Tag Archives: becoming parents

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

What I Learned From My First and Second Marriages

WHOLE-salsagirl

You learn a lot by getting married. You also learn a lot by getting divorced. While I was really ready to exit my first, abusive, marriage, I was also devastated when I actually took the ring off for the first time. The ring I had gotten hand-crafted in Santa Fe while we were vacationing there. The ring that gave me so much pride at first, and then so much sadness. Even as things were really awful between us, admitting I was giving up, I was getting out, was a major defeat. It was an ending and the start of my next learning experience, marriage number two.

I wanted and needed touch to keep me feeling “safe and loved.” She, on the other hand, needed my actions to show how I was going to support her.

This time I had a lot more wisdom. I went into this second marriage with my eyes open and my wits about me. Except that’s not quite accurate. I was still wounded from the previous marriage. I was a bit depressed and disoriented. And I wanted the relationship a bit too much. I wanted *a* relationship. I was hurting, and lonely, and in need. I was not healthy. But I was charming and aggressive and when an old high school friend showed up I was immediately in love. I know you might think the word “lust” but you’d be wrong. She was beautiful. She smiled with an energy that lit up the world. And I was in need of some light. I leapt and pursued her right out of her “boyfriend.” Then I became her boyfriend and soon her husband.

Except I wasn’t seeing or thinking clearly at opening of our relationship either. I had learned a lot from my first marriage.

  • a fiery artist might be burning with mental illness as well as creativity
  • a hot body does not make a relationship work
  • abuse can come from a woman half my size
  • competition in a marriage is a wacky thing
  • even if the person commits to therapy, doesn’t mean they’re going to do the work
  • you can try to get out of your marriage and fail more than once
  • no matter how bad it gets, a divorce feels like a failure

So I was making some changes in my second marriage.

  • a long list of compatible qualities and activities you like to do together
  • historical friends make quick lovers
  • an artist is good, but let’s go for a bit more balances
  • logic over passion might be a better fit
  • mutual understanding and compassion for dark periods (on both sides of the relationship)

And I was certain I had learned my lesson. I had grown up a lot since my first marriage and divorce. I was still in the middle of replacing a recent job loss, but I felt more stable. I was not really all that healthy at this point either, however. I was so hungry, and so passionate, that I fell head-over-heels in love and overlooked some things that would come back to haunt me.

This time we had kids. We took the fractured equation of our relationship and exponentially expanded the connection. We jumped into the parents journey together. And for a while we thrived. And we thrived even when things were hard. We battled through, side-by-side. We were in this together, in sickness and in healthy, til… Well, that’s the last part of what I learned.

Death is actually the only thing that will part you, if you’ve got kids. Even though we’ve been divorced for over four years, we are still connected at a deep level. We never escape the relationship with our ex-partner when we have kids. My first ex-wife, is a distant and silent memory. She used to call from time to time, but the new os on my phone allows me to silence even those attempts to … what, say “Hi?” Odd. And no thanks.

While we had made this mis-match work for the first 8 years of our marriage, as we grew into parents with school-aged kids, we began to think beyond the parenting role again.

But my second ex-wife is the mother of my children. And as much as I’d like to write her off, I have to deal with her on a regular basis. So you resolve yourself to make things as positive as possible. And you try and celebrate their newfound love, and how “the kids like him.” But it’s not easy. I mean, it’s not easy emotionally. The positive part is the only option.

Negative energy or anger is like drinking poison yourself and hoping it makes the other person sick. You can only control your own thoughts and actions. I’m happy that my ex-wife’s boyfriend is a nice guy. I love that he comes to my daughter’s volleyball games and that she wants to hug him too, before we leave. He’s a gentle soul, and he seems to care deeply for my ex-wife and my kids. That’s good for everyone.

So what did I learn in losing this second marriage that I want to capture to inform, perhaps a third run at being married? (I might consider it, but it would have to be a mutual need.)

  • two smart and energetic people can still fail at keeping their marriage together
  • it does not take an infidelity to break up a marriage
  • kids are a great reason to work hard at your marriage, but not a reason to stay together once the marriage has deteriorated
  • trying at marriage therapy is not all it takes
  • two people with kids can make a rational decision to get a divorce
  • the kids will survive, and many of their friends will have divorced parents as well

The book Love Languages gave me some great insights into what I want next. I am a touch-centered person. I thrive in connection and wither and die in isolation. As things got hard, however, my then-wife’s love language began to forcefully enter the picture as “do something for me.” While we had made this mis-match work for the first 8 years of our marriage, as we grew into parents with school-aged kids, we began to think beyond the parenting role again. We began to think about our lives as individuals and what we wanted as well as what we wanted for our kids.

Things drifted off course for us when the economy took another hit and my high-paying corporate job was eliminated. And even though they had given me a 6-month parachute, with benefits, we began to argue about money almost immediately.

Money is hard. And earning a living, and supporting a household in a nice neighborhood often requires that both parents work. We had tried and been mostly successful at giving her a lot of time “meeting the bus after school.” But as I was let go from the corporate grind, tired and fat, I didn’t really want to just jump back into the next big job. We began to negotiate. And as we found agreements and disagreements about money, and work, and what each of us should do next, we also retreated into our separate love language patterns.

She wanted me to be different, more trustworthy, more grown up. I felt grown up, but I wanted her to be more loving, more connected.

It was sad. I wanted and needed touch to keep me feeling “safe and loved.” She, on the other hand, needed my actions to show how I was going to support her. What I was doing for her became an indication of how much I loved her.

I get it, that women are often the keeper of the home and the hearth of the family. And as things get threatened, the woman is often the voice of reason and caution. This certainly played out in our roles as the money got tight, and we began to look for what needed to happen.

This is where our Love Languages began to kick into high gear. I wanted to be held. I wanted to cuddle and be close, physically. On the other hand, she wanted to build excel spreadsheets and get “clear on the money.” She wanted me to take care of things without her having to ask. She needed me to change and be more responsible. I just needed to be touched.

As the time drew on we got even more entrenched in our requirements. As I asked for more physical closeness she asked for more modifications to my actions. She wanted me to be different, more trustworthy, more grown up. I felt grown up, but I wanted her to be more loving, more connected. Our two systems of what made us feel loved was way out of balance. Things did not get better.

We started seeing a therapist, but he was helping us communicate. He was not a marriage therapist, and took no real investment in whether we stayed together or not. He was just what we needed, in a rational kind of what. But in illuminating our wants and needs, he was also allowing us to see how fundamentally different we had become.

When you start a marriage you have expectations and visions for where you are going together. When you have kids those ideas are massively transformed, and your ideas and requirements for love might change as well. We moved through major transitions before and after having kids. We loved with all our hearts. We counseled, we cooperated, we worked hard to put the puzzle back together again, but something was getting clearer and not just “fixed” by our therapy.

We both wanted something different from what we had become. And in our fundamental way, our love languages hold a nice outline for what broke down. I’ve learned that a touchy-feely partner is essential. My first girlfriend after divorce knew the Love Languages book and self-identified as a touch-centered person as well. Wow. She unlocked a new understanding of what is possible when you have two people who speak the same Love Language.

As much as we wanted to remain in love and grow in love as parents, there were some fundamental shifts that happened in our lives and in our aspirations. What I learned from my first “touch” lover was that my needs for closeness are fundamental to my complete happiness. While I loved my second wife deeply, and still love her as a co-parent, I never felt completely loved by her. Expressing her joy and love for me was not easy for her. I carried a lot of the “touch” energy for the entire family.

Now I know. And my first girlfriend and I are still friends. I will always be thankful to her for giving me a new baseline for what being in love feels like. I believe in love and believe I will get there again. I still have some healing and growth to do, obviously, before meeting my next “love.” But that’s okay, it’s not a race. I’m in no hurry. And I’m enjoying the journey thoroughly.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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reference: The 5 Love Languages  by Gary Chapman

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image: salsa brazil, vincent jarousseau, creative commons usage

The Love Hurricane: Becoming Parents

WHOLE-readingtoson

Everything you might read or hear about becoming a parent pales in comparison to the storm of emotion and life altering moment your child gasps for their first breath, making their presence and frustrations known. The love hurricane will rip through every aspect of your life. You can either lean into the transformation or you can push against it.

There seem to be two distinct approaches becoming parents. Either you allow the experience and responsibility completely transform your life and priorities into the phrase “kids first.” Or you push back against the transformation and embody a more “and now we have kids” tone. In terms of parenting philosophy the first “transformative” approach would be aligned with attachment parenting. The second approach tends to compartmentalized the parenting experience so that it doesn’t alter the pre-parenting lifestyle too much.

From the moment we started trying to have kids, our approach was “all in.” Even a part of our courtship and fairly rapid marriage was a result of both of our commitments to becoming parents, together. We knew it was one of our highest purposes in life. And when we met and fell in love, the parent path was part of the passion and plan that heightened our relationship.

Rather than battoning down the hatches we were cracking open our previous lives and making way for something amazing to happen.

We joined a Bradley Method class and began to join in the dreaming and planning for the actual birth experience. I remember the Thursday evenings driving out to the class with my pregnant wife, talking and holding hands on the 30-minute trip. We were beginning the visioning for the coming of our child. I also began a dialogue with our unborn child as I patted and encouraged the little soul arriving in my pregnant wife’s belly. It was a sublimely spiritual experience, this prepping for the love hurricane. Rather than battoning down the hatches we were cracking open our previous lives and making way for something amazing to happen. We had no idea.

This is no What to Expect When You Are Expecting process. The books help very little.  The advice from friends and your parents are also well-meaning, but more about the story teller than what your experience is going to be. If you are tuned into the experience, and tuning into each other as a couple, you know this already. And the overwhelming feelings or joy and fear and togetherness mix into a new bond between you and this third being. Already, we were beginning to change, to get closer, to become dependent on this new interconnectedness. We were never going to be the same. We let the feelings heighten the process. The three of us grew some sort of spiritual connection beyond any church or prayer experience we’d ever been through. We were prepping the way for the hurricane.

Then it happens, the rush of arrival began with my wife’s water breaking in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon in October. We had a magical moment between us as we cried and laughed and called our doctor and our doula. We had set our birthing plan ahead of time, and we knew our doctor was committed to let us take the process as naturally as possible. He gave us the day and most of the night together alone with our experience and asked us to come into the hospital around 4 in the morning on Wednesday, if the contractions didn’t start.

We went for a last walk around our neighborhood as parents-to-be. We held each other in bed and rested, too excited to sleep, but tired enough to cuddle together as we waited.

Our son arrived around 10am on Wednesday morning.

Everything changed.

I never let my son our of my sight. I travelled with him to the warming room with my hand on his back, to his heel prick he wailed for the first time, and back to his mom where he learned what breasts were all about. And that first night I curled up at the foot of the bed in the hospital and kept a hand on both my wife and my child. “Here we are,” I kept saying, in prayer. “Thank you, God.” It was a mystical experience, this arrival, that transcended any religious experience or knowledge in my life. It was one huge prayer of thanks, for 36 hours.

At the moment you arrive back home the hurricane actually takes control of your life and all the things you used to do. The house becomes a laboratory. The bedroom becomes a classroom, a study in breasts, poop, kisses, sleep, and crying.

We found a healthy routine fairly early on and against the advice of our parents we attached a little sleeping bed to the side of our bed, in a co-sleeping approach to parenting. I’m sure both of our parents would’ve preferred some sort of crib and detachment process. My wife and I had studied the theories and fallen in love with the idea of attachment parenting and co-sleeping. Controversial at the time, but in-line with our love and our ideas of what we wanted for our kids.

Our bedroom became a place for family, sleeping, cuddling, wrestling, tickling, and joy. The love hurricane had blown through and given us the happiest moments we could ever imagine.

And maybe this is where the distinction between the two kinds of parents starts. In attachment parenting and co-sleeping you make a commitment to remain close to the child, giving them the controls about when and how they migrate out of the family bed. Sure, it’s less conducive to returning to the previous routine, but it was easy for the two of us to invite the love into all corners of our lives. We couldn’t imagine anything more loving than being a family.

Alone time and private space could be found later, or in different ways. We lept into the “big bed” as our room became known, and have never looked back. Our pre-parenting lives and bedroom no longer existed. Our bedroom became a place for family, sleeping, cuddling, wrestling, tickling, and joy. The love hurricane had blown through and given us the happiest moments we could ever imagine.

In these early weeks we befriended several other couples with new babies. Our little community of new parents became our new tribe. We had one other couple who were easily identified as attachment parents and a handful of others who were more traditional. And it was an interesting process getting to be with them and watch the differences in parenting styles that we were each making up. Parenting styles must come partially from our family of origin and partially from what we read and learn about “how to parent.”

One couple  in particular were obvious “we’re going to fit this child into our lifestyle” parents. Occasionally when we were together the differences between the way we related to our kids was striking. It seemed perhaps that our son was running amok over our lives, while our friends seemed to have a more organized and disciplined routine.

One of the early examples was the fenced/gated play area they had set up for their child. It was convenient to keep all the balls and toys and messiness in a small corner of the dining room. However, something about it felt too controlled. There was an aspect of the messiness of our connected relationship with our son that seemed quit different from this more controlled or regulated approach. And we learned pretty early on that you don’t talk “attachment” to parents who are taking the other road. Co-sleeping might appear almost abusive to people who don’t lean that direction. With one couple we celebrated our interconnected chaos and closeness, with most of the other couples, we observed a more restrained expression of love and caring.

I can celebrate our approach to becoming parents, and how we welcomed in the messiness and transformation of staying closely connected.

I’m not here to argue for attachment parenting, but I do believe that an overly controlled experience of becoming a parent short-circuits the transformational process a bit. I can see the benefits to keeping your pre-parenting life on course a bit more than we did, perhaps, but I think the 100% emotionally connected approach is what ultimately gave both our children their warm and loving personalities. They are joiners. Of course they are still young, so we’ve yet to see much of their lives as teenagers, but they appear to be extremely resilient and emotionally centered.

And when their attached parents became divorced, I believe it was this closeness, this “two big beds now instead of one” approach that carried us all through the process with little or no visible scarring. We all suffered. We’ve all spent time alone that we might have preferred to be different. But the attachments we established early on, as touchy-feely, messy, inclusive, parents is also the glue that keeps us connected now that we’ve been a fractured family for over four years.

When your children arrive you either allow your life to be torn apart and reassembled by the love hurricane, or you fight to maintain aspects of your pre-parent lives as you push back against the transformation. It seems to me that our “closeness” approach allowed us to survive the divorce in a loving and connected way. Perhaps it is even some form of “attachment divorce” that is what keeps me on the loving and positive path as a divorced dad.

Allow the hurricane to arrive and blow away the old aspects of your lives. Reset your expectations and parenting lives around the love and support of your children. Then, even if things don’t work out with the marriage, the closeness and love that you’ve established with your kids, becomes the strength and bond that guides your relationship even after divorce. That experience of closeness also becomes the approach your children will use as they begin to establish relationships for the rest of their lives. That’s what I understand and appreciate even now about my ex-wife. I can celebrate our approach to becoming parents, and how we welcomed in the messiness and transformation of staying closely connected.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: father and son reading stories, kelly sikkema, creative commons usage

Single Dad In Love, a Happy Story

WHOLE-hanks

Love is such a wonderfully ecstatic place to be. And as we enter the relationship that will eventually spawn a family we have to have entered a higher plane of love. (This is about conscious parenting, and not accidental pregnancy, though perhaps the accidental parent experiences the next stage of growth.) And before we become new parents we start preparing the nest and ourselves for the upcoming “love hurricane.” And nothing we prepped for and nothing we read about it could have really gotten us  spiritually prepared for what would happen next.

And this little trio of wonder and worry is launched and everyone is now headed in a new, and collective, direction. You’re all in, and all in it together.

In my case, and for the sake of this story, I’ll assume, for my now-ex-wife as well, all moments in my life pivoted on that first scream and bloody little package that slipped so easily into my hands in the hospital. There are BP and AP realities. In that hospital, at the birth of your first child, you shed your old before-parent lives. And you emerge, together, as a trio of lovers and spiritual beings, together finally, after all that anticipation and loving worship.

And you are in the rush of love and chaos that is new parenting. And all of life is miraculously transformed. Some of the changes are hard: sleep is a bit more of a negotiation and a rare gift, every poop becomes an event worthy of study and discussion and of course clean up, and the tired mom requires several added doses of patience as everything about her body has just shifted in a 180 degree u turn.

And some of the changes, the ones you might have read about, are magical, mystical, transformations that affirm our belief in God. At least that’s how it felt to me. This little soul has entered and torn up the house and every aspect of the life before him (we had a son first) and each parent is forced to come to terms with his/her spiritual beliefs on the spot. There’s an amazing transformation in your wife’s body and even though sex is off for a bit, the glow of her body and her amazing orbs are all gifts from a higher power. And the body-soul connection of the breast-feeding is a fascinating thing to observe. And this little trio of wonder and worry is launched and everyone is now headed in a new, and collective, direction. You’re all in, and all in it together.

We didn’t really start talking about a second child for a while, I mean, we were getting the hang of this parenting thing, and the wonder overwhelmed the stress and struggle of growth required.  But there was a distinct moment when we decided if we wanted a second child, and we did, that NOW would be a good time to begin “trying” again. And there’s a lot of fun associated with the trying.

In our world, the second pregnancy was a replay of the first one for about two months. We started the Bradley classes again, just as a way of bonding and preparing for the process again. We loved the time in the car heading to our “birthing” classes. So reverent. And even the little man started calming down a bit, as if he somehow sensed some new adventure was on the way. We sailed into our second pregnancy with flying colors. Until the first sonogram.

She had a complication. A medical condition was starving our arriving daughter of oxygen. And we were whisked off to a neonatal surgeon’s office for a more accurate assessment. And the world went topsy-turvy for all of us in one visit with our loving and happy OBGYN as we got the referral and insurance information for this new specialist.

We were in it together, but we weren’t exactly sure if we were all going to make it. And I might have been the weakest link.

He was a wonderful doctor, and his attitude probably carried us along. Our case was mild compared to most of the people in his office. But still, every Monday morning for 5 months we would need to visit his office together and see if our little girl was getting enough oxygenated blood. There were a lot of things the surgeon could do, but they all sounded experimental and risky. And they were. He admitted to only doing one prior in-vitro blood transfusion. ACK. He never showed his anxiety, but he was hoping right along with us, that it wouldn’t come to that.

And along the way, the three of us outside the womb began to show signs of stress. My consulting business crashed around our wounded heads with 9-11, and we suddenly didn’t have a clear financial picture of the future. But we marched along. I started a rabid search for full-time work and we showed up at the doctor’s office every Monday morning for a red blood count of our month’s old daughter.

We were in it together, but we weren’t exactly sure if we were all going to make it. And I might have been the weakest link. Something about the combination, parental responsibilities, a crushing job loss, and a weekly medical drama that played out with ever-more wringing of hands and worry on all sides of the sonogram’s monitor.

I cracked. I’m sad to say it now. I fell to pieces and while I did my best to maintain my support, my attention had to turn inward for a bit while I struggled to get my act together. Yes, I admit it, shamefully, I left my wife mentally, for a short period of time during our greatest challenge. There are still some ideas in my head that point back there to our eventual breakup, but that’s a much later story. We rowed along in our little boat of 3.5 and we did the best we could. But for a short period of time, when she needed a boat captain the most, she was both crew and captain.

In the low-moments I showed up. In the crisis moments I was able to pull up my suspenders and dig in as Dad, and Husband, and Protector. But I was wobbly.

Our daughter practically jumped out of the womb when it was her time to arrive. And to everyone’s amazement, she was not only not anemic, she was just a regular old healthy baby. All the emergency options were not needed once she was out of the inhospitable womb. We were all so glad to see her, and she was so glad to have arrived that we hit another love hurricane. And waves rolled in on all of us. Even our son got into the act with his new sister. He was jumping all over the house, wielding spatulas, and yelling, “Ta tai do!” It was as if he had created his own warning and challenge to any of the darkness that was still threatening us.

We hit another period of bliss and wonder. Now 4 of us in the bed, and 4 of us as happy as four well-tucked space travellers could be. Our journey now turned towards ideas of school and plans for redecorated rooms. We had made it through the trial by fire and we were exhausted but still in tact. We enjoyed a few blissful years.

I spent a lot of time after everyone had gone to sleep, standing in my kids room and watching them sleep. It was a quiet little church.

And, in fact, those blissful feelings have never changed when looking at my kids. Our marriage had a few more surprises ahead, but the kids were the focus and the purpose of our journey. We were dedicated to the task. I rejoined the corporate workforce and travelled far from home to provide the job-free time for my wife. We were aligned in our goals and dreams. And as I packed off to my daily commute I was smiling the entire way, even pulling out of the driveway I had a sense of working for something bigger and more important than myself. It was a hard journey, but a good one.

And each night as I got home after dark, often bearing dinner or groceries for the awaiting family, I rejoiced even as I began to show signs of the stressful job. I gained a lot of weight, though I tried to make it to the on-site gym. I walked with my wife, pushing the dual stroller up and down the hills of our neighborhood. And we did yoga together in the morning to support each other’s health and well-being.

And I spent a lot of time after everyone had gone to sleep, standing in my kids room and watching them sleep. It was a quiet little church. With soft lights, warm smells and sounds, and this little magical being who had chosen to come live with us. I was convinced this was the meaning of life, for a while. To serve and love these little creatures into bigger and better creatures. And that is so. But it’s only part of the story. And here our journey departed from the mapped trajectory and the capsule opened up and I stepped out for a space walk alone.

There has never been a second since my kids were born that I did not recognize the gift and suffering my beautiful wife took on to bring these little travelers into the world to join us. And even as they often travel in the same space ship without me, I am still orbiting and loving with all my heart.

And the saddest moment of parenting after divorce is the moment when your kids are suddenly gone from your life for days at a time. It’s the one thing I can’t quite fathom. Those nights when I want to return to the church of children and listen to their tiny snores and sighs… And they are not there.

I used to have nightmares about something happening to them. Perhaps even before my departure was written into the flight plan. And I still suffer minor sadness, that seem to come upon me at random times, with random triggers. Like their cereal bowls the morning after I have dropped them off at school and know I won’t see them for almost a week. (SAD.)

I can only guess that my ex has the same pangs of missing them. And in my early drafts of our strategy at becoming parents I never imagined this was a possibility, this five-day absence, that comes every other week. And we travel on in our separate ships and our passengers move through the air-lock of elementary and middle school as they transfer to mom’s ship or dad’s ship.

I am still in love with my kids and even the woman who brought them. It’s evolved into something very different than I planned.

This is no 3D IMAX movie. This is not Gravity. This is real life after divorce. And the joy I feel at seeing my kids has even gotten stronger. Perhaps the longing when they are not within touching or hearing distance causes me to appreciate them even more. I’m not sure how that could be possible, but I do know that my hours with them are  focused and joyous even when we are doing the most mundane things. And when they are asleep in my house, I am complete again, even as a solo-pilot. And I can check in on their pulses in a different way, touch base with their school work and their frustrations, and hear what’s going on.

I am still in love with my kids and even the woman who brought them. It’s evolved into something very different than I planned. And even as I hope for a co-pilot again, there will never be an astronaut who turned herself so completely inside and out to be a family together. I bless her for them constantly. And I travel along alone for a good percentage of my days. But I’m no Major Tom. I’m more of a Tom Hanks. I’m going to solve the issue and get through this crisis too.

Always Love, and always love your ex for what she gave,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Note: A friend keeps asking when I write these kind of posts if I wanted to get back together with my ex-wife. And loving her is very different from wanting to be with her again. We’re well beyond that. Sure, the kids might secretly hope for their parents to get back together, forever. But that’s not going to happen.

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image: tom hanks press photo for Apollo 13, creative commons usage

The Transformation of Love and Parenting in Marriage and Divorce

Whole Parent: Becoming Parents

Parenting, the act of having kids, changes everything. And I’ve noticed two types of parents.

  1. The parents who are prepared to have their lives transformed and welcome the new kid-centric lifestyle.
  2. The parents who attempt to maintain their pre-parent lifestyle, often at some expense to the kids.

My ex-wife and I gladly gave our nights, weekends, and all available energy to the wondrous transformation. We saw some of our friends choose the other path. It was an odd thing. To see them molding their child to fit into their training schedules, and work routines.

As you continue to grow with your kids, you continue to change with them. As they get older they begin engaging with you in more ways, and it is at this point that I think the two parenting paths reflect in the relationships that form.

Things between us headed down a very functional, but less-than-compassionate, road. We still parented with all our hearts, but we didn’t couple much.

I remember a moment, before kids, when my wife and I were talking about going ahead and trying. “I’m ready to not be the center of my own life,” I said. “I’m a bit tired of my own shit.”

And we agreed. And the love hurricanes entered out lives and everything was torn up and rebuilt around the parenting life. Of course, it transforms parts of your relationship to your spouse as well. As a dad, I was often competing for time with my wife. Not competing really, but negotiating. Trying to find ways to give her more time, more energy, more space so she would want to be intimate again. That’s what I wanted, but often not what she wanted. And that too was okay.

Then, making the decision to have a second child, even after the massive re-org of our lives, was a step even further down the path of transformation. As the new child was born, I was thrust more directly into childcare, both of my son, and of the newborn. We all go very close, and very intimate.

Again, the transformation was good. Nothing that had worked before, now worked with two kids. There were timing issues. One would be sleeping while the other was cranky and inconsolable. One of us parents would take the waking child while the other tried to get a nap in. We worked together, and often marveled when things worked. “One for each of us,” we joked. But there was some truth to the equation.

One-to-one parenting may be the best ratio. You get to give 100% attention to your child. What they play you play, what they want you provide, what they are afraid of you explain, and so on. And our little unit grew in leaps and bounds and things changed again and again in response to their needs and our desires to keep them well fed, well-schooled, and well-parented.

Until the unbelievable happened. In all the work to keep the kids at the center, we lost some of the relationship between me and my wife. We lost some connections that were not easily restored. And as parenting duties continued to mount, we were less and less able to put in the effort to rejoin. Things between us headed down a very functional, but less-than-compassionate, road. We still parented with all our hearts, but we didn’t couple much.

I still love my ex-wife. It’s different, of course, I don’t want to be remarried to her. But she is doing a great job at a difficult task.

So it goes, with so many busy parents, the kids came first and the relationship suffered. There simply was not enough energy and love to go around, and at some point the idea of divorce was introduced.

I don’t think it was an easy decision for either of us. But in the end, when we decided/realised that divorce was probably the best option, we worked together, as we had to create these wonderful kids, to create a positive divorce. And we failed many times over. But we kept coming back to what was most important, the kids.

I believe that our child-centered lifestyle and choices allowed us to let go of the marriage in favor of the kids welfare. Regardless of who blinked first in the marriage, in the end it is a mutual decision. And we have always worked (well, mostly) together to keep our marital and then co-parenting issues out of our kids lives.

We’ve all suffered and we’ve all gained something from this transition. But neither my ex-wife nor I have put anything before our kids welfare. I can thank her every day for the great job she is doing as a single parent. Somedays I wish it hadn’t happened, but I always wish her well. It’s not easy. It’s a challenge when issues come up. But if we both really resolve to do what’s best for our kids, we come around to co-parenting, and loving co-parenting at that.

I still love my ex-wife. It’s different, of course, I don’t want to be remarried to her. But she is doing a great job at a difficult task. It was almost impossible for me to imagine happiness again when the marriage began coming apart. But here we are, both reasonably happy, with super happy and intelligent kids. And for that I give thanks to her and my resilient kids.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: ava and her parents, lenny baker, creative commons usage