Is Dad coming to my First Communion?

communionQ: My daughter is making her First Communion this year. She is an only child and I separated from her father shortly after she was born. Unfortunately, he has had only intermittent involvement in her life. He worked abroad for the first few years, and I have brought her up largely alone, with a lot of help from my mother. He is currently meant to see her every weekend, though this can sometimes stretch to every second weekend, as he often cancels at the last minute due to work. When he does see her, it all seems to go okay.

Recently, my daughter has been asking if he was coming to her communion. I told her she should ask him. I think she feels quite different in school because she is one of only a few children who does not live with their father.

I wonder how best to handle this. I am worried he will let her down or that it will be a stressful event. To be honest, we don’t get on that well, and to have him sharing the front seats at the top of the church fills me with dread. I would like my own mother, who looks after my daughter daily, to be there. What can I do?

A: Organising important family events such as communions can be stressful at the best of times. When you are parenting after separation, they can be particularly stressful. Making arrangements can be more complicated and delicate, trying to ensure everyone is happy and that you are acting in the best interest of your children.

There is so much expectation for things to go well, and children and parents can feel acutely aware of how the arrangements in their families might be different from those of other people, and this can add to the pressure.

In addition, significant family events and milestones such as communions can bring up the original upset and unresolved issues of the separation so emotions can run high, making it harder to negotiate.

Thinking of your daughter’s best interest
When trying to decide how to proceed, it is always useful to try to first consider your daughter’s best interest.

Her communion is likely to be a big family event for her. How can you make this a celebration that means something special for her? What memories would you like her to have about it? In my experience, most children really appreciate it if their parents can put aside their differences for the day and come to an agreement as to how they can be both there for their child.

Listening to your daughter
When she raises the communion again, encourage her to talk more about her hopes for the communion and what she is feeling. Listen carefully so you can understand where she is coming from.

If she does talk again about wanting her father to come to the communion, don’t just rely on her to talk to her father alone about this. It is too much responsibility for her to do this alone. Instead you might say, “Well, let’s talk to your father about this,” or “I will give your Dad a ring about this.”

These conversations can also represent a good opportunity to check in with your daughter about how she is feeling about the separation overall. You can ask her questions such as how does she feel about Mum and Dad living apart? How is meeting her father on weekends going for her? If she does talk, really listen carefully.

Discuss the communion with her father
It would be best if you could discuss the communion with her father directly and to do this in advance of the day. For example, you might text him: Can we arrange to have a chat to plan the communion? Then you can either meet face to face or have an extended chat on the phone.

Use the fact that the communion is coming up as an opportunity to open better dialogue and communication with him for the sake of your daughter. For example, you might want to explore how to improve contact and co-parenting overall.

If things are difficult between you and her father, you can consider going to mediation to help you kick-start this conversation.

Try to understand each other’s point of view
Before you meet him, it is useful to take time to first think through your own feelings. It is completely understandable that you might find the prospect of “sharing the front seats” in the church stressful and you may wish to talk through the situation with a neutral party by yourself first so you can put things in perspective.

It is also important to try to understand things from her father’s perspective. As a live-away father he might be full of guilt and/or believe that he does not have much of a role in his daughter’s life. He is likely to find the prospect of communion and how to be involved just as stressful as you do.

Try also to present your requests positively to him and how they are in the best interest of your daughter, for example: “It is really important to her that you are there and involved in the communion.”

Explore options that will work for everyone
When you do meet, it is important to keep focused on your daughter’s interest and to explore options that might work for everyone. For example, you might agree that Granny sits nearby in the church or even joins you in the parents’ seats at the top of the church; this might even make it easier for him, too.

You might also think through how you can share the subsequent celebration. Will he attend? Perhaps he will take her to visit his family the day after. This way, your daughter gets to have two family celebrations.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, March 2015. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.