The issue isn't academic for Bryan, 44, cofounder of the Artist's Way workshop, the subject and title of the popular self-help manual written by second wife Julia Cameron (they divorced in 1993). At 17, the small-town Virginia high school class president became a father, and though he and his girlfriend married, their union lasted just three years. After his ex-wife remarried in 1974, he dropped out of son Scott's life. Too immature to understand the harm his absence was doing, Bryan waited nine years to ask his ex for the right to see his son again and five more before she told Scott how to reach his father.
"Living in shame and denial, you feel helpless about attempting a reunion," says Bryan, who now lives in Cambridge, Mass., and is close to Scott, 27, the manager of a hair replacement clinic in suburban Virginia. "Prodigal Father is the book I wish I had when I was hurting and longing to see my son."
As director of the Father Project, a Cambridge, Mass., counseling center, Bryan (who holds a master's degree from Harvard in human development) has spent nearly a decade helping estranged fathers reunite with their kids. He discussed his views with correspondent Ron Arias.
How do the fathers you have counseled become estranged from their children?
The most common reason is a poor relationship between the father and the mother. Many divorced fathers feel abused by the courts—which still decide custody cases in the mother's favor 90 percent of the time—and resent being used as a paycheck when they have no say in the child's life. And some fathers can't deal with the loss of a daily life with their child, so they unconsciously disengage.
They're angry and in pain, so they become deadbeat dads?
I don't like that phrase. It's shaming and doesn't help solve the problem. It's more true that they are brokenhearted dads. Shame is one of the reasons that fathers become disengaged. If we keep shaming them, we're never going to get them back with their kids.
How does a father's absence affect his life and his children's?
On both sides there's a sense of loss. Studies show that kids have lower scholastic achievement and often a general sense of being adrift. Depression and unresolved hostility are high on the list of problems the fathers face. After I gave up contact with my son, I returned to Ohio State University, and my grades slipped from A's to F's. I drifted into depression, alcohol and drug use. I ultimately got sober and reconnected with my son in 1988, but for years I told myself that my absence was the best thing for Scott.
What's the first step fathers should take toward reunion?
Acknowledge being "haunted" by a bone-marrow-deep memory of your children. This "haunting"—the sadness you feel every time you see another child play—inhabits us at some soul level. I want fathers to find a support network—of friends, therapists, clergy—to help them express what they're feeling so that unresolved sadness and shame don't prevent reunion.
How should an absent dad approach his child's mother?
He needs to make amends. He should contact the mother and offer an apology for his past behavior and promise to change. If he hasn't been paying child support, he should start right away. The first check, even if it's only a token, should be considered something that will grow with more contact. Fathers need to pay all they owe, but if they have no contact with their child, payments may never come.
Do many mothers resist reunion?
Twenty-five percent of custodial moms don't want the father involved, because of a wide range of unresolved issues, including anger. But if a man is sober, sane and wants to be a loving force in his child's life, the mother would be hurting the child if she opposes reunion.
What should fathers tell their kids about why they have been out of touch?
You don't want to make excuses. You just want to be a loving presence. They should say, "I've missed you. I love you. I won't leave again." I'm not trying to help them drop by and say hello. I'm trying to help them get a solid foundation to be involved in their children's lives.
Should all absent fathers reconnect with their children?
No. Both fathers and mothers who are sick and dangerous shouldn't be near children. Anybody who is violent, drinking, doing drugs or can't hold a job has to do more work before they should be allowed near their children.
What are the benefits of successful father-child reunions?
When fathers reenter their children's lives, the kids' sense of self-esteem and their ability to form relationships become stronger. Fathers are no longer haunted or sad. I know. I got my son's love, and he got mine. And you can't ask for more.