and remaining in your daughter’s life, you may find that the help this provides is more than worth giving up the anger and stress for.
–Wendy Satin Rapaport, L.C.S.W., Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and adjunct professor of medicine at the Diabetes Research Institute, University of Miami.
Disclaimer: The information in these articles is not intended as medical advice. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding individual care.