Open Heart Surgery: Context and Practice

Wally McKenzie and David Epston, with David Bullen, Glen Simblett, and John Crockett


1. Open Heart Practice – Potential Outcomes

An open heart practice allows for several possibilities. But at a minimum, young people get a measure of who their parents are and the sort of relationships they can expect rather than dream about. Two potential outcomes for child and father can be considered positive – firstly, reconnection, most often on very different terms than the earlier relationship. Such a relationship will be unmediated by the child’s mother and solely between father and child. Another positive outcome can be one of reconciliation on the part of the young person to the poverty of their child-father relationship. Such a reconciliation can afford the young person relief from either self-blame or mother-blame and allow them to act, feel and think outside the cultural requirements of what constitutes ‘happiness’ in families and in particular, child-father relationships. At the same time, such a reconciliation may also dispel ‘fantastic’ relationships fashioned out of longing and hope and the recollections of occasions of gift giving or the excitements of brief encounters with fathers.

This practice also has the capability of setting mothers free from the burden of unfair and unreasonable expectations. These expectations – that mothers are responsible for the facilitation of viable and enduring father-children relationships – often have long histories in these families and accordingly are taken for granted by all parties – the mother, the father, and their children. In the period following separation/divorce, mothers are now expected to some – how or other successfully engage fathers in acts of fathering that would meet the particular needs and desires the children now feel. For children now seek reassurance that they have not been divorced by their fathers nor have they been rendered fatherless.

2. Family Court Work – Open Heart Surgery in Context

In the context of ‘Family Court’ work and even when the Family Court is not immediately involved, we set our minds, given all the above, to derive ways for very different father-children relationships to develop given how common it is for fathers to be the non-custodial parent. We found that very rarely did the young person have a safe place to speak about what they might have in mind for their relationship with their father in a way that ensured they would be heard rather than dismissed as ‘childish’. When we consulted with such young people, we found their requests simple, straightforward and if anything, not asking for very much. For example Melanie, aged 11, under ‘open heart surgery’, asked that her father listen to her, take her seriously, provide quite a small amount of clock-time on her own, sought not to be used as a babysitter for his new children. She also requested that she could pass up an access visit without having to feel guilty or fear that she might suffer from him restricting further visits in some way of other. Also we found that young people knew what they liked doing with their fathers and were only too happy to say so if they could be assured they would be listened to and their opinions respected and advice sought. This assisted many fathers who really didn’t know what to do with their children in the time they had together. Some of their advice was painfully direct, e.g. ‘I want you to ask me questions about how school is going, about my friends and about my soccer. I don’t want you to spend all our time together telling me about you, just half the time.’

3. Children Want To Speak Their Minds

We are aware that many parents take seriously the importance of teaching their children the art of sharing and ‘sharing fairly’. Children we meet seem to have grasped this moral concept well, seldom wanting more than a fair share of their father – his time, his care or his love. What we noticed about almost all the statements made by young people under the circumstance of open hear surgery was their poignancy, their directness and their painful sincerity. Not surprisingly,we considered such ‘open heartedness’ very risky and we contrived as many safeguards as we could think of to respect such sincerity. Such a process can lead to reconnection in ways that are deeper and richer than any previous father-child connection and of course that is immensely rewarding to be part of and a witness to. However, you will not be surprised to learn that this is not always the case. Still, we would consider the reconciliation that emerges preferable to the devastating limitations of the relationship as it is. By being reconciled, the young person no longer has to draw from the following candidate explanations for the severance in relationship – i) the ‘dream’ father hasn’t come true yet, ii) I have a ‘bad mother’ because she hasn’t made a viable child-rather relationship come true yet or iii) “I must be not a good enough son/daughter or just plain bad as it seems my father no longer wants me in his life”. It is easy to see that if a father is a ‘dream’ that that leaves two other possibilities to blame their mother or blame themselves. Reconciliation comes from the young person speaking what they seek in the relationship and experiencing with great regret that their father unable to even meet what are often extremely minimal requests. That grief can be grieved as they know that they have done all they can as a young person to not only keep the relationship alive but as well to make it suit them self as well as their father.

4. Styles of Fathering

Minimal Fathering

The practice of what we are referring here as ‘minimal father’ is a pretty well established one, often having a long but unacknowledged history in the family. When we have really asked both parties to such a practice of relating, both talk about this being anything but satisfying or satisfactory. In thinking about this, we have arrived at other externalising descriptions of ‘practices of fathering’ under the circumstances of separation and/or divorce.

In families of ‘minimal fathering’, such fathers are more a physical than an emotional presence. The main times children and their fathers meeting are at the home – coming and leave taking. Such encounters are often poignant but also can be bittersweet.

A daughter of 15, recalling her daughter-father relationship when she was aged 9 years, connected “I remember waiting for him to get them from work. You know ‘waiting and waiting’. You can’t wait forever. All he used to do was say ‘ – “Go to bed now!” He would tell us to go to bed and ‘get out of my face how’. I used to wait up until all hours of the night. I didn’t like to go to sleep until he got home. And what would he do but tell me to go to bed anyway”. Another daughter of 13 recalling her daughter-father relationship when she was aged 7 years, observed, “He never was there like emotionally. I mean – I always remember him. We used to wake up early in the morning and he would get porridge because he had to go to work. We used to get up with him because that was our time to spend with him at 6 o’clock in the morning. And now and then he would come home, eat his meal…that was way after we had eaten our dinner…and then he would go weight-training afterwards, so we never saw him much.”

After separation, minimal fathering can mean that children may avail themselves of something they like that is his property that he makes available to them. In doing so, fathers can believe that they are present in their property or the activities they afford their children. This can range from permission to swim in his home pool while he is at work to financing an overseas sporting trip.

Random or unpredictable fathering

Here children are often dressed up or dress up with nowhere to go. They always seem to be living on their toes waiting and hoping for their fathers to arrive or telephone them as agreed.

Hot and cold fathering

Here bursts of intense relating are followed by long periods of virtual neglect. Such father often constricts children into developing a kind of ‘cargo cults belief that their fathers will mysteriously descend from the sky bearing untold gifts and an intense round of entertainments. Often these young people are involved in almost ritual observations which they believe will ‘call’ their fathers down into their everyday lives. E.g. the gaining f high marks, the playing exceptional rugby, etc When in their father’s company, there is often a ‘cargo guilt like’ requirements to conduct themselves ‘perfectly’ in order to ensure another visit.

Handyman fathering

Here these fathers appoint themselves or are called in by their ex-wife to ‘fix up’ and repair anything that is going wrong, very often behavior that is causing a great deal of concern to the mother, school authorities or police. These are kinds of ‘blasts from the past’ invoking a heavy-handed response from the father. Children are often blackmailed into ‘good behavior’, not out of compliance to their mother, but rather as an investment they hope will bring about a different kind of relationship with their father. However, to their dismay, if they stay out of ‘trouble’, their father is not troubled to be engaged in their lives.

Santa Claus father

These fathers come once a year bearing gifts and disappear as quickly as they appear. In fact, often ‘gifts’ at Christmas or birthdays are the only reminder of the parenting relationship.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder father

This is a fathering that follows from this commonplace belief which authorizes the father’s absence in hat he believes that in missing him, his a children’s hearts will grow fonder for him. ‘The will come back to me when they are older land ready’. All the father’s longing for his children are soothed by the ‘dream’ of some future reunion.

Second Hand Parenting

Perhaps the most significant style of father is merely an extension of the way he had fathering when the family was together. Here typically the mother had coached and mentored the father as to how to about this relationship with their children. She also would have filled in he ‘gaps’ in his fathering and made excuses for any of his shortcomings. After separation, many fathers are at a loss as to how to conduct themselves without the cues and supervision they provide. As their ex-wives can no longer or may be unwilling to adequately cue them, all they can now do is make excuses for them.

5. Practice Questions Around Styles of Fathering

Here are some questions we might ask in relationship to the above.

  1. Did you connect with Johnny mainly through your connection with his mother and your now ex-wife?
  2. When you wanted to know what was going on in his life, did you generally go to your ex-wife to catch up with him or find out what was happening in his life?
  3. Would you generally remember his birthday and have some idea of what he would want as a gift or would your ex-wife remind you?
  4. In the end, would you say you were relying on your ex-wife for your relationship with him? Would you describe her as the ‘conductor’ of your father-son relationship, keeping it going and in harmony?
  5. If you were to do it all over again, would you have a first hand/direct or a second hand/indirect relationship with your son?
  6. Do you suspect that if Johnny had a problem, a concern or a very deep worry, he would bring this to you, his mother or both of you?
  7. Why do you think when he was in trouble, their was a direct route from your son to his mother that utterly bypassed you?
  8. What kind of father-son relationship have you been left with now that you and ex-wife separated/divorced?
  9. Do you think she is still expecting that she should keep up her conducting of your father-son relationship? And if so, are you happy about that, now that there is so much bitterness between you?
  10. Is it possible that this makes it more unlikely that you and Johnny will have a first-hand father-son relationship without you taking some action?
  11. If you were to take over the conducting of your father-son relationship, what relationship skills would be required to put you in the picture of your son’s heart and soul? Do you wish to be a part of that? Or would you rather settle for the odd bit of fishing and throwing a basketball around?

With the benefit of such externalizations of ‘fathering practice’, we can then engage in critical inquiry from a somewhat detached position. We might also be interested in locating any such practices in their histories; of gender and culture. For example, ‘what is the tradition of fathering in the family you came from, the family your father cam from, and the family your grandfather came from? Has a practice of fathering’ more or less been passed down from father to son to father to son? What visible and useful examples of fathering have your mates provided?

Our discussions will now provide an opportunity for fathers to consciously choose their ‘fathering practice’. If such a practice is outside their own experience, some research into alternative fathering might have to be undertaken and the skills, ideas and habits associated with it might have to be practiced on a trial and error basis. Alternative versions might first take some conscious shape in response to such questions as these – Now that you have the opportunity to consciously choose your own fathering practice rather than merely following in your fathers footsteps, what practice might fit with your ‘morality’ about father-daughter relationships? Might fit with your beliefs about how father-daughter relationships should go?

We could inquire into the history of fathering practice before his ex-wife and he separated/divorced/or started living apart:

  1. Did you get out of connection with Johnny when he was aged, 11,12,13 when he started having a mind of his own and was not so mindful of your mind?
  2. Did you get disconnected from Johnny by choice or by circumstances? And if the latter, what where they?
  3. Were you aware of it happening when it was happening?
  4. Or did you just find it more congenial to ‘work;’ for your family as a provider doing what you knew best rather than be an active participant in he ‘life’ of your family and all the difficulties that went with that?

Here once again, fathers can be assisted to question those developments of ‘disconnection/distance’ already in place before their separation which had been ‘covered’ over by the child’s mother assuming a much greater role in their children’s life around matters of concern. For example, “How do you guess this disconnection will go now that your ex-wife isn’t in the picture of your relationship with Johnny? What direction will your father-son relationship take now that you and his mother are separate. What are you basing that on? If you are interested, what are some ways you might consider attracting Johnny to yourself as his father?

6. Letter Writing And The Engagement Process

One of the ways we regularly use to engage fathers is to write letters to them inviting them to join in conversations around fathering. We take advice from their children as to whether this is a good idea or if we need to consider other options. Some of those other options we will speak about later. What follows is a first draft written after a meeting with the two children and the the final draft after they had changed it to more accurately represent them. The letter is unremarkable in that is like so many others of its kind; it is remarkably sincere because it comes from he very hearts of these young people.

First Draft Letter

Dear Dad,

We are writing this to you with the help of Wally a counselor. He is helping to write this because it is a bit hard for us and we don’t want Mum to help us because it is between us and you. There are other things that we want to talk with Mum about and they are between us and her.

Did you know it is really hard for us as children to talk with parents when we are small and much younger and you are bigger and older? We know you don;t mean it to be like that but it just is.

So we are inviting you to come and talk with us and Wally. Mum will not be there. She has not seen this letter. This is important for us because you are our Dad and we love you and we want to get some things sorted out so it works better. It won’t take us long, really it won’t!

We would like to meet with you at Wally’s office at 6.00p.m. on Wednesday, the 2nd of December. Remember Mum won’t be there and we won’t be telling her what we talk about. It’s just between us.

Please write back to Wally’s office to confirm this or write to us at Wally’s office and he will give us the letter when we come in.

Geniveve and Raewyn.

Wally McKenzie.

Final Letter

Dear Dad,

We are writing this to you the with help of Wally a counselor. He is helping to write this because it is between us and you and we don’t want Mum to help us and if we talk she won’t be in the building at the time. There are other things that we want to talk with Mum about and they between us and her.It can be really hard to talk to parents about things sometimes.

We do want to tell you about how we feel though so we are inviting you to come and talk with us and Wally. Mum will not be there. She has not seen this letter. This is important for us because you are out Dad and we love you and we want to sort some things out so it works better.

It wont take us long, so we would like to meet with you at Wally’s office at 6.00pm on Tuesday the 11th of March. Remember Mum won’t be there and we won’t be telling her what we talk about. Its just between us.

Please write back to Wally’s office to confirm this or write to us at Wally’s office and he will give us the letter when we come in.

Geniveve and Raewyn


It is worth noting that the father concerned told at the end of the meeting that the only reason he had attended was because of the eloquence with which his daughters had written.

Wally McKenzie


The considerations and intentions behind such a letter ensure confidentiality around the child-father relationship, the counselor oversees the preparation of the letter. Furthermore to guarantee such confidentiality, and provide a boundary around the child-father relationship, we might say something like this to the mother – “This will keep you safe from blame or any accusations that you have put him/her up to it. You can say without any compunction that you know nothing about this and that this is between his son/daughter and him.” To the father, we might say something like this – ‘This is clearly between your son/daughter. You can write back to her but care of my work address’. Such measures of ‘confidentiality surrounding the child-father relationship’ are insisted upon to counteract such allegations as ‘your mother put you up to this, didn’t she?’ or ‘you are just saying the same things your mother says to me’. These measures are an attempt to safeguard the young person and allow them to speak for themselves outside and separate from their parent’s separating/divorcing relationship. It positions the young person as a speaking participant in the resolution of their relationship with their father.

At the same time, it is vital that the mother’s exclusion from the ‘open heart’ conversation(s) does not in any way undermine her sense of competent motherhood. To counteract any implication of this, we explicitly state that our reasons have to do with ‘safeguarding’ her. To further protect her interests, we would ask – ‘Is there anyone who you would authorise to act as your proxy? It should be someone you would trust to act on your behalf with your children. Your proxy could review the letter your children and I write to their father. They would sit down and talk it over with them having in mind you as ‘the mother’ and their safety as children. We believe this would more likely realise your wishes that their father maintain or create a relationship with the children without your ongoing interventions. You told me when I asked, that that the more you try to intervene on behalf of your children, the more aggravation there is between you and their father. Would such an arrangement be agreeable to you? And would you be able to nominate your ‘mothering’ proxy?”

Those preliminary and preparatory conversations with the young person to co-research their relationship with their father grants the some authority in relationship to it. Some of these conversations have to do with ‘getting to know your father as a father rather than your father as a dream. Such conversations assist young people to be pragmatic rather than pining their hopes on their wished for father. An attempt is made through such inquires to demystify their father so that their father becomes a person in their relationship rather than in their dreamed up visions.

7. Questions for children

We might ask children questions such as these –

  • Have there been times when those dreams were shattered when your father acted differently to how you dreamed he would?
  • Have you ever had any dreams of the way you would want your father to be?
  • Did that have you see him differently?
  • What are they?
  • Do you think other children in similar situations have dreams like you have about their fathers?
  • Was it a good thing or a bad thing for you to find out that your dream-father and your real father were different?
  • What’s happened to your dream-father thinking? Is it still as strong or has it changed somewhat?
  • Do you suspect or know what/how your sister (or brother) has ‘dreamed’ your father up?
  • Were there any times when your father was really like your dream-father?
  • Are there times when your father appears to you to be working at making your dream-father come true?
  • How does he do this? Does he do this just for you or for all of his children?
  • What have you been doing with your dream-father thoughts over the last little while?
  • What’s happening to your dream-father thoughts now that you are having your say about your relationship with him?
  • To date, have you got the best deal you think you can get in your relationship with him?
  • If this is the relationship you now realise you are going to end up having with him, what memories from the past would you most like to hold on to?
  • In the future, if your father wanted to change the relationship with you, would you be open to that?
  • Could you see giving your relationship with your father another trial some other time in the future?

 8. From questions to Conversations With Fathers

When we started inquires with fathers as to their reasons , rationales or moralities of relationship that guided their decisions to ‘sever’ or minimise their relationships with their children we met several kinds of explanation. More often than not, such rationales did express concern and care for their children and themselves but these were often kept to themselves and unknown to their children.

One such rationale was ‘it’s too hard and hurtful – for these reasons, it is best to put the relationships aside for the time being until it is no longer too hard or hurtful’. Fathers when asked would often talk about their impotence to ‘fix the hurt’ or better yet, ‘put it right’ somehow or other. They often expected that all visits would take place without either them or their children having to feel any distress on greetings or leave-takings. And at times, despite intense efforts to ‘put such distress right’, they continually failed to do so. The flip-side to such a rationale is – ‘if it is working, don’t mess with it’. Here children often learned to conceal or keep to themselves any distress whatsoever. They told us that they believed that putting on a ‘happy face’ was required of them in order to match their father’s ‘happy face’. Under such circumstances they had learned not to dare to speak of their distress, unhappiness, grief or loss over the physical absence and easier relationships they once shared with their fathers.

It seems that many fathers have the expectation that their children, almost regardless of age or stage, will initiate a relationship with them that is adult in every respect. For example, children might be expected to phone regularly even if their father doesn’t. “They can use the phone as well as I can, if they want to!” There are times when he just doesn’t phone them or turn up for access visits because “I had something important come up’. On these occasions they are somehow expected to understand in an adult way and not to show their upset. By the same token fathers can assume that their children will speak up when they are unhappy with some aspect of their fathering – ‘Why don’t they just tell me rather than running to a counselor’ or ‘do they have to hide behind their mother’s skirts all the time?’

When speaking to some fathers, they have told us that they think it is best if they just ‘get out of their children’s lives’ for the time being as their presence is seen as too distressing for their children. They typically leave out their own distress as something they would also rather avoid. They often imagine returning to the relationship at some later time in their child’s life and if you inquire closely , such come-backs are often planned for a time when they think they will be necessary e.g. to show him how to play rugby and take him to the games; to take him hunting and fishing. These are often more easy to anticipate for their sons than for their daughters and for that reason, their daughters find it harder to imagine such times/events themselves. For this reason we suspect the threat to daughters is more severe than for sons.

Questions such as the following often assist fathers to call into question such rationales/moralities –

  • Could you see how your daughter might lose her faith and trust in her daughter-father relationship so that when you want to take it up again, she might be unwilling to run the risk of that?
  • When you get an uncomfortable feeling, what is your first inclination – to talk it out with someone or other OR keep it within your own mind and heart?
  • In your marriage, did your ex-wife and you have the same approach as each other or was it her preference to talk things out rather than locking them up in her mind and heart?
  • Have you noticed any differences in this regard in your current relationship with your children to the relationship you had with your children’s mother?
  • Did that work very well for your husband-wife relationship? Or did it lead to separation and divorce?
  • Would your children think there were any differences in your ways of relating to them?

We also might ask questions that attempt to draw a distinction between COVERING UP and MAKING UP. By that we mean covering up the ‘grief’ and ‘despair’ means that children have no way to express themselves or be heard in relation to how they might be feeling. We attempt to have everyone discern what in fact is happening. We do so by making very obvious the ‘cover up’ and its tactics and how, if taken literally by the hopefulness of the young person, can lead to the risk of making up a ‘dream-father’. The risk has to do with the ‘dreaming’ having to be redoubled and tripled to ‘cover over’ their real experience of their father’s fathering.

  • Are there times when everyone pretends that the divorce didn’t happen? That everything is really as it was? Do you find this confusing?
  • To what extent has the ‘father-dream’ deceived you into believing your father was a different kind of father than the father he has been to you?
  • Where did the ‘father-dream’ come from? From TV? Books? Friends? Fathers? Or someplace else?
  • What things have you tried to make your ‘father-dream’ come true? With what success? What things have your brother/sister tried?
  • How much do you think your ‘father-dream’ has distracted you from doing 10 year old things you like doing?
  • Is the father you now know different from the father of the past? If so, what do you make of that?

9. Fathers Who Feel They Have To Let Go – Engaging In A Moral Dilemma

In our discussions with men around their severing of relationships with their children, we have encountered men holding a conviction that a father ‘swaps’ his new family for his old family rather than incorporating the ‘old into the new’ in a ‘new-old family’. Rather, he now sees himself as a family man with family responsibilities but with an equally strong conviction that as a ‘father and husband’, you can only manage one at a time. The ‘new’ supersedes the ‘old’. Also, because of the sheer complexity of such relationships, and especially if there is any prospect of conflict or the requirements to negotiate with his new partner to realise ‘new-old’ relationships men can find this too daunting. Such a divorce of his first children can also be based on a simplistic and strict adherence of ‘loyalty’ to those in immediate touch with you or ‘living under the same roof’. A variant of this is ‘out of sight – out of mind’. Indeed, we have often found a belief that divorcing your wife includes divorcing yourself from the children of that relationship and any responsibilities for them. Such a belief entails that one wife and children offer a sense of completeness to a man’s manliness. This is common for those men who have based their family relationship on some underlying notion of his family having similar aspects to his ‘property/chattels’.

Such men, often, have had very little to do with their children as babies as this was ‘women’s work’. And now their children are insisting on interacting with them rather than the other way round. These men can find themselves quite at a loss as to what to do and how to meet such demands on them. They are quite unused to seeking out their children’s thoughts and ideas and are ill at ease at taking their children seriously, especially if their children’s advice takes the form of instruction. Often such instructions sound the same as those of their ex-wife and consequently, they can often blame their ex-wives for putting their children up to it. Daughters in particular may echo their mothers. This does not have to do with their mothers ‘putting them up to it’ but rather they may be in the process of ‘growing up women’ and beginning to speak in this gendered fashion. They may feel very keenly about the significance of intimate and purposeful relationships. It may very well be that such instructions are ‘uncanny echo’s’ of the criticisms/complaints of their ex-partners. This is very likely, if not inevitable. Such fathers are more comfortable instructing their children on how to be in relationship to both his new partner and her children. however, this will rarely be negotiated in any respectful manner but usually will be an unspoken expectation based on ‘loyalty’ to his new relationship ’causes’. His ‘Loyalty’ to his first family children is not particularly considered as they have their mother and they have probably become more fully than ever her responsibility. This ‘loyalty’ to his new partner can take the form of an injunction – ‘you must love my new wife’ and he will brook no opposition. This is a requirement to ‘love’ without question or consideration which for his first family children means the same ‘love’ that they have for their own mother. Often male authority is used to dictate to the ‘heart’ of their son/daughter.

In our discussions, we have been employing a moral frame of reference rather than either psychological or legal frames. We use terms such as ‘the moral dimension of…….’, or the ‘moral dimensions’. This permits us to externalise ‘the morality of severance’ and compare and contrast that to the ‘morality of fatherhood/union by blood/connection’. By doing so, we are now able to have conversations around the ‘morality of severance’ and those arguments that support it – e.g. ‘its all too painful for me so it must be all or nothing’, ‘this is just too complicated and I can’t cope’, ‘It is better to amputate’. In the ‘all or nothing’.

The ‘all’ refers to a reasonable facsimile of the child-father relationship before the separation/divorce.

The ‘all’ can also mean a practical denial of the separation/divorce and place a heavy burden on the ex-wife who is now virtually debarred from a life on/of her own as the ‘father’ insists on his rights to come and go when he wishes. Sometimes he argues that he does not want to be a ‘weekend father’ and that he should be able to have free access to his children as often as he can manage and without any restrictions. The practical reality of this wistful idea usually turns out to be rare if his fathering was also fit-full and sporadic before the separation.

Here is an example of a conversation around the ‘it has to be nothing because I can’t have the all’.

Question: If it has to be all or nothing, I am wondering what you’re children will make of it?

Answer: Well, I know its going to be hard on them but it is too painful for me. and when they get old enough, I know they will understand.

Question: What is it they will come to understand? And how will they arrive at their understanding of your severance of their relationship with you?

Answer: Silence.

Question: What are the moral justifications you are using to severe your father-child relationship?

10. Living Wills – Conversations of Promise

There are times when we have conversations with parents about ideas of ‘wills’. These conversations sometimes occur in the context of separating parents and at other times with fathers. The ideas come from what we see in our western culture as a focus on what parents ‘bequeath’ to their children when they die and that this is something to be written down as a set of intentions to be carried out after death. Our conversations stem from a belief that it is an endless process beginning at birth, if not before, that parents begin to bequeath many things to their children. Some of these things are not particularly noticed in the light of a ‘death will’ but may be more visible as a part of a ‘living will’. Parents are often remembered by their will’s, what they left and how they left those things. We have noticed that ‘living wills’ also carry memories of what parents left behind them.

These are some questions we might ask in reference to ‘living’ and ‘dead’ wills:

  • Do you have in mind to show your love to your children by leaving them some things in your will so that they will be able to appreciate you when you are dead?
  • Had you considered a ‘living will’ so that they could appreciate the things you provide for them every day?
  • If you were to consider the relationship with your son/daughter like a ;living will’, what would s/he want you to write in it? What would you want to write in it?
  • What difference to you think a ‘living will’ would make to the life of your son/daughter?
  • What would it be like for you to witness the effects of your ;’living will’ while you are still alive rather than never knowing the effects of your ‘dead will’?
  • Would their mother’s ‘living will’ be different to yours?
  • In what ways would their mother’s ‘living will’ impact on their lives that added something valuable to them?
  • What are the things your ;’living will’ has bequeathed to them so far that with the wisdom of hindsight you would like to reverse?

11. Reflecting On ‘One At A Time’ Fathering

Where there is more than one child, many fathers have experienced fathering as ‘one child at a time’. This could have been in circumstances of disciplining, recreation or emergency care e.g. hospitalization.When such fathers are confronted after separation with all their children at once, this can make demands on them well beyond their experience. For in the past, they had the relative luxury of most of their contact time with their children ‘one on one’. Now the childrens’ mother, seeking relief from the endless demands of single parenting are no longer willing to provide the support for or is are satisfied with ‘one at a time’ fathering.

Should the father persist with a ‘one at a time’ tradition for his fathering, this can result in several possibilities: one is that those left behind have a sense of rejection and being unequally loved. This can lead in turn to a very cruel competition between the children for their fathers’ time and affections. These children can try to strike separate deals with the father which divide the siblings from each other and often pit them against each other. Certainly invidious comparisons between those favoured and those ‘less favoured’ become rife. Also the father as remembered through this invidiousness leads to very separate histories of child-father relationships.

Questions which encourage reflection around ‘one at a time’ decision making:

  • By divorcing Judy, do you divorce your children in the same way?
  • Have your children in any way indicated that they wanted to divorce you?
  • Is it fair to divorce them without them even knowing that you are doing so? Don’t they deserve some warning before you cut them out of your life?
  • What would you guess that your children feel being superceded by your new children? In what ways might they feel this? How might they come to show it?
  • Does your daughter get to do anything with you that she would know stood for the specialness of your father-daughter relationship when she comes to visit?
  • If you met an old school friend, would you sit down and reminisce about the specialness of the times you shared and the things you did together that stand for your friendship? Can you give me some examples? What will you and your son reminisce about when you meet up in the future?
  • How would the ‘morality of severance’ operate on your oldest and dearest male friendship(s)?
  • Would you cut them off or would they be given a special place in the history of your life?
  • Is your fatherhood something that endures or is it a “take it or leave it” kind of thing?

Often the father argues that he should follow the ‘legal’ shaping of his relationships.

  • Should you simply follow the law to do with maintenance or instead include that within the morality of enduring fatherhood?
  • Would you prefer to have a relationship with your children based on legal requirements made by the Courts/Government or would you prefer to have a relationship based on a moral perspective that you develop for you and yours? A legal and a moral protection for your children perhaps?
  • We also raise the matter of the prior claim that his child might have on his affections and concerns for their well-being and welfare.
  • Do you think your daughter/son thinks you were her/his father before Mary came into your life, first as lover then as your second wife?

Fatherhood traditionally has a long history that demands a family not two or more families that a man must ‘provide for’ in particular and usually in financial ways. This contrasts with the well practiced nurturing tradition of motherhood ‘no-matter-what’.

Open Heart Surgery In Practice

MEETING 1: meet with mother alone, even if child(ren) is presented.

MEETING 2: meet with the child(ren) alone; have a conversation around ‘fathering’ and desired fathering with therapist taking notes. Negotiate with the child her/his preferred way of involving his/her father.

Later Therapist writes a letter based on these notes inviting the father to a meeting. It is not usual that the issues for the child are spelled out here – a safety issue. The letter is reviewed by the child and mother’s proxy before sending it.

Later Final draft of the letter is sent to the father, suggesting a meeting time.

MEETING 3: Therapist proposes the conditions to the father of the ‘understandings’ with the child as a witness to the conversation. Documents are produced and signed by father and therapist.

MEETING 4: Father, young person and therapist convene for an ‘open heart surgery’ in which the child speaks their concerns and seeks answers to their questions. These questions were formulated at Meeting 2 or an additional meeting if required.

MEETING 5: Father, young person and therapist meet to review ‘healing’. The conditions of the ‘understandings’ still hold. The child had been consulted at Meeting 4 as to the date for such a review.

MEETING 6: Should there be any further meetings, either reconnection or reconciliation can be faced more squarely. Conversations are around either the enrichment of the re-connected son-father relationship or reconciling the young person to the poverty of the relationship. Father would likely attend the former but be absent from the latter.


Meeting 1 & Meeting 2

We engage in conversations about their relationship with their father which we prefer to call – your son-daughter relationship. We ask questions regarding this relationship historically and what it has turned into following his/her parents’ separation/divorce.

For example we might ask:

  • What are the ways you remember you and your father as you were growing up and he was still living at home?
  • Is that anything like the ways you and your father are now that he is no longer living with you?
  • What effects are these new ways of relating with your father having on you in general? On the fun you’re having in your life? On your school-work? On your ways of relating to your mother? Etc.

We often learn that the post separation relationship with his father is very distressing. His father’s ‘minimal fathering’ has become overt as it can no longer be ‘patched up’ or ‘smoothed over’ . by his mother. Either his mother’s mentoring has ceased or is now bitterly resented by his father. Now, other priorities have taken over his fathers life and by either omission or commission, the son-father relationship is starting to be severed. His father often finds access visits so awkward and demanding or unsuitable for his lifestyle that he begins to seriously diminish contact or becomes extremely erratic. Or he might insist that his mother accept access to her son on the father’s terms only. Fathers often argue – “I don’t want to be the sort of father whose life is limited by access arrangements. I want more flexibility”. Here ‘flexibility’ often can mean ‘access on my terms or next to nothing’. On occasions, such impossible demands for ‘flexibility’ provides such a father with the moral leverage to justify ‘nothing’. The children often hear – “I’m too busy; I have something else on”. These messages are usually given at the last moment or even while the child is patiently waiting to be picked up by the late father via a telephone call to the mother. The outcome is that the mother is again the carrier of bad news and may be drawn in to softening the bad news by excusing him The father has not had to justify himself to his children, and the mother may easily be blamed by the children for not making it happen. The children are only able to vent their frustration and anger at their mother. The anger and frustration will be diminished when next they meet their father, even if they were able to tell him.

We might ask:

  • Where do you think you fit as a priority in your father’s life?
  • How would you rank your son-father relationship against his rugby? His work? His new girlfriend? Etc.
  • Do you think that making his father-son relationship a low priority was his intention when he and your mother first separated? Has it grown out of his new life-style?
  • What do you think about his new life-style that takes up all his time so that there is nothing left for your son-father relationship?
  • Could you have guessed that he would have put sailing ahead of his father-son relationship?
  • When you think about it, is there really that much difference between the son-father relationship you had when he lived at home and the relationship you now have with him?
  • What ways is your distress over the diminishing relationship with your father showing up in your everyday life? At school? With your friends? Etc.
  • What do you guess would happen if your father knew everything you know about your distress? Have you ever thought about telling him?
  • What do you think your father would say if he knew you were too scared to tell him about your distress about your son-father relationship?
  • Do you think your mother has any idea of your distress about your relationship with your father?
  • Have you found that she has been working overtime trying to get your son-father relationship going for you?
  • Is she very successful with her efforts? Or do you find that whatever she does generally makes matters worse?
  • Are you worrying your son-father relationship is going the same way as your parents relationship did – first separation amd then divorce?
  • Have you ever had any experience of having first-hand ways of relating to your father rather than second-hand ways? (by that I mean a son-father relationship that your mother coaches)?
  • Do you think your father appreciates your mother’s coaching of your son-father relationship now that they are divorced?
  • Do you think your father would be interested in having a really, really deep understanding of what is going on in your heart and mind? Or would he rather you keep this to yourself and deal with your distress by yourself and just put on a ‘happy face’ when you are together?
  • Do you think it would be pretty strange for the first little while for you and your father to go it alone without your mother’s coaching? Would you be surprised if it wasn’t easy going right off the bat? Do you think he would be surprised if it wasn’t easy going right off the bat?
  • (To Father) Do you have the will to see your son-father relationship through its teething problems before you get to something you both really like? (To Son) Do you think your father has what it takes to see his father-son relationship through its teething problems?
  • Have you ever made a new friendship – say at school at the beginning of the year – with another guy? How did it go? Was it smooth sailing? Or were there some rocky patches before you got it together?
  • Did you at any time open your heart to him ( by that I mean really get to know him as a mate)?
  • Did you consider you were taking a risk by doing so?
  • What told you he was the kind of person that was worth risking yourself for?
  • How did you come to trust him so that you were pretty sure you weren’t in too much danger when you opened your heart to him by (telling him about ….)?
  • If he hadn’t come to the party with his side of a ‘good friendship’ when would you have decided ‘enough was enough’?
  • What happens when you ‘open your heart’ to your mother so that she can know what’s going on in side of you? What happens when you ‘open your heart’ to your sister/brother/grandmother, etc?
  • Do you have any reasons to believe that you would be O.K. if you took a similar risk and ‘opened your heart up’ to your father about your distress and your hopes and dreams for your son-father relationship?
  • Have you found in the past that your father is more at his ease when he is telling you things rather than listening to your things? What do you think about this?
  • Has your father found out yet that you have a mind of your own? Or does he believe that he knows more about you than you know about yourself?
  • Do you have any thoughts about how you might inform him that he has gotten out of touch with you?
  • Do you suspect that putting him in touch with you would offer more hope for a better son-father relationship? Or do you worry that putting him in touch with your thoughts and feelings would be too much for him to cope with?
  • Can we discuss what you might like to put your father in touch with about yourself, your distress and your hopes and dreams for your son-father relationship?
  • If you could be reassured that your father was really listening to you and taking you seriously, would it be possible for us to meet together, without your mother – so that you could ‘open up your heart’ to him and he would not only respect you but be very, very careful that he didn’t hurt or injure your ‘heart’?
  • Precisely what reassurances would you require from your father before you would ‘open up your heart’ to him? Or would you prefer that I ask him your heart felt questions and record his answers? Or would you like me to talk with you and tape-record what you had to say and after you had listened to it and okayed it, I would play it to your father, being careful that he listened well to what we had to say? I would record his reply to what you had to say and bring that back to you! did you want to be there or would you rather your father and I tape-recorded our conversation and after your father has listened to it and okayed it, you and I could then listen to it together?

MEETING 3 – Protection for Young Person Undergoing ‘Open Heart Surgery’

In these instances where both the young person and the father are present, the therapist would begin the meeting by carefully going over in some detail what we refer to as the ‘understandings’.

We might say something like the following to the father:

“I have made an agreement with the children that if I should make an error in what I say or if they feel the meeting has got to scary for them, they will let me know. We have an agreed upon signal. If I receive the signal, I want you to agree with me that we will all stop the meeting immediately. And if not, I want your agreement that if you can’t, you will give me permission to do so. Our ‘understanding’ is that you (we) will put the vulnerability of your childrens’ ‘open heartedness’ and the real risk of very severe injury ahead of anything else. If we were to think of your children as vulnerable and to some extent at our mercy and care like someone undergoing ‘open heart surgery’, this might be very apt. After all, if we were to injure a person at such a time, you can never be sure they will ever recover. In the instance of your son/daughter, they may very well never trust you to the same extent ever again. In some ways, this is a chance of a lifetime for you as their father and him/her as your daughter/son. Of course, they might survive but there is certainly the risk that things will never be the same again. For all these reasons, will you agree that their vulnerability, not yours, comes first. For example, it might be the very first time for you to learn that your children have minds of their own and that their minds are very different from your mind. This may surprise you at first.”

There may be another reason such as the following to end the meeting. “they are children and you are an adult. And children have ways of being that not surprisingly are child-like rather than adult-like. You may also find it uncomfortable to hear what you might take to be criticisms of you. however, you cannot be as vulnerable as your children because right now you are their father and an adult. I believe that their hearts will break a lot easier than yours because s/he so wants a better relationship with you. in fact, they want this so much that s/he has dared to ‘open his/her heart’ to you and take a great risk – one that could lead to his/her heart being broken”.

“I can understand that as a caring and loving father you might find my request offensive or hurtful. However, I would like to assure you that the seriousness of my request marks the seriousness of what your children are hoping to do today. A lot rides on today on the future of your son/daughter-father relationships. Were this a simple matter, I have no doubt you and your son/daughter would have sorted this out long ago. But as you know, your son/daughter is longing for a better son/daughter-father relationship. So much so, in fact, that they are willing to undergo ‘open heart surgery’ and bare their hearts to you today. I believe that your son/daughter may feel more vulnerable than s/he ever has before in his/her life. And this may come as a surprise to you. But you need to know that this says a great deal about how much he/she loves you and how much he/she wants to have a really good son/daughter relationship of which all of you can be proud.

“Can you and I both sign this document to ensure your son/daughters well-being and give them the confidence that they will be taken seriously? I want you to be clear that this is NOT a legal document and under the rules of the family court anything you say or do here is totally confidential. That means that nothing pertaining to this ‘understanding’ can ever be called into court under any circumstances. Why then are we signing it?

We both sign it as an indication of sincerity and good faith to your son/daughter-father relationship. I believe it will give him/her encouragement to take the next step in meeting with you and me to ‘open his/her heart up’ to you”.

One copy is given to the father and the other to the young person. if the young person had indicated that such a meeting was too ‘scary’, this meeting would have taken place between the father and the therapist. A copy of the signed ‘understandings’ document would be delivered to the son/daughter who would then decide if and how such a meeting could take place and how we should proceed.