Half of all African-American children are being raised by their mothers. Sometimes the fathers are involved, but all too often they’re absent. As single mothers, we find ways to make ends meet, provide an education, give our kids the attention that they deserve. But when it comes to telling our children why their Daddy isn’t around, things can get really complicated.

Keep in mind that the objective is to help our kids cope with the fact that their father isn’t around—not saddle them with more baggage. It’s a huge responsibility and one I think about every day.

The prevailing notion, which has come to govern both custody laws and social wisdom, is that it’s always better for the father to be included in the child’s life. If a child has some concrete understanding of who her father is, the thinking goes, it lessens the feelings of loss.

“To me, not letting the child see the father should really be a safety issue,” says Christopher J. Alexander, a psychologist who works with children who have been abandoned. “For instance, if there is the possibility of sexual or physical abuse, I discourage contact. But sometimes single parents don’t want the other parent to see the child for adult reasons, like the other parent has a new partner they don’t like or has a minor criminal past. While there may be cause for concern, these may not be issues that are so great as to harm the kid. I would err more on the side of contact, even if it’s limited, supervised visits.”

Alexander says if contact with the father is impossible, at the very least a mother should try to maintain contact with his family. “It’s so important to have history,” he says. “Whether it’s wanting to find out about one’s cultural roots, one’s medical history, or even asking, ‘What was my dad like?’ or ‘What was my granddad like?’ Those kinds of questions are natural and kids shouldn’t be denied that.”

You can’t make a man be a great father or help him ‘get it.’ But you can teach your child to adapt in a healthy way. If children learn to negotiate something like this early they will develop some really powerful tools.”

The author’s name and some of her friends’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.