Dear Non-Custodial Dad: Here’s What You’re Getting

WHOLE-legosummer

Instead of access to your kids all the time, you can now only see them 8 – 10 nights a month. For me this was the biggest loss in my life.

There is no way around it. The first time I was given my “options” I cried. I had been pulled kicking and screaming into the divorce counselors office to draft the parenting plan for our upcoming divorce. A divorce which I didn’t want, didn’t ask for, and felt drafted into. There was no hope for repair, once she’d revealed she’d been to see an attorney. She’d been looking into her options long before I knew the marriage was in trouble.

“We see this all the time,” the expensive Ph.D. therapist told me. “Dads who are oblivious to the forthcoming divorce. They tend to be overwhelmed, disoriented, and not ready to prepare themselves for the next chapter.”

While I went to these sessions with the idea that we would spilt the schedule evenly, to allow for both of us to have the same amount of time with our kids, that was not what she wanted. And having consulted with an attorney, that was not what she knew she would get if we went to court. We had decided we were going to leave the financial and legal aspects to our cooperative style. Once I came around to the idea that a marriage was not viable with only one willing partner, I was actively participating in our plan. But the deck was stacked against me.

Today in 2015, I might have a better chance of getting the joint custody and 50/50 schedule I wanted. In 2010 things were a bit different. So as I brought in my half-and-half schedule, and books about co-parenting, I was told I would take the non-custodial role and get the Standard Possession Order (SPO) to start with. Everything else could be negotiated.

They were still struggling in their tiny lives, to understand why their laughing dad wasn’t around all the time to lighten things up.

Well, the way it’s explained to you, when you first hear it, is every other weekend and one week night on the off weeks. There’s some provision about a full-month in the summer to make up some of the imbalance, but that’s not a reality in today’s working parent’s lives. So with the SPO, in my state, I get to see my kids 29% of the time.

The crushing news to me at that moment, and to most newly divorced dads was this: Instead of access to your kids all the time, you can now only see them 8 – 10 nights a month. For me this was the biggest loss in my life.

I could suffer the loss of the relationship. I could suffer the alone time and losing the house and neighborhood. But the loss of those kids, those childhood years, are still painful to me. It should not have gone that way. We should’ve agreed to figure the 50/50 parenting thing out, but I was negotiated into the box of the non-custodial parent and the SPO.

Today, just over five years later, I am still struck by the loss of my children. As I was closing up their rooms this afternoon, I tried to avoid feeling the hurt. I had a great send off this morning. I saw them off happy and well fed. And now they are gone.

As it turns out, we’re modifying the schedule a bit more this coming year. On the off weeks, so the kids don’t have to transfer their things, I’m settling for a dinner rather than a sleep over. And frankly, that’s a pretty good deal for me. Again, it’s not what I would’ve chosen, but it appears to simplify their lives. And in some ways it simplifies mine as well. In the coming year, I will have 2-of-10 school mornings every two weeks. That’s the hardest part of the routine. Getting everyone up, fed, and to school on-time. Giving up two of those mornings a month wasn’t a hard decision.

Still, back then, back when my kids were finishing up 3rd and 5th grade, there was no rational reason for giving up my 50/50 request. I simply got what was coming to me, and agreed to settle for 29% custody and a substantial child support payment. (Those things go together. The non-custodial parent pays the custodial parent.) Back when my kids were younger, this time was so precious. This loss of time was much more painful. I could feel it in my kids hearts when we got together, how they had missed me. How they were still struggling in their tiny lives, to understand why their laughing dad wasn’t around all the time to lighten things up.

There are some discussions about going to a more balanced schedule, but none that have gotten beyond the “what if” stage.

Today, with some guidance, perhaps my then-wife and I would’ve negotiated a more balanced schedule.

So today, dads who are looking at divorce, I’d suggest you consult an attorney. Even if you’re planning on doing a cooperative divorce. You need to look after your own best interests, because your ex won’t be thinking about your needs at all. And your high-paid counselor might not put much importance in the idea of 50/50 parenting after divorce.

My ex is still not sure if that’s what’s best for the kids, five years later. So we’re heading into another grossly imbalanced school year. It’s okay. I’m enjoying the time in my new relationship. So I’m not lonely, or pining away at the empty rooms. But I feel their loss, their absence, every time they leave. And they’ve been leaving for 5 years. I’ve got 6 more years to go until my youngest is gone for good. I’d rather find a way to reach parity, even this late in the game, sooner rather than later. Of course, there are a lot of factors involved. And with school starting next week, it’s easier just to leave things as they are.

Sad but easy. The non-custodial parent is treated a bit like a second-class citizen in the legal system. If you want to go for 50/50 divorce parenting, I think you’ll need an attorney. I also think it’s worth it, if you want to spend as much time as possible with your children. Just a few years ago the fight would’ve been uphill. Today, with some guidance, perhaps my then-wife and I would’ve negotiated a more balanced schedule.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Reference: What Percentage of Custody Do You Have – State of California

image: legoland summer, cc 2015 john mcelhenney, creative commons usage

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5 thoughts on “Dear Non-Custodial Dad: Here’s What You’re Getting

  1. John,

    As a divorced father of three sons, I first came across your blog when someone sent me a link to “How Long Will It Hurt? Divorce Recovery, the Road Back to Happiness.” After reading it, I felt like I could have written it. The same applies to this piece. The emotion that can be evoked by simply “closing up their rooms” is unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t had to do so. The drop-off at school knowing that you won’t see your own children for several days or a week is also heart-breaking. Thanks for sharing.

  2. After going through a completely blindsiding out of no where divorce I can completely understand everything in this. My ex had set me up a good six months prior and I’m going penniless now just to keep my daughter in the same state with me as her mother has already remarried and move and hour away in a different state. Currently waiting on Guardian At L$tem to finish up and will go from there. The first time you come home with out your child in the house is gut wrenching no matter where you are at in the phase of divorce.

    1. Gary, I’m sorry you’re struggling. The weight of child support can be heavy. And it should be decided in a more fair manner. I hope your situation resolves in a peaceful manner for everyone’s benefit. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Both Ron and Gary have my deepest sympathy. And you of course John. Like them, I identify very strongly with your article.

    I’m still at the early stages, but what strikes me is that this issue doesn’t seem such an ‘issue’, sadly. One would think that there would be people shouting about the injustice from the mountain-tops. But there doesn’t seem to be. Yes, there are those of us that would gladly do precisely that, and indeed anything else that we felt might make a difference; but it seems society wants to take an ostrich approach to this topic. I do wonder why that might be.

    Is it because half of those divorced/divorcing parents are women? They clearly have a vested interest to have the cards stacked anything but 50/50, simply because there is such a financial incentive. No matter how independent and non-cynical I try to be, that must surely drive behaviour for many, many women.

    Is it because there is a legal machine which does rather nicely, thank you very much, from this miserable situation? What’s the old saying? “If divorce is like war, then lawyers are like arms dealers…. They have a vested interest in keeping the battles raging, they don’t care which side ‘wins’ and they don’t have to live with the consequences”. Meanwhile, children are hurt.

    Is it because many men and women who are in a marriage (or have yet to marry) think that it will never happen to them? Yes, some couples are lucky enough to stay married and work out any differences for many years. Hooray for them! But the fact is that the majority of marriages/relationships end in a split. Sad, but true. And many of those are with children. I shall never cease to be amazed at the number of parents (who should know better) who say that they “.. will not use the children as pawns…” and then go on to do exactly that. Are people really so selfish? Seems so. Another old saying, “The damage that parents do.” I weep for the poor children denied parents, usually the father, in any capacity. How are we going to achieve a better world when we are setting such poor examples of what it means to have an adult relationship?

    Is it because some fathers simply don’t care? I think that many politicians and others who could actually influence these topics genuinely believe that most fathers are happy to walk away from their families and just see their children 4, 5 or 6 nights a month. Of course, paying all the while the increased level of child support. Yes, there are some dads like this and frankly they could be shot for me. They give us all a bad name and perpetuate these outdated myths.

    Ultimately, I think that the ‘voice’ of men in this position has been so effectively divided, muted, ridiculed and dismissed, that many just don’t see it as a problem. But a problem it most certainly is. We’re storing up trouble in our Western, democratic societies and when these unfortunate children grow up to have relationships that cannot help but be altered because of the lack of input from one parent (usually dad) then we will witness fallout. Maybe it will get big enough to prompt change. Sad fact of human nature that we sometimes need to see the horse bolt before we fix the gate.

    Some countries have changed their laws to have an automatic presumption of 50/50 care, unless there are compelling reasons not to do so, such as drug abuse, violence etc. How forward thinking and nice to hear. That must reduce stress between the splitting couple, because it removes that particular debate and source of friction. It certainly reduces the workload of the courts. And I would hazard a guess that it might, just might, factor in the decision of many women as to whether to divorce their husbands or not (not sure about the USA, but in the UK most divorces are instigated by the wife). A woman thinking that the grass will be greener after divorce may modify that opinion if she is staring at the prospect of seeing her children only every other week.

    In the UK, this 50/50 presumption will come one day. But it will take brave people to stand up and be counted, especially politically. For the government it is a hot potato because they know that a whole sector of society: single mothers (interestingly, a sector that they are happy to vilify sometimes) would be staring at reduced child support payments. And their worry is that the welfare state would have to pick up the bill. There’s also the legal system which seeks to play down this topic, nicely profiting meanwhile from the outrageously expensive divisions.

    One interesting thought would be how many votes a politician could muster from standing up for this cause. I don’t know of many separated fathers who wouldn’t back someone of any political colour, that promised to fight to change this unjust and unbalanced situation.

    Meanwhile, we can only thank guys like John for being something of a godsend and helping us stay sane and weather these torrid storms, where something as simply as an empty house after the kids have gone can reduce a grown man, otherwise strong, confident and an absolute benefit to society, into a crumpled wreck.

    So very sad and all so very unnecessary.

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