It's a question that every single mother knows she'll have to face. While she may spend the first year or two of her child's life being the center of his universe, she knows it's only a matter of time before her little one turns to her and asks, "Where is my daddy?"
How you answer that question depends, of course, on your individual circumstances. Experts and other mothers say that the first step in addressing what can be a sticky issue is to feel good about the answer you are going to give.
"You should be as comfortable with the subject as possible," says Ruthellen Osherow, of St. Louis, who had her 8-year-old daughter, Carly, through donor insemination. She adds that a mother who is divorced or not in touch with her child's father may have a tougher time talking about it, but if she ignores the issue, "Kids are going to pick up on that and want a daddy that much more."
To get comfortable with a discussion that may feel awkward to you, some experts suggest practicing with your child early and often. Jane Mattes, a psychotherapist and director of Single Mothers By Choice, raised a 24-year-old son alone. She suggests to members of her organization that they start talking about their child's parentage, with the child, from birth. Mattes says that mothers in her organization have found that if they talk about the lack of a father when a baby can't yet comprehend the words, mothers give themselves more time to figure out exactly what to say.
"If you wait until the child understands, and you are anxious, the child picks up your anxiety," says Mattes. "You have the time from the child is born until he is two, three, or four to work on your own feelings about it, and even work on them in counseling to see if you can relax a little bit more."
Dr. Chris Lucas, director of the Early Childhood Service at the New York University Child Study Center explains that you want to take the child's lead when answering questions about his or her father. It may not be something that you will proactively raise because they may not start asking questions until age four or five, although children in a structured setting such as daycare may notice that their families are different at earlier ages.
"The first thing you should point out is that children are raised in lots of sorts of different families. You can say that yours is one of a number of potential different living situations. You need to say things that make the child feel secure in his current setting," says Dr. Lucas. "Also, mothers need to let their child know that nothing that the child did has any bearing on why the dad isn't around."