Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Assistant Father

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 8, 2011

  Leonard, seventy-seven, looks me straight in the eye and says “I called myself an assistant father, and I think that worked well,” suggesting that I advertise his suggestion to a wider audience. This is a gentleman who follows my blogs and, of all things, was impressed by the fact that as a freshman in college I won an award in Chemistry. Why that award struck him in a way in which he shared that with me is puzzling and intriguing to me. I am not sure how me winning that award gives him more confidence in me as a therapist, but he seemed to suggest it did. As I probe about what it means to be an “assistant father” he explains that other people in his situation call themselves step-father, but that term suggests that the step-father is an intrusive figure in the child’s life. By contrast, an “assistant father” is one who loves the kids, but agrees that he did not contribute to their biological being, hence putting him in second place. Sure, Leonard spent more time with his kids than the biological father did, but Leonard’s point was that the terminology of the “assistant father” allowed the kids’ biological dad, Dale, to openly communicate with Leonard, without feeling like he was being cast aside. Leonard’s pride in coming up with this new terminology reminded me of my pride in winning the Chemistry award. They both give recognition to dedication and hard-work. Maybe, now I understand why he highlighted that aspect of my profile. Speculative, of course, but interesting!

4 Responses to “Assistant Father”

  1. Shelly said

    Wow, I’m sure many step-parents would take exception to Leondard’s definition of his role in parenting children, as defined in this blog. What, may I ask, is a father (or parent)? Is it a biological role? Is it someone who brings up a child or donates sperm? Is someone who brings up a child but is not related to the child biologically simply an assistant-parent? What does Leonard’s connection with the terminology of assistant fathering have to do with your winning an award in college in chemistry? In Leonard’s mind, a step-father is an intrusive figure in a child’s life, yet an assistant father is not. I’m not sure I understand or follow this logic.

  2. That’s the point. The terminology is disarming and humble, allowing for the biological father to maintain his dignity and sense of importance. Children will have feelings for those who had a big impact on their lives, and so the “names” of those people become less relevant. Leonard, as a non-mental health professional figured that out rather cleverly, I think. To be more clear, labels are not important, since the connection between two people speaks for itself. Therefore, to “downgrade” your label in order to create harmony in a family system is a small price to pay for better relationships. The connection between my award and his “discovery” of this “assistant father” phrase, is that both are short-hand ways of communicating that through hard work and dedication, admiration can come. In other words, it is not my award in Chemistry that mattered to him, I think, but rather he assumes that the award represents a hard-working person. Likewise, he sees himself as hard-working, and so he relates to me on that level. Thanks, as always, for your comments.

  3. Hi Dr. Vollmer,
    I’m excited to have stumbled upon your blog! I’m a 4th year psych resident planning to move back to southern CA upon graduation and enjoy following blogs of physicians who succeed at combining Psychiatry with social media. Therefore, I look forward to reading through your posts!


  4. Dear Freud and Fashion,
    It is nice to “meet ya”. Good luck with finishing your residency. I look forward to welcoming you to the Southern California mental health community. Thanks for reading my blog and thanks for commenting. SV

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