Tag Archives: co-parenting

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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The Benefits of a Happy Ex-Wife (Positive Divorce and CoParenting)

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The only example I’ve had in my life of a contentious divorce was my parents when I was 5 until I was 8! My dad was vindictively out to wreck my mom financially and the soul crushing battle lasted almost three years.

In my divorce my ex and I agreed that the kids were the most important part of our relationship and we would not put them in the middle of any disagreements regarding the divorce. And post-divorce we have kept to our promise. It’s been hard a few times not to spill the beans over something egregious, and I’m sure my ex has felt the same way on several occasions. But we’ve kept the “adult” worries and complaints out of their lives.

There is also a big dichotomy in our life as divorced parents. On one hand you’ve got the child support and family home that usually goes to the mom. In our case both of those agreements were uncontested. But today, almost 6 years later, there’s a bit of frustration at some of the ways we’ve both handled the money. Money was the major stressor on our marriage, and it was most likely a job loss that cause my then-wife to consider what it would be like to be with someone else.

We parent really well together. We are cordial, we support the kids as a team, and we’ve recently started negotiating and strategizing in-person again.

The bigger mistake on her part was filing our divorce agreement with the Attorney Generals off. That’s equivalent to reporting you to the CPS, except its about money. The events that triggered her switch from trust to enforcement were exacerbated on both our sides. The effects of her actions have destroyed my credit, which makes it harder to rent a house, get a job, and forget about getting a car loan. And I while I have never disagreed with the child support and what I owe her, I was expecting our cooperation to extend on into our coparenting relationship

And that’s the flip side of the dichotomy. We parent really well together. We are cordial, we support the kids as a team, and we’ve recently started negotiating and strategizing in-person again.

You see, after the divorce happens you never get to see what the other half (or in the traditional case of mom-as-custodial-parent more than 50%) of your kid’s family life is like. And my kids are very loyal to both of us, so I don’t hear much about their “away” time. Of course, my sad mind was certain they just continued their happy lives without me in the house. I’m sure the reality was much different. Either way, we did not consciously pass on any of the sadness or anger to our kids. They have thrived. And this is a victory for both of us, for our family unit no longer together but still focused on supporting our growing children first.

In a positive divorce no one is to blame. Every action involving your ex should be loving and positive. Think about your kids, let go of the “relationship” with your ex.

Also, with no direct view into their lives, the child support sometimes feels like a tax rather than a loving contribution to the “other half” of our family unit. New dresses, new shoes, and new hairstyles on my ex-wife can make me feel like I’m providing her a $1,500+ monthly luxury support. I KNOW that this is not true, it’s skewed and self-destructive thinking. It goes along with that grass is certainly greener in their lives with my ex. And the money can feel like a punishment at times. But again, this is just my own flawed thinking.

When my ex-said, “I’d like to come over a bit earlier and maybe we can talk for a few minutes without the kids.”

“Um, sure,” I said. It felt a bit like being married again and her saying, “We need to talk.” Something was coming that I wasn’t going to like. She needed something that required a face-to-face meeting to ask for it. In other words, I was in trouble. I brushed away that feeling with some effort, but as I sat in the passenger seat of the Prius, the one we bought together, I was anxious about the discussion.

The conversation was amazing. She wanted to collaborate on how the child support money would be spent and to designate some of it to the kids, so they could have a discretionary clothing budget.

What I learned in the course of the next 10 minutes was how much kids actually cost. Things that I hadn’t really thought of. Lunch money. After school sports activities. Tutoring. Music lessons. And the added expense of having the kids 5 or 7 days of the week. When she showed me the numbers, I got a better picture of how her financial mind works and she revealed her equal contribution to kid stuff. She was showing me how our collective kid money was being spent. The reality was quite sobering. I can’t say I don’t have twinges of anger when the money is withheld from of my paycheck, but now I can see how she is putting in the same amount on her side.

And as we continue to talk a bit more cooperatively about kid-money, I can see a good bit of her tenseness change. I can see how her stress and exhaustion is exacerbated by any angst between us.

So I have worked to give her the benefit of the doubt in all circumstances. Flash of anger on my part, “Nope, take the higher road.” About two years ago, when I started this blog, I opened a new perspective in my life. Positive divorce is about seeing the priorities and shared dreams of the overall family unit and not just your individual, or even your me-and-the-kids unit. When I stopped injecting little jabs of frustration into the system and stopped responding to her angry emails and texts with peace and cooperation, it was me that changed. It was my vitriol that I had to own and take care of. Take care of OUTSIDE of the relationship.

And this money talk we had was another break through for me in this process. Now that I have a picture of where the money goes, and see that she’s putting in the same amount, I have lost my frustration about the money. I still suffer from the AG’s process for enforcing the child support, but I am not resentful of any of the money. Nor do I want to protest or change the deal.

I will be in the process of recalibrating my life in relationship to my ex-wife probably for the rest of my life. Even after the kids are off and doing their own lives, there are always collective contributions that need to be made, adult advice that needs to be given, and we will never fully separate from the relationship. And in that light, I will never stop loving my ex-wife in a deep and profound way. Obviously it’s no longer about passion and connection, it’s about our kids. The kids we created as a couple.

When you have kids and you understand that the collaborative effort on all of you never stops, you can begin to see that any negativity hurts all of you. A sad or stressed out ex-wife makes a sad and stressed out environment for our kids. That’s what we agreed to not do. The release of my anger about the “enforcement” decision she made may continue to take some work and processing on my part. But I have to live in the other world as much as I can. The world that says she is doing the best she can, we are doing the best we can, and we move on from here. Sure, the “deadbeat dad” letters and threats from the state of Texas are hurtful, but that decision is long gone.

I believe it was a vindictive move, to sick the authorities on me. But I couldn’t understand how she could move so far off the compassion and collaboration thread, but I don’t know what she was dealing with at the time. So the lasting effect of the AG’s involvement in our lives is a teaching for me. While I could never see striking against her during a down period, for any reason, I have to forgive and release her from the blame.

In a positive divorce no one is to blame. Every action involving your ex should be loving and positive. Think about your kids, let go of the “relationship” with your ex. That’s all you need to know. It’s not easy, and it’s an ongoing process, but you have to transform your own life by supporting not only your kids, but your ex as well.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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We Almost Lost the Ship

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Things in the new ship have been a bit rocky. Fun, but we’re talkin bare metal and exposed wiring. For starters the old farty dog has a bad leg so when he poops or pees he simply walks back and forth in the filth until you clean it up. You often need to wash him as well. And the cat, though he has a clean and available litter box prefers to find his own places to poop and pee. We’ve been through this on the other ship. Not sure what his problem is…

And a few things have already broken down. But that’s par for the course, as this is a nice house, but not a very modern house. After the first use the dishwasher spilled it’s soapy warm contents all over the floor of the kitchen. The repairmen arrived and almost laughed as they opened the old GE. It took them 3 minutes to report back, “This one’s too far gone to repair. We’ll get back to you. This landlord is usually pretty good about getting back to us on these. We’ll get you another unit. That was last week. The new dishwasher was approved, but has not been installed.

“I think we should take a little bit of time getting stuff for the house this time and not just get crap because we need something cheap. It might take us a bit longer to furnish everything, but we’ll get nice stuff.”

As the kids arrived we’ve been enjoying the proximity to their mother’s place. They keep dropping by for stuff. It’s always nice to see them. A bonus! And they can walk or run between our houses in about 10 minutes.

I dreamt this set up back as we were in the earliest phases of the divorce process. I was still living in the house. I was committed to finishing out the school year before leaving the house. And in these strained times, I often made conversation with my soon-to-be ex about “maybe we should reconsider.” She would have none of the idea, but I chatted along anyway. So, in this dream I suggested we not get a divorce at all. I’d just move out and get another house, a little bit away. The kids could circulate easily between either house. We could all benefit from the proximity of each other.

And today, I think I’m just about there. My dream, five years ago, of having a house near my kids and their mom is now a reality. We’re divorced. But we could be entering the closest time in our relationship. We’re not there yet. The child support payments have just kicked back in at 120%. And I wanted to text her today, “A rising tide benefits all boats.” While things have been tense and rough from time to time, we’re still really only looking out for our kids. We’re both invested in their great lives. We have our own struggles to deal with, but our kids are what’s next. They carry our ambitions and our fears. My ex-wife and I are both doing our best to give them confidence and resilience in all areas of their lives: emotional, mental, physical.

And the journey has had some unexpected twists and turns. The little blind dog has recovered much of his bounce when he’s roaming free in the back yard. He no longer has to fend off the big pitbull mix. He can’t see or hear, but he can smell. And as he wanders around you can tell he is looking and smelling hard.

Then we hit a cold snap and he had to be kept inside. It was a near complete disaster. He pooped and peed and walked around in it. It was not working. He was stinky, cranky, and probably humiliated in his shameful place. But even in his disgrace, he shows his old spirit.  He’s trooping along with us. Maybe not as full crew member, but a member emeritus that we all love and hug on as best we can.

And it seems to me, a lot of the time, as a divorced family, that’s what we are doing. Our best. For everyone involved. Even the exes deserve happiness. I still root for my ex-wife. I do hope her relationship is the one and that he speaks a love languages that makes hers resonate.

We’re still a bed down. But I told the kids as we were getting ready to load into the ship for the first time. “I think we should take a little bit of time getting stuff for the house this time and not just get crap because we need something cheap. It might take us a bit longer to furnish everything, but we’ll get nice stuff.” They agreed. And the first run to Ikea for a bed was a complete null sum gain.

Any ice at all usually shuts down the schools and then you’ve got to take a kid day. Well, I don’t have my kids, but if it ices over, they can sled all the way down the hill from my ex-wife’s house and get hot cider her, with us.

The funniest part: We drove out in my 4-door coupe. (Ikea’s always seem to be on the other side of the earth.) I needed to borrow a car for the run, and I’d just forgotten and driven there with not possible way to pack in a bed. I laughed. “So this is more of a shopping run.”

And, in fact, we walked all over the store and didn’t see a single bed that was interesting to my daughter. And we were going to buy some new sheets but the lines for check-out were insane, so we bought cinnamon rolls instead. The kids ate them, I only got one bit. Even my daughter is interest in my fitness.

But probably the most spectacular part of this opening montage of our new journey, the co-pilot seems to have arrived. And when she says, “I’m planning on sticking around.” I get the idea that she’s serious.

The last time I moved into my own place, I did not have any help. The new ship is filled with her things. Wow. Her energy is here even when she is not. I know, it’s still early, but she’s got a great attitude and approach to getting stuff done.

So while the crew has had good and bad days, we’ve all come through them. We’re rounding the corner on the third week.

Captain’s Log: Monday February 24, 2015. Daughter arrives at doorstep knocking loudly. She wants her hair flattening iron. “I’ll go get it,” she says, unsuspecting. (We’ve got both cars in the garage tonight, because a deep freeze is expected.)

“I’ll get it,” I say, heading up the stairs. Laughing as I open the master bedroom door on said copilot put my fingers to lips. “Shhh.” At this point in the story, copilot is a “known friend” to the kids. But that’s as far as it goes.

I return to my daughter and give her the iron. “Love you sweetie.”

“Good night dad.”

Back to more strategic planning and chart mapping with my copilot. The air is good and a bit chilly tonight. But I’m hoping for us to get iced in so I can snuggle a bit late. A few of Texas’s nice features. Any ice at all usually shuts down the schools and then you’ve got to take a kid day. Well, I don’t have my kids tonight, but if it ices over in the future at some point, they can sled down the hill from my ex-wife’s house and get hot cider here.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Love All Parents: The Single Parent’s Manifesto

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When you become a parent everything in your life changes. The world is miraculously transformed into something mystical, spiritual, and magical. For me, I was able to rise above myself as an individual and recognize the gift that happened in our lifes. That process started long before the birth of my first child, but from the very moment that I helped wiggle his shoulders free from his mom’s body, I was forever aware of my responsibility.

Today, I’m closer to believing that I am happier, that my kids are happier, and even that my ex-wife is happier now, after the divorce.

And now we’re divorced. Hmm. A lot of water has passed under the bridge, but that same moment of realization and awe of responsibility is present with me all the time. As often as possible, when I remember to pay attention to this universal responsibility, I am an awesome co-parent. Other times, I get tired or distracted and I think my ex-wife is more of “the ex” rather than the “mother of my children.” The perspective is important. I am constantly trying to do better.

I am always in the process of becoming the best ex-husband I can be. Yes, you’re kids are the priority, but it’s important to remember the sacred bond between you and your ex-spouse. There’s no escaping it. You both agreed to the deal, you both ushered in new life. And you both have responsibilities to them, but also to each other. YUK. It can be hard sometimes to remember this inclusiveness.

There have been plenty of things in the course of my single parenthood that I would rather strangle her over. However, the trick is to embrace the idea that she is doing the best she can. Always. It doesn’t seem that way when things go differently than you had imagined. It can appear that your co-parent is out to make your life miserable. But in my case, that’s not the truth. It is how I feel sometimes, but my feelings don’t accurately reflect reality. They are just my feelings. I cannot accurately project or predict her thoughts and actions. And obviously, that is not my job. My job is to listen and respond, with compassion. Again, easier said than done, but it’s a process of growth and release. As you release your ex from their faults in your eyes, you can begin to merely support them, no matter what. It’s not their fault they are so stressed out. There is nothing you can do to make them less tired. But you can provide a flexible and supportive response as often as possible.

Here’s the trick for me, when I celebrate the strength and resilience of my co-parent, I can begin to let go of my past resentments. One of the hardest transitions for me was dropping the blame and self-delusion that getting divorced was her idea, and her fault. It sure seemed that way when everything was going down, when I was asking for a reconciliation. However, today, from the 30,000 ft view back into the wreckage that our relationship had become, I can acknowledge that she was indeed doing the best she knew how. She made choices towards what she felt was her ultimate survival plan. Good or bad, the divorce freed us both up to develop into the next iteration of ourselves.

At first, for me, the loss of my primary residence and my unlimited access to my kids was nearly unbearable. The depression and feelings of loss caused me a lot of down time. I struggled. And for a long time I tried to figure out what I could’ve done to save the relationship. I tried to unravel when I had done wrong, or where the two of us had broken some sacred bond. But there were no easy answers.

I wish my co-parent all the joy and love in the world. I can no longer provide any of those things.

We both entered the marriage in order to have kids. Perhaps we compromised or overlooked some of the early warning signs because we were so focused on becoming parents. We did the dream, we had the kids, and we began our lives as a family the best we knew how.

Then, after struggling along for a few rough years, in the best interest of all involved, we divorced. We split into two houses, and resumed our parenting duties.

Today, I’m closer to believing that I am happier, that my kids are happier, and even that my ex-wife is happier now, after the divorce. And even if that is not true, I can only work on my part, my perspective on the situation. I can only do my side of the co-parenting equation. Sure, there are opportunities for escalation, and just over the last two days, she’s been trying to get me to engage in some drama about the family dog, that I simply won’t bite on. Nope.

I can always take the high road. I can refuse to fire back when she’s hitting below the belt, or complaining that things aren’t working out. But I have made a firm decision not to respond in-kind. Compassion first. Then firm resolve to deal with only the part of the relationship that I can control, me and my responses.

I am certain of a few things now, from this 30,000 ft view.

  • I am happier than I was in the final throes of our failing marriage.
  • There were incompatibilities between us that we overlooked in order to become parents.
  • As a young family, we did the best we could at shepherding our babies into young adults.
  • When the mystery and magic of being parents gave way to the more mundane tasks of parenting, chores, and money, we became more functional and less romantic.

I wish my co-parent all the joy and love in the world. I can no longer provide any of those things. But I can be a soft cushion when she needs to hit or collapse into something. I resolve not to hit back. But, I won’t stand-in for the drama any more. I will only take my responsibility. I will only pay attention to the business between us as we continue together in co-parenting.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Love Hurricane: Becoming Parents

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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

Divorce Lessons: 8 Critical Choices In Making a Positive Split

WHOLE-yes-peace

You’re entering into the first WTF discussions with your partner about divorce. I’m sorry. There are a few things you should know, mom or dad, that will make your transition to a divorced couple more manageable. Again, I’m sorry for your loss, perhaps there is something better on the other side, but right now you need to attend to the details. Maybe I can help. Here are the 8 critical points of maintaining a positive divorce approach in the days, months, and years ahead. Your relationship may be ending, but the road of divorce never ends.

Each parent is responsible to keep their own emotional upset out of the kids lives.

1. Kids. If you’ve got’em, everything you do from this point on should revolve around making their lives a bit less tumultuous over the next few years as your and your ex figure out the routine and cadence of co-parenting. Everything, and I mean, everything should be about the kids. All of your needs come second. Period. (Since this is my situation, most of the rest of this post deals with the kid-first issues of divorce.)

2. Money. A friend told me during my practice divorce, “If you can rub money on it, let it go.” And this is fairly clear. If it’s a material object, there is no sense fighting over it. (Embittered or contested divorces notwithstanding, don’t sweat the little things.) After the kids the money is the main negotiation in divorce. You have assets and you have debts. And as you separate your money issues, you will each get portions of both. If you have a house you are going to have to decide who gets it. Do you keep it? Do you sell it? If the kids would be better served by not being uprooted at this time, maybe you need to consider how you can best keep them in their home. (Notice I said their home. Yes, it’s your asset, as parents, but the home, the feeling of home, the safety, security, and love that was established in this home, is really all about them.

But money doesn’t stop with the house and things. The next issues is the sticky wicket the stalls a lot of divorce negotiations.

3. Child Support and the noncustodial Parent. This is the one I was completely uninformed about when we entered into our divorce planning. It was my hope and intention that we would work out the divorce with the same care we took in planning to become parents. We were a 50/50 family, all the way. But something happened on the way to the counselor’s office where we began drawing up our parenting plan. This is the core schedule that will run your lives and your kids lives over the next 10 – 15 years. It is the most important part of the divorce, but maybe not the most important part of the custodial negotiations.

If you stay on the positive divorce route, you will help your kids keep their positive opinions of both of you.

Back in 2010 when I got divorced, the state of Texas had a pretty clear judicial record on divorce. 85% of all divorced awarded the mom primary custody and the dad noncustodial status. It’s still called joint custody, but don’t be misled by the title. Here’s the part I didn’t quite understand, even as I was reading divorce books and making my own strategies about putting together a fair 50/50 schedule. The noncustodial parent pays child support to the custodial parent. No negotiation. The state has a formula based on your income (it works out to approximately 19% of your after-tax take home) and you (the noncustodial parent) will be asked to pay for 100% of the kids healthcare insurance. Okay, so get that straight. If you go the path of least resistance, as I did, and cooperate to the best of your abilities, you are still likely to be given the noncustodial role and the big monthly bill.

This is the major sticking point in a divorce. I didn’t know this. I agreed move on after I was told, in no uncertain terms, that my soon-to-be-ex would get this anyway if I fought in court about it. That wasn’t our deal, that wasn’t what we were doing, we were jointly paying a pricey divorce counselor to help us make these decisions together, but that’s what I was “going to get if I went to court.” So I folded my 50/50 plans, and was politely told my 50/50 schedule was nice, but that’s just not how this cooperative negotiation was going to go.

I should have gotten an attorney at this point. The problem is, back in 2010, I would’ve gotten what I got. So we avoided that pointless fight, and moved on to the plan.

4. Parenting Plan. Here’s where the non-financial work goes. This is the real meat of the divorce, at least as far as the kids are concerned, and remember that’s what we are focusing on here. Kids first, adults and our wants and needs second. So, along with the noncustodial parent role I was shown something called the Standard Possession Order or SPO. In Texas this means the dad gets the kids one night a week, plus every 1st, 3rd, and 5th weekend. (I’ll get to that 5th weekend in a second as well.) That’s the deal. That’s what’s going to happen “should you go to court” so you’d best be prepared to start there. Again this is the counselor talking. What I was saying is, “Why not 50/50? It looks like the books all say if the parents are cooperative and equally committed to co-parenting, that 50/50 parenting actually works better for the kids.” That’s not what you are likely to get if you end up in court, so “even negotiated” that’s likely what you’re going to end up getting if you try to keep the divorce planning in a cooperative and gitterdun mode.

The parenting plan also covers things like holidays, which Christmases they are with who. How you’re going to divide Spring Break and Summer Vacation. Those are the routine details of the plan.

5. The Dating Clause. One other part of the plan, that I think is essential, is the dating clause. In our plan, any parent who is dating, cannot introduce their dates to the kids until it has been a serious relationship for over 6 months. I think this saved us some real heartache in the early rebound days, and I was glad to have it in place. As it turns out, I still haven’t made it to 6 months with anyone. My ex has been dating for two and a half years, so the kids are familiar with him and like him. The idea is this clause keeps the kids (especially younger kids) from becoming attached or involved in any relationship that might be temporary. It’s a good idea, and I have felt that the way it slows down the pace of dating and moving into a more serious relationship, for me, has been beneficial.

6. Your Attitude. This is the core emotional piece of the divorce that you might spend more time on than you think. If we start with a few assumptions we might see the benefit of positive divorce more clearly.

  • Divorce is painful for everyone.
  • Each parent is responsible to keep their own emotional upset out of the kids lives. It’s fine to let them know or see that you are working through some stuff, but your promise has to be to not work it out in their presence. Get help for yourself outside the walls of your house.
  • Your kids will learn how to respond to this major life event by watching how you cope. You’re the role model that will provide the guides for their future upset navigation. By keeping your attitude positive and keeping your issues about your ex between you and your counselor, you can show your kids how to continue a loving family, even as your ex now lives somewhere else.
  • Anger is part of the grieving and growth process. But anger should not be worked out in front of your kids. Do whatever you need to do, but keep the frustrations and conflicts with your ex, OUT OF THE KIDS LIVES. There is not one angry thing that is appropriate to say about your ex. Not one. Your kids are not your little confidants and they should not be included in your bitching sessions. And take care to notice when you are doing this over the phone, those little ears are *so tuned* to every nuance of what is going on, that your anger, even in another room on a phone call to a friend, should be considered risky. Grieve, get mad, get support, but don’t let off steam in front of your kids.

7. Positive Divorce. If you stay on the positive divorce route, you will help your kids keep their positive opinions of both of you. You will give them healthy examples of how to cope with crisis and difficulty, that will provide a strong framework for them to grow with later in their own lives.

You still have loving kids between the two of you. Keep their loving attitudes in your hearts, and when you’re getting off track, focus on them and their needs.

You may never want to be friends with your ex, but you must maintain friendly relations in front of the kids. Even if money, or schedule conflicts are raging off scene, you’ve got a commitment to your kids that supersedes any and all issues. Yep, it’s hard, but keep that powerful pain out of the family.

Nobody wins in divorce, but we can keep either side from losing, if we stay present and positive in the coming months of negotiation and planning. And keeping things out of court and out of conflict, as much as possible, will go a long way to keeping the coming years on the cooperative side. Believe me, you need your co-parent, sometimes more than you did when you were married. As a co-parent some of their help is voluntary. It is okay to say, “I’m sorry I can’t help with that.” But it is so cool to be able to say, “Hey, I have plans, but let me see if I can move them so I can take the kids for you.”

The second sentence works like magic. You still have loving kids between the two of you. Keep their loving attitudes in your hearts, and when you’re getting off track, focus on them and their needs. That’s what it’s all about.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: yes, peace, mark farlardeau, creative commons usage

Super Judo Warrior Dad in Divorce

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It’s not easy to talk about money. Even when you are married to the other person, often there are disagreements and frustrations about money and how you handle it. When you are in the early stages of divorce negotiations, it gets even more difficult. Even with the help of counselors, accountants and attorneys, often the money issue is a difficult negotiation. Both of you want what you’ve always wanted, a fair decision that supports the children.

But what’s fair?

In the training and philosophy of judo we learn something called the loving respect for your attacker. In this concept you love the attacker by lovingly stopping their attack, while preventing them from hurting you or themselves. It’s this love and respect for the other person, even when they are attacking you, that served me well during the early months of my divorce.

Both my then-wife and I were wanting to make this as easy as possible. Within reason.

In our case, once the decision was made to divorce, we both moved towards cooperative divorce. How could be separate with the least amount of damage to each other, and how could we keep the divorce about the kids and not about anger or frustration or despair.

In our case, we engaged a well-paid divorce counsellor, a Ph.D, who was very gentle in easing us into the ideas of divorce, “in the best interest of the kids,” and the joint development of a parenting plan. Both my then-wife and I were wanting to make this as easy as possible. Within reason.

Early on in the discussions I declared that I wanted 50/50 parenting. I had read a bunch of divorce books and even presented a couple 50/50 schedules that I thought would work for us and our kids.

And here’s where my judo training, had I started it, would have come in handy.

When my then-wife expressed her desire to do the SPO plan, and be the primary custodian, we were at an impasse. Now, in my opinion, this was the heart of the matter that the counselor should’ve worked with us on. Instead she said something to both of us that I will never forget.

What we were paying for was an impartial counselor, to help us through this most difficult time, and to help us facilitate what WE wanted. After all, we were both paying her 50/50.

“If you go to court, she’s going to get primary custody.”

All the previous talk about cooperation, and all the discussions about what was “in the best interest of the children” evaporated in this one statement.

Had I known what I know now. Or had I had a good judo move for that moment, I could’ve deflected the disappointment and frustration back at an answer or a negotiation. What happened, instead, was I sadly agreed to proceed from that starting point and I dropped my dream of having the same 50/50 parenting we’d shared as a married couple, except now as a divorced couple.

There might have been several reasons for our counselor’s quick response to our disagreement, but none of them hold water when you remember that we were paying her PRECISELY SO WE WOULD GO TO COURT. What we were paying for was an impartial counselor, to help us through this most difficult time, and to help us facilitate what WE wanted. After all, we were both paying her 50/50.

I did not contain my sadness or disappointment at the time. And over the course of the next few weeks of meetings, I gently raise the idea again, but it was never considered again. We moved quickly to the mechanics of the SPO (standard possession order) and our custodial and non-custodial roles and rights. Overall, in the eye of the law, we did what 80% of Texas divorces do. We gave the woman the primary custody and put the child support burden on me, to support the kids in the house they grew up in, and in a lifestyle they had come to expect. I wanted that for them. I even wanted that for my ex-wife. I was sad, but I didn’t fight. That was the point. We weren’t fighting.

However, things did not go according to plan. We completed our parenting plan and custody schedule for the coming year. We agreed on the financial split of assets. And we divorced at the end of the first summer.

This time she mentioned just “turning the whole thing over the Attorney General’s Office and let them deal with it.”

And as a self-employed digital marketing consultant, I was forced to live with my sister while I looked for more gainful employment. And life went on as best as it could, given the circumstances. And we did okay. The kids kept their house, their mom started working a more full-time schedule and we negotiated the transfers and flexibility pretty well. Clearly we were both trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Then in January of that first year of divorce I got a killer job at a local startup. I moved quickly to establish my credit standing and within a few months of my new gig I purchased a small home. It wasn’t exactly the perfect house for my family, since the kids would share a bedroom, but I was confident that with my new income I could afford to close in the carport at some point, and turn my re-starter home into a family home.

For anyone with a family, reestablishing a home is a critical part of the rebuilding process. So I was proud and hopeful when I moved us all into the little home near the lake. And that first summer we swam and played and compromised on the roommate situation for the kids, with my daughter setting up shop in my bedroom most of the time she was staying with dad.

The business I had joined, however had different plans and by July they had eliminated the entire consumer portion of their business model and thus my position. With two-weeks notice I was unemployed again. Except now I had a mortgage and child support payments. Needless to say, I struggled mightily to keep things afloat. And with some timing flexibility from the ex, and some freelance jobs, I cobbled together the next few months as I reapplied for jobs and looked for consulting work.

Still, most of the negotiations between my ex-partner and I were pretty favorable. We were conscious of our dependance on one another for the care and flexible parenting of our precious children.

Soon, but not soon enough, I got some additional work, and resumed my mortgage payments and my child support payments. And we experienced a good Christmas and spring. And as we headed toward the long summer vacation things began to get difficult again. And that’s when things went south in a hurry.

I’m not proud of the next part of the story. Bear with me for a minute while I cover the details, you’ll have plenty of time to pass judgement in the last part of the story.

In the following summer (Summer #3) my employment was cut in half by the loss of a primary client. The small business I was working for assured me they would make up the loss with some new prospects they had on the books, but… Nothing materialized. By late July I was writing an email to my ex-wife explaining why I had not given her the child support check for July. I was behind. She was not pleased.

It is from this position, flat on my back, on the mat, that I have a number of options before me. As a super judo warrior dad I’m going to do what’s best for my kids.

I understand the frustration. And I felt the impact of my failure even as I scrambled to look for more work and more contracts. And in my applied judo training I assured her that I was not trying to skip out on any of the payments, nor was I trying to stall or hide money from her. She agreed that this was true, as she saw it. So we limped into August.

At this point, the small business was apologizing and the next round of work was not materializing and I was heading up to the first of August, where I would essentially be a full month behind, and with the current situation, I was not going to be able to pay August right away either.

I pleaded with my wife for flexibility. And again she rattle the war sabers at me. This time she mentioned just “turning the whole thing over the Attorney General’s Office and let them deal with it.”

And it’s at this point that I can see her point. I know that she was struggling without the July payment, and that looking at August too was going to put an additional strain on her budgets. And I am certain she was acting with the best of intentions, “in the best interests of the kids” when she continued to mention in the AG’s office. She had her reasons. She had her own fears and issues. And at some point, she decided to pull the trigger and turn me over to the State of Texas for handling.

I was horrified. Ashamed. And nothing I could do would prevent her from taking this action. I had been applying to jobs daily, calling old clients to see if they needed any additional work, I was scrambling at this point to make my mortgage payments as well. And I tried to reason with her. “Don’t you think I deserve to have a place to live as well?”

That’s all water under the bridge at this point. She filed. I ducked and covered and the dialogue had never resumed about what’s fair or what’s best for our kids. She is owed the money. That’s clear. And she is entitled to the money. And here’s where the next round of judo moves comes in.

All the way back to the earliest negotiations about our parenting plan, she got primary custody of our kids because she demanded it, and the counselor sided with her in the discussion and didn’t ever seriously consider my 50/50 proposal. OUCH.

And now, we’re much further down the road, and guess what? I lost the house. At least I was able to sell it rather than get foreclosed on. But I would’ve been able to restructure the debt had my ex-wife not filed with the AG’s office. And when I tried to negotiate an agreement with her, proposing a legal contract for the debt she was owed, she said, “It’s with the AG’s office now. And they specifically told me I could not talk to you about money.”

OUCH #2.

This summer, I am getting up off the mat again, to find compassion and caring for everyone involved.

Moving forward to the present moment, I am on the verge of landing a lucrative full-time corporate gig. And I have assured her that I will resume full child support payments with the first pay check. And of course, she is going to get all the past due amounts too. It’s the law. But it didn’t have to go this way.

And what I had set up, that I thought was comfortable and manageable with my modest house and self-employment, became unmanageable when things got off track. There was never a need to file, in my humble opinion. Just as there was never a need for the counselor in the earliest negotiations to assume that she would get primary custody of the children and I would pay a healthy amount of child support payments to her. There was no reason for us to jump to that conclusion, when we were paying the counselor to help us negotiate both of our goals and desires.

But the side of the law is often with the mother. And in Texas it’s 80% of the time that the mom get’s primary custody and child support orders from the father.

I actually had to hire my first attorney to keep the AG’s office from filing against my credit report. But the damage of the AG action and the inflexibility of my ex-partner led me to lose my modest house, my plan, my sweet little setup. And now I’m back to square one.

It is from this position, flat on my back, on the mat, that I have a number of options before me. As a super judo warrior dad I’m going to do what’s best for my kids. And I’m going to protect my attacker from damaging herself as much as possible. But I had a chat with my attorney again today. I didn’t even remember his name, so that’s good. And we talked over a number of potential solutions. And since I am the only one paying him, he is supposed to take my side and give me options that benefit me AND my kids, but may not be exactly how my ex-wife would like to see things work out.

This summer, I am getting up off the mat again, to find compassion and caring for everyone involved.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: Kim Jaeburn Gold Medal 2012 Olympics – Judo, republic of korea, creative commons usage

Prayer for Single Parents, and My Ex

WHOLE-prayer

“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.”

I haven’t always been able to bless my ex-wife. And for times in our marriage neither of us were blessing anyone. It was hard. We tried. We worked at it. We raised kids and grew together and then apart in the process. But we never stopped trying. And I can see that we are still trying today.

I know that my ex-partner is doing the best she can under the circumstances. She always has. And though we have both had periods of struggle and doubt, we seem to be on the upswing of our co-parenting transition. I do believe that there is nothing she wouldn’t do to make our kid’s lives better. And I have to believe that she is always looking out for their best interest, even when I can’t see it.

Somedays, I pine for being a core family again. Somedays, I look back and wonder what I could’ve, we could’ve, done to preserve the respect and love that we once had. And other days I can get so mad, wishing things were different, right now. Wishing I had the next relationship under way, like she does. But that’s not what this is about.

Anger today is a motivating force for me. I can be angry at my ex-wife, I can be angry at the economy, angry at the slow-moving car in front of me, there are plenty of things to get angry about.

This is about our kids. Two wonderful kids. The supreme focus of my life. And there is nothing I wouldn’t do for them. To keep them safe, to protect them from unnecessary drama and hurt, to help them grow into strong independent adults. And I have to know that she has the same intention in mind, even when I think things aren’t going as they should. It’s okay. We still have our differences. And my “way” is not the right way, it’s just my way. She has her own connection with the kids. She has her own path. And now we no longer share that path.

Communication is the key. The less we communicate… The more we communicate… It can be hard. And it is often the cause for friction in this co-parenting dance. So we need to take it more carefully. Answer with some thought to how the other person may react. Breathe when we are upset and want to react. It is never a good idea to fire back with anger. Never.

My anger is my own. My ex-wife does not deserve any of it. (Man that is even hard to say.) But it’s true. We tried, we negotiated a truce and separation, and now we are separate countries with shared resources. We still operate with some of the same interdependent budgets, but we’ve got a new autonomy. And what makes me angry is mainly my own unmet expectations. This is not the way I wanted it to work out. But guess what? It’s not the way she wanted it either. So we’re even. And we’re in this together.

Anger is a funny beast. At first I was afraid to express my anger. And I was almost a pacifist. But pacifists get run over. And over time I learned to speak up for my own needs. And indeed, I got mad as we entered the late stages of our marriage, when things were not going well, I spoke up. And again, today, I can feel my anger, but I can use it to change things about MY life and not hers. And anger is not an influencer for her, it’s only an irritant.

It’s ironic, that when she’s frustrated with me, I can tell. And I sort of take offense. AND… I’d like to respond in-kind. But I’ve learned, that I get NO RESULTS and NO SATISFACTION from being an asshole. In fact, being angry back at her, usually causes me to feel sad. That is not to say I should swallow my anger. This is how I gained 15 pounds during the height of our dysfunction. But I should own my anger. It is mine.

Anger is energy. Learn to deal with it and channel it towards something you want. Any anger directed back at your ex is anger that will return to you ten-fold when you are in dire need of support.

Anger today is a motivating force for me. I can be angry at my ex-wife, I can be angry at the economy, angry at the slow-moving car in front of me, there are plenty of things to get angry about. And keeping it inside is not the healthy answer, so what is the way through the anger? For me, anger is energy. When I am angry, I can tap that charge and redirect it towards something constructive or creative. It’s one of the reasons writing has become such a release. It’s important not to bury it or squelch it. Anger is power, use it, but use it towards something you want.

As a single parent, there are many new challenges, things that were easier to coordinate as a couple. Now, when the kids are “with me” I have 100% of the transportation duties, 100% of the entertainment, and 100% of the feeding and handling. It’s a lot. And when I’m in a bind, I can often ask for help from my ex. You can see how my friendliness and flexibility makes things easier for her. Well, when I’m in need that “friendship” is what keeps things balanced between us. When we were in the earlier months of divorce, it was much less easy to ask for anything. Today, we are still learning, and still making adjustments, but for the most part, we negotiate support for one another.

Support for our kids is support for our ex. There is no way around it. Anger towards our ex is anger that ends up in our kid’s world. I can take that shit elsewhere, as I do when they are with me. It’s no different. My anger is my own, and it is my responsibility to leave it elsewhere, and deal with it outside of my relationship to my kids, and even my ex. Yep, it sucks, but there it is.

Anger is energy. Learn to deal with it and channel it towards something you want. Any anger directed back at your ex is anger that will return to  you ten-fold when you are in dire need of support. So a prayer. Our kids are a gift. My ex is blameless in her journey forward, and it is in my best interest to support her and the kids with everything I’ve got. And that’s what I do.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: yemanja, vince alongi, creative commons usage

Get Into Your Divorce, Because You’ll Never Get Over It

WHOLE-tango

If you have kids with someone you’re never over your divorce. The fracture that changed everyone’s lives, is something you will be a part of forever. And while even in the most cooperative divorce things are tough, fighting against you ex is never a good idea.

I read a business book once called You Can’t Win a Fight with Your Boss. The point was, you might WIN the argument but it would be a loss for your career. So the idea was to not argue directly, but to use more indirect and subtle methods to get the results you want. Divorce is the same way. A direct confrontation is never fruitful, but you will have disagreements. And even as it might feel justified or righteous to lash out when you’ve been wronged, it’s NEVER the right idea.

I know I don’t live by this ideal all the time. And in the earlier years of my divorce I was less patient. I prided myself on my witty cutting responses. But they never solved the issue. I might’ve scored a few bitter points, but the recoil was always coming.

Your kids are the connector that keep you bound to that person forever. And while emotionally you are DONE with the other person, the new role within the divorce, the role of the co-parent, is essential.

As you move further away from your ex-partner and begin to form a new life without them, the interactions and transactions become easier. Once the heart is out of the relationship, you can deal with them like you would a cousin, or coworker. They don’t need any of your feelings, they just need to negotiate clearly and cleanly about things like school projects, dentist appointments, and what sports you’ll cover during the coming year.

You don’t get a clean break in divorce. You get your time back, and you get to coordinate your kid’s lives together for the rest of your lives. As much as you’d like to run the other way, and get the hell out of dodge, if you’ve got kids… Well, that’s not an option.

It’s not always a pleasant transaction, but the more business-like you can approach your ex-partner, the easier it will be to clear the BS and get to the parenting tasks or decisions at hand.

Often the reasons we got divorced had to do with poor communication. And as things degraded for me, our listening skills suffered greatly. I am just as guilty of this as she was. I simply did not want to hear any of her pain any more. I couldn’t hear it. And thus we both began to shut down the intimacy and connections. It was hardly noticeable at first, but as the emotional distance grew, our ability to negotiate also became strained.

So you got divorced, in part, because your communication and trust with the other person broke down. In divorce you have the same issues, the same decisions to make, and you still have your fractured communication skills. AND, now you don’t even care for the person very much. It is dangerous waters. And the littlest things can give rise to heated exchanges and escalations until both of you are back in the “dysfunctional marriage” again. This is where you DON’T want to go.

You have to do the anger and pain work outside the primary relationship. Once you get yourself healed, you can open up hear what the issue is and work to solve the problem. That’s what parenting after divorce is about: making joint decisions with as little drama as possible, and not stirring up the anger or hurt of the divorce for you or your kids.

You both have the same goals for your kids and as a team, you still have to shine and show up for them 100% of the time.

So you’re not getting “INTO” divorce, but you’re getting into co-parenting. How you deal with your ex is a good indicator as to how whole you have become. If you are still triggered into anger, or fuck-yous, you might have more work to do outside the relationship with your ex.

We’re going for a relationship with our ex that approximates going into a convenience store, you go in and take care of your transaction. You don’t really need to know about the clerk’s day or feelings. In the same way, you want to conduct business with your ex without any of the other stuff. Sometimes, for me, it’s helpful if I imagine her in a Burger King uniform, maybe with a Burger King Halloween mask on. I chuckle and release the tension and try to pay attention to the issue or decision we need to make.

So when I’m asked, “Are you over your divorce?” I suppose the real answer is, “No, I never will be.” Because your kids are the connector that keep you bound to that person forever. And while emotionally you are DONE with the other person, the new role within the divorce, the role of the co-parent, is essential.

I have heard stories of divorces going very differently, and I can’t really offer any experience around the vindictive ex, or the parent who is trying to keep the kids from having a healthy relationship with the other parent. And I know, as a man, there are a lot of stories where the men are sidelined through some dirty politics and legal shenanigans. But I did not have that experience. And I am doing everything I can to be a present dad for my kids. And being courteous to their mom is 100% part of that deal.

I’ve seen and heard the divorces where the ex rants about their asshole partner  in front of the kids. It’s awful. There is never any good reason to slam your former partner in front of the kids. Never. If it’s a legal issue, or money issue, take it to the counselors or to the court, if necessary, but do not act it out in front of your kids.

I don’t want to return to an intimate relationship with my ex-wife, but the intimacy we share in raising our kids is more important and deeper than any of our feelings of loss or anger. We have to get OVER our emotional divorce in order to get INTO healthy divorced parenting roles. There’s nothing more important. Heal yourself. Heal your relationships with your kids. And never let your ex become the enemy. You both have the same goals for your kids, and as a team you still have to shine and show up for them 100% of the time.

You can’t win a fight with your ex.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: tango couple, pedro ignacio guridi, 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