Q. My husband of five years walked out on me in the middle of my pregnancy. It's been a rough road and now he claims he has visitation rights. I don't understand why he left, and worse, why he wants anything to do with my little boy.
How shall I handle this? Is it best to let him visit the baby -- now 3 months old -- and let the baby build a relationship with this man? I get so emotional when I even talk on the phone with him. I can't picture what it will be like in person.
Shall I put all my frustrations aside and let my baby get to know him? I want what's best for my child. What could his father possibly offer him?
He's taken away my dream of parenting together, and I feel he's stripped the baby of a dream as well.
We are not kids. I'm 29; he's 30. And we planned this baby. Now my only concern is my son's welfare. I want his life to be as normal as possible.
A. It's almost possible to hear the shattering of your heart. It's your husband's heart that matters, however. You have to understand what makes it tick before you can decide how to handle his claim.
Clearly he behaved very badly but maybe you could ease your pain a little if you knew that some men walk out because they feel too much, rather than too little.
As psychologists now confirm, males and females really are different, and nothing brings out this difference more than the prospect of parenthood except parenthood itself. Even if the mother earns half of the family income and the father does half of the care-taking, it's still the mother who needs to nurture -- above all else -- and the father who feels bound to provide.
This responsibility overwhelms some fathers, and even some fathers-to-be. These men just can't believe they're strong enough, or brave enough, or good enough, or competent enough to support their children. And so they panic. They drink too much or have affairs. Or they run away to some safe harbor where they can pretend to themselves that they are still free spirits.
This explanation doesn't excuse your husband, but it may help you understand how a seemingly decent person could treat you -- and that wonderful baby -- so badly. After all, you trusted him enough to start a family just a year ago. Could you have been married so long and misjudged him so much?
The more compassion you can feel for your husband, the better you can nurture your baby and yourself, but don't expect miracles. It usually takes a professional to exorcise the ill will that comes with separation and divorce. You need a counselor to listen to the rage that boils up in you, over and over, and to walk with you through the sloughs of depression. The end of your relationship must be mourned, like any death.
It is your husband who is in critical need of professional help, however, especially if he is to have any relationship with your son. Tell him that you'll consider visitation rights after he's seen a psychotherapist for six to eight months, so you can trust his stability again. There's no point in letting the baby depend on a father who might walk out on him.
Your husband will probably squawk at your terms but he should agree, especially if he sees that you're not too proud to get some counseling yourself.
In the course of it, you may even decide that you can forgive your husband; that he can indeed grow up and that the two of you could actually reconcile.
This may seem like an incredible idea now, but it deserves serious consideration, for a marriage, once good, can often be put together and on a better, more honest basis than it was before. Although this is very hard to do, it's usually easier than going through the trauma of divorce, and the continuing tension over visitation and child support, as well as graduations, weddings and the other celebrations of life.
If a reconciliation is impossible, therapy will at least help you get rid of the detritus from this marriage -- and before -- so you'll choose more wisely the next time.
You'll also want to read "Crazy Time" by Abigail Trafford (Bantam; $3.95) and "How to Forgive Your Ex-Husband" by Marcia Hootman and Patt Perkins (Warner; $4.95).
And for all those times when you need more than a book or a therapist, call your friends for company and solace. You need -- and deserve -- all the help you can get.
Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.