Patrice Karst, author of The Single Mother's Survival Guide and The Invisible String, a children's book about being separated from loved ones, says that you need to be upfront when answering your child's inevitable inquiries.
"What I suggest mothers do in a case where the father didn't want to have contact is to tell the child 'your father had some wonderful qualities, but parenting wasn't one of them.' The most important thing is that the child knows that he is loved," she says. "There is no way to sugar coat the fact that the father doesn't want to have contact. It is going to be painful."
Sometimes children start asking questions because their peers have asked them directly why they don't have a father or have made fun of them. Mattes says that when you overhear these kinds of conversations you might want to step in and give your child a hand with the answer. For preschoolers, it's helpful to use this opportunity to model the degree of openness you want the child to have. The answer could be as simple as explaining that there are all kind of families and leave it at that.
"If you come up with a phrase that a child can use, that is something that can help until they can get the complexity of the conception story. When they understand the biology you can explain it in a way that is much more comprehensible," she says.
Children who have no contact with their fathers also can feel excluded when Father's Day comes around, or when their schools have father-child events.
Dr. Lucas says, "Your child is not going to be alone in not having a father around. You might ask the school 'How can you modify this activity so that my child can feel included?' Alternatively, you might explore whether there is a surrogate person who could be adopted for the particular role."
Osherow says that because her child has always been comfortable with her family arrangement, she never felt any need to ask her schools to change activities that would have included fathers. She says that she would simply tell the teacher to ask her daughter if she wanted to make the project for another male in her life, or Osherow herself.
What's most important for single mothers to remember, Mattes says, is that preschoolers don't comprehend the word "father" as we adults do.
"At this age, they aren't asking a profound question. They are asking a labeling question. They have begun to notice that some people have an interesting person in their family called a daddy," she says. "But it's not as emotionally charged for the child as it is for the mother hearing it."