I am a single parent (half-time) of two children following a recent divorce. My ex-wife has remained closer with the friends we had as a couple. My daughter frequently asks to have playdates and sleepovers at her friends’ houses, many of whom are children of those former friends and are part of the quarantine circle that my ex and I have defined.
I have extended a standing invitation to those children to visit my house for playdates or sleepovers, but none has ever come. My ex-wife recently informed me that none of our former friends will allow their daughters to visit my house, because I am a single man—on the theory that men are more likely to be sexual predators. This is concerning to me, because I want to build memories at my house. These children and their parents have known me for years to be a kind and generous dad. I’m also concerned that the fact that my daughter’s friends are not allowed to come to my house could send a message that men (even those one knows well) shouldn’t be trusted.
So far, I have agreed to have my daughter go to her friends’ houses when she has been invited. But I am becoming more uncomfortable with this situation. What should I do?
What you’re describing is discrimination in the form of gender profiling. The parents of your daughter’s friends are assuming that because you’re a man, you’re also a potential pedophile. What’s especially strange about this way of thinking is that these women will happily marry and raise children with men, but don’t want their children around other people’s husbands or fathers because, since they’re men, they might be pedophiles.
I can see why you’re frustrated. The danger here isn’t the threat you pose; it’s the effect of this gender bias on your children and you.
This is exacerbating a common challenge kids face in divorce: the adjustment to two separate households. There’s the back-and-forth, the missing of the other parent, the new home or homes, and the more complicated logistics related to their social lives. “Can you hang out after school?” involves a new calculus of where the child will be on a particular day and whether that parent, without the assistance of the other, can make those arrangements happen.
The more “normal” things feel during this transition, the more easily kids adjust. In other words, if kids feel that they can continue their normal routines at both parents’ houses, they’ll be less affected by the changes. Not being able to have friends over is, of course, anything but normal for your daughter. It means that her friends will never see her bedroom at her new house; she’ll never watch a movie with them on the couch, bake cookies or eat pizza with them in the kitchen, hang outside with them in the yard, do their hair with them in the bathroom. She’ll spend half her childhood in a place where the only other kid she sees is her sibling. She’ll witness the double standard of her brother being able to have friends over at both homes because her mother isn’t considered a danger to his friends the way her father is to hers. When she graduates from high school, she will have exactly zero memories of growing up with her friends in that house because her home has been deemed dangerous—and her father, whom she loves, has been made a pariah.
For you, there’s also the loss of something so basic about being a parent: watching your child interact with her friends as they grow up together. Instead, you’ll only hear about her interactions with her friends. If your daughter stays in touch with these friends, they will be an integral part of her life milestones as an adult, but they’ll be strangers to you. And you’ll never have the experience of laughing with your daughter and her friends about “that hilarious time when such and such happened”—because every hilarious thing that happens will take place somewhere else.
Bias always perpetuates exclusion. It’s not just the divorced dad and his child who suffer. What happens to the widower with a daughter whose mother has died? Does this grieving child never get to have a playdate or sleepover in her own home unless the dad remarries? What about the child with two dads?
So what can you do? First, you can share your concerns with your ex-wife. Ask her how she feels about sending the message to your children that all men are potential pedophiles. Does she want your son to grow up in a world where people suspect him of being a sex offender simply because of his gender? Does she want your daughter growing up in a world where fathers are considered dangerous? If not, ask her to help your children by bringing up these issues with her friends and explaining to them how damaging this discrimination is.
You can also bring up the issue directly with the other parents whenever you extend invitations: “I heard that you have concerns about having your daughter visit our home, but please consider how hard this is on my daughter and what message those fears send to all of our kids.” You can also share how hurt you are that even after they’ve known you for years, their actions are essentially saying, I’m sorry, but my daughter can’t visit your home, because you might be a sex offender.
Ask them if this is the message that they want to send their own kids about fathers. Ask them if this is how they feel about their own husband—that without a woman present, your daughter wouldn’t be safe at their home. Ask their husbands if they believe that without their wife’s presence at a playdate or sleepover, they pose a danger to your daughter. If the answer is no, ask them why they believe you do to theirs.
The most important conversations will be those you have with your own children. Talk with them about how sexism has long shaped women’s lives and continues to do so, and how bias can also shape the lives of men. Tell your children that you want them to feel as at home at your place as they do at their mom’s, and that their friends are always welcome to come over. Tell them that you hope the world will become a place where people don’t discriminate based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. And know, at the end of the day, that whether or not these parents change their minds, you’re providing a model of fatherhood that will influence your children more profoundly than anything other people do or say.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.