My long distance ex and I have a 4 year old son and we're trying to figure out what to do post-breakup.

A little backstory, we've always been long distance (different countries) and we've been very on-and-off. I've TRIED being there to a certain degree (lots of facetime calls, trips to see them, etc.) but we're not really bonded the way a father and son probably should be.

I'm not really a good dad I don't think. I try my best, but parenting doesn't come naturally to me and I don't find it particularly fulfilling. I also haven't been physically around enough to get "better" at it.

At this point I'd pretty much only be sticking around to do the right thing, but I don't want to do more harm than good. I'm not looking for judgments of my character here, and there's a lot I'm leaving out. I'm purely concerned with what's best for my son within that framework.

Does anyone have a background in child psychology or even personal experience with anything like this? Is it better for a kid to have a long distance not-very-good dad or is it better to step away completely so that the "father figure" role can be filled by someone else? Is there some kind of middleground?

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    Just a friendly reminder that the OP is asking for help with making a decision, not judgement, so being helpful is most appreciated. Also, we have a policy (disagreeing with the premise) that if an answer doesn't actually answer the OP's question, it will be deleted as "Not An Answer." Thanks. Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 20:30
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    The standard comment policy applies, don't forget, folks: comments are for clarifying the question, not talking about it, answering it, or arguing. Thanks!
    – Joe
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 23:27

10 Answers 10


I don't think you can "parent" in the sense of applying discipline and strong guidance. But you can be in his life. My mother had a god-daughter on a different continent. From the time the god-daughter was a young child, my mother would write to her regularly. She always remembered birthdays and Christmas. She probably only visited a few times as the girl grew up, but she had an impact on her life. The god-daughter certainly knew that this was a person who cared about her and mattered. There is still a bond there (god-daughter in her 30's now).

You could do something like that and I'm sure it would be effective. Writing is good, because it doesn't put the child on the spot for a reply. It's being faithful and persistent that matters -- not having tons of things to say.

When your son is older, he might want to visit with you, and he would know that you are someone he can turn to -- that there is a relationship there that matters to both of you. There will come a time when he will want to know the other half of his parentage, and he'll know he can reach out if there has always been communication.

It won't be the same as being an "on-site Dad", but it will be special in its own way.

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    Very well said.
    – Ralt
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 8:40
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    Any child whose parents have separated will at some point think "Was it because of me?". This answer is probably the best way to help with that very basic fear/self-doubt in your son.
    – Cyrus
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 8:28

I don't have any experience or background here, I'm just a guy with a couple kids, including a 3yr old son. But I would say you should hang in there.

You are part of your son and as he grows older you will probably start to see more of yourself in him. He will probably have reactions and behaviours and do things that remind you of yourself. You are uniquely qualified to help this kid get by in the world. Unless you look at yourself and see ways that you are abusive towards your son, I don't think you can do more harm than good.

There is no exact right way for a parent/child relationship to be, and you being a part of your sons life doesn't prevent other adults or "father figures" from being there for him also.

When your kid gets older you'll probably find you can build more of a relationship, even if it's more like a friend rather than a traditional father/son. Four years old is still very young to build any real closeness over distance, plus as he gets older his mother will be less involved in coordinating which might help.

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    This is kinda super important. There was a period of my son's life in middle school when he was coming into his full-blown ADD, and I realized two things: 1) I went through much of the same thing at his age, because I (it appears) had it too and 2) ADD exhausts everyone around's patience with you, and so there was absolutely nobody in his life that understood what he was going through, and how to learn to live with it, like I did.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 18:43
  • highlight on: “you are uniquely qualified to help this kid get by in the world” just want to add that you should prefer visiting rather that skype and facetime: at this age, they have a very good memory and he will treasure any moment you can give
    – Edoardo
    Commented Aug 7, 2018 at 7:25

Your child will only ever have one birth father. That is a fact. That he may develop relationships with other men in his life - step dad, uncles, teachers, coaches - is very likely as life if long and full of untold situations and scenarios. Those other relationships may have a bigger impact on his life BUT you will always be his birth father. Do not underestimate the power of your role in his life, even if you decide you will not play a role as one of his parents.

My words may not have the power of others, so I'll point you to a post by Dear Sugar (who we now know to be Cheryl Strayed): http://therumpus.net/2010/08/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-47-the-reckoning/

Next up I highly recommend this book: https://www.amazon.com/Moms-House-Dads-Making-homes/dp/0684830787

This book helped me immensely when I divorced and my biggest take away was the language I use to describe me, my daughter's Dad, etc make a big impact. I rarely - almost never - describe my daughter's Dad as "my ex". He isn't and ex at all. He isn't my husband any more, but the permanent relationship I have with him is that he is my darling daughter's Dad, so I refer to him as that. "Joe's Mom" instead of "my ex". It is subtle but very, very powerful.

Lastly, I recommend checking out the material available from Gordon Neufeld who is an amazing developmental psychologist who has a wealth of material to help you BECOME an amazing parent. You say you aren't sure what to do, how to parent. You are very concerned you can be of value. The fact that you posted here suggests you are a seeker, willing to learn. You will not regret a single moment you spend diving into the material from the Neufeld institute. I cannot tell you how much this information has informed my parenting, and, perhaps most surprisingly, led me to become a waaaaaaaay better, richer person.



I will close with my own advice. Keep trying, remain in your son's life. Whether you live in the same city or across the globe, either way, you will need to work hard to remain attached. It is possible, especially if you are willing to learn the psychology and neurological underpinnings of child development. You can then channel your energy to focus on the approaches that will work for your situation. The rewards are immense and the stakes couldn't be higher.

I wish you all the best on your parenting journey. :-)

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    I only read your first link. Wow, what an excellent piece of advice! +1 (I wish I could upvote more.) Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 16:08
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    Great answer. Only thing I'd add is not to beat yourself up too much for good-faith failures. Sometimes we dads are very valuable to our kids for our negative examples too.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 18:27

It's hard to say, not knowing more about you as a person, of course, but I get the sense that you are motivated to do what is right - you wouldn't have asked otherwise. I have had similar experiences in some ways: my wife and I got divorced when our children were young, just after we had taken the jump to move to England - she then quickly moved back to Denmark. This was 20 years ago, so I have been remote parent ever since. I have tried to see my children as often as possible (which hasn't been that much), and I have called, used email, skype, wechat and anything else. It hasn't been perfect, but somehow I am the one, my children feel "has always been there for them"; to be fair, part of the explanation is that not having the daily responsibility and the stress it entails, means that I was never the one that disciplined them - somehow the distance meant that I could choose the time to contact them, when I was in a place with myself to listen and give kind advice.

So, I think it is certainly possible to provide something that is valuable to your children, even if you are physically far away. Teenagers, especially, need someone that is able to listen without judging morally, and who can give constructive advice in a respectful manner; as an example: my daughter got into debt and couldn't find a way out. I could have paid it out for her and left some biting remarks about how stupid/irresponsible etc she had been, but I think I handled it better than that: I talked with her about how it had come about and how to avoid it in the future without judging (she already felt keenly that it was a stupid situation); then I gave her advice about how to handle debt, by contacting creditors to agree payment plans etc. (It worked BTW, she's now debt-free).

You say you don't feel you are a good parent - well, who is? We are all amateurs in the beginning, and we can only do our best. A good parent is someone who helps their children grow up to be well functioning adults, and I have come across parents that suffocate their children with excessive "taking care" of them and always "sacrificing everything" for their children - and they can't figure out why their children grow up to be insecure and unhappy. Good parents allow their children to live their own life - after all, they'll have to, one day! - and then stand ready with the metaphorical plaster and a hug, when they scrape a knee.


Going anon here, because this is kind of personal, but it seems I was in your son's shoes some 20 years ago.

My father was visiting me only on my birthdays for the duration of the party. Since he started doing this, I was apparently developing mood swings. I'd go from hysterical laughing to sobbing to rage and back in seconds for apparently no reason. My mom was also told by my teacher that she would often find me crying in some corner of the school.

She took me to a psychologist and after some sessions, what she explained to my mom was that every time my father did this it was like meeting him for the first time and then having him die within hours on the same day each year. I'm not sure if he did, but if he happened to miss one, I'm sure the disappointment would have also taken a toll on me emotionally. I probably waited for him throughout the year. Anyway, my mom called him and told him to decide to either stay and live together or disappear from my life. He decided to disappear.

Fast forward to now, I can't say with certainty how that specifically has affected me. Lots of other stuff has happened. A lot of hardships since then, stuff that she tried her damnedest to shield me from, but couldn't always.

I grew to have a very, very close relationship with my mom, and I always understood her to have the roles of both mother and father. As I've grown and seen fathers, I've come to realize that she wasn't the same as the real deal, but I still loved her for doing her best.

People have asked me if I wouldn't want to meet my father again, and I've told them no. My father is a stranger to me. The only difference to an actual stranger might be that slight inclination to punch him in the face, but I know that he'd be too old to take it if he's still alive. My mom wouldn't have wanted me to, either.

I still hold on to the Nintendo 64 he gave me once, so maybe I do care slightly. It was the first (only?) thing he ever gave me.

Anyway, in conclusion: Be a father or don't be. There is no middleground.

EDIT: In response to the comments, I want to share my reasoning on the matter from a detached point of view.

A father (a parent) is basically a role model you can depend on. A child is an ignorant, defenseless creature that needs someone to rely on. The younger the child is, the more true this is. The child needs to know that he can count on his parent. When trouble hits, the child needs to know that out of all people in the world, at the very least he can count on his parents to always be there, exceptions being extraordinary or necessary for the child's well-being.

What is a parent that is only sometimes there? Well, I think that maybe he's a friend. An interesting friend that shares your genes. A relative?

Maybe you can establish that kind of relationship. I honestly don't know. I'm not a child anymore, so it's becoming increasingly difficult to think like one. However, it's been my observation that parent-child attachment is very real. Just recently, my child-cousin was completely convinced that her parents had abandoned her because she woke up in the car and they weren't there. They had been away for a minute while they carried groceries into the house. For her, there is no one more important in the whole world than her parents. She might take them for granted at times, but they never cease to be that important.

It's honestly hard to put myself in your shoes, because I'd just take responsibility. If conditions were so that I couldn't go all in, I suppose I'd just do however much I could. Support is still support (this isn't just money, btw), even if it's less than expected.

I think the important thing is to avoid failed expectations. Be clear to the child that he can't depend on you like other children do with their fathers. Be on the watch to see if your limited presence is affecting him negatively, and leave if it is. I really wish you'd stay instead to fulfill that attachment, but whatever. If this happens, I hope you could at least keep in touch with his mom to give whatever support you're able/willing to give in times of need. Being a single parent is very, very difficult, very tough.

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    This is extremely anecdotal, there was no middle-ground for you. Other families make do and develop 'healthy' relationships with the long-distance parent. I get that this will always be an opinion-based question but objectively claiming there isn't a middle-ground is just plain wrong.
    – Korthalion
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 9:53
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    Thanks for sharing. The one thing I would caution is that we don't really know the counterfactual, making it hard to draw conclusions. The fact that you had an emotional reaction to your father coming and going doesn't mean the effect of him not being there at all wouldn't have been worse or that you couldn't have ended up with a positive relationship over the long run. There's also the quality to consider, vs just the quantity of time spent.
    – aw04
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 13:47
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    @Korthalion Being able to hit that middleground in a healthy manner depends on establishing a relationship where the child does not become too attached to the parent. What is "too attached" depends on how little the OP wants to see his son. If OP hardly wants to be involved, that's gonna be tough to avoid, specially while the child is so young. If that can be done, I'm not sure I'd call it a parent-child relationship anymore, but whatever. Anyway, I edited the answer to add more thoughts.
    – user32837
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 17:17
  • The dynamic would be a little different but I guess I'd like to ask you if you think those differences are significant? In my case my son lives in a different country. I'd probably make trips out there a few times a year but I'd be around for a week or two at a time. He also has an ipad that he can facetime me on so we would be somewhat connected even when I'm not around. Do you think that would have changed anything significantly, or do you think it would be about the same?
    – user32836
    Commented Aug 3, 2018 at 3:36
  • @user32836 I don't have experience with this, but I do think that your son being able to face time you (and later when he can read and write) being able to MESSAGE you whenEVER he wants would play a large role in his being able to rely on you and would drastically mitigate the "come and gone" effect. As long as you make an effort to consistently respond to him and initiate contact in return, you may not end up a "traditional dad" but I'd be willing to bet that you'd end up as a "trusted and loved adult" in the kid's life. Commented Aug 3, 2018 at 17:21

I think Placidia's answer gives a good outline of what you can do as a long-distance parent. I'll give you an advice on what you shouldn't do: you can be a good long-distance parent if you don't put additional strain on your relationships.

As soon as you possible, discuss the following with the other parent and, to the best of their understanding, with a child:

  • Are you fine with the other partner developing romantic feelings and marrying other people?

  • Are you going to provide money and gifts to the child? Will your gifts be theirs to use, break and throw away, or do you impose conditions on these gifts?

  • In my country, being a parent officially means the other parent needs your written approval to travel with a child internationally, sell and buy housing where the child lives, agree for medical interventions. If you are going to be a long-distance parent, do you want to sign a long-term letter of authority so that the other parent can solve these issues on their own and promptly?

  • Are you intending to demand anything from the child, now or down the road? I had witnessed a great share of long-distance parents among my peers' parents, and one thing they did wrong was demanding that the children conformed to their orders: meeting them whenever the parents wanted, following their advice, telling them about the daily life even if the child didn't want to. It's not inherently wrong to expect that from your child, but please discuss what you can expect and what the child is willing to provide you.

Whatever you agree to with the other parent and the child, write it down (memory is fragile and malleable) and stick to it. The best example you can give your child is you following on your promises.

  • I can't see where this answers the question. Referring to another answer then giving parenting advice is not really an answer to the question, "Is it better for a kid to have a long distance not-very-good dad or is it better to step away completely so that the "father figure" role can be filled by someone else? Is there some kind of middleground?" Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 15:20

I have had to make the same decision you are having to make right now. Only difference is she was in California and I was in New York.

We were both in the Navy, got married, she was pregnant with twins while I was in the fleet and out to sea a lot so I was not there for any ultrasounds, or pre labor stuff. I also felt there was not a bond.

I was there for the birth, and there for the first 3 months of their lives then out the sea for 5 months back for another 4 months then back out to sea for 4 months. This went on until they were 2, the toll of being out the sea took not only a toll on the relationship with my wife but also the children.

I started to notice they greeted me the same way they would greet my brother, they knew I was their father but they had no concept of what a dad was.

Me and the wife split up shortly after their 3rd birthday, until then I lived in California a couple blocks away, I was there for most occasions, over the next year, and then got an excellent job opportunity in New York.

Over the years the calls got shorter and shorter, Skype calls changed to phone, about 13 they got their own phones and sometimes wouldn't answer.

Im not going to lie, even though not having that bond or not really knowing them, hearing them talk about a new daddy, it was hard, it was really hard, but you make a decision.

That was 20 years ago, If you want to know if I regret it.... yes


Is it better for a kid to have a long distance not-very-good dad or is it better to step away completely so that the "father figure" role can be filled by someone else?

Frankly, in my experience, and also opinion, terms like "father figure" are overrated anyways. Children, as they say, are almost like real humans (only smaller...), and thus are quite flexible. They can grow up pretty well with almost any combination of adults caring for them. Yes, some circumstances can make them more happy than others, but the final outcome is awfully hard to tell upfront. There certainly are a lot of childhoods gone pretty wrong even though they had both parents there all the time.

Is there some kind of middleground?

Yes. Just be who you are. You cannot change yourself anyways, not in a way a child would feel. Your kid won't care how bad you think about yourself. Trust me, the simple fact that you are so self-conscious to ask your question here makes you 1000 times better than some other parents I met before. You are highly unlikely to hit, abuse, tyrannize, pressure, yell at, or deny your child, for one thing; those things damage children.

In your case, I would try to stay somewhat in the picture. If it does not work out, then it doesn't. If it works out, great. You will pretty much notice what your son needs if you interact with him, even if only seldomly. Does he seem happy if he chats with you? Does he seem to be afraid of you? Is he indifferent? That is the kind of feedback you are looking for.

The most important thing for you should be to avoid anything which can spoil the tenous relationship you will have with your child. One thing which will sour that greatly is if as soon as you meet your ex, you start fighting. So, come to an understanding with your ex (if you don't have that already), and make sure you have her on your side.

Obviously, you will have to be honest with yourself, you will have little direct influence in his life. You are still related with each other, and denying that would be dishonest. Other people will be with him. Try to relax.


Faced with a similar choice I chose to stay. You made the choice that worked for your circumstance. There are definitely things you can't offer remotely. Let's look at what you can do. You can build a routine. Kids love structure. Call daily at the same time. You can offer recognition. The whole "Hey dad watch me" phase never really ends, it just evolves from "hey dad, watch me build this lego thing" to "hey dad, I graduated".

You can offer praise. Have them tell you about their day and then tell them how awesome they are. Reinforcing the things they are good at helps build confidence. You can offer a virtual shoulder to cry on. Once they hit the teenage years they may confide in you about their various "kid drama" if you've built a strong relationship.

As far as letting someone else step in as the father figure. That might or might not happen, that's not up to you. However, I think you'll be hard pressed to find someone who complains about having too many loving and caring parents. A new father figure does not detract from your role, it supplements it. If the worst case happens and they get a step-parent that is a problem, they are going to need you to advocate on their behalf.

Anecdote time: My nephew's father was wrapped up in his own problem when my nephew was little. The father went to prison when the son was about 10. It's been a good thing for the father. The father is more involved in his son's life now that the father is behind bars 30 miles away. Despite how poorly he was treated by his father as a child, the son still wants to know his father and wants his father's approval.


My dad was doing his best, but he was working hard in a city while I and my brothers were with our mom at village not too far yet far enough from said town. Result was he was with us only during weekends.

Fast forward couple of years... When I was about to enter elementary school we all moved to the city. He was working hard, meaning levaing early to work and returning late. The result was quite same as in previous period; we saw him only during weekends and seldom during working days and he tried to parent us.

Even though his work changed later and he was "more present" than he used (not) to be, the bilateral father-child bond has never been established. To worsen the situation he might be deprived by the lack or imballance of this bond.

The final result is we have complicated relationship with him, each challenging in different ways; I, as the oldest, had longest period without "fresh him" and my youngest brother has longest period with "burned-out him" when I left to college.

I think a child needs a full-time dad, which you are not able to deliver. I'd recommend the best out of bad options, and the painful one as well: Give this role up. Be the father and try to be like godfather. Let your ex to find new partner to be the daddy.

If you want to parent, discuss it with your ex and do it via proxy - your ex and her partner.

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