Friday, October 11, 2013

Rejected Parents: Remaining hopeful when all seems hopeless

When Michael divorced, he expected a rough patch before
he and his ex and their sons settled into new routines. But when he started trying to fulfill his parenting time schedule,"it was a nightmare."  At first, the boys resisted accompanying him and refused to go to his home. Eventually, they stopped accompanying him altogether. Despite having had good relationships with him prior to the divorce, now they mimicked their mother's contemptuous attitudes towards him. Counseling was ineffective -- it just became another setting for the boys and the mother to berate him.

Despite being discouraged, Michael never gave up."I was tempted to walk away but I never lost hope that by hanging in there, the boys would eventually realize how much I cared."  Another rejected father, Jon, said something similar: "I trusted that my son would ultimately see through this objectively and realize what had happened; that's what kept me hopeful."

Like others facing challenges, hope enabled these fathers to persist despite repeated and devastating rejections and mistreatment.

So what is hope?  The late psychologist, Charles Snyder, suggested that hope has three elements: goals, agency, and pathways. Agency is confidence that we can direct our lives -- the knowledge that we have the skills and staying power to achieve our goals. Pathways are the strategies and routes we use to get there. Hope is closely associated with optimism -- but it is more than an expectation that good things will happen, hope focuses on specific goals.  Jon said: "I experienced my father's unconditional love and appreciation; I wanted my son to experience the same from me; I never lost sight of that."

But maintaining hope is more than an individual enterprise -- it requires help.  Michael recalled: "I doubted at times that the boys would give me a chance, but I had a lot of people telling me to keep trying, they helped remind me of what was important."  Similarly, Jon relied upon his religious faith and community to "live in peace and to forgive, even in this terrible situation."  Tellingly, both Michael and Jon deliberately rejected the advice of those who counseled them to give up, to exact vengeance on their ex's, or to accept the hopelessness of their situation in the name of "moving on."

In contrast to Michael and Jon,I find that Rejected Parents who lack hope are most at risk to give up and walk away. They often lack social supports, focus on immediately discouraging circumstances rather than a long term goal, and view themselves as helpless to make a difference. Rather than planning and taking action, they shut down, believing they do not have the ability or means to overcome the present challenges.

Contrast that attitude with Michael and Jon's.  Michael didn't have the resources to pursue matters legally, so he determined to make himself a weekly presence in the boys' lives -- whether they liked it or not. He consistently showed up at the start of his parenting time, even when the boys only came to the door to yell profanities at him. He attended parent teacher conferences, paid for their religious education, sent them text messages, and attended their games.  For years, this is what he did. Jon was similarly persistent, compelling treatment by court order, never giving in to his son's pleas to "just leave me and Mom alone," and asserting his parental rights and duties through the court.

It's important to note that Jon and Michael remained realistic about the challenge of reconnecting with their lost sons. They did not have over-optimistic expectations.  Neither one set out to achieve a quick fix or a relationship without problems. Indeed, both anticipated that it might be well into their children's adult years before reconciliation occurred. They learned to measure success in small increments (Jon's son accepted a birthday card without comment rather than berating him as he had the year before) and to take a philosophical attitude about their sons' rejections, "they know not what they are doing," Michael said. Both Michael and Jon eventually reconnected with their children, Michael after five years, Jon after three.  As Michael said, "there were many days and nights, years even, when I despaired. But alongside my despair, I always hoped that if I just kept at it, something would break free."

Next post: How to rebuild hope when all seems hopeless