Tag Archives: “best interest of the children”

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

See if you can spot the lie:

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

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

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 But as we headed towards negotiating our co-parenting relationship, I started being fed these outdated ideas as truth.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: ballet 3, creative commons usage

Loss of the Proximity Effect as a Divorced Dad

WHOLE-repoop

My children bring such joy in to my life when they are around. Their absence doesn’t make my heart grow fonder, it just reminds me of how much of their lives I’m missing as a divorced dad.

I’m watching my kids grow up from a distance, and it’s painful. Sure, I have the standard possession order, the simple divorce equation for 80% of dads. But we’re getting the raw end of the deal. Actually, divorce is the rawest end of the deal, but once that’s determined, the only thing you can do is hope for maximizing your time with your kids. Still, it’s not enough.

Divorce is like an empty nest trial run that happens every week. My kids are here, we’re laughing, chatting, I’m fixing them food and taking them all over the city to friend’s houses, appointments, movies… It’s a parent’s life. Joy is the theme. Togetherness is the melody. And on the days when my kids are with me I perk up like a… well, like the dad I have always been, the dad I want to be, and the dad I lost in my parent’s divorce when I was 9.

There’s no accounting for the loss in a parent’s life when their kids are gone. Sure, a lot of people are dealing with divorce (and worse PAS) but just because it’s a new normal, does not make it acceptable. But accept it we must. What are the options?

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 6.07.18 PMIn my divorce I went for low-conflict, easy negotiation, and shared responsibility. I also went to the divorce counselor’s office asking for 50/50 time with my kids.  That’s not what I got. Even through we were both paying for our parenting planning, the therapist quickly shut down my 50/50 notions. “If you go to court she’s going to get the SPO.” While I argued that we were seeing her to prevent us from ever having to go to court, I eventually gave in and became a team player. We built our kid’s futures and my limited-fathering contract around the “court’s traditional decision.” I listened to the therapist when she talked about what was “in the best interest of the children.”

Listen very carefully when you hear that phrase. It’s a signal that you are about to be force-fed some wisdom or legal precedent that you’d just as soon accept. And that’s just what I did. The rest of the divorce planning went pretty smoothly after I gave up my dream of being a 50/50 parent.

But it’s how we shared the parenting duties when we were together. Even when I was the primary breadwinner, shipping off to a nearby town for the big bucks, I was holding up more than 50% of the parenting duties. I shopped, cleaned, ran errands, and tried to provide the evolved male version of cooperative parenting. However, the minute we were in the counselor’s office my wife’s intentions became loud and clear. She was always big on the planning and I was usually the one who followed her budgets and plans. Both my wife and the counselor smiled when I showed them my 50/50 parenting calendar. I had been studying the options, reading the psychology, gearing up for the discussion.

Even as I miss them when they are gone, I am learning to celebrate and appreciate them more deeply when I am with them.

I still wonder if they’d had a sidebar and set up their “plan” before we ever started negotiating in her office. They both smiled and politely told me why the kids needed their mother more than their father in the early and young years of divorce. That’s not what my books and research were telling me, but that seemed to be the consensus of our “divorce team” and the typical will of the courts. Mom’s get the time, the house, and dad’s get the time to stay focused on work, because they are now going to be responsible for their ex-wife’s house and whatever shelter they can afford for themselves. That’s just how it was in Texas in 2010.

Today, in 2014 I hear things are beginning to balance out a bit, thanks to the men’s rights movement. And while some of these organizations seem rabid and furious, my attorney said if we wanted to go for 50/50 now, he imagined the court would hear my case and we had a pretty good chance of winning. Hmm.

Would *that* be in the best interest of the children, today? I don’t know. Would I be striking out to fill my own empty nest time with more kid time? Again, I don’t know the answer, I’m still exploring my feelings around this idea.

There are some benefits to being a single dad with the SPO.

  • I have a lot of time off from parenting. (I’m rested and pursuing my dreams again.)
  • I have time to work overtime if I want to. (Mostly I have to, but that’s a different story.)
  • I could spend time dating and looking for another relationship.
  •  I have a lot less school-wakup-morning duties. (During my On-Week I have two school mornings. On my Off-Week I only have one.)

And there are some painful losses.

  • I’m often not clued into my kids school activities. (I have to be vigilant to say on the parent-teacher mailing lists, and make sure I’m available for all meetings.)
  • I miss whole weeks at a time. (As my kids are getting older, I am noticing how much they change between visits.)
  • My house is more of a “hotel” than a home. (Since they are not with me very often they keep 90% of their stuff at their mom’s.)
  • I miss teaching my son how to shave. (His mom let him use one of her razors. When I asked him about it, he was proud that he already knew how.)
  • I miss a lot of the nuance of growing up. (Even subtle changes seem big when you haven’t seen them in a week.)

Basically, I miss a ton of their life experience. I am not involved in 80% of their week night, school work, family dinner routine. And yesterday we stopped at a cafe for breakfast along the route of taking them back to their mom’s house. As my kids sat across from me, joking, poking and prodding at a each other, I felt a pang of loss. So much of life is sitting around the table “living” with each other. And my involvement in this activity was reduced by much more than 50% in the divorce. I’m guessing, because of the structure of the SPO I miss about 80% of my kids daily lives.

They’ve still got two loving parents, we’re just playing our roles alone on some imbalanced schedule that was worked out without much input from me.

As they get older now, they both have a ton of activities and sleep overs. Even on *my weekends* I often see my social daughter only briefly on the weekends. And observing her and her brother yesterday I was even more aware of my loss. Even as they are accelerating towards launch and college, in many ways, the divorce takes a large portion of their lives from me every week. And on off weeks, I notice the gap by how much they have changed when we’re back together. It’s like getting random and sporadic updates from teenagers about their lives, rather than living their lives with them.

Would I want to still be married? No. But should I have fought for 50% of my time with my children? Maybe. Still, that’s not where we are today. We move forward with the standard parenting plan and we do the best we can. Even as I miss them when they are gone, I am learning to celebrate and appreciate them more deeply when I am with them. They’ve still got two loving parents, we’re just playing our roles alone on some imbalanced schedule that was worked out without much input from me.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

back to Positive Divorce

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image: a note I wrote to myself, then added to by my daughter, age 6, while we were still married

Moving from Parenting To Co-parenting: Joining Together In Divorce

fire of divorce - the whole parentMen do need help. And there is no doubt that divorce brings out some of the worst traits and stereotypes in both sexes, and ramps them up to extreme levels. Men who have previously been unable to access or express any anger are suddenly screaming and throwing things or acting out in way more harmful to themselves. And women, now threatened with shame and financial ruin, retreat into a more defensive and alpha-protective mode.

What happens early on is communication breaks down. Misunderstandings take place. And more hurt and anger is piled on to the flames of the fire.

Just like in first aid fire training, at this point we need to STOP. DROP. And ROLL.

STOP the escalation of the flames. Don’t respond in-kind. Step out of the hurt role you are in and DO NOT stoke the flames, for any reason.

DROP the pretense that you are hurting more than the other person. DROP the charges. DROP the battle-axe and see if there are cooperative ways to work together.

ROLL with it. Let things go. Stress is high, it’s probably not all about you, even if your ex-partner says it is. ROLL with the punches and don’t return the aggression and anger.

And then when you have a moment to pat out your own flaming clothes you can also see the flames have been reaching out and threatening your kids too. With a moment of self-awareness we can stop the fire building practices we learned in our dysfunctional past and begin working towards a healthy divorce. I know that may sound like a fantasy, new-age, term, but it’s possible.

“If you go to court she’s going to get this, so we might as well start there and see what we can do to smooth the transition for the kids.”

The system of divorce (attorneys, courts, counselors) is not set up to support a healthy separation and transition into co-parenting. But, you can ask to slow things down when the rhetoric begins to get too hot. You can explore collaborative divorce. You can be open to the idea of building the parenting plan first, and the divorce second.

And we have to be able to look at the traditional, system supported, outcomes of divorce, so that we can examine what’s working and what’s not.

NOTE: This concept of collaborative co-parenting will not be available to everyone. There may be couples where the damage and acting out has gone too far. There are still plenty of ways you can refuse to feed the fire and not give up your rights and legal position in the upcoming negotiations.

In the case of couples willing to work on the leading edge of collaborative divorce, there are plenty of ways you can make the transition into co-parent much easier. But we’ve got to talk about it together. The next men’s movement is going to include women. And the next men’s movement will be about parenting and co-parenting.

In the stereotypical divorce process, that still holds true for 85% of all divorces in my state, Texas, the woman is awarded the custodial parent role and the man is awarded a hefty child support payment. In this model, the courts see the MOM as the loving relationship and the DAD as the paycheck.

This is wrong.

The system has evolved into this cow path for the slaughter of innocent men over time. And in my case, even though we took the high road, I was offered this piece of advice, from our $200-an-hour family therapist who specialized in building cooperative parenting plans.

“If you go to court she’s going to get this, so we might as well start there and see what we can do to smooth the transition for the kids.”

This is also wrong.

In the next men’s movement both men and women will be working together to map out a healthy divorce plan, that is fair to both mom and dad. And counselors who are being paid to shepherd those willing parents-to-coparents won’t reflexively jump to the SPO and custodial non-custodial parenting plan.

It’s easy to see why this stereotype came into being. Men have traditionally been the primary breadwinner. Women have been the primary nurturing parent. And my then-wife and I worked to promote and preserve those roles in our marriage. It was OUR PLAN TOO. But it wasn’t because she was the best nurturer, or that I was the best breadwinner. It was because she was the mom and I was the dad.

Again, I don’t want it to seem that I’m rebelling against some of this tradition. I’m not. I was happy for the mother of my kids to have the time to be MOM. And for that I traded some additional time away from the home, to make more money, so that this little nuclear unit could be supported.

We chose these roles. Sure they were based on traditional and historical norms, but we agreed with some of the premise. And I willingly sacrificed some of my DAD time to make their lives more comfortable, to be able to provide the good neighborhood and good schools.

In divorce, things are different. You still want the same things for you kids. But the shift happens when this cow path (Woman – nurture, Man – money) has become regulated to the point of law.

It’s the kids who stand to lose the most from this imbalanced systemic approach. Dad is more than money.

Now, in my state, as a man, if you want something other than the SPO and non-custodial parent role, you’re going to have to fight. You’re going to have to disagree with your expensive “parenting planning” and PH.D family therapist. If you want to break out of these well-worn and court-approved legal instruments, you’re going to have to talk to the woman in this deal and work something out.

Reaching over the aisle as a man is not easy. Everything in the court system is set to drive us into the approved plan.

And allowing the negotiation to happen, must be hard for a woman, who is threatened with getting less than she could get if she just went to court. She’s got the losing proposition in this negotiation.

But it’s the kids who stand to lose the most from this imbalanced systemic approach. Dad is more than money. And mom is capable of making just as much money (let’s table the fair pay discussion for the moment) as dad. These old roles no longer fit the educated and compassionate couple. But the road to a good and healthy co-parenting plan is not a well-worn path. There are books and attorneys who will advise you along the route, but the real negotiations are going to happen between you and your soon-to-be ex.

I’d like to start the dialogue between us sooner rather than later. For myself, yes, but also for the moms and dads who will be heading down the cow path shortly. We can do better. We can help raise the conversation back to equity and fairness. Today it’s “here’s what you’re going to get if she goes to court.” That’s not a way to build a trusting negotiation, or even craft a balanced parenting plan.

We don’t have to burn the system or relationship down to the ground to get a fair deal for both parents. But we do have to open the discussion beyond the SPO and custodial mom. And, I understand, moms, you have more to lose in this discussion. But your kids have more to gain. A dad who can support himself and contribute to a healthy co-parenting plan. And a mom who’s willing to stretch, in the “best interest of the kids” to give that same dad some additional time and rights so that he can show up in the best way.

It’s a trust issue. And it’s not going to be easy. But we can make a more holistic system. We can soften the blow of divorce on the kids. And we can build stronger co-parenting relationships from respect rather than ashes.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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