Tag Archives: dad’s depression

A Good Man in a Storm, Even After Divorce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE.

LAUGH.

LET GO.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Minimizing Collateral Damage of Depression and Divorce

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I’m going to talk about my depression for a minute. Okay?

Why is it, that when I’m depressed I cannot see the hope in the pattern? Why do I sink so far that even my own internal dialogue is powerless to lift my spirits? It’s not like I haven’t been depressed before. It’s not like I don’t know that I eventually rise back out of my funk. But somewhere in the short-circuit of my brain, I can no longer experience joy or hope.

As a parent dealing with depression I’ve had to substantially moderate my communications with my kids and ex-wife during these periods.

It’s the hope that’s a real killer. And it’s this vicious and toxic self-talk that I moderate by getting completely quiet. Sure, it’s not a good sign when I’m no longer my boisterous self, but it’s also safer for me to not be spouting off my dooms day fantasies.

I can see that these thoughts are flawed. I can even state to myself, “Man you are really hitting some f-ed up thinking here. Let’s not pay too much attention to this storm.” But I always DO pay too much attention to it. Or I consume too much of my own energy battling the wicked thoughts that I begin to shut off from everyone around me.

As a parent dealing with depression I’ve had to substantially moderate my communications with my kids and ex-wife during these periods. Several years ago when I was going through some of the upheaval of the divorce, I had a pretty open conversation with my kids about my “cloud.” My son came to the rescue. “You mean like that commercial where the cloud follows the guy around raining on him? Like that?”

This is the only time a pharma-porn ad for an antidepressant has ever served a purpose in my life, other than reminding me that I’m depressed. My son really understood the concept and the cartoon illustrations seemed to make the disease more manageable.

And as we progressed through that difficult Summer, my son would occasionally ask, “How’s your cloud today?”

It was a great opening. I was able to reassure both of my kids that my difficulties had nothing to do with them. And that I was working with a doctor and some cloud-removal medicine of my own. It was a nice bridge for us to be able to chat about Dad’s issues. And when kids reach the age where onset depression might arise, I’m so glad we have the framework to talk about things like medication and the state of my cloud.

Even my ex-wife is supportive these days when things are “off.” She notices when my email responses take days rather than hours. It’s not her fault that she needs help and has questions that we have to answer together as parents. My depression does not abide by our needs or our schedule. And this year she texted me, “Are you having a hard time this Christmas?” Yep, as painful as it was to admit to her, it was more painful to hide the truth.

So I struggle with depression from time to time. Most of the time the onset has something to do with earning a living and the joy or panic around my employment. And today, I’m with a person who can embrace all of my flavors, and while she’s not enthusiastic about my quietudes, she is very clear that she is sticking with me, through thick and thin. She’s much better at the thin times then I am.

That’s the person I feel I really am. The UP person who’s trying to express myself in music, writing, and singing.

So moving forward, my challenge is to understand that I cycle. Is it bipolar? I don’t know, I think Bradley Cooper did us all a service by demonstrating the warped highs and lows of that variation of depression, but I’m not sure it’s that helpful a diagnosis. See, when I’m down my entire life suffers. When I’m UP, or HAPPY, or ENTHUSIASTIC, my life feels and looks as if everything it going well.

Well, what if the UPSIDE is merely my life going well. I have not spun off in a manic mode (out of control euphoria) since I did drugs in my high school days. My “highs” these days are really what I consider my full, creative, and activated self. Does this mean I’m cycling UP? Or that I’m getting hypo-manic? (Hypo, meaning just below the destructive mania.) I don’t think so. My meds doctor is not all that convinced that the label is very helpful in treating me.

So I get LOW. Those are the times I need the most help. When I’m UP I’m usually plugging along quite nicely. That’s the person I feel I really am. The UP person who’s trying to express myself in music, writing, and singing. It’s the ME that I believe my current fiance fell in love with. And thank goodness it was good enough to hook her heart to me before I took my first nose dive during our relationship.

And that’s the part that I have to work to repair. I do not need to jettison everything in my life when I start having a LOW period. And if I can hold on to the tiny hopes: 1. that my mate will stand beside me through the storm; 2. that the storm will pass; 3. that joy will return to my life.

But the message I need to keep repeating, even in the good times, is THE JOY WILL RETURN. If I can leverage that into some measure of hopefulness, then I am well along my path of recovery.

As we move forward as a family, I am certain I will have difficult times again. But now I’m going to counsel myself, and encourage my family to reflect back to me, with this truth: the LOW passes. If I can work to reduce collateral damage while I’m suffering from this brain flu, I will do everyone, including myself, a favor.

To that’s it. The hope is in the future moderation and mitigation of the LOW. To deny that it will happen again, or get overly cocky and optimistic about my happy times, is to open myself to the blindspot that is my depression.

But the message I need to keep repeating, even in the good times, is THE JOY WILL RETURN. If I can leverage that into some measure of hopefulness, then I am well along my path of recovery. I don’t have to aim for joy when I am activated and functioning properly. I do need to remember before, during, and after my LOW that I recover. I return fully and joyfully to my life. Forever and ever, amen.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Celebrating 2 Years of Being The Positive Divorce Dad

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You never leave the family, you just leave the house.

Two years ago I started this journey, finding the Positive in my divorce. My life was changed by the act of trying to reframe everything in a non-adversarial mode. Even when she would be mean, I would never respond in-kind. Ever. Having this blog, this Positive folder to put stories into made me more aware and more conscious of creating love and connection between myself and my kids. And in not riling up their mom, giving all of us an easier life, post-divorce.

As I have continued to weave my Positive Divorce story in the public eye, I have learned many things.

The angst of divorce is our own. The trauma of divorce is held within all of us. If I can behave in ways that support my kids in every interaction, I can remember to be kind, be slow to react, and be thoughtful of our continuous future as a family unit.

Things started two years ago with this post.

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A Return to Wholeness After Divorce

There’s no way sugar coat it. Divorce is the single biggest event that has happened in the lives of my family, ever. As amicable as you want to make it (and we tried) things get rough, sad, hurtful, complicated, and confusing. And while we as adults can only fathom that chaos from our own perspectives, the churn in our kid’s lives will shape them forever. I know my parents divorce, and the subsequent loss of my father’s love and influence, had devastating effects on my life. I’m a survivor. I’m here to talk, write, and grow even more from the experience. But it sucked.

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And along the journey to now, I have discovered many things about myself, about my kids, and about this process of divorce and recovery from divorce. The goal, when you separate is to maintain a civil relationship and do what’s best for the kids. It’s a lot easier to say that than it is to actually do it. Your ex will do stuff that baffles your mind. You will want different things. You will do the best you can. And it will be a challenge sometimes, but I learned that when I was able to hold up the positive white flag of surrender, I was able to set the tone for my experience of the divorce.

I also wrote the manifesto for what I was doing. It has been updated several times, but the core mission remains the same.

Becoming The Whole Parent, author, John McElhenney

About Becoming a Whole Parent Again, After Divorce

My unwavering and immutable mission:

1. 100% positive
2. Kids first
3. Honest feelings

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In the second month I met Arianna Huffington at a tech conference. When she gave out her email and asked for ideas I was typing the message and including my post from earlier that morning.  All Available Light: Positive Parenting Energy Is Never Lost. I think that post really turned a corner for me. I was hitting stride and developing a different voice that would grow stronger the more I wrote. Arianna emailed me back within hours and I became a HuffPo blogger. See my archive: John McElhenney on the Huffington Post.

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It was at this point, a good three years into my divorce journey that I hit on my home run post. (Still getting the most reads of any page on my blog.)

What A Single Dad Wants In the *Next* Relationship

Rules for dating a single dad. (I’ve got two kids and a full-time job, but I’d still like to find time to be with someone.)

  1. Let’s not rush into things.
  2. I’m Looking for 100% Pure Connection
  3. I’m Into Moms

There’s more, but you can read it in the post.

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And next was the 2nd post divorce relationship and first experience with navigating another person’s resistance and dysfunction. All the while, learning to let it go, take it easy, and keep my focus on the present moment and not wondering and worrying about where we were going.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 7.55.42 AMLearning About Sex and Dating As We Go Along

Dating is not marriage. In fact, dating (which I admittedly don’t know much about) can be shut down by getting too serious or too future-plans oriented. As my schedule and future is quite flexible, I was surprised how quickly my “relationship” concepts changed yesterday when confronted with a challenging dilemma. On one hand I had met and “dated” an amazing woman. One the other she was telling me how our closeness and chemistry was freaking her out.

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And then I was able to open up a bit about post-divorce depression, which is common for us empaths.

WHOLE-thekissHow Long Will it Hurt? Divorce Recovery, the Road Back to Happiness

Today, over four years after my divorce was finalized, I was still struck by a pang of sadness as I was dropping my kids bags off at my ex-wife’s house, the old house, our old house. I wondered, “How long will it take before I feel nothing?” But I immediately knew the answer. I will always feel a loss when dropping my kids bags off at my old house. The rest, what I do with those feelings, is up to me.

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Everything seemed to fall into place after I wrote this important post.

WHOLE-prayerPrayer for Single Parents, and My Ex

“I wish you happiness in your new life, I always want to see you shine, you are the other half, the partner in this parenting journey we accepted together. Your joy is joy for our kids. Your peace is their peace, and mine. As we walk separate paths we are blameless and grateful for the gifts we’ve been given. And to you, my dear ex, I give the deepest respect and love. Thank you for where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going, still a family, still parents, still blessed.”

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And from that point on, this blog became as much about relationship building and dating as it was about divorce and difficulties. Rounding the 5th year after divorce, things began to change for me.

I was invited to do a few interviews:

I began to identify my core relationship needs and decided drop online dating as distraction. I put the intention out there for what I wanted, and started working on myself and my joy rather than pursuing a relationship.

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I wrote The Deep Space Divorce Saga which began with

My Little Rocket Ship of Hope and Love WHOLE-rocketship

I am hilariously ashamed, and… Laughing at my situation, because if I didn’t laugh at it, I’m sure I’d be freaking out, depressed, or drinking. Something to escape my current grounded state. Ready to laugh? Me too.

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And it was right at this time, January of 2015, that an amazing woman showed up in my life and changed everything.

May I Fall In Love With You?

Do you long for the intoxication of love again, like me? I can feel it in my bones, growing stronger daily, as I grow stronger and more confident. And the more clear I get about 100% or nothing, the easier it is to make decisions about my time and efforts. Dating and a relationship will be a core part of my life again. Today, not so much.

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The new non-dating attitude and honest reinvention of myself had called in the perfect woman. I could not have known it at the outset, in January, when I wrote the post above, but within several months there was an entirely different thread being woven on this blog.

whole-bw-coupleAn Amazing Thing Has Happened

She arrived in my life in January of this year.

In February of this year my life fell apart, due to my own emotional tides and I slipped into a depression. I did not see it coming. I was on top of the world, and boom, I was freaking the hell out. And then the most amazing thing happened. She stayed close and connected.

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And the rest, as they say…

Thank you for staying on this journey with me. The outpouring of love and support has been vital at times. My positive attitude continues to get stronger and project itself into other’s lives, through this writing. I am learning. I am growing. And I hope, I am becoming a better father, ex-husband, and lover. Let’s see where we go from here.

I think my latest post shows a continuing search for meaning in all of this love stuff. And I’m very excited to be back on that path again. This time for good.

WHOLE-runner

The Care and Feeding of Your Lover

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

 

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Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Note on the intention behind this post and this blog: Yes, divorce is hard. Trying to whitewash every single detail of a co-parenting relationship in some fantasy land haze would be of benefit to none of us. I am committed to owning my part in the divorce, always. And I am hopefully clear on my self-awareness when it comes to my own struggles with money, depression, communication breakdowns, and disagreements with my ex-wife. What I hope, is that this post doesn’t come across as a humblebrag, but as a celebration of the progress I’ve made in navigating the last two years of being a single parent and co-parent. I always appreciate comments and feedback.

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The Training and Education of a Reluctant Divorcé

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It does not matter if you are the parent who says, “I want a divorce,” or the parent who is surprised by the fracturous disclosure, your life and the lives of your children will be forever changed. You can’t walk that one back.

For me there was no mystery that we were in trouble, the admission came during couple’s therapy, but the form and bluntness of the admission was even more devastating. Something she was saying, in response to a question from the therapist gave me a hint that all was not well. I struck with some sort of defensive instinct. I asked, “Have you already been to see a lawyer?”

That second. When she blushed and nodded. That second began my training to become a divorced dad.

In many ways I went under the bus with a quiet gasp. I agreed after several sessions more that working together required both of us wanting to be married. One of us didn’t.

The separation of divorce is not horrible. The divorce may actually be better for all parties involved. It is our reaction and past-history with divorce that becomes the issue.

I cried and wailed, but mostly to my individual therapist. And mostly I was crying about my parents divorce. I did not ever want to inflict that kind of pain on my kids. And at the outset of our divorce planning I was determined not to repeat the bitter struggle that defined my 3rd grader through 8th grader experience of life. Yes, my parents divorced over a long and extended battle. But it wasn’t so much about custody. It was about money.

We didn’t have a lot of money to argue about. We had debt, which would come into play later. And we had two kids, a house, and two cars. What we had from the start, and what we continue to put at the front of any of our discussions is the “best interest of the children.” Now, this phrase may come back to haunt you, but there are ways to get over your own pain and continue to be an awesome divorced parent.

It was early on that we agreed to do our divorce cooperatively. We would focus primarily on the kids and the parenting plan. We’d get a divorce accountant to help us “run the numbers.” And we’d agree to not fight with lawyers. We got through all of those agreements pretty quickly, once I agreed that divorce was the only course of action.

I sometimes try to play the higher/lower game where I blame my ex for the divorce. “It was her idea.” But the reality is, I was just as angry and frustrated by our relationship as she was. It was my parent’s divorce and the devastating aftermath that kept me terrified of divorce.

Newsflash from the present me to the just divorcing me, “It’s actually going to get better after you divorce. It might take a while. You’re going to have to do some work on yourself. But the divorce is the best thing for your situation.”

It’s no mystery that an unhappy marriage and angry parents breeds some pretty unhappy kids. Had my parents stayed married my life would’ve looked a lot differently. And while it’s easy for me to see how their divorce distanced me from my father’s alcoholic demise, I could not understand or cope with the loss when I was 8 years old.

Things are very different now. Most of my kids friends have divorced and remarried parents. It’s not a stigma for them. It’s *us* the parents that have to get out of the way and let the separation not be a horrible, awful, most destructive thing. Let me say that again for emphasis.

The separation of divorce is not horrible. The divorce may actually be better for all parties involved. It is our reaction and past-history with divorce that becomes the issue. I had a hard time with the divorce. I hated the idea. I fought to keep things together. And in the end I fell into a depression over the loss of my 100% parenting role. All these antics and struggles I needed to go through, I suppose, to finally break down enough to let go.

In the end, divorce is about letting go. But we’re letting go of the things that don’t work. We let go of the pain that comes from being in bed with someone you love and feeling more like surfing Facebook than making love. We let go of the fantasy that we had when we started the marriage and parenting journey, where we claimed, “We will be different. We will win. We will never divorce.”

The biggest transition in my life happened when I lost my marriage. The amazing thing is, out of the other side of this wreckage that I became, I also re-emerged as a writer. The plays and novels I had been trying to write, suddenly spilled out in blog posts about divorce and parenting.

What my divorce gave me was the freedom to become who I wanted to be all along. The roles and constraints of my marriage had strapped me into a course of action that was killing me. At my high-paying corporate job I was gaining weight, developing high blood pressure, and feeling pretty crappy about life. Sure, I came home to the picket fence and the smiling kids, but the wife was not so happy, and dinner was rarely in the oven.

Thriving as an artist, even if I don’t make a penny from it, is also part of my gift and my message to my kids.

The parenting dream and the American dream and the artist’s dream are often set up in opposition. If I can’t make a living as a writer or musician, I’ve got to find ways to make a living and hope that I can keep my creative passion alive in the fragments of time I have left. And parenting was the biggest responsibility I had, and have. There is nothing more important that my kids… Wait a minute. Let’s back that one up a minute.

More important than your kids is YOU. In order to be a good parent you have to survive. Depression and soul-crushing workloads are not acceptable. And more than survive you have to show them how to thrive, even under the circumstances that seem dire and depressing. In becoming a stronger person, in showing them how I could roll with the punches and get back up as a man and a father is one of the most important lessons I can transfer to them.

Thriving as an artist, even if I don’t make a penny from it, is also part of my gift and my message to my kids. You need to know what you want. From there you can rebuild from any set back and regroup, reset, restart.

The divorce was a hard reset for me.

The gift that I was given by my then-wife’s admission, was the gift of my creative soul. If I had aligned myself towards corporate work and being the good dad with the nice house in the nice neighborhood, I might have really suffered a death. My own creative death, and ultimately the death of many unhealthy white professionals who struggle along with little joy or passion.

I had the joy and passion in spades. I had a mis-aligned marriage which generated two wonderful kids. Today I have reset myself towards a creatively fulfilling life. I hope that my children learn from my example. That even in the darkest of times we may find the answer we were looking for all along.

My divorce was also my rebirth as a writer and musician.

My new relationship came to being out of an alignment with my dreams and hopes for the future, and hers as well.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: father and son, creative commons usage

What You Can’t Tell Your Kids After Divorce

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Dad’s tend to have a different experience of it, as we are usually the one’s asked to leave the house. The rest of the crew sails along as if we’re just on an extended business trip.

I’ve never been able to tell the kids how much I miss them. I can give hints and warm hugs when they return to me on my 30%-of-the-time weekends. But I cannot tell them that the divorce was not my idea or that I am sorry at how I didn’t keep it together for them. And maybe some of this is for the better. And certainly, the way things were going in the marriage, we were a long way from pulling ourselves back into the loving couple that asked for these marvelous kids. But still.

There is so much you can’t tell them.

  • How their other parent does these really irritating things to get back at you for something that still stings.
  • How the weekends without them, in the beginning made me question why I was living, oh, and then they’d return and the world would seem okay again, for a few days.
  • How you fought for a 50/50 schedule, but were read the “divorce in Texas” bill of rights and given what was to be expected.
  • How I fought with their mom, who asked me to simply walk out of the house, two months before the end of school, and how I struggled to stay civil and optimistic, and sane during those two months as they finished up 3rd and 5th grades.
  • How I cried when their mom told me she wanted a divorce, not for me, but for them, for the painful look that I knew would cross their faces, as it had mine when my dad left the family.
  • How I’d still like to have a 50/50 schedule, but negotiations with their mom has broken down so many times, I’m beginning to give up on the idea.
  • How I miss them every Monday morning as I’m dropping them off at school and won’t see them again until Thursday night, for a dinner-only date.
  • How closing up their rooms when they are gone is part of my process for keeping those sad feelings inside, where I don’t have to look at their things, or their beds, and feel it all again.

Divorce is huge for everyone. Dad’s tend to have a different experience of it, as we are usually the one’s asked to leave the house. The rest of the crew sails along as if we’re just on an extended business trip. We dads, on the other hand, struggle with finding a new home, a new community of friends, a new job with more money so we can actually afford a place to live and make our child support payments. While they go on without us, we are left to fend for ourselves.

Schools don’t really understand the divorced dad. We struggle to make sure we’re on the mailing lists from the kid’s teachers. We make sure we’re invited to the parent-teacher meetings. We’re seen as the “dad,” a creature who was probably the cause of the divorce, and not very good with kids either. The dad jokes about how the kids are dressed, how the daughter’s hair is done, or not done, about the state of the packed lunches from Dad’s house. It’s a hard bit of single parenting reality. Mom’s are nurtured and supported by their community of women. Men are left out in the cold, to our own devices and failings. And often we fail, just as expected.

My investment and interest in their lives has multiplied even as my time with them has been divided.

I started hitting tennis balls with a new friend a few weeks before my then-wife asked for a divorce. As we were hitting and talking later, I told him she’d asked for a divorce. “Oh, man! You need to talk her out of that shit. You know what’s going to happen, right? She’s gonna get the house and you’re gonna get the payments.”

He was right.

I lost his friendship a month or so later when I moved out of the house and out of the neighborhood with the tennis club. But I still see him around. He’d been through it before. But by the time she told me she was considering options, it was already a done deal in her mind.

I can’t tell my kids much about that time. It was hard for all of us. While they were adjusting to me not being around, I was living at my sister’s house, trying to find a new job that would give me enough money to keep me out of a shabby apartment. And I was depressed almost immediately, at the loss of everything I had worked my entire life to produce. They were the primary loss for me. Every night without them in my life has been a loss.

You can’t replace or redo the lost time. But you can grow back into your full self, into a whole parent, and be even better when they are with you. My investment and interest in their lives has multiplied even as my time with them has been divided. And we, their mom and I, have kept the discord and “adult” discussions out of their purview. That’s the way it is. Adult stuff is for us adults.

Someday, my kids will know how I fought for them and their 3rd and 5th grade Spring semesters. And I’m not sure what they will get from the information, but I know my tenacity has given me a lot of strength throughout this entire path to becoming a happy and hopeful father again. I tried to never let them see the other dad, but you can’t lie. They knew when I was down. But we talked about it, and my sadness, as something I was working on. It had nothing to do with them, or their mom, or the divorce. It might have had a lot to do with all of those things, but those are the parts that you never get to tell them.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Coming Full Circle: A Dad’s Experience of the Divorce Recovery Cycle

WHOLE-temphome

Divorce strips away everything you’ve known about life to date. In many ways, for men, the experience is quite different. In my state, Texas, about 80% of women get primary custody and the house. It’s a cliché because it’s true. And while that might not always be the best arrangement, I can understand how simplifying the normal trajectory of divorce helps both the courts and the legal system that is supported by “divorce business.”

I am happy for the healing in my family that has come from flipping all the negatives of divorce on their ass and finding the way back to love.

What happens for the dad, when he is asked to leave the house and step away from his current life is unlike the experience for the rest of the family. And to be clear, someone has got to leave the house. And one of the stabilizing forces for the kids becomes the “house.” The goal is not to throw the kids into the massive turmoil of the “adult” decisions and process of divorce. So, someone has got to go.

Still, the disorientation is devastating. And depending on your preparedness and anticipation of the divorce, your new experience can be both magical and dark. In my case, I was dropped into a spare bedroom at my sister’s house. It’s possible that this crash landing into something soft and familiar, was what saved my life. (Suicide is very real threat to father’s in divorce. The absolute loss of everything, can unsettle even previously strong fathers.)

Your family of origin could be your lifeline after divorce. I fell into step with the cadence of my sister and her two kids. She’s been divorced for several years, so she was quite sympathetic to my experience. Of course, she had kept the house and majority of the kid-time in their divorce as well, so her actual perspective on my situation wasn’t 100% similar. Either way, I came to rely on my sister and her kids. And when my kids were with us in the “temporary house” they had built-in friends as well, and this took a lot of the pressure off me during those first few months.

I could make it through the time with my kids, and keep up the brave face of their dad. But when they left, I crumbled quickly back into my isolation. Family dinners became a gut check every day. A wonderful gut check, but a “how are you today” moment, every single day.

What I didn’t need, as someone who has dealt with depression was a lot of time alone. When I’m depressed I withdraw. In the darkest moments, even my kids didn’t provide the “reality check” to bring me out of my stupor. I kept most of my sadness to myself, and rose to the occasion when it was my weekend. But I was barely maintaining. I was so lucky to have a sister who got it, who supported me, and who provided a roof, bed, and food for a few months while I reconstituted my life.

Today, about 4.5 years since I walked out of my house, I am spending the week back at my sister’s house. She’s out-of-town and I’m caring for the dog and cat who still occupy my old crash pad. It’s a wonderful place to reflect back on where I’ve come, where I’ve changed, and where things are a back in a similar place.

I keep repeating how happy I am. I’m sure it’s a mantra of sorts. I am working to keep myself upright and healthy even as most of my material possessions and privacy are gone.

At this moment, it’s hard to admit, but, I’m homeless again. I’m staying here because I need a place to live. The story of how I got here, in 4.5 years is for another post. (Or another blog, perhaps.) But what is up for examination is what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. Occasionally it’s a good idea to take a semi-formal inventory of your progress along the path of rebuilding your life. From this perspective we can make adjustments and set goals for what we want to create.

What’s good about now, and where I am, and where I’m headed.

  • I love my life
  • My kids are quite happy and successful in their education and personal growth
  • My creative output is high, and I’m on the threshold of publishing my first Whole Parent book
  • I’m on a renewed commitment to health and fitness
  • And even alone, I’m as centered and “whole” as I’ve ever been
  • My relationship with my ex-wife is more business-like than I would’ve preferred, but that’s certainly efficient
  • Our kids reflect the love of both parents, as we haven’t ever bad-mouthed each other, they understand that we still love each other and them, but we’re just not married any more
  • Work prospects are also growing, and my path out of my “temporary housing” has not arrived, but it is in the works

What things I still need to focus changing or healing

  • I’m pretty positive, but there’s still some underlying “injustice” feelings that I need to process and get over
  • I’m sad about the divorce from time to time, and I am still releasing any focus on my ex-wife and her success
  • My new fitness commitment is just starting (October) and I’m still in the process of understanding all of the facets of my relationship to my diet and my health
  • My income needs to step up about 200% to get me out of my transition
  • I’m still hesitating slightly on the full-embrace of the role this divorce/relationship/parenting blogging could have on my life, and my future career transition (but I’m getting closer to this one)
  • My own relationship status has been mostly single. Happily single is still single. I’d like to find a relationship that begins to form the next chapter of my life, beyond single.

I keep repeating how happy I am. I’m sure it’s a mantra of sorts. A sort of self-soothing, self-regulating process I am working to keep myself upright and healthy even as most of my material possessions and privacy are gone. Fine, I walk away from all the things and return to the self. I return to myself and my internal makeover that began 4.5 years ago. This writing is a huge part of the process for me. I’m in therapy, sure, but this connection with myself, gives me almost daily sessions. And my talky therapy becomes more of an affirmation and firming-up of my convictions.

  • My kids are well.
  • I’m 99.2% positive. (Still shooting for 100%.)
  • My honest sharing here has picked up momentum and a following thanks to The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project.

And I am happy for the healing in my family that has come from flipping all the negatives of divorce on their ass and finding the way back to love. Everything in my life is about love. And the love and support of my kids comes before all of my own needs and goals. They are not a goal, they are my life. And while I’m not putting *my* life on hold, I am putting their care and feeding as my ultimate priority. That’s my big AH-HA moment. They are my WIN.

And as I progress along my path of recovery from divorce, I continue to do some of the best writing of my life. That’s what’s cracked open for me. As a writer and English major, I’m grateful that this transition has given me a strong voice. And the better I understand myself the stronger my life and my writing voice gets.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: temporary housing bliss, john mcelhenney, oct 2014 cc

Down Is the New Up: Divorced with Children

WHOLE-stiltdance

There is no planning for divorce. Divorce sneaks up on you, and more often for men, divorce slaps you on the back and says, “Sorry, we’re done here. Get your things and give us all a break, please.”

And you step out side of your house, what was your house, for the last time and smell the morning air. There is a hint of excitement mixed in with the heat and dust of the Summer.  You know it’s over this time. You know you have given in to the request. You may still try reconciliation from time to time, but she has made her position clear.

The moment, in couples therapy, when she admitted to consulting an attorney I was caught off guard.

As a semi-conscious husband and father I knew things were hard. I knew we were struggling to keep our friendship above the fray of money-work-kids-mortgage-insurance-sex. It was all coming to a head so quickly, but I knew that our couple’s therapy was helping. I was praying that it was helping. And then it wasn’t working any more.

I had begun to risk asking for what I needed. And I was beginning to express my dissatisfaction in the marriage too. This was dangerous territory. It was usually my then-wife who was having the major issues. She was unhappy. Very unhappy. And over the course of a year, I was beginning to wear down, and I was getting unhappy too.

Where I had been able to maintain a buddhist-like detachment from the “issues” that seemed to arise daily, my hopefulness was beginning to fail. Sure, we weren’t very good friends at the moment, but we were partners and parents first, right? Well, I had begun to express my frustration with how isolated we had become. I was tired of satisfying 100% of my sexual needs alone. I was tired of being kept in a glass box. My love language was touch, and I was starving to death.

What I didn’t know was how far into the foundation her anger went. Probably the fractures that were causing her chronic anger were not all about me. Depression and anger often have roots in childhood trauma and family of origin issues. But on the surface it appeared to her that I was the problem. I was okay at holding that responsibility for a while if it meant we could work on things. But over time, I began to feel a bit beat up, I began to respond with my own dissatisfaction.

There was only one real problem with my plan. I was arguing and fighting “for” my marriage from a position of strength. I thought the relationship was hard but the marriage was solid. My then-wife, however, had begun to consider post-marriage options. The moment, in couples therapy, when she admitted to consulting an attorney I was caught off guard. My strength and resolve at fighting *for* my marriage shifted instantly to some other instinct: self-preservation. (see: super judo warrior dad)

And within a few months of that revelation, I was out of the house. We were done. And I would never have full access to my kids again. It was way to early to understand the full impact of what was happening. I was reeling in emotions, depressive thoughts, and “what the hell am I going to do now” moments. I was in survival mode.

It took a few years of hard work before I was really ready to examine my own present struggles. I was consumed with issues like how to make enough money to pay child support *and* have a place to live, how to maintain a positive outward appearance to my kids when they were with me, and how to recover enough when they were not with me to function at a reasonable level. The maelstrom of divorce rips through everything you thought you understood. Just as the love hurricane brought in your role as parents, this was another transformative event. None of us would ever be the same.

You walk out of your house and essentially out of the life you’d known and into something dark and exciting.

I have the sense that a “dad out on the street” experience is quite different from what my ex-wife and kids experienced. Their lives maintained a sense of sameness. They were in the house together most of time and it was only me that was missing. For me, I was taken out of all that I had built over 11 years of marriage, out of my house, bed, neighborhood, friendships. I was struggling to find a place to live, living with family members, and missing my kids terribly. Of course, I was missing my partner as well, but that part of the ache had been crushed in the process of divorce.

If you’re super stable and fully employed at a high-paying job, perhaps divorce wouldn’t hit so hard. But for me it was much more than logistics and schedules. For me it was a total reset. I had nothing. My things were in storage in the garage and my former life seemed to be going along just fine without me, just a few miles away. Yet I was not invited in.

I learned how to survive and thrive while being down. For several years there were no “ups” it was all struggle and high-growth curves as I learned to reset my expectations and ideas about my future. Everything had changed. And this live without my kids for 70% of the time was the new normal. I had wanted 50/50 custody but I had been overruled by the counselor and my ex. Of course that’s not what she wanted. Her mandate was to keep the kid’s lives as similar as possible, just without me.

And that’s what we did. And that’s what you learn to survive as a divorced dad. You walk out of your house and essentially out of the life you’d known and into something dark and exciting. Of course there is a liberation at that moment, the world is reopened, the possibilities are once again endless. But… You’re kids, the purpose you’d come to depend on as a driving motivation, are no longer with you. And while they are not against you, they are most often away, in the old house, living the old life, without their dad.

We did our best. We survived. And I have learned to thrive in the absence of my kids and former life. Down has become the new up, and I have become a new single dad, still committed to his kids, and in many ways, to his ex-wife as well. We are still a family, still connected, even when we’re not together.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: nyc stilt dance, david robert bliwas, creative commons usage