Category Archives: fatherhood

A Good Man in a Storm, Even After Divorce

WHOLE-2015-writer

The irony here is often the storm is me. I’m sorry about that, me and my depression can cause a few problems. But for the most part, about 85% of the time when things are tough and about 95% of the time when things are good, I’m an excellent companion come rain or shine. It’s the rain times that broke apart my marriage.

She no longer believed in the promise of our marriage, and she decided to take her chances, and unfortunately the chances for the rest of us, with other options. Divorce options.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. We tried. We survived. We worked through enormous hurdles and came out of the trials and tribulations with two beautiful and blessed kids. No noticable defects so far. (grin)

But the hardships were unbelievably hard. In my mind that gave us even MORE staying power through the down times. But for my then-wife, something must’ve broken at some point. She no longer believed in the promise of our marriage, and she decided to take her chances, and unfortunately the chances for the rest of us, with other options. Divorce options.

It was sort of sprung on me, even though we’d be in couples therapy on and off for several years. You can’t say we didn’t work it. We were doing the best we could. And we did pretty damn good through the hospital times with our second child. And we did okay in the times when my depression debilitated me for about a year. (I can explain this later, but not excuse it.)

So we’d been going to therapy, not to fix our relationship, specifically, but to help us learn how to communicate better. To stay in the reality of the situation rather than our own projections of what we “thought” was going on. SCT, it was called.

And that aspect of our therapist was grand. He really was helping us break down our own fears and misperceptions and get back to what was actually real, what the other person had intended to say, rather than what we heard. He let us know he was not a couples therapist. He was helping us get centered and clear with one another. And maybe that was exactly what he did.

The problem with SCT, however, is it does not really deal with emotions about the realities. It simply redirects you to what you know and what you are projecting about the future or lamenting about the past. We spend, as humans, a lot of time OUT of the present moment. And that’s a problem. So Rich, wasn’t trying to fix us or fix our marriage, he was trying to get us to tell the other person what we really wanted. What was really bothering us. And keep it 100% real.

Now, it seems to me that this would have been the perfect venue for my still-wife to tell me she was considering life without me, BEFORE going to consult with an attorney. But she didn’t do it that way. I found out in REALITY THERAPY that she’d already been to see a lawyer. Then when the emotions flooded forward from my disbelief and shock, our therapist sort of fell short of the mark. He consciously didn’t jump in the middle of it. Well, actually he did. I’ll get to that in a minute.

“You have a very hard time with honesty. And I don’t trust that things are going to get better. And I don’t have hope for the future of this marriage.”

When my then-wife said exactly what she felt was her truth, it was actually a projection about the future. So in that aspect the therapist should’ve redirected her back to this moment and what was real. He did not.

Here’s what she ultimately said, “You have a very hard time with honesty. And I don’t trust that things are going to get better. And I don’t have hope for the future of this marriage.”

Here’s what I was saying about my reality. “Things have been hard. We’ve done great at working through hardships that have been thrown at us. And at this moment in time I have MORE hope that our future is as bright as it’s ever been. Even this therapy is stripping away our worries and helping us focus on what is real.”

But it wasn’t enough to convince her to stay with me. And I was devastated right there in our our little “emotion free” therapy session. And while Rich allowed her to stay in her projected reality, he also took her side when she asked that I simply walk out of the house that night and tell the kids I was off on a business trip.

Again, bullshit, and again a failing of our therapist who should’ve been helping us communicate rather than siding with one of us. He agreed that she was under such stress that she needed some time off. Some time to recover her center.

“Why doesn’t she leave the house, then?” I asked, point blank.

Neither of them supported that idea. I’m not exactly sure why. And I fought with both of them, again. Not really the right place for an SCT therapist, but that’s what really happened. He was convinced I should leave her and the kids alone for a bit and regroup to see if there was something to salvage. I was in my own reality that THIS WAS THE EXACT TIME TO STAY REAL rather then lie to the kids and run out the door.

So I stood and fought. And we went to two more sessions with Rich, more for closure then progression. At this point he retreated back into SCT and the reality of the situation. The last session was more of an apology between the three of us for not being able to save the marriage. We were saying goodbye to each other and to Rich as our enabler.

Some people have different happy set-points. And I think her’s is very different than mine. A ton of things could make her unhappy. And often she found, still finds, ways to make it about me.

I’m not sure I would’ve gotten better results from a Gottisman couples therapist. I’m not sure I really needed to stay in that marriage. Sure, I can say I’m sad about all the kid years of time I lost to her rash decision and our therapist’s inability to keep himself out of our business, but in the end, today, I’d have to say it was a good thing.

You see, some people have different happy set-points. And I think her’s is different than mine. A ton of things could make her unhappy. And often she found (still finds) ways to make it about me. How I’m not taking care of her in the right way.

Again, SCT would direct her back to the reality of the situation.

  1. You are unhappy.
  2. You think he is causing you to be unhappy.
  3. But the unhappiness is in your thinking and not in his actions. He is not preventing you from changing the situation if it gets that bad.
  4. You can change your thinking at any time.
  5. The house is not too messy. The house is more messy than you would like it. It’s not his responsibility to clean house until you feel better. That’s why you hired a maid.
  6. You’re too focused on what he’s doing or not doing. Focus on yourself.

Those are some pretty good words of advice for any relationship. Oh and this one.

If you’re not having sex with each other, and the disconnect goes on for months at a time, something is out of whack. Even an SCT therapist should key in on this REALITY. But he didn’t.

I hope the best for my ex-wife and the mother of my two kids. I see now, that with her new man, she’s still about the same. She’s not all that happy. He’s probably not doing exactly what she would like either. But that’s the real lesson here. In relationships people need to look after their own realities and the ways those realities intersect with another’s reality.

In the case of my then-wife, she was unhappy about many things. I was happy about many things. It seems to me today we’re pretty much in the same situation, we’re just no longer married, and there have been some real complications put into our court. And she’s pretty convinced that I’m not supporting her correctly. The good part is I am no longer answering to her happiness, I no longer need to do her chores. That was about her. And perhaps more about her lack of desire for sex.

It was a reality I could not manage. In the end it was a reality that should’ve split us up and did. I am now free to have a relationship with a woman who enjoys life, who wakes up laughing, like I do. Sure, she’s got a list of things she’d like me to do differently, and I’m sure I have a few items for her. BUT we’re here by choice. WE love each other, daily, by choice. We don’t even have kids between us. But we love, laugh, and let go.

Love. Laugh. Let go. That’s a much better fit. So, in the end, I guess I’m grateful to both Rich and my ex-wife for releasing me for the next phase of my life.

LOVE.

LAUGH.

LET GO.

Always Love,

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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Thinking About Doing It: Depression and Creativity

shadow

Yesterday I got a crash course in doing verses thinking about doing. Over the holidays I acquired a road bike and yesterday I took it out for a spin. In the first five minutes I was exhausted. Yes, I live in a hilly neighborhood, and yes I have not climbed a hill on a bike in quite some time, but I was a bit disappointed. And then I laughed. Wanting, thinking about, and looking at the bike was not the same as getting on the bike and riding. The idea of getting fit and being able to keep up with my fiance on the bike are nice ideas, but none of them happen in the “thinking about doing” realm.

When I actually had to explain to a friend, or therapist what was going on in my mind, I was often at a loss for words.

Over the last few months I have been quiet, trying to re-calibrate my brain. It was an enforced “time out,” that set me back on my plans and dreams a bit. And today I’m in the process of rebuilding the momentum I had before I slipped into a self-inflicted holiday depression. There was way too much thinking going on. Thinking that was not productive or positive in any way. And I listened and was partially paralyzed by the onslaught of chemicals that have been wired up to respond to such thoughts with much anxious energy and restlessness.

Really the answer to some of my issues would have been JUST DO IT, if I could have gotten there. But I simply didn’t have it. It’s not that I suddenly got lazy or started sleeping in. But some part of my mental-physical complex structure got out of balance and I stressed myself into paralysis. And when the adrenaline and cortisol start flowing, there’s a pattern that emerges. I hibernate. I hide. I run from problems that would be much easier to “just do,” but I can’t.

Again, thinking about doing something, is not the same as doing it. When I actually had to explain to a friend, or therapist what was going on in my mind, I was often at a loss for words. What I was staying out loud suddenly sounded so silly. The ideas that were ruminating around in my mind with vicious ferocity seemed so bizarre when I tried to articulate what I was thinking. And when I tried to explain why I wasn’t doing something I knew I should do, I only had one phrase, “I don’t know.”

I’m coming out of my illness and beginning to feel my hopefulness again. But I’m not able to climb a quarter-mile hill right out of the gate, my first five minutes on a bike. It takes some time to build up to that. My friend who sold me his used bike said, “Start out in the flats, build up to it.”

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Some of my depression is simply absurd. Some of my coping mechanisms are dysfunctional. And still I do them.

Some of you may know I’m writing a TV series from the “divorce” writings and struggles of a single dad. And today I’m planning, strategizing, and imagining the third (and finally perfect) version of my script. But I’m not writing it. I seem to think there is more planning to get done before I jump back it. But I’m pretty sure, I’m just scared.

Putting my butt in the chair and opening the script editor is the only way to make progress. Yes, I have a collaborative partner who has been hard to get a hold of, but there are plenty of scenes I can write without his next input. But I’d rather imagine it.

Sort of like my depression. I could imagine all these things happening. But when I actually had to talk about, to put it out there, it suddenly seemed absurd. Some of my depression is simply absurd. Some of my coping mechanisms are dysfunctional. And still I do them. I hide, withdraw, isolate, even when I know this is the opposite of what I need.

I want to be fit and healthy. But I’d rather read about it, that do it. It’s easier to join a gym then it is to actually show up. Sure the roads around my house are hilly, but that’s why I walk them. A lot.

To give myself a short pat on the back, I did continue to go out the front door and climb the hills around my house even when I didn’t “feel” like it. And even the “flat” walks have a substantial number of hills in them. Thinking about it now, I can recall times when walking up the hill I wanted to ride up yesterday that I felt how tired I was.

I am getting on the bike again. I am blogging again. I am writing the script this afternoon when I get home from work. It’s a matter of taking steps. Steps that can only be taken by stepping out the front door and actually engaging in the physical or creative process.

I love to dream about my TV series. It’s harder to simply keep writing it.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: the black cat of my depression knows I’m just not doing it, cc 2016, john mcelhenney, creative commons usage

Artists In Love, Parenting, and Divorce

WHOLE-withguitar

Preamble

Since an early age I have been able to express my love for others in a very open and direct way. And in my second marriage I learned, as things were falling apart, just how much of “that loving feeling” I was generating on my own. I thought I understood what it meant to be loved by someone, but I hadn’t really experienced it since the death of my older sister. I was manufacturing most of the warmth and connectivity in my family. Sure, I could tell my then-wife loved our kids and loved me, but it was a strained expression of love, not an open and on-going expression.

We loved our kids, that was obvious. Everything we did hinged around their wellbeing. But in that process of giving ourselves over to parenting, we pulled back from each other.

Of course, I hadn’t gotten the frame of the Love Languages yet. As I went down the dark rabbit hole of depression after the divorce I was lucky enough to join a recovery group. Over the course of ten weeks I met on Thursday nights with 15 other men and women going through the same process of letting go, rediscovering, and rebuilding. And in that class I learned a new language of communication as well. I learned about how to be in a relationship in the present moment, and let go of the expectations of what was to come. As I excavated the relationship in this group to examine what had gone wrong, a distinct picture emerged of our different creative responses and reactions to the stress of becoming parents.

Becoming Parents

See, when you have kids everything changes. Our young relationship was transformed by the mysterious and sacred event. And there was an urgent and searing love that burned away all of our doubt and differences as we came together as parents. But somehow it still wasn’t a loving relationship between us. We loved each other, but only one of us really knew how to express it.

Over the course of the next 9 years or so we drifted into more of a partnership than a loving relationship. It was not a dramatic shift, it was a gradual wearing down of our mutual adoration. I kept punching through with outpourings of love and affection, but over time the glow that was created was overwhelmed by the stress and weight of the routine of being parents. Parents who were both working hard to keep their own emotional lives together while still maintaining a warm and supportive home for our two growing children.

We loved our kids, that was obvious. Everything we did hinged around their wellbeing. But in that process of giving ourselves over to parenting, we pulled back from each other. And I’d be deluded if I tried to put the blame squarely on her shoulders. We had both wanted children. We both wanted to continue on our paths as creative adults. But we were also struggling with unmet expectations about how things would be once we achieved the goal: Two kids, a nice house, a few pets, and …

We dealt with the reality of life not quite working out the way we envisioned in different ways. She went jogging around the neighborhood. I went into my music studio. And together we negotiated our chores and kid duties. All the while we were good at celebrating our children. The milestones flew by as they moved from pre-k to “big kid school.” But while they were thriving, somehow our relationship to one another was not.

Parenting Demands a New Approach

The kids had become our relationship. And our own journeys turned inward rather than towards one another.

Little by little I began working in my studio more at night after the kids went to bed. Somewhere deep inside I believed that my craft would eventually provide for some relief from the hard times. But I was also moving away from her in ways that would only become clear much later. Our creative lives either find new outlets once we have children or we become frustrated artists. I dove into my music as a way to connect to my own inner passion and creative drive. And even as I became more energetic and hopeful, my then-wife became less so. I’m not sure if it was the lack of creative joy in her life, but I do know that’s how we met each other, full of joy and art. Our weekend routine before kids had become a series of check-ins around our studio time.

In the transformation of becoming parents we both changed. While the joy and fascination around the kids was the center of our lives all was well. The kids fulfilled some part of our creative souls in a deep way. And for a while, the children became our joint art project. But over time, they became a bit more autonomous, and the reality of the mundane set in again. Chores and bills and shuttling little friends everywhere causes additional strain that can wear on the most solid of relationships. In our transition from uber-connected-new-parents to parents-who-are-once-again-looking-for-their-own-path-in-life we lost the fascination and adoration between us. The kids had become our relationship. And our own journeys turned inward rather than towards one another.

Perhaps, I could’ve fought more for the marriage and demanded, in a masculine way, for her love and passion to return. I could’ve stood in more with the chores and tried to meet more of her demands for help. I’m sure there are things I could’ve done differently and better, but I’m not clear that my efforts to become a better husband would’ve healed the imbalance that seemed more fundamental. I’m not sure I could’ve woken up her inner artist again.

While the creative kernel continued to burn inside of me, I spent more and more time in the music studio after the kids went to sleep. There was even a good bit of my output that I fashioned into love songs and poems meant to rekindle, or at least affirm my love for this wonderful woman. Something between us had broken. She would point at my “lack of responsibility” for the reason she was angry a lot of the time. She would say the house was too dirty, or the money in the bank account was insufficient for her to relax. But somewhere in there, she had dropped her own creative song, and had begun to resent mine.

The Artist’s Journey is a Solo Path

My music became a symbol of the disconnect between us. What drew her in during our courtship, became something she fought against. My songs fell on deaf ears. My music seemed to represent for her why we didn’t have the money that would’ve allowed us to be more comfortable. But I think the real struggle was more internal for her. Her own art had transformed and thrived for a while around the birth of the kids, for a while her own internal song had not been silent. Somewhere along the path towards becoming a mom she reoriented her life exclusively around parenting.

When this played out in my marriage, my survival as an artist appeared to come (at least to my then-wife) at the expense of being a responsible father.

When the kids began to gain more momentum out and away from the two of us our closeness began to separate as well. As they grew and developed passions and interests of their own, perhaps she failed to rekindle the creative love inside herself. That was also the part of her that I fell in love with. As I was sputtering and struggling as a parent AND and as an artist, she was alone without her craft, and in some ways without me. She was focused on all the practical things. She began to see my creative endeavors as threatening rather than supportive. She wasn’t interested in the love poems I was writing. My childish creative spirit that had enraptured her early on became a symbol of my immaturity.

As artists we experience life as part of our creative path. Our outputs enhance and celebrate our ups and downs. Our creative voices can begin to get trapped under the rough business of bills, health insurance, and mortgage payments. The process of becoming parents turns up the intensity. Part of the artist’s struggle is how to continue finding time, and more importantly energy, to stay with it. Many parents drop their artistic ambitions in favor of their children’s wants and needs. When this played out in my marriage, my survival as an artist appeared to come (at least to my then-wife) at the expense of being a responsible father. The struggle became both internal (my energy and vision) and external (a threat to my marriage).

The fracture and collapse of my marriage ultimately became the emotional firestorm that uncorked my artistic voice. In my own individual struggle to survive, I found my release through writing. After the divorce, as I thrashed and fell apart during the months following my separation, I wrote to make sense of what was happening. And now, over six years later, even as the writing matures, the music and songs are beginning to come back as well.

An artist struggles through all of life’s conditions and requirements just like everyone else, but they tend to leave behind a story, or song, or image. This is my magnum opus.

My hope is that my song is not about divorce and trouble, but love and creative passion. As both of us struggled under the amazingly complex and overwhelming changes in our lives, I turned towards my craft as a way to cope, to organize my feelings and thoughts, and explore both the happy and sad parts of the journey. As the journey continues, my voice grows stronger here on the blog and in other areas of my life. As an artist, the crushing blow of the divorce stripped the band-aid off the pain I had been trying to express.

Today, my creative discipline and output has become an integrated expression of who I am. This song I sing becomes more of how I present myself in the world. My music and writing sets a creative example for my children as they pursue their dreams. I’ve shown them how it looks to recover from setbacks and disappointments.

This artistic me is the foundation of my new relationship as well. This time I am more confident and self-assured. I believe it was this confidence that allowed me to attract a mutually compassionate person to express and receive love and adoration with a similar playful and creative flair. In finding my deeper creative voice, I’ve also called in a partner who glows, and pings, and hums with her own distinct yet familiar buzz. Together we resonate and reflect back even more energy.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: on stage, kristy duff wallace, used by permission

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 Care and Feeding of Your Lover

WHOLE-runner

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

In the course of a relationship with someone you begin to have a lot of influence on their lifestyle and habits. If you stay in sync with each other there is nearly limitless opportunity for support and encouragement. When things aren’t going so well, there is also the opportunity for resentment and discouragement.

In my marriage, we went through various stages of a connected relationship, but over time we began to fall out of step with each other. And what starts happening, is a form of the higher/lower game. Where one partner feels like they are doing all the work while their partner is slacking off, or even being destructive or worse, self-destructive. When communication breaks down, one of the parts that goes first is our empathy and compassion for the other person’s personal struggles.

Today, my relationship has been built on a foundation of communication, self-discipline, and mutual admiration.

We are all on a solo journey in the end. We come together, we live love and eat together, and then… Well, in the case of divorce, we come apart. But the fractures that create the final breakup have been caused by the smaller injustices that we perceive to have happened over time. We have several ways to get out of the death spiral: 1. we can talk to each other and work through the imbalances; 2. we can talk to a therapist individually about our issues; 3. we can talk to a couple’s therapist; 4. we can opt out of the relationship.

OPTING OUT

Opting out of the relationship can happen suddenly as in, “Honey, I want a divorce.” or more gradually as we begin to turn away from our partners and towards something/someone else. In my case the transition happened over a number of years and through a slew of hardships. We tried options 1, 2, and 3. And at some point she picked option 4: divorce.

The more challenging approach is to continuously opt back in to your relationship. This does require several fundamental transformations. You have to let go.

LETTING GO

  • Your partner’s decisions are about them not you
  • A partner’s issues are also theirs, advice is always a bad idea, unless requested
  • Attacking someone else’s fitness is a form of self-abuse and sabotage
  • Not expressing your own disappointments and complaints is a form of passive aggressive behavior that will bite you in the ass
  • Controlling behaviors never work
  • Unmet expectations are the source of a large percentage of our unhappiness

Give your partner freewill but stay close and in contact — attachment is not the same as codependence.  When you let go of expectations about controlling or influencing your partner’s behavior, when you stop seeing yourself as superior in any way (that’s a hard one), when you can keep your focus on yourself and your issues, you can begin to get the relationship you truly want.

WHAT YOU WANT

  • A connection based on mutual adoration and support
  • A lifestyle that supports healthy habits and behaviors in both of you
  • A process for releasing and working through issues as they come up between you
  • Some activities that you both find ecstatic.

If you lean in to the relationship and own your issues you can begin to see the other person in a more realistic light. They are human. Their flaws are their own. Their demons are solo projects and a rescue attempt (symbolic or physical) will most likely backfire. They do not need to be rescued. They need to be connected with you.

In my darkest period, right after 911 and after my daughter was born to my own unemployment and fears of survival, my then-wife and I struggled quite a bit. We both struggled with demons as a result of the circumstances. I gained weight and fell ill with a deep depression. She became withdrawn and resentful. As it turns out, I kept working on my own issues and struggling to find answers, solutions, in the hope that I would eventually return to my happy old self. I cannot imagine what she was dealing with or the struggles she faced as she saw me incapacitated at this moment of great need.

I took my joy where I could find it: with my kids and alone in my own creative space.

We survived that bleak period and went on to raise two healthy children together. But the fracture, the mistrust that was planted during those crushing months, was probably enough to damage our marriage beyond repair. We tried. We were better at (2) talking to our individual therapists and (3) talking to our couple’s therapist than we were at (1) talking to each other. But that weakness, our lack of skills at disagreeing while letting go of the outcome, is also what doomed our repair efforts.

I’ll never forget the flash point several years later. We had just finished doing morning yoga together. And something was deeply troubling her. When I asked she unloaded with a brief burst of passion. “There is no rescue coming, if that’s what you’re waiting on. It’s just us.”

Her statement hit me on two levels. 1. She was terrified that I wasn’t going to snap out of my malaise and get back to work, back to supporting our family; and 2. She was certain that my actions, that my recovery, that my salary, is what she needed to be happy. But the real kicker was that I had not seen any passion out of her for months and this outburst came at a tender time between us when I was feeling loving and safe to reach out and support her. But her issue wasn’t her, her issue in her mind, was me.

HOW LOVE WORKS

I was eventually able to rebound from the loss of my consulting practice after 9-11 and the freak-out depression that followed. I gradually built my “working for the company” resume back up with a series of jobs. And we soldiered on as two responsible adults. But there was a missing element that had bound us together when we started dating. Her joy and playfulness never returned. At some level, the out bursts that began to crop up years later, were similar to this first one. Something I was doing or not doing was causing her to be miserable in her life.

I didn’t buy into that line of thinking, but that seemed to make her more furious and more distant. Sure, she was seeing her therapist and we were seeing our therapist but there was very little emotional connection between us outside of those efforts. As I tried to find my joy elsewhere, I began to write and spend time in my music studio after we put the kids to bed. I’d come to bed in the 1 – 2 range long after she had fallen asleep. I was also working a 9 – 5 job so our time together began to get stretched. My passion and creative thrust needed some outlet. And since our intimate relationship had also grown frosty, I took my joy where I could find it: with my kids and alone in my own creative space.

At some point, we all have to realise that we can be *with* another person, we can be close and connected and loving, and yet, that person still has to deal with their own issues by themselves.

HOPE IN LETTING GO

Today, my relationship has been built on a foundation of communication, self-discipline, and mutual admiration. I adore my fiancé. But it’s different than when I met my future wife. At our age, we come to any relationship with a more mature attitude and more complex conditions of satisfaction. We have been through the fire with several relationships and seen what didn’t work. So we attempt any new relationship with a more mature perspective, but also a new set of rules.

Pray for your lover’s health and happiness, then let go and let them pursue it however it best suits them in the moment.
  • There is no time for passive aggressive behavior – if you’re doing it let’s call it what it is and either cut it out or cut and run
  • I won’t try to control you or work your program for you, whatever that is.
  • Let’s see how many things we align on and how many we differ on and be realistic about our compatibility. If there are things you are polar opposites on, how does that play out? Can you manage those differences without feeling attacked or attacking the other person?
  • What do we love to do together? Can we make the time to do those things?
  • How we hear each other’s requests says a lot about where we are in our lives. Are we feeling self-conscious about our weight? Then even a “hey, let’s go for a walk” can feel like a controlling question. But it’s not. It’s our own issue to reveal and deal with.
  • How do we want to support and cheerlead for our partners every day? If we don’t, if we’re feeling resentment, the spontaneous appreciations begin to drop off.

APPRECIATIONS AND GRATITUDE

Make sure you’re living in the appreciation mode. That shows a lot about where you are with your life and how you are with your partner’s life, where ever they may be along their personal path to power/freedom/self-actualization/whatever.

And know that your relationship to each other is also fueled by your own spiritual beliefs. Joining in gratitude, even if you’re praying to different concepts of god, is a fundamental bond that strengthens you both with every joined or individual prayer.

Pray for your lover’s health and happiness, then let go and let them pursue it however it best suits them in the moment. If you are supportive and standing by, you will also be included in their journey. Perhaps this is the key to a lifetime of love and acceptance. Acceptance for yourself. Acceptance of your partner. And finally, acceptance of our individual relationship with God.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: chasing my new lover, cc 2015 john mcelhenney, creative commons usage

The Training and Education of a Reluctant Divorcé

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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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image: father and son, creative commons usage

Back to School and Summer’s End for the Single Dad

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NEWS FLASH: Back to school can hurt.

My rebirth or collapse has often happened during the first few weeks of “back to school.” Am I suffering from micro-empty next syndrome? Or am I just sad that summer has come to an end?

One thing that will never change: Parents miss their kids when they are gone. Even when they were tiny I hated to leave them. Going to work for the first 5 years was torture. (And maybe I could’ve done a better job at that, but the post 9-11 world was strange and uncertain in business as in life.)

You go from full-time parent to 31% parent. 3-of-10 school mornings will be awarded to you. Everything else, for everyone else, is pretty much status quo. Except dad isn’t around.

The other day, my son and I were driving past the pre-school where they learned to swim, and read, and begin to become separate tiny humans. Dropping them off some mornings was a sad affair, more for me than for them. After my son entered elementary school, I would still stop by with my daughter, and push her on the swings before heading to work.

“One more push, daddy,” she would yell as I was trying to tear myself away. The staff was supportive. The would frequently come and push her on the swing while I made my quiet and miserable escape.

Dad’s have a different relationship to parenting. We typically don’t get to be the “stay at home” parent. We typically feel more of the financial pressure as the bills and responsibilities become more urgent. And each morning, we’re off to work. And yes, mom deserves all the rest and recovery she can get, but it’s different. Leaving your sleeping child and wife on the bed to dress, make coffee, and head out the door, is difficult. Perhaps this was the massive transformation as a parent that occurs for the dad. Time for work. Sleepy, cuddly, baby-fest is over.

Even as the kids grew older leaving them at school felt like a loss of some sort. And this as a happily married man. Work was a nice distraction when it was engaging. When it was mechanical and dull, being at work and getting a text from your wife about the baby’s first word… Well, you miss a lot as a dad. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how it will continue to go. (Don’t talk to me about the joys of being a SAHD. I don’t want to hear it.)

Divorce is like a trial run at the empty nest experience. And dads typically get the lion’s share of the “off” time.

Today, the kids start their next cycle of school. My son enters 9th grade and accelerates up the four-year launch ramp to escape velocity. He will be gone gone.

In divorce, they were both gone gone a lot of the time. Since the divorce (Aug 2010) I’ve missed 5 of 6 back to school mornings. We cobbled some reason for me to bring my ex coffee on that first one. She was feeling magnanimous. And she was probably out of coffee or something. Since then I have not had the joy of packing, preening, and pushing them off to their first day at the start of the new semester. It’s okay. It’s what divorced dads get.

So now, today, I realize that divorce is like a trial run at the empty nest experience. And dads typically get  the lion’s share of the “off” time, and thus the majority of the “empty nest” sadness. When you are making the plans for divorce, and trying to be civil about the schedule, the gap between kid-time can be overwhelming. You go from full-time parent to 31% parent. 3-of-10 school mornings will be awarded to you. Everything else, for everyone else, is pretty much status quo. Except dad isn’t around.

I could blast my way into the first day of school mornings, but what’s the point? They have their routine. They have their process, path, and protocol for making it to school on-time. And they’ve done it 70% of the time over the last 5 years.

As I prepare for my back to school, end of summer, dip I know that I am better prepared for the eventual final departure of our kids. I just wish it hadn’t come so soon in my marriage.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: promotional photo from the movie Boyhood, creative commons usage

The Transcendent Single Father

Relationships come and go. Breakups and divorces happen. Heck I’ve had two divorces. The real transformation comes when you have children with a partner. Almost by magic, the shift happens. You’re still in love with your partner, but suddenly this other tiny human is sucking up all of your love cycles. You love them both, but push comes to shove, you’re going to go with the kid. It’s human nature. Nurture, I suppose, is the word. You’re going to protect, cuddle, shelter, and encourage this tiny human for the rest of your life.

The basis of that parenting plan was built on the old model of parenting. Dad = breadwinner, Mom = love & nurture. That was simply not true for us.

If the marriage comes to an end, often it is tragic, but survivable. And for me, the children were the shining point of truth for me. Was I going to give in to the depression and financial crash of the divorce, or was I going to get back up and be the dad I needed to be? My choice was clear. My path to recovery and resurgence was less assured.

At the very beginning of the end I had a tough choice to make. Things had been strained and getting worse between my then-wife and I for almost a year. When she snapped and blurted out in couple’s therapy that she had, in fact, gone to see an attorney, I was caught with my proverbial pants down. I knew things were tough. I knew we were more friends and parents than lovers, but D I V O R C E ? What?

In that very session, she asked me to leave the house. “Give me and the kids some relief. Some quiet time. A little cooling off.” Our therapist seemed to agree. Again, another shock. Wait… What?

Time slowed down. My mind flashed back on my parent’s divorce and the bloodshed that followed. I had never contemplated divorce from this woman staring angrily, tearfully, at me from across the therapist’s office. The both awaited my response.

“No way.”

It was early April. Our two children (3rd and 5th graders) had two months left to go in the school year. And these two people were suggesting we tell them, “Daddy had to go on a business trip.” I paused and took a deep breath.

In this collaborative process of divorce I was a bit naive. I trusted that we were negotiating with everyone’s interest at heart. I was misled.

We were not really in couple’s therapy. We *were* in therapy, for sure, but it was a slightly different approach. SCT (Systems Centered Therapy) is about separating what’s real from what are merely feelings and emotions. And while I still respect the therapist deeply for all he was trying to do, he missed the mark on this one. By a long shot.

“Our kids are two months from finishing the school year. We’ve lived as roommates for six months. I’m sure we can be big enough to share the house until Summer break.”

They both looked at me with concern and disapproval. We ran out the clock on the session with us agreeing to disagree about this MAJOR POINT in our marriage and eventual divorce. Mind you, this was the first time I learned that my then-wife had been looking at her “options” with a lawyer.

It was the counselor at the kid’s elementary school who talked some sense into my then-wife about letting the kids finish the year. “They will need the time to regroup. Don’t do it while they still have to come to class every day. Give them some time off in the Summer. I’ve seen this kind of thing really hurt children in the long run.”

Yes. We, as the adults in the room, can take the high road and figure our shit out. Our kids needed to finish the year, and maybe even have a few weeks of Summer before we split the atom.

It was a rough few months. I fluctuated from anger to compassion. I wanted to patch things up but there was no talk of reconciliation. She was still convinced that maybe a separation would give her some perspective. She dangled it out there like some hope. It was a false hope. She was making plans, doing spreadsheets, and outlining her roadmap towards divorce.

Occasionally we’d cross paths in the hallway and I’d extend my arms, almost by instinct, to hug her before I realized what I was doing. I usually mumbled an apology. “Sorry. I’ll figure this out. I’ll do better.”

As the weeks drew on it was harder and harder to make nice. We could easily disguise our frostiness while getting the kids ready for school, because I was usually the one up and making breakfast and corralling everyone, while my then-wife got her hair and makeup done. This was my time, my mastery: joyfully waking, feeding, and delivering my kids to school. The fact that it was our last year as an intact family, was known only to myself and my soon-to-be ex-wife.

All this time, over those two months, we were meeting with our “parenting plan” therapist and our “financial split” accountant. And she was meeting with her attorney. Since we had agreed not to fight over anything I didn’t seek legal advice at that time.

So we examined our combined estate from the three scenarios. 1. she keeps the house and pays me for the equity; 2. I keep the house and pay her for the equity; 3. we sell the house and split the equity. And we began to talk about what was “in the best interest of the children” in the divorce therapist’s office.

In this collaborative process of divorce I was a bit naive. I trusted that we were negotiating with everyone’s interest at heart. I was misled. As it turns out, my then-wife knew, and the divorce therapist knew, but I did not know, that we were going to straight for the divorce-in-Texas package. See, traditionally men have been assholes as well as the primary breadwinner. And traditionally, the mom has been the shelter and love provider, and perhaps even the stay-at-home family hub. And for us, the stay-at-home-mom-plan is sort of how we initially set out on our parenting journey together. However, I was no absent father. That had been how my dad was.

The part that is missing, the heart of my relationship and my agreement with my then-wife, was that we would parent these children 50/50 with all of our love and focus. Everything in our lives revolved around being the best parents we could be. I handled the first half of the day (wakeup, breakfast, and school) and she handled the afternoon. We both wanted the kids to have a parent home when they got off the school bus. And we were 100% successful in that accomplishment. And I believe our kids still show the resilience of that decision. We parented 50/50 because that’s how we believed our kids would become balanced individuals themselves.

In the divorce therapist’s office, however, the story changed. Questions about our parenting responsibilities became much more loaded. And I was challenged on my ability to fix dinner. What? Seriously? I tried to push back, “And what about mornings and breakfast and getting the kids to school? How much of that responsibility have you had in the morning, over the last 5 years?” I was a very conscious and present dad. I was not the absent father with she was not the stay-at-home mom. We *had* been doing parenting 50/50 just as we planed.

I was not the absent father with she was not the stay-at-home mom. We *had* been doing parenting 50/50 just as we planed.

Divorce however, is not about what’s fare, or what’s real. Divorce is a battle. Even in the most positive divorce, with the most friendly parents, things can get messy pretty quickly when you’re talking about the rest of your lives with your children. I’m guessing her maternal instinct kicked in.

The conversation about the schedule and parenting plan changed dramatically. And when things got too heated, the therapist would talk to each of us individually to reset. In one of these cooling periods, she leveled with me, “Here’s what she’s going to get if you guys go to court.”

And it was at this very second, when my heart was shattered and broken, that I gave up. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t know what else to do. The toll of the two months of guarded-living had broken my fighting spirit.

Maybe I had done enough. Maybe some of the wisdom about the “mom” and the nurturing was true in our case, even if it didn’t feel as lopsided as the term non-custodial parent indicated. And I was facing my divorce therapist alone. And she was looking at me and saying things like “in the best interest of the kids,” and “most fathers react this way.”

I was NOT most fathers.

We tore up the 50/50 schedule that I brought into the counseling session. We started again with the SPO and the non-custodial rights and responsibilities. And while I gave up a huge piece of my “dad time” that day, I’ve never stopped working to show up for my kids at every opportunity afforded me. That I am afforded that opportunity only 31% of the time, instead of 50% is an issue. But that was not the time to fight. Or if it was, I was not capable of another battle. And the therapist was looking at me, sharing her compassion with me, and telling me, “This is what she’s going to get. Let’s start here.”

Today I’m certain I would try to do it differently, given the chance. And perhaps in the near future I will be given an opportunity to reset the schedule. But the damage was done, the divorce proceeded with all the typical restrictions and legalese. When I did consult a divorce attorney it was only to look over the decree her attorney had drafted. For me it was really about the parenting plan, and we had gone over that with a fine toothed comb.

The basis of that parenting plan was built on the old model of parenting. Dad = breadwinner, Mom = love and nurture. That was simply not true for us. And it is not true now. But now, my kids are in 7th and 9th grades and the time with them is much more sparse and rational. My then-wife and my fancy divorce therapist sold me the old party line about Dads and Moms in divorce. I hope that if you are in this situation you consult a lawyer who can negotiate on your behalf. If you parented 50/50 you should divorce 50/50 as well. The traditional divorce schedules and laws established when my parents were fighting it out, no longer apply for most families.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Having A Positive Divorce is Up To You: The Two Levels of Healing

WHOLE-fambefored

Divorce hits your life on all levels. There is no escaping the waves of disbelief mixed with relief and terror and joy. It’s a very confusing time. It’s confusing for everyone. There are two levels to healing from divorce if you’ve had children.

As you come out of the state of shock, you will need to put some parameters around your living and health.

The challenge is separating the two levels (divorce as an individual, and divorce as a parent) and addressing them independently. In my case, I got them all mixed up. I let my confusion around being alone again, bleed into my overwhelming joy at seeing my kids again after a week away. I could’ve used some better separation of the two states of being. As I wound my way through the next five years I began to understand the two flip sides of the divorce puzzle. Everything in your life has changed. Now it’s time to pick up the pieces and go for an even happier life. The process won’t be easy, but it is 100% up to you to take care of your own crap and get your life back together as you move on.

You deserve a happy life. And your happy life will inform and support your kids happy lives.

The Newly Single You

The first process is reimagining your life as a single human being. Single happiness. Refinding yourself and what you like to do, regardless of what anyone else needs or wants to do, is the first step towards finding your new cadence. It can be hard step to let go of other’s expectations and follow your desires and needs. The pull to take care of the kids, even when they are not around, is strong. But your new task is to learn to be an independent and joyful human again. Not a mom or dad. Not a partner. You have to reconnect with the single person coming to grips with all the wins and failures thus far in your life.

During the early stages of divorce you might crater a bit. I spent a lot of time binge watching tv shows and going to be early. But as you come out of the state of shock, you will need to put some parameters around your living and health. Here’s what I determined to be essential to getting my life back on track.

  1. Eat well. (less fast food, more veggies, simplify my diet)
  2. Exercise as often as you can (walking the neighborhood or local nature trail was my physical therapy)
  3. Drink plenty of water. (I never had a problem with alcohol, but I know it’s a depressant, so not good for me, personally)
  4. Get the appropriate amount of sleep. (too much and you’re woozy, not enough and you’re edgy and ragged)
  5. Entertainment is good. Laughter can be medicine. Gaming might just release your sad brain from its prison. Whatever it takes. Find joy. Find something that makes you smile.
  6. Self-care starts with ending all negative self talk. (Finding the positive things to say to yourself may be hard. But you need your inner coach to be on your team and not a tyrant or complainer. The negative complaining might be part of what we’re trying to leave behind)
  7. Whenever possible, say YES to friends and opportunities to be with other people.
  8. Reset and Restart every single day.

It doesn’t matter how much queso you ate the night before. Rejoin and recommit to your recovery and health program each morning, regardless of how you feel. Your consistency and continuous commitments can keep you heading in the right direction: UP and OUT of the pit of despair.

The seconds level of divorce recovery with kids is learning how to be a single parent.

Learning How to Be a Whole Parent Again

When you were married, when you decided to have children, when you raised your kids from mere pups, both you and your partner built a system of parenting that no longer exists. The things you might have not learned how to do, the things you distinctly recall asking your partner to take over, and the things you haven’t even thought of, all of the parenting things are now YOURS and YOURS ALONE. When you are the ON parent you have the responsibility to parent at 100%. The parts of your parenting skills that may have atrophied over time now need to be dusted off and beefed up.

Don’t detach when you have opportunities for attachment. This is a hard time for everyone. But you can demonstrate healthy behavior by engaging them in healthy activities and giving them healthy food to eat.

For me, one of those lost skills was cooking and cleaning for the family. I was fine when the kids were away. I could resort to crappy habits, fast food, popcorn for dinner, all the stuff that would be frowned upon as a parent. After divorce, there were times when I craved McDonald’s fries. I went through extended periods when I never thought about “what to cook for dinner.” All of that changed each week when my daughter and son would arrive.

I didn’t have the rhythm. I didn’t have the ideas for “what to cook.” And I was out of practice with planning ahead so we wouldn’t have to go to the grocery store every night they were with me. “Hey kids, what do we want for dinner tonight?” Getting everyone excited to go to the store is asking a lot.

When you’re alone you can let your eating and cleaning slip. But when your kids are around, you need to step up your game. I tried to tidy up the house before “my weekend.” Some weekends I was more successful than others.

The Time With the Kids

Learn again what your kids like to do. If they don’t know (and often that’s what they will say, “I don’t know.”) keep asking, keep trying new things. It might be easier to give up and let everyone watch tv or tune into their iPads/iPhones. But don’t detach when you have opportunities to stay close to them. This is a hard time for everyone. But you can demonstrate healthy behavior by engaging them in healthy activities and giving them healthy food to eat.

Take the time to be alone with each of your kids. It is easier not to talk about stuff, especially divorce. But given the time and openings, your kids may reveal some of what’s going on in their lives and what they are thinking about. By keeping a positive attitude about the divorce (“It was better for all of us. We are happier now.”) and staying engaged with them as little humans, you demonstrate for them that your love and support is unwavering. That’s key. Be consistent. Be as joyful and engaged as you can. There will be times when the screens come up for all of you. That’s okay. But try to set connection and closeness as the default relationship mode.

The Time Without the Kids

For a long time I was surviving between kid visits. I was so lost without them, and without the closeness of a primary relationship, that I isolated and got depressed. I didn’t do anything on my list of healthy activities. I didn’t return phone calls. I made it through, but I didn’t have to be so lonely about it.

Your kids are learning about life from how you behave, not how you tell them to behave. So behave honorably. Be respectful of your former partner.

The day my kids would return to me, and I became Dad again, I lit up like a different person. I knew this was not healthy. I knew that my happiness had become too entwined with theirs. And it was my task to get on with my life, get on with my fitness and wellness programs, and most importantly, get on with my own mental recovery from the divorce.

I knew I needed help and I tried a several different talky therapists before I found someone who could PUSH and NURTURE me at the same time. I didn’t need someone to cuddle me and collude with my depression and divorce sadness. I needed someone who would push me to challenge my own feelings of helplessness. That was my issue: learned helplessness. There were parts of me, when I was alone, that wanted to give up. That wanted to curl up in a tiny ball and vanish. And while it was metaphorical, the suicidal fantasies were like some angry form of giving up.

YOU ARE NOT HELPLESS. YOU ARE NOT A VICTIM.

What you do with your life, as a newly single person, that is the real challenge. Start with the health and recovery list above. Find your rhythm. Find the things that light up your soul. (See Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore) Do more of those things.

Keeping In Touch

Stay in touch with your kids as much as you can, but don’t hang on their responsiveness and involvement. It’s weird for them that you’re gone. But in my case, it was almost as if I had just gone off on an extended business trip. They stayed in the same house. They had the same routine. The main difference is I was not there. Our nightly phone calls often went like this.

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“Fine.”

“Anything you want to tell me about? Did anything cool happen at school?”

“No.”

“Okay, well, let me talk to your brother. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

At my house, on my own, everything was new. As a family unit we had to learn new routines. We had to find new processes for doing the dishes (I didn’t have a dishwasher in my first D-house.) and doing chores. Allow yourself and your kids time to adjust to things being weird and different. They are resilient. By staying positive and reaching out to them, even when they are with the other parent, you are showing them how important they are in your life. You are making sure your “I love you” is getting in there, even when you can’t say it in person.

The main thing for me, in the off times, was to make contact every night. Just to say goodnight. I rallied from dark moments each night to perk up and call them. The calls were mostly brief and unfulfilling. But that consistent contact, that “I’m here” reassurance, was important to me and to them. I was saying that while I was gone, I was not out of their lives. It’s a small thing, but it’s the best thing you’ve got. And sometimes, just the process of putting on my game voice for them would cheer me up.

Do what you need to do during your off parent days. Take care of your mental and physical health. And in the times when you have your kids, be the best parent you can be. Always looking forward. Always positive.

Your kids are learning about life from how you behave, not how you tell them to behave. So behave honorably. Be respectful of your former partner. And love them with all of your heart when they are with you. Learn to recapture your own self-love when they are not. By staying focused on both aspects of the divorce, you will have a better chance of recovering your happiness and getting on with the next chapter of your life.

Stay positive. Love your kids. Respect your ex.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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