Category Archives: co-parenting

Back to School Time as a Divorced Dad

Let’s catchup a bit. I’ve been depressed. Yep, sorry to admit it. And more sorry that I couldn’t keep my promise of blogging through it. Wow, what a summer. And what lessons I learned.

The kids went back to school last week and I’m happier than I’ve been in months. All good. And last night’s “back to school” night for my 8th grader got me thinking about my divorce, my kids, my limited custody arrangement and where I am in my life at this moment.

  1. Divorce – I didn’t want it, and still sometimes find myself angry that my ex decided for all of us to end the marriage. Things might have been different if she knew she was giving up 50% of their time, but she knew she’d get 70/30 as is typical for uncontested divorces in the year 2010.
  2. My kids – how can I complain? They are doing great. While I can see the things that would’ve been different in their lives had we stayed married and had I been able to continue to infuse their life with joy and optimism that is a bit lacking on the other side… but again, water under the bridge.
  3. Custody – Again back in 2010, even if I had gone to court, it would’ve taken unusual circumstances to get 50/50 custody if my ex wanted something else. It just didn’t happen in Texas without extreme justifications. I couldn’t to that to my kids or my ex.
  4. My life now – Happier that ever. I’m engaged to a very different woman. I’m learning so much about being in a committed “no matter what” relationship. I thought that’s where I was in my relationship to my kid’s mother up until the moment she let me know she’d been to see an attorney.

So you get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.

I’m sad sometimes about the amount of time I have lost of my kids childhoods. I long some days for them to be 5 and 7 again and be loving, cuddling, little beings. But they are teenagers. They need other things from me: cash, a ride somewhere, cash, a shopping spree. Ho hum. That’s the way it is, sure, but it could have gone gone differently.

What if we’d gotten 50/50? What if my kids had retained my influence in equal measure to their mom’s? It was my intention and my dream but it’s not what happened.

One thing that would be different if I had my kids 50% of the time, or 70% of the time like my ex-wife has… I would not have been able to move as deeply and solidly into this new relationship as I have. (2 years and counting.) I have M-W nights off every week. And every other Th-Sun weekend. So I’ve got a lot of time without my kids.

In the early days of my recovery I was depressed. In the next phase of my divorce I was healing and positive but still alone. In the current moment phase of my life I have been focused more on myself than my kids. (70% of the time) And thus I have lost weight, spent time putting a band back together and playing tennis, biking, and cycling with my new fiance. I would say, I’m okay with those percentages today.

I would gladly take my kids back 50/50 but it’s not something that has been offered without some heavy conditions and ultimately she has backed out of every offer. Okay. So this is my life.

  • Happy
  • Sharing my happiness and self-confidence with my kids
  • Missing them all the time – but going on with my life (perhaps a lesson they have learned, that even though they’ve had most advantages of an upper-middle-class life, things were not always going to go as planned) they lost me too.

In my parent’s divorce it was the single most devastating event in my life. When my dad left the family I was 8 and he began a rapid descent into full-blown alcoholism that ended his life when I was 20. I didn’t get much of my dad’s attention until he was dying of cancer and the meds made him unable to drink. So guess what happened. He sobered up.

He sobered up and realized he had missed his relationship with his 4 cool kids for most of their lives. My two sisters moved back to town to spend time with him, but we only got 9 months of remission and when he went he was gone in weeks. He was lost to us completely.

So I lost a good portion of my kid’s childhood. Okay. There’s nothing I can do to get that back. And there’s nothing I can do to make them not teenagers and not rebelling and acting out in some “normal” way at this time in their lives. And I can’t help but miss them every time I see their picture, or get a text or Snapchat. It’s okay. We all get along. Even the ex and I are talking about getting my son a car in the next 6 months.

And so it goes. Another year begins. My daughter is on to Volleyball, Basketball and Track/Tennis. And we’re all back to our 70/30 routine. And I’ve got nothing to complain about and plenty to be grateful for. So that’s where I am. Happy to be out of the depressing summer and happy to have my kids this long weekend.

And I’m happy and in love.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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1/3 Dad: Most of Your Nights Will Be Alone

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If you’re a dad you’re likely to have your kids half as much time as their mom. Them’s the unfair breaks of divorce in the US. (It could be worse.) But if you’re willing to do the work, I hear things are getting better for dads who want to go 50/50. That’s what I fought for, but in 2010, I lost. (To be honest I never went to court about it, we were doing a cooperative divorce and I gave in to the wisdom of the counselor we were meeting with.)

I wonder, if we balanced out the divorce picture, and assumed 50/50 and no immediate payday for the mom, would we lessen the number of avoidable divorces?

Seven years later, I still miss my kids every night they are not with me. Some nights are better than others. Some nights I have plenty of activities planned and I don’t miss them as much. But the agreement I had with their mom when we decided to have kids was equal parenting. And that’s what we did. Until the divorce, when she decided she could have it all. She met with a lawyer before telling me we were in serious trouble. (I hear this is also often the case, where men are caught unaware.)

I wonder, if we balanced out the divorce picture, and assumed 50/50 and no immediate payday for the mom, would we lessen the number of avoidable divorces? Or is that even a thing? If the divorce was going to happen, should we have tried, should I have tried, to avoid it at all cost? Should I have continued to sublimate my joy and desire in order to keep it together “for the kids?”

Today, looking back, I can easily say, that the divorce was a good thing. It might have been the most painful thing, at the time, but in the end I have been released to find a better relationship (and I have) and she too has been given a new opportunity for love. And this weekend, while she was getting married, I was trekking on a 7 mile walk around the lake with my fiancé. I have to say, I am glad I was in a relationship before she got remarried, it might have been tougher otherwise. But looking back, today I can see the road ahead is much more optimistic than that final year in my marriage.

Still, the loss of so much of my kid’s lives at that tender age really had an effect on them and me. I can’t really point at anything specifically. But I know the effect my dadless years had on me as a young boy. While my brother can cook anything and fix anything mechanical, because he did those things with our dad, I am a bit of a mama’s boy. If my car needs an oil change I go to the quickie place. If something on the house needs repair, I call someone. I lost the opportunity to learn from my father, those essential, manly, skills.

What is an evening with your kids worth? Is there an amount of money or time spent elsewhere that I wouldn’t give to have more time with my kids?

Sure, I got other skills in place of those dad-skills. And I’m grateful that I missed out of most of my dad’s heavy drinking years. But I’m not so sure that my son wouldn’t have benefited from a bit more time with me. And my daughter, I think she still misses me for being away so much. AND… at that same moment, she’s asking to be gone the entire weekend coming up. My weekend.

As teenagers we have a different kind of time together. Those kids of 5 and 7 could’ve used my positive and joyous influence. And I could’ve used more weekends on and more days and nights on. And I can be sad about that, or I can move on to what I have.

Under the traditional SPO (standard possession order) the mom gets the kids about twice as much as the dad. That’s just how the court sees the correct order of things. If you want something different, you’re going to have to fight. Even if you start cooperatively, be warned that as emotions heat up, and push comes to shove, you’re going to have to litigate to get to 50/50 parenting, if that’s what you want. The mom doesn’t have to do anything to get the SPO, that’s how the courts will rule unless you fight.

What is an evening with your kids worth? Is there an amount of money or time spent elsewhere that I wouldn’t give to have more time with my kids? Back then, when they were younger things were different. Today, as teenagers with their own agendas and schedules, it’s much harder to get together time with them, even when they are with me. But it doesn’t make it easier.

And my life has new adventures that don’t involve them. Sort of like an early empty nest. They are going eventually, you might as well begin to build the rest of your life.

Recently I’ve been using SnapChat to keep up with them. I’m meeting them where they live. Sure it’s just a picture that says, “I’m here right now, and thinking of you.” But the return messages are always little warm fuzzies. And today my Snaps get responses about twice as often as my texts.

So we learn to adapt. My kids have done fine with only 1/3 of me. I too have survived and begun to thrive. Today I’m not sure I’d opt for 50/50. I’d have to factor in time with my fiancé, and the real role of parenting at this stage, transportation and food. While I begrudge my ex-wife for fighting me on 50/50, today, as they are older, the win might actually be in my column. Is this bad to say? That I love my time with my kids, but as teenagers my 1/3 time is enough?

I’ll end with the beginning. I miss my kids every day of every week. As we all adapted to the 1/3 dad schedule we became grooved. Today this is our cadence. And my life has new adventures that don’t involve them. Sort of like an early empty nest. They are going eventually, you might as well begin to build the rest of your life.

That’s sort of what divorce and the brutal reality of the SPO did. I’ve had to build a good portion of my life without my kids. It’s not how I would’ve orchestrated it, but that’s how it happened. Today, we’re all okay with the mix.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Kids are All Right: A Dad’s Divorce Reflections

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There’s a hard truth I have to swallow. My kids have done okay without me. Not without/without me, but with only 1/3 of me. As the worst happened, divorce, I was really worried about my kids, even more than myself. Everything I did was to support them and even their mom during the transition.

I think most of my devastation was about me and my loneliness. I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted the house, wife, and kids back. But that’s not what happened.

Well, the transition, it turns out, was a lot easier for them. See, they stayed in their home and went along with life much like it would’ve been if I had gone on an extended business trip. They kept their rooms, their routines, and their mom. But they lost me. And I’m sort of mixed when I say, “So what.”

So, you’re getting a divorce. In my life it was the worst thing I could’ve imagined. And even as I valiantly fought for 50/50 parenting I was awarded something much less. Something called the Standard Possession Order. (SPO) And in this miraculously skewed document I was given every other weekend (on some odd 1-3-5 schedule) and a single night during the week off. It works out to about half as much time as my now ex-wife. I was devastated.

But I think most of my devastation was about me and my loneliness. I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted the house, wife, and kids back. But that’s not what happened. And I’m here to tell the truth about it: my kids are happy and well-adjusted teenagers. Even without my presence for a majority of the last 7 years, they are still stellar kids.

Now, a good chuck of that appreciation goes to the adversary in all this, my then wife who argued against 50/50 parenting. She has worked harder than she would’ve had we stayed together. She’s provided the lion’s share of first aid, doctor’s appointments, and school pickup and delivery. It’s not the way I wanted it, but it actually worked out okay for my kids.

What did I miss?

I’m mostly sad for the things I missed. The events I would’ve liked to have been part of in stead of only getting a phone photo of. The daily grind of being a parent was a privilege. Even if I was tired and distracted, nothing brought me back to life like my kid duties. I lost the routine of “being a dad” that had become my modus operandi. I lost over have of my dadness. And I missed a ton of activities, school projects, and events in my kids life. So what.

And really that’s the answer. So what. They are okay, and that was the big concern. The effect on them was pronounced, they had a lot less of the happy parent in their life and a lot more of the responsible one. Perhaps they will grow up to be responsible adults. And my ex does have a better handle on things like schedules and doctor’s appointments.

But the sadness I feel at the divorce today is more about the loss of their childhood, and the long years I suffered alone.

What I missed is gone. What I miss is the connection when they are away from me. And that was the rub then as it is now. Even as they are troublesome teenagers I miss every day they are not with me. Sure, I have other things to do. I have a fiancé, I have a band, I have my writing. But I’d rather have them. The sad part is, the kids I really long for are the one’s I was asked to walk out on.

Today my kids are much more like little adults. They need us parents, but it’s more for things like “rides to the mall” and “money for a movie.” The parenting roles have changed quite a bit. And in this parenting role I’m actually happy for the SPO. It’s not that I don’t want MORE time with my kids, it’s really that the time with them is very different.

We all lost in the divorce. My son is less like me than he could’ve been. Maybe that’s not all bad. But the sadness I feel at the divorce today is more about the loss of their childhood, and the long years I suffered alone. Their triumphant personalities are the reward of our low-conflict divorce. Sure, she’s done some contra-indicated things in our 7 years, but the proof is in the kids. They are fine. They did good without me. Different, but good.

Taking What You Got

Today I have more energy and joy for them when they are with me. I’m happier in my life than I was in the later years of my marriage. My kids are seeing me living my life to its fullest. And when they are part of my life, I get to rub off on them as much as I can. If joy is my MO then perhaps some of their joy is from me.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Hero’s Journey of a Divorced Dad

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A lot of hardships come at a man in the throes of a divorce. There are plenty of opportunities to get mad, get vindictive, get even, especially if the divorce was not your idea. But the higher road is to rise above the blame and anger of the divorce, and to think about your kids. First and foremost, think about them and the love that created them. That transformation that took place the moment you became a parent is still the most important focus of your life.

In most cases, like mine, you are going to have to come up with an additional $1,200 a month, even before you get to pay for a new apartment or try to afford a new mortgage.

First order of business: finding a place to live. In most states the dad is the parent typically asked to leave the family home. Even if you’re planning on selling, the dad is often the parent asked to move out. The idea is that moms are more nurturing and that young kids need their mommy more than their daddy. While for very young kids (breastfeeding for example) this might be the case, but in most other situations this is just the status quo, and not the reality of the relationship or parenting roles.

Second order of business: finding additional income. Again, in general, if you’re getting divorced and you’re the dad you will be asked to pay child support. In some states if you argue and win 50/50 custody the child support can be based on a percentage of income, but that’s an ideal outcome. In most cases, like mine, you are going to have to come up with an additional $1,200 a month, even before you get to pay for a new apartment or try to afford a new mortgage. Starting over, financially, after divorce is one of the biggest hardships facing a dad.

In spite of the anger and resentment, you’ve got to drop your psychological work elsewhere. Your kids don’t have any skills for dealing with your sadness or anger, and your ex has got better things to do.

Third order of business: taking care of yourself in the “off” times. Typical parenting splits give the mom twice as much time with the kids. That means for most of the week nights and every other weekend, you’re going to be newly alone. At first this might seem like a great thing as you attempt to jump back into the dating pool. But eventually, the loneliness begins to become an issue. The joy and playfulness that was your life as a parent, now has a hard boundary, and most of your hours you will not have access to your kids. You’ve got to decide what else you’re going to do with your life.

Forth order of business: reconnecting with your kids when they are back with you. If you get your life together fairly quickly and find a place to live where you can have your kids over for the weekend, you can begin the process of reconnecting. It’s hard. Kids want to be close, but they don’t know how to talk about what they’ve been doing at school or at home. You’ve got to work it out of them. Or just be satisfied at being with them and not so concerned about what you do or talk about. If you can establish some outdoor activities (we got a trampoline) that you all like to do, that’s a great way to drawing them back into your life.

Final order of business: how you negotiate and deal with your ex-partner. In spite of the anger and resentment, you’ve got to drop your psychological work elsewhere. Your kids don’t have any skills for dealing with your sadness or anger, and your ex has got better things to do. So it was important for me to seek out professional counseling while I was going through my divorce. I talked to this person as much about me and my life as I did about the divorce. It helps to have someone to rant to, cry to, laugh to, and who will challenge your old destructive patterns.

Even when she’s being harsh and unreasonable, I can choose to response with the love and kindness I have for my children. She is irrelevant at this point.

The journey is hard and long. But in the end, if you keep your head above the fray, you can make a better life for your kids. Regardless of whose idea the divorce was, and regardless of who wins the custody or house battles, your kids are the most important and most critical part of being a divorced parent. Anytime you think of being mean to your ex, just think of how it might hurt your kids and don’t do it. It’s never worth it.

I had anger issues. I liked to trade sharp barbs via text occasionally, just to let her know she was being mean. But as I got more clear on my own issues I could see that it didn’t do me any good. In fact, by engaging in pointed banter I was giving my anger and resentment more fuel.

One day, just before I started this blog, I decided I was done with the negative responses. Even when she’s being harsh and unreasonable, I can choose to response with the love and kindness I have for my children. She is irrelevant at this point. My relationship and responsibility lies with my kids alone. What issues I have with my ex-wife can usually be handled via email, and that’s an easy format to keep clean and balanced.

Anger breeds anger. Resentment and sharp jabs only builds more need for retaliation. If you can focus on the love and support of your children you can forgive and forget your ex-partner all together. As they fade into the back ground you can give your attention and energy to the loving support of your kids as the path ahead for your hero’s journey.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Seven Strategies for Winning Divorce

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The real win in divorce is more of a judo move. Waring parties are prevented from hurting each other and the negotiations happen with as little bloodshed as possible. So it’s not so much a win as a neutralizing the other person’s anger, entitlement, and narcissism while protecting yourself and your kids. I know that sounds harsh, but the elements of rage and victimization are present in any relationship. Divorce just makes the relationship a lot harder. But divorce does not end the relationship if you have kids.

If you want 50/50 parenting ask for it. If it’s worth going to war for, then fight for it.

Strategy One: Never respond to anger or frustration in-kind. Ever. Just don’t do it. It might feel good to unload a good blast from the furnace, but do it to a therapist or a friend, not to your ex.  Any temporary victory you would feel in belittling, or showing your ex-partner for their trivial issues, is lost in the frustration that will then be spread around to your kids. A swipe at your ex is a swipe at your kids happiness too. Do not do it.

Strategy Two: Come to an agreement around money and then stick to it. Be open if you are having financial trouble. And if you are co-parents, take turns providing the expenses of your kids upbringing. That’s not how legal divorce happens in the US. Here, the woman gets primary custody and a fat paycheck about 80% of the time. And the man, if he chooses to fight, must be prepared to prove his worthiness. Until the laws are changed, live within them. Negotiate your deal, then get out. Lawyers will take more money than you can ever provide to your kids. Give it to your kids.

Strategy Three: If you want 50/50 parenting ask for it. If it’s worth going to war for, then fight for it. I opted for the cooperative divorce and then accepted the 65-35 split offered. It was a bad deal. It was not how we entered the agreement to have kids, but it’s what the ex wanted. So she knew she could get it if we went to court. If you are doing a collaborative divorce “What she would get in court” is NEVER the right response to a 50/50 request.

Strategy Four: Deal with your own shit on your own time. Your kids do not need to be therapists, confidants, or friends during your divorce. They need to be kids. The more you can do to take your issues outside, the better the relationship will be with them and your ex. Never talk bad about you ex. You can say “she does things I don’t agree with,” but her decisions cannot be challenged in-front of your kids. They are not a sounding board.

Now is my chance to get on with MY living as a dad, as a boyfriend, and as an ex-husband.

Strategy Five: Find engaging activities that you love to do with your kids. This is hard one as your kids get older. But your efforts will pay off with huge dividends: their conversation.  My son recently discovered playing cards, so I play with him. And he beats my ass. Cool. But the real winner is me. During the game play, I am just a friend, I am just his dad, I am just an opponent in a game of cards. He talks about all kinds of stuff while we’re playing cards. I’m still looking for the “activity” with my daughter that doesn’t involve shopping at the mall.

Strategy Six: Move on with your life. Too many divorced parents stay in “divorced parent” mode for too long. Get to the business of healing yourself. Certainly stay alone until you’ve worked through some the issues that landed you in the divorce court. (Yes, they were on both sides of the aisle.) And then move along back into the mystery that is modern dating. Try it all. What do you have to lose?

Strategy Seven: Get good at doing what you love. I love tennis and playing music. So I started taking weekend workout sessions. And I reconnected with some friends and started playing music again. Then when you begin to meet interesting people you’ve got a few things to start with. First dates are a lot more interesting if they involve walking around the lake, or hitting a few tennis balls. Bars and coffee shops are not our natural habitat.

You can win at divorce, but only by staying to the high road in all interactions. Sure, things didn’t go the way I wanted, but that is life. Now is my chance to get on with MY living as a dad, as a boyfriend, and as an ex-husband. Let me do the best at all three.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Transformational Divorce

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Everything that happened from the moment my then-wife said she’d been to see a lawyer, has delivered me up to be healed in a way that would not have been possible had we stayed together.

I wouldn’t have wished for it, but I now see, looking back, that my divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me.

My entire world (kids, wife, house, work, neighborhood, sports, money, creative life, play) exploded into tiny pieces. When the business of divorce had been done I got what 90% of divorcing dads in America get: 35% of the time with their kids, the non-custodial parent role and a big child support obligation, and no house. It’s as if I went from Pleasantville to homeless in a matter of weeks. And the homelessness is no joke. The financial and psychological drains on a father in the midst of divorce are immense. I was barely able to stay afloat. And more than once I wondered if I was going to be able to stay alive. Perhaps my large life insurance policy would be better for my kids than me. WOW.

I’ve been working on selling my “Whole Parent” story as The Positive Divorce, but maybe that’s too tame. What happened after my divorce was life altering for me, my ex-wife, and my kids. And the Phoenix from the Flames has been my creative power caught fire, my writing found a deeper voice, and my audience, here and on several other blogs began to grow. I wouldn’t have wished for it, but I now see, looking back, that my divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Sure we were making the best of it, but we weren’t happy. We had very different ideas about what the other person “should” be doing. Well, I’d say she liked to “should” on me all the time. I liked to “should” on myself, but was primarily a pretty happy-go-lucky man. I liked my kids, I liked my job (except when I hated it) and I did my best to support my loving and beautiful wife through every aspect of our relationship. But something was always wrong. Something never met her expectations. I couldn’t figure it out, but I learned that I couldn’t fix it either.

Lesson #1 before the transformation: I could not make her happy. I could not fix her. I could only keep myself focused on myself. (An old AA concept: never take another person’s inventory. You can only manage your own.)

Lesson #2 before the transformation: I am responsible for my happiness and the support and caring of those around me. But no one else can make me happy. If I struggled with depression, it was only me who was going to be able to bootstrap my way back to joy.

Lesson #3 before the transformation: Kids are the center of the universe, but kids will not save your marriage or make your life worth living. Kids are a lot of work. The most amazing and rewarding work of all, but still… The stress of having kids really toppled some balance my then-wife had kept together for our entire courtship. She went from happy and self-satisfied to exhausted and angry. That wasn’t really the kids, it was a tendency in her, that only she could deal with.

If you minimize the war with your ex-partner, you can give the kids a hopeful and optimistic outlook on life, even when things don’t work out as planned.

Lesson #4 before the transformation: therapists can be good or bad. A bad therapist can enable and encourage poor behavior. A bad therapist can coddle a depression. A bad therapist may do more damage to your relationship than no therapist. My then-wife has a personal therapist who allowed her to bury her feelings and not deal with issues until they became HUGE. My therapist allowed me to let her go even when I knew it was the hardest thing I would ever do.

Lesson #5 before the transformation: before the divorce you have no idea how you are going to survive. The time without your kids. The depression and loneliness. All the darkness of the divorce, brought me to my knees. And that’s when I learned to pick myself and my needs back up off the floor, dust them off by myself, and put a plan together to get what I wanted next.

Lesson #6 before the transformation: love seems like a long shot when you are losing the love of your life and your kids. But the transformation will burn away the sorrow at some point. The love you are letting go of will transform into power, direction, and clarity as you reach out for what you really want, now that you know.

Lesson #7 before the transformation: the kids seem to suffer, but they will be okay as well. My two children were 5 and 7 when the transformation happened. Today they are 13 and 15 and they are two of the happiest, most well-adjusted kids I know. While they know the price we all paid in away time, they seem happy and well-directed in their own lives. While I didn’t know if I could survive divorce, I was more worried about my kids.

If you minimize the war with your ex-partner, you can give the kids a hopeful and optimistic outlook on life, even when things don’t work out as planned. None of us would’ve wanted the divorce to happen. But as I talk with my kids today, we all agree that things are better now. I’m happier. I’m with a woman who makes me happier. Their mom seems to be happier. That’s the goal, happier and more centered in life, for all of us.

The transformation took about 4+ years for me. I have mapped it out.

transformational-recovery

YEAR ONE: It’s time to let your guard down and grieve. You’ve just gotten a divorce. Let that sink in. Miss your kids and allow that longing to penetrate your ego. Get angry. Find new things to do with your energy. Find new hobbies and activities.

YEAR TWO: As your life stabilizes a little you begin to refocus your priorities around the kids. Without the marriage as a focus you can pour your energy into your children. You will also need to begin your own healing process. Start a martial arts class, join a divorce recovery group, begin journaling. It’s time to work on YOUR recovery.

YEAR THREE: You begin grasping terms like co-parenting. You are now working more as a team. You may not agree with your former spouse, but you can agree on what’s best for the kids. As you begin feeling stronger and more yourself, you might begin to date again. Don’t start dating too soon, you’re liable to end up in another failed relationship.

YEAR FOUR: As your life begins coming together you can leave relationships that don’t serve your future goals. It’s easy to make your kids a priority, but you’d like to have a companion along for the journey too. You realize the job is a means to an end, not the meaning of your life. The “off parent” hours are spent doing things you love and perhaps finding another person to love.

In four short years my life went from shambles to aspirational. I learned that I was not going to settle for half-ass again. I had overlooked some early warning signs at the beginning of our relationship and marriage. I won’t make those same mistakes again. After the transformation you can reset your priorities.  You are being giving another chance to do it better, to get it right.

My divorce was the transformation I needed in my life to get back on track. I learned what made me happy. I learned I really needed to be with someone who shared the same sense of joy and wonder at the world, that I could wake up with every morning and say thanks to the universe for. I was looking for a WE that made my life bigger and better. My marriage provided a lot of growth, two wonderful kids, and the transformational experience that reoriented my life completely.

I give thanks to my ex-wife for releasing me back into the universe. I needed to grow and re-find myself and what made me happy. Then I was able to seek out a more like-minded partner and setup our long-term relationship on mutual goals and mutual adoration.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Hold On! The Information You’ve Been Given About Divorce is Wrong

See if you can spot the lie:

  • The woman is the primary care giver.
  • The mom always gets primary custody.
  • Dads usually make the most money and spend more time at work, this situation is important for the continuity of the family after divorce.
  • The kids should be supported in a lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to.
  • Women are usually the emotional ones in a relationship. They are the emotional center of the nuclear family unit before the divorce and should be given consideration as such after the divorce.
  • Dads are often distant, unengaged, and aloof in relationship to parenting.
  • Girls really need their mom’s more than their father.
  • Boys need their moms when they are young and their fathers later in life.

They are all wrong. Or at least misperceptions about how it is. Every case, every family, is different.

In my case, I’d go as a far as saying every one of these statements was actually the opposite of what our family was like. But as we headed towards negotiating our co-parenting relationship, I started being fed these outdated ideas as truth. Though they didn’t fit in our case, I was assured that the courts had done enough research and the experience to say “what’s best for the children.”

For your kids, divorce is the biggest trauma they’ve experienced in their young lives. The dad is often given the boot as the little group attempts to maintain some semblance of routine without him.

In our case, as in 90% of divorces in Texas, the split was divided along 1970’s traditional divorce wisdom. Moms are the primary caregivers, dads are the primary breadwinners, and keeping this balance is what protects the children from the harshness of divorce. That’s the party line.

The truth is, there is no protection from the harshness of divorce. However, not giving 50/50 consideration to the father in the family does everyone a disservice. Kids need both parents equally. If you can’t stay together for them, at least split up in the way that serves everyone’s need.

Can the father’s needs be tossed out at a court’s whim? Sure. It happens daily. But it’s not “in the best interest of the children.”

Divorce is hard business. And for your kids, divorce is the biggest trauma they’ve experienced in their lives. The dad is often given the boot as the little group attempts to maintain some semblance of routine without him. This is what you will be told is best for everyone. Well, everyone except the dad.

We’ve come to view the stereotypical male as detached and unfeeling. And that preconceived idea no longer holds water. Today the lopsided divorce, while all to common, is coming being challenged more frequently.

The situation: someone in the relationship has decided to break up the family, why shouldn’t it start with the assumption that the split is going to be a 50/50 on all counts?

If you are about to enter into divorce negotiations or a divorce war, please consider the needs of both parents in addition to the children. If, for some reason, it is determined the balance should be less than 50/50 make sure you understand the reason.

My dad was an aloof man. He was also the only breadwinner in the house. And my mom was, in fact, the emotional center in the house. That’s typical of that period in time. But the working mom revolution came along and changed everything. We’re more aspirational with our parenting, and in my case, we voted to split the details of parenting as closely down the middle as possible.

While I don’t blame my then-wife for “going for it” and asking for everything she wanted: the money, the house, the custody, I don’t think she was thinking beyond her interests. And we can all cite studies about mothering and nurturing, but today, just as many modern studies show the dad is of equal importance in bringing up healthy kids. The situation: someone in the relationship has decided to break up the family, why shouldn’t it start with the assumption that the split is going to be a 50/50 on all counts?

In my marriage, that’s how we agreed to have kids, as equal partners. What leads the woman to think she’s entitled to more? Why does more time with the kids also equate with more money to be paid by the father? It’s flawed math. Worse, it’s really flawed psychology.

As I was preparing to leave the house, she wanted to make sure I got a pet to be with me. She understood where her emotional bonds were.

I didn’t have the option to fight for 50/50 parenting once the divorce was in motion. By agreeing to a collaborative divorce, I was waving my right to sue my then-wife for terms. And while this also precluded her from suing me, somehow we started the negotiations with the old imbalanced split.

There’s no going back for us. The decisions that were made have run their course. My son is now 15, he was 9 when his mom asked for a divorce.  My daughter, who was 7 at the time, is the one I still feel the most pain about. She didn’t understand. As I was preparing to leave the house, she wanted to make sure I got a pet to be with me. She understood where her emotional bonds were.

I will never get back my kid’s youngest days. I will not be able to make up for the 65% lost time with them. What I can do is tell others about my experience. I can encourage, even moms, to consider the 50/50 route in compassion for the kids and also for the other member of the equation, the dad.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Minimizing Collateral Damage of Depression and Divorce

dep

I’m going to talk about my depression for a minute. Okay?

Why is it, that when I’m depressed I cannot see the hope in the pattern? Why do I sink so far that even my own internal dialogue is powerless to lift my spirits? It’s not like I haven’t been depressed before. It’s not like I don’t know that I eventually rise back out of my funk. But somewhere in the short-circuit of my brain, I can no longer experience joy or hope.

As a parent dealing with depression I’ve had to substantially moderate my communications with my kids and ex-wife during these periods.

It’s the hope that’s a real killer. And it’s this vicious and toxic self-talk that I moderate by getting completely quiet. Sure, it’s not a good sign when I’m no longer my boisterous self, but it’s also safer for me to not be spouting off my dooms day fantasies.

I can see that these thoughts are flawed. I can even state to myself, “Man you are really hitting some f-ed up thinking here. Let’s not pay too much attention to this storm.” But I always DO pay too much attention to it. Or I consume too much of my own energy battling the wicked thoughts that I begin to shut off from everyone around me.

As a parent dealing with depression I’ve had to substantially moderate my communications with my kids and ex-wife during these periods. Several years ago when I was going through some of the upheaval of the divorce, I had a pretty open conversation with my kids about my “cloud.” My son came to the rescue. “You mean like that commercial where the cloud follows the guy around raining on him? Like that?”

This is the only time a pharma-porn ad for an antidepressant has ever served a purpose in my life, other than reminding me that I’m depressed. My son really understood the concept and the cartoon illustrations seemed to make the disease more manageable.

And as we progressed through that difficult Summer, my son would occasionally ask, “How’s your cloud today?”

It was a great opening. I was able to reassure both of my kids that my difficulties had nothing to do with them. And that I was working with a doctor and some cloud-removal medicine of my own. It was a nice bridge for us to be able to chat about Dad’s issues. And when kids reach the age where onset depression might arise, I’m so glad we have the framework to talk about things like medication and the state of my cloud.

Even my ex-wife is supportive these days when things are “off.” She notices when my email responses take days rather than hours. It’s not her fault that she needs help and has questions that we have to answer together as parents. My depression does not abide by our needs or our schedule. And this year she texted me, “Are you having a hard time this Christmas?” Yep, as painful as it was to admit to her, it was more painful to hide the truth.

So I struggle with depression from time to time. Most of the time the onset has something to do with earning a living and the joy or panic around my employment. And today, I’m with a person who can embrace all of my flavors, and while she’s not enthusiastic about my quietudes, she is very clear that she is sticking with me, through thick and thin. She’s much better at the thin times then I am.

That’s the person I feel I really am. The UP person who’s trying to express myself in music, writing, and singing.

So moving forward, my challenge is to understand that I cycle. Is it bipolar? I don’t know, I think Bradley Cooper did us all a service by demonstrating the warped highs and lows of that variation of depression, but I’m not sure it’s that helpful a diagnosis. See, when I’m down my entire life suffers. When I’m UP, or HAPPY, or ENTHUSIASTIC, my life feels and looks as if everything it going well.

Well, what if the UPSIDE is merely my life going well. I have not spun off in a manic mode (out of control euphoria) since I did drugs in my high school days. My “highs” these days are really what I consider my full, creative, and activated self. Does this mean I’m cycling UP? Or that I’m getting hypo-manic? (Hypo, meaning just below the destructive mania.) I don’t think so. My meds doctor is not all that convinced that the label is very helpful in treating me.

So I get LOW. Those are the times I need the most help. When I’m UP I’m usually plugging along quite nicely. That’s the person I feel I really am. The UP person who’s trying to express myself in music, writing, and singing. It’s the ME that I believe my current fiance fell in love with. And thank goodness it was good enough to hook her heart to me before I took my first nose dive during our relationship.

And that’s the part that I have to work to repair. I do not need to jettison everything in my life when I start having a LOW period. And if I can hold on to the tiny hopes: 1. that my mate will stand beside me through the storm; 2. that the storm will pass; 3. that joy will return to my life.

But the message I need to keep repeating, even in the good times, is THE JOY WILL RETURN. If I can leverage that into some measure of hopefulness, then I am well along my path of recovery.

As we move forward as a family, I am certain I will have difficult times again. But now I’m going to counsel myself, and encourage my family to reflect back to me, with this truth: the LOW passes. If I can work to reduce collateral damage while I’m suffering from this brain flu, I will do everyone, including myself, a favor.

To that’s it. The hope is in the future moderation and mitigation of the LOW. To deny that it will happen again, or get overly cocky and optimistic about my happy times, is to open myself to the blindspot that is my depression.

But the message I need to keep repeating, even in the good times, is THE JOY WILL RETURN. If I can leverage that into some measure of hopefulness, then I am well along my path of recovery. I don’t have to aim for joy when I am activated and functioning properly. I do need to remember before, during, and after my LOW that I recover. I return fully and joyfully to my life. Forever and ever, amen.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Celebrating 2 Years of Being The Positive Divorce Dad

WHOLE-songwriter

You never leave the family, you just leave the house.

Two years ago I started this journey, finding the Positive in my divorce. My life was changed by the act of trying to reframe everything in a non-adversarial mode. Even when she would be mean, I would never respond in-kind. Ever. Having this blog, this Positive folder to put stories into made me more aware and more conscious of creating love and connection between myself and my kids. And in not riling up their mom, giving all of us an easier life, post-divorce.

As I have continued to weave my Positive Divorce story in the public eye, I have learned many things.

The angst of divorce is our own. The trauma of divorce is held within all of us. If I can behave in ways that support my kids in every interaction, I can remember to be kind, be slow to react, and be thoughtful of our continuous future as a family unit.

Things started two years ago with this post.

dad's gang

A Return to Wholeness After Divorce

There’s no way sugar coat it. Divorce is the single biggest event that has happened in the lives of my family, ever. As amicable as you want to make it (and we tried) things get rough, sad, hurtful, complicated, and confusing. And while we as adults can only fathom that chaos from our own perspectives, the churn in our kid’s lives will shape them forever. I know my parents divorce, and the subsequent loss of my father’s love and influence, had devastating effects on my life. I’m a survivor. I’m here to talk, write, and grow even more from the experience. But it sucked.

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And along the journey to now, I have discovered many things about myself, about my kids, and about this process of divorce and recovery from divorce. The goal, when you separate is to maintain a civil relationship and do what’s best for the kids. It’s a lot easier to say that than it is to actually do it. Your ex will do stuff that baffles your mind. You will want different things. You will do the best you can. And it will be a challenge sometimes, but I learned that when I was able to hold up the positive white flag of surrender, I was able to set the tone for my experience of the divorce.

I also wrote the manifesto for what I was doing. It has been updated several times, but the core mission remains the same.

Becoming The Whole Parent, author, John McElhenney

About Becoming a Whole Parent Again, After Divorce

My unwavering and immutable mission:

1. 100% positive
2. Kids first
3. Honest feelings

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In the second month I met Arianna Huffington at a tech conference. When she gave out her email and asked for ideas I was typing the message and including my post from earlier that morning.  All Available Light: Positive Parenting Energy Is Never Lost. I think that post really turned a corner for me. I was hitting stride and developing a different voice that would grow stronger the more I wrote. Arianna emailed me back within hours and I became a HuffPo blogger. See my archive: John McElhenney on the Huffington Post.

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It was at this point, a good three years into my divorce journey that I hit on my home run post. (Still getting the most reads of any page on my blog.)

What A Single Dad Wants In the *Next* Relationship

Rules for dating a single dad. (I’ve got two kids and a full-time job, but I’d still like to find time to be with someone.)

  1. Let’s not rush into things.
  2. I’m Looking for 100% Pure Connection
  3. I’m Into Moms

There’s more, but you can read it in the post.

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And next was the 2nd post divorce relationship and first experience with navigating another person’s resistance and dysfunction. All the while, learning to let it go, take it easy, and keep my focus on the present moment and not wondering and worrying about where we were going.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 7.55.42 AMLearning About Sex and Dating As We Go Along

Dating is not marriage. In fact, dating (which I admittedly don’t know much about) can be shut down by getting too serious or too future-plans oriented. As my schedule and future is quite flexible, I was surprised how quickly my “relationship” concepts changed yesterday when confronted with a challenging dilemma. On one hand I had met and “dated” an amazing woman. One the other she was telling me how our closeness and chemistry was freaking her out.

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And then I was able to open up a bit about post-divorce depression, which is common for us empaths.

WHOLE-thekissHow Long Will it Hurt? Divorce Recovery, the Road Back to Happiness

Today, over four years after my divorce was finalized, I was still struck by a pang of sadness as I was dropping my kids bags off at my ex-wife’s house, the old house, our old house. I wondered, “How long will it take before I feel nothing?” But I immediately knew the answer. I will always feel a loss when dropping my kids bags off at my old house. The rest, what I do with those feelings, is up to me.

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Everything seemed to fall into place after I wrote this important post.

WHOLE-prayerPrayer for Single Parents, and My Ex

“I wish you happiness in your new life, I always want to see you shine, you are the other half, the partner in this parenting journey we accepted together. Your joy is joy for our kids. Your peace is their peace, and mine. As we walk separate paths we are blameless and grateful for the gifts we’ve been given. And to you, my dear ex, I give the deepest respect and love. Thank you for where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going, still a family, still parents, still blessed.”

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And from that point on, this blog became as much about relationship building and dating as it was about divorce and difficulties. Rounding the 5th year after divorce, things began to change for me.

I was invited to do a few interviews:

I began to identify my core relationship needs and decided drop online dating as distraction. I put the intention out there for what I wanted, and started working on myself and my joy rather than pursuing a relationship.

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I wrote The Deep Space Divorce Saga which began with

My Little Rocket Ship of Hope and Love WHOLE-rocketship

I am hilariously ashamed, and… Laughing at my situation, because if I didn’t laugh at it, I’m sure I’d be freaking out, depressed, or drinking. Something to escape my current grounded state. Ready to laugh? Me too.

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And it was right at this time, January of 2015, that an amazing woman showed up in my life and changed everything.

May I Fall In Love With You?

Do you long for the intoxication of love again, like me? I can feel it in my bones, growing stronger daily, as I grow stronger and more confident. And the more clear I get about 100% or nothing, the easier it is to make decisions about my time and efforts. Dating and a relationship will be a core part of my life again. Today, not so much.

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The new non-dating attitude and honest reinvention of myself had called in the perfect woman. I could not have known it at the outset, in January, when I wrote the post above, but within several months there was an entirely different thread being woven on this blog.

whole-bw-coupleAn Amazing Thing Has Happened

She arrived in my life in January of this year.

In February of this year my life fell apart, due to my own emotional tides and I slipped into a depression. I did not see it coming. I was on top of the world, and boom, I was freaking the hell out. And then the most amazing thing happened. She stayed close and connected.

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And the rest, as they say…

Thank you for staying on this journey with me. The outpouring of love and support has been vital at times. My positive attitude continues to get stronger and project itself into other’s lives, through this writing. I am learning. I am growing. And I hope, I am becoming a better father, ex-husband, and lover. Let’s see where we go from here.

I think my latest post shows a continuing search for meaning in all of this love stuff. And I’m very excited to be back on that path again. This time for good.

WHOLE-runner

The Care and Feeding of Your Lover

Pray for your lover’s health and happiness, then let go and let them pursue it however it best suits them in the moment.

 

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Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Note on the intention behind this post and this blog: Yes, divorce is hard. Trying to whitewash every single detail of a co-parenting relationship in some fantasy land haze would be of benefit to none of us. I am committed to owning my part in the divorce, always. And I am hopefully clear on my self-awareness when it comes to my own struggles with money, depression, communication breakdowns, and disagreements with my ex-wife. What I hope, is that this post doesn’t come across as a humblebrag, but as a celebration of the progress I’ve made in navigating the last two years of being a single parent and co-parent. I always appreciate comments and feedback.

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The Training and Education of a Reluctant Divorcé

WHOLE-umbrella

It does not matter if you are the parent who says, “I want a divorce,” or the parent who is surprised by the fracturous disclosure, your life and the lives of your children will be forever changed. You can’t walk that one back.

For me there was no mystery that we were in trouble, the admission came during couple’s therapy, but the form and bluntness of the admission was even more devastating. Something she was saying, in response to a question from the therapist gave me a hint that all was not well. I struck with some sort of defensive instinct. I asked, “Have you already been to see a lawyer?”

That second. When she blushed and nodded. That second began my training to become a divorced dad.

In many ways I went under the bus with a quiet gasp. I agreed after several sessions more that working together required both of us wanting to be married. One of us didn’t.

The separation of divorce is not horrible. The divorce may actually be better for all parties involved. It is our reaction and past-history with divorce that becomes the issue.

I cried and wailed, but mostly to my individual therapist. And mostly I was crying about my parents divorce. I did not ever want to inflict that kind of pain on my kids. And at the outset of our divorce planning I was determined not to repeat the bitter struggle that defined my 3rd grader through 8th grader experience of life. Yes, my parents divorced over a long and extended battle. But it wasn’t so much about custody. It was about money.

We didn’t have a lot of money to argue about. We had debt, which would come into play later. And we had two kids, a house, and two cars. What we had from the start, and what we continue to put at the front of any of our discussions is the “best interest of the children.” Now, this phrase may come back to haunt you, but there are ways to get over your own pain and continue to be an awesome divorced parent.

It was early on that we agreed to do our divorce cooperatively. We would focus primarily on the kids and the parenting plan. We’d get a divorce accountant to help us “run the numbers.” And we’d agree to not fight with lawyers. We got through all of those agreements pretty quickly, once I agreed that divorce was the only course of action.

I sometimes try to play the higher/lower game where I blame my ex for the divorce. “It was her idea.” But the reality is, I was just as angry and frustrated by our relationship as she was. It was my parent’s divorce and the devastating aftermath that kept me terrified of divorce.

Newsflash from the present me to the just divorcing me, “It’s actually going to get better after you divorce. It might take a while. You’re going to have to do some work on yourself. But the divorce is the best thing for your situation.”

It’s no mystery that an unhappy marriage and angry parents breeds some pretty unhappy kids. Had my parents stayed married my life would’ve looked a lot differently. And while it’s easy for me to see how their divorce distanced me from my father’s alcoholic demise, I could not understand or cope with the loss when I was 8 years old.

Things are very different now. Most of my kids friends have divorced and remarried parents. It’s not a stigma for them. It’s *us* the parents that have to get out of the way and let the separation not be a horrible, awful, most destructive thing. Let me say that again for emphasis.

The separation of divorce is not horrible. The divorce may actually be better for all parties involved. It is our reaction and past-history with divorce that becomes the issue. I had a hard time with the divorce. I hated the idea. I fought to keep things together. And in the end I fell into a depression over the loss of my 100% parenting role. All these antics and struggles I needed to go through, I suppose, to finally break down enough to let go.

In the end, divorce is about letting go. But we’re letting go of the things that don’t work. We let go of the pain that comes from being in bed with someone you love and feeling more like surfing Facebook than making love. We let go of the fantasy that we had when we started the marriage and parenting journey, where we claimed, “We will be different. We will win. We will never divorce.”

The biggest transition in my life happened when I lost my marriage. The amazing thing is, out of the other side of this wreckage that I became, I also re-emerged as a writer. The plays and novels I had been trying to write, suddenly spilled out in blog posts about divorce and parenting.

What my divorce gave me was the freedom to become who I wanted to be all along. The roles and constraints of my marriage had strapped me into a course of action that was killing me. At my high-paying corporate job I was gaining weight, developing high blood pressure, and feeling pretty crappy about life. Sure, I came home to the picket fence and the smiling kids, but the wife was not so happy, and dinner was rarely in the oven.

Thriving as an artist, even if I don’t make a penny from it, is also part of my gift and my message to my kids.

The parenting dream and the American dream and the artist’s dream are often set up in opposition. If I can’t make a living as a writer or musician, I’ve got to find ways to make a living and hope that I can keep my creative passion alive in the fragments of time I have left. And parenting was the biggest responsibility I had, and have. There is nothing more important that my kids… Wait a minute. Let’s back that one up a minute.

More important than your kids is YOU. In order to be a good parent you have to survive. Depression and soul-crushing workloads are not acceptable. And more than survive you have to show them how to thrive, even under the circumstances that seem dire and depressing. In becoming a stronger person, in showing them how I could roll with the punches and get back up as a man and a father is one of the most important lessons I can transfer to them.

Thriving as an artist, even if I don’t make a penny from it, is also part of my gift and my message to my kids. You need to know what you want. From there you can rebuild from any set back and regroup, reset, restart.

The divorce was a hard reset for me.

The gift that I was given by my then-wife’s admission, was the gift of my creative soul. If I had aligned myself towards corporate work and being the good dad with the nice house in the nice neighborhood, I might have really suffered a death. My own creative death, and ultimately the death of many unhealthy white professionals who struggle along with little joy or passion.

I had the joy and passion in spades. I had a mis-aligned marriage which generated two wonderful kids. Today I have reset myself towards a creatively fulfilling life. I hope that my children learn from my example. That even in the darkest of times we may find the answer we were looking for all along.

My divorce was also my rebirth as a writer and musician.

My new relationship came to being out of an alignment with my dreams and hopes for the future, and hers as well.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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