Category Archives: co-parenting

Custody Should Be a Collaborative Term

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If you are getting a divorce and you have kids, go for 50/50 parenting or nothing at all. FIGHT for 50/50 parenting and JOINT custody. Do not agree to be the non-custodial parent, under any circumstances.

Today custody in divorce w/ children usually means someone loses. Sure, there is joint custody, but the states usually like someone to be listed as primary custodian, otherwise recognized as “the custodial parent.” And for the rest of us, usually men, we are called the “non-custodial parent.” Seems like semantics, but let me assure you, it’s serious as hell.

In my case, even though we share joint custody, my ex-wife has the custodial parent role. While we were negotiating the divorce, this term didn’t mean anything to me. I was assured that the “joint custody” covered me in all issues and decisions related to my kids. That was a lie.

What it really meant, is that the minute I got the slightest bit behind on my child support (the non-custodial parent ALWAYS pays the custodial parent) my wife was able to file our decree with the OAG (office of the attorney general) and put my life into a living hell.

Imagine if you’re struggling already. Imagine asking the co-parent to wait a few months while the work situation settles out, so you can get back on track with payments. Then imagine your significant other saying, “Sorry, I’m filing with the AG’s office today. It’s for the kids, not for me.”

BS.

Once the decree is signed and you (the dad) have agreed to a specific payment each month, the AG’s office becomes a collection agency. They’ve got one of those lovely phone trees that asks before anything else, “If you are the custodial parent press ONE, if you are the non-custodial parent press TWO, if you are an attorney press THREE.”

You don’t want to be the non-custodial parent under any circumstances. Remember all that stuff you learned in couples therapy about power and control? The divorce brings out the worst of the dysfunction. And if your co-parent becomes a custodial parent, you are about to get punched in the balls. (Pardon my assumption that the dad is 80% of the time, the non-custodial parent, in my state of Texas.) If you are the mom who is non-custodial, then you can be prepared to have random titty twisters anytime there is a dispute.

But we weren’t having a dispute. I was telling her exactly what was going on. “My company just lost a big client, we’re struggling as quickly as we can, so if you can be patient…”

She was not patient. She waited exactly one month before sending me threatening emails. Talking about “for the kids,” and “not doing them a favor by letting you continue to not pay.” But here’s the problem with that ill-logic. Once you’ve signed a decree for divorce with kids, the child support agreement goes into law. Not even bankruptcy can wipe away your child support obligations. So if my wife was smart, and she was, she would’ve known this. I’m sure her attorney told her as much.

So if I’m not ever going to be able to skip out on my financial obligation to my ex-wife and my kids, what’s the point of filing against a cooperative parent? Power. And. Control. Now she has 100% of the power. And with the arm of the law she also has compete control over my financial future.

By filing with the AG’s office she effectively prevented me from restructuring my mortgage with Wells Fargo. She also got a lien placed on my credit score that began to damage my financial stability and resources immediately.

HARD AND FAST RULE: If you are getting a divorce and you have kids, go for 50/50 parenting or nothing at all. FIGHT for 50/50 parenting and JOINT custody. Do not agree to be the non-custodial parent, under any circumstances. You will regret giving in on this single point more than any other item in your divorce, so PAY ATTENTION.

In my future, I have my ex-wife to thank for the hardship of used car loan rates in excess of 19%. And she could care less. She claims to be all compassionate and always interested in protecting the kids interests. But suing your coparent is not protecting anyone’s interest. There was no need to attach a debt collector to my account, I was on the hook 100% and willing. But I went through a minor setback for one month in the summer three years ago. And I still can’t get a car loan.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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reference: The 5 Love Languages  by Gary Chapman

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The Joy of Young Parents

I saw this couple today with their young child and I was inspired again. What kinds of things were going through our minds when our children were between the ages of 1 and 5? Amazing times! Amazing growth in them and in both parents, rediscovering their own lives. Everything changes when you have kids, that’s a given, but the sheer joy of becoming a mom or dad cannot be understood by those who have decided against having children. (It’s just a choice.)

How do we lose the magic? When do our kids turn into pains-in-the-ass teenagers? When does their great upbringing and nice upper-middle-class lifestyle become a liability rather than a gift? I’m in that place recently, trying to weigh my love of my kids and and temper it with the patience required to keep sane while they are forgetting things at their mom’s house, forgetting to tell you about a “dropoff” that needs to happen. While you ALWAYS love your kids, there are definite levels and plateaus of parenting.

I think we (my kids and me) are just entering into a new phase. Something beyond mere teenager-angst and into something that contains the fascination and joy at simply being a parent. I noticed in this young couple today, the way they had already begun to ignore their girl. And then how they returned to 100% focus on their little jewel. Somehow I had drifted away from the real appreciation of my kids.

It’s subtle. Chores, work, exhaustion… It’s good we feel so much overwelming love at the same time we are facing overwhelming changes in our lives. And somewhere along the way, we think “I got this” and we handle our kids just like we see everyone else handling their kids. Yes, they are a priority, but life goes on, and priorities shift.

In the last three years my kids have drifted in and out of my life. I always get my “every other weekend” but I don’t always appreciate it as I should. I get bogged down in “Jesus, all she wants is a ride somewhere.”

Today, I could appreciate the love and joy and in-and-out focus of these young parents. I could see myself as a new dad. I could feel the change that overcame me in the first hours of my son’s arrival.

And I woke up a little bit. I have a 15 yo boy and a 13 yo girl and sooner than I think they will be away at college. What can I do in the years ahead to

  1. Let them know they are a priority in my life
  2. Give them the confidence to move forward with their dreams
  3. Provide all the advantages in life I can while helping steer them in the direction of gratefulness
  4. Hold strong boundaries and high expectations

I can be present, I can be honest, and I can be vulnerable with them. Today I saw the joy and blessing of a little girl with her mom and dad. I saw myself 10 and 15 years ago. And I woke up.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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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

WHOLE-2016-tangohands

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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