As a single mom and as a stepmom who’s made her share of mistakes, I know I’ve been “guilty” of experiencing my share of guilt, too. I recently read a newsletter of Toni Schutta’s about “mommy guilt” in intact families, apparently a very common phenomenon today. It’s common for single parents to parent from guilt. In this article, I’ll explore the guilt dads often experience, which unknowingly becomes part of the foundation of their relationship with their children. So, what’s the effect of all this guilt?

The dictionary definition of guilt is “the remorseful awareness of having done something wrong; self-reproach for supposed inadequacy or wrongdoing”. Ouch. After a divorce, when children are split into two separate homes, it can be heart-breaking, since their lives are tremendously disrupted through no fault of their own. There’s no question that this is painful for them, and potentially has long-term impact on them. However, there’s good reason to believe that the guilt on the part of the parent just serves to make the situation worse.

Guilt is tricky; it’s surreptitious (having been raised a good Catholic girl, it took me a long time to even recognize the impact that guilt was having on me, it was so much a part of my consciousness). I suspect that a large percentage of the dads who are parenting out of guilt are quite unaware that they are doing so, and have no idea of its impact on their children, as well as on their relationship with their spouse and ex-spouse.

Here are a few signs that guilt is plaguing you, as listed in “The 7 Pitfalls of Single Parenting by Carolyn Ellis”:

*Repetitive negative thoughts that spell gloom and doom for your children’s long-term well-being, feeling that you have done something to scar them forever.

*Pangs of guilt that come up out of the blue, that keep you from enjoying the present and are accompanied by thoughts that “it shouldn’t be this way”, etc.

*Attributing any bad event or circumstance in your child’s life to the divorce or stepfamily situation - telling yourself that the cause of your children’s everyday disappointments, conflicts or failure stems from your decision to divorce or remarry.

*Negative thought loops in which you beat yourself up, focusing on self-doubt or self-criticism. You might have to stop and listen to your internal dialogue to catch these!

Certainly, this undercurrent of guilt robs you of vitality and joy in life, and of feeling that you deserve to have happiness. There are some other effects that can create problems for your children and for your relationships, as well. Here are a few of them:

I see many fathers who shrink from disciplining their children out of guilt (“They’ve been through so much, they should be able to just relax when they visit me.”) Sounds like a good sympathetic response, but it enables the children in a way that doesn’t support them in the long run. They need a father, and they need discipline. It’s not fair to them to encourage them to grow up without responsibility, or the training to develop maturity and sensitivity to others.

A related syndrome of guilty dads is the “Disneyland Dad” approach. In this case, the dad feels like he owes the kids constant entertainment, trips, gifts and money. Without realizing it, out of guilt he is trying to buy his children’s love. He may be trying to make up for lost time, or just making up for splitting up the family if it was his choice. This dad needs to ask himself: is this the way you really want to teach your children about love? Quality time is what they need; and sometimes the “being” together - unstructured, with little or nothing planned, is far more valuable than constant activities that are “doing” oriented. Again, what they need is a father who teaches them how to develop their strengths and become all they can be - not one who puts them in a mode of constant “taking”.

Another effect of guilt (perhaps more related to fear) is the tendency of many dads to walk on tiptoes around their children, afraid to hurt their feelings, give meaningful feedback, or ask for anything from them. This is a clear indication that there are undealt-with feelings in the way! One of the biggest parts of being a parent is modeling, and teaching, character development. Some conflict, disagreement and discussion are part of a normal and healthy relationship. If we avoid this whole side of the relationship, it will never be as full or satisfying as it could be. This dad needs to realize that he has chosen a superficial relationship with his children.

All of these have a negative impact on the stepmom and ex as well. When dad is unwilling to step up to the role of a true father in regards to discipline and communicating with his children, then an undue burden falls on the woman in charge of either household. They are forced into being the “bad guy” - this is part of how the evil stepmother myth takes hold. She may see clearly what the children need, but has to either do it all herself or fight her husband to make it happen. This can lead to a great deal of conflict in the stepfamily home and in their mom’s home. (Many a child has returned to the mom exhausted from all the activities, no homework done, out of the habit of being expected to do chores, and unready to start the week ahead at school.)

Unfortunately, a father who is unaware of the guilt that is motivating him, tends to blame his wife for not understanding. This will start to build a wall between them, as well as between her and the stepchildren, as they will generally side with the dad against their having more responsibility and structure. In the long run, it will result in resentment of the dad against the children, in relationships that are less than they could be, and in grown children who are unprepared to meet their responsibilities and relationships maturely.

Author's Bio: 

Joan Sarin, MS is a Master Coach trained by the Stepfamily Foundation who has personally done the hard work of developing a successful stepfamily, with 17 years as a stepmom.  A social psychologist and coach with twenty years of experience, her methods accelerate personal progress. Joan is also a parent educator in the and appears regularly on radio programs. Her blog is