When I saw my daughter Maria* for the first time, I knew my purpose in life – to take care of the beautiful, tiny new person I saw before me.
We were in our early 20s when my then-girlfriend fell pregnant. Our relationship, both passionate and volatile, ended just before our daughter, Maria, reached her first birthday.
Shortly afterwards, my ex announced to me she intended to find herself a new partner; not only for herself, but also someone to be a father to Maria.
I told my ex that surely the appropriate time for a mother to decide who is to be the father of her child is before having the child, not afterwards. She disagreed.
I was astounded. To me, it was unthinkable that a person could lose his child for no reason other than the whim of the other parent.
My ex sued me in family court.
Although she would retain primary custody, the judge ordered provision for contact between my daughter and me, two days per week.
She didn’t hide her unhappiness with the outcome but my ex generally followed its terms. All I wanted was to be able to spend time with my daughter, which was what I did.
After a year, when I collected Maria from her mother’s house, I noticed that she had bruises on her arm. When I asked her what had happened, she replied that a boyfriend of her mother had hit her.
My world came crashing down in an instant.
I made reports to the police and social services that day, and filed for change of custody in the family courts the next. This enraged my ex.
I no longer see her as my darling daughter, and I no longer feel like her father
In court, her mother simply denied that any abuse had taken place and the case went nowhere.
My ex cut off all contact between my daughter and me. Although the family court judge fined her several times and even jailed her for a brief time, Maria’s mother was determined to sever contact between us.
The weeks without seeing my daughter turned into months, which turned into years. I was devastated. Then, my ex moved house and simply disappeared.
Maria was five. Words can’t describe the sense of loss, or helplessness I felt.
During those years of separation, I repeatedly contacted Maria’s maternal grandparents, asking them to pass on letters I had written to Maria’s mother, begging her to let me see my daughter. They would claim that they did not know where my ex or Maria were, and my letters went unanswered.
In time, I started to look for my daughter online. Finally, after years of searching, I found her on a social media site and sent her a message. She was 12 years old.
‘Hi, Maria, I am your father! I can’t believe I have finally found you!’, I wrote.
‘Dad? Is that you?’ popped up her immediate reply on my screen.
I can’t describe the joy I felt to finally be back in touch with my daughter; to have found her again. But that feeling immediately turned to sadness. After I replied that it was indeed me, I received no further replies. It was as if someone had simply turned off her computer.
In spite of this setback, I felt encouraged by even this brief amount of contact. I had spent years knowing nothing of Maria, but now I had found her and there was hope. And, having found her once, I would try to contact her again.
A few days later, however, I received another message from my daughter, from a different account. Maria told me that she now lived in another country; that her mother had taken her there a couple of years before. I nearly fell off my chair.
We continued to chat online. Her mother would close each new social media account that my daughter created almost as fast as she set them up, but we managed to communicate a little.
Then I noticed that my daughter seemed to grow colder and more distant with me.
Eventually, some two months after I had originally contacted her, she stopped replying altogether.
When her messages ceased, I sent messages to her friends on social media to pass on to her. She responded by telling me that she did not want me to contact her friends, and to not do it again.
I had naively thought that, if and when I finally found my daughter, our relationship would inevitably be restored. But it was not to be. Clearly, Maria’s mother had been turning her against me.
I was bereft at losing my daughter for a second time. The feeling of loss and emptiness returned; the nightmare was back.
Several more years passed when I received a message from my daughter. She was now 18 years old. I sent Maria a plane ticket for her to come and visit me.
When I met her at the airport, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to run over to her and hug her – but I was also aware I was a total stranger to her.
In the end, I just walked up to her and said an awkward hello.
It was so surreal to be with my daughter again after such a long time. My emotions were all over the place.
I felt elated to see her, but sad for all the years that we’d been apart, and angry at her mother for stealing a relationship that had not been hers to take.
Maria and I spent the next few days getting to know each other again. Understandably she had so many questions for me. What had gone wrong between her mother and me? Why had I not been there for her while she was growing up?
She does not show much interest in getting to know me and it has been impossible for our relationship to build up any momentum
I told my daughter what had happened, but she didn’t believe me. I hadn’t really expected her to. Her mother had crafted a fictitious version of events to tell her; that I had abandoned her and that she had heard nothing from me since Maria was a baby.
Even then, I still had hopes that Maria and I could somehow rebuild our relationship.
But when I asked her why she had come to see me, she answered, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’
Her answer saddened me. That might be an appropriate answer to being asked if one would pick up a discarded coin in the street.
Maybe I was wrong in my interpretation and our relationship was not trivial to her, but her answer was far from, ‘Because I missed you and I want you back in my life.’
After returning home, Maria confronted her mum about all I’d said to her, and her mother admitted everything. She issued a teary apology and was promptly forgiven by Maria.
I could have felt resentment upon her mother being so easily forgiven, but I had given up long ago on any idea of justice.
I was and still am pleased that my daughter still has a good relationship with her mother; I would want that for my daughter whoever her mother was and, within reason, whatever she had done.
I have had to make a conscious effort to let Maria go
But our own relationship has not been so easily mended.
In the near-decade years since Maria came to visit me, we have been in touch through phone calls and messages. Contact between us is decided by her – she gets in touch when she wants to talk.
Maria still lives abroad and, while she has vaguely mentioned wanting to visit me again, we have made no plans.
She does not show much interest in getting to know me and it has been impossible for our relationship to build up any momentum. And, I’ve finally come to realise, that’s OK.
In truth, I don’t expect her to feel any need or desire to get to know me, or to want me in her life. After all, regardless of the reason, I was not in her life during her formative years.
Over time, in order to stop the hurt, I have had to make a conscious effort to let Maria go. I had to accept that our relationship is just a memory from the past.
I no longer see her as my darling daughter, and I no longer feel like her father.
This is certainly not the outcome I wanted. However, whereas previously I had felt as if I were in a black tunnel of despair with no end, I now feel that the darkness is behind me.
Maybe my relationship with Maria will improve in the future, and maybe not. Either way, I will be OK.
*Names have been changed
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