If possible, and if you can feel it honestly, try to help your child feel that the other parent is a "good" person but just was not good for you.
If, however, you do not believe this, don't put on an act. Upholding an ideal that to you is anything but an ideal is purposeless. It can do more harm than good in that your child may sense your falseness and come to distrust you, and so lose the security he needs to have you give him.
Margaret's father had left when Margaret was five. His story was a sordid one of staying away night after night; of lurching home drunk in the early mornings. Of nonsupport. And of the final, terrible moment when, after a week of waiting, Margaret's mother had discovered that the little money she had saved and the little jewelry she had inherited had disappeared with her husband.
From that night forward she had neither seen nor heard from him. Not a cent had he contributed to either his wife's or his child's livelihood.
And yet Margaret's mother proclaimed proudly, "I've never said a mean word to Margaret against her father. I've wanted to help her preserve her ideal."
She had felt exceedingly noble. She did not realize that she had actually been living a lie to her daughter.
Meanwhile Margaret had grown into her teens.
"She's a fright," her mother wept. "She's so sulky and selfish. She wants more and more. A new slip. A new dress. Permanents. And now a fur coat I can't possibly get. I try and I try to see that she has what she craves. But it's never enough."
No matter what her mother gave her, Margaret wanted still more.
Came a day, however, when Margaret and her mother both began to see more clearly how things had been. Not knowing the facts, Margaret had tried to put two and two together with her mind's imaginings. Secretly she had loved her father. Secretly she had fantasied that he had loved her better than he had loved her mother. Mother, in consequence, had been angry and had pushed him out. In short, Mother had robbed her of what she had wanted most in life. So Margaret was after something else--anything, everything--to make up for what she thought her mother had taken away.
No wonder nothing was ever enough. Nor could it be, as long as Margaret held onto wanting the impossible: an imaginary hero of a father who had never really existed except in her little-girl mind, where his image still rode in glory.
Had her mother shared the truth with her daughter she would at least not have strengthened this fabulous lie. She could never give Margaret her father, but she could give Margaret herself in good faith and with honesty.
This she now belatedly did, and after a time of trial and tribulation, matters improved.
Even if Margaret's father had been a "good" person and just not good for her mother, the false front of loving forgiveness would not have furthered Margaret's security. It never does for any child. Security is furthered far more soundly with the solid truth of a parent's feelings out in the open and shared.
Sharing feelings, however, with one's child is different from burdening him with them. The difference lies in the parent's attitude and in what the parent, himself, is seeking when he tells how he feels.
Telling a child because one wants to relieve him of worry-that is one thing. Telling him because one wants to relieve oneself--this is something else.
Richard's mother did the last.
Says fourteen-year-old Richard, "Since my father left, I'm supposed to be everything to my mother. She has no one else, she says, with whom to share her problems. So she expects me to be the man of the house."
Side by side with this, a memory kept creeping up into Richard's mind which he colored with unrealistic fears. He'd heard his father say to his mother many times earlier, "I'll kill any man you dare take up with." And now his mother expected him to be a man--her man--the man whom his imagination prompted him to identify as the one his father would kill.
"I'm in a spot," he confessed in desperation. "I'm a mess-up. I can't keep my mind on my studies. I can't do a thing."
Richard's mother's kind of sharing was for the purpose of using his shoulders to weep on. They weren't broad enough.
No child's are. She would have done better if she had used her pillow at night. She would have done best, though, had she been able to share her feelings with him prompted by a sincere wish to help her son rather than to make a husband out of him.
Lon's father did better in the talks they had while Lon was spending the summer with him.
"I used to tell you, Lon," he began, "that I thought your mother was wonderful. I'll bet though you knew I didn't."
"You hit it, Pop. I knew you didn't and I knew you weren't fooling anyone. But what did make me worry was that you were trying to sell me a bill of goods. It made me wonder about me and you . . ."
"What do you mean, Lon?"
"Well, Pop, you see it's this way. You'd say Mother was swell. And you didn't mean it. So when you'd tell me I was swell, I thought maybe that was some kind of boloney too."
"I can't blame you."
"It kept me from having enough confidence in you to ask the questions I wanted to. So I've kept on worrying about what really happened between you and Mother."
"It's hard to tell, Lon. Not because I don't want to tell you. I've learned that it's right that I should and I do want to. But what happened between your mother and me was so intangible. Nothing definite. She picked on me and I picked on her. She criticized continuously and I couldn't take it. She was never satisfied for some reason. Part of it probably was me. That may sound noble but I think it's the truth. But part of it was her. It probably went back into her own childhood to things that happened then that made her want more from a husband than a husband could give. At least this husband. I know now that my sensitivity to her criticism went back into my childhood too.
"No matter what it was, I hated her--yes, hated her, literally, for her shrewishness to me and her lack of loving and her demands . . ."
Lon nodded in sixteen-year-old, mature understanding. "She treated you one way. She treated me another. So you developed one set of feelings toward her and I developed another. And each of us has a right to our own stand. That's what liberty in a democracy means."