Tag Archives: everyone loses in divorce

Losing Dads in Divorce

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My dad died when I was 21 years old. I was a freshman in college. And the loss nearly took me out too. While our relationship had been tumultuous, losing the opportunity to connect with him, forever, was devastating. The real story is, however, that I lost my dad when I was about six years old. My mom tells the story that she told him he could choose to continue drinking and lose his family, or he could stop drinking. I’m not 100% sure it went down that clearly, but I am sure of the fact that my father was an alcoholic.

He exited my life in a big way when he moved out of the house. Even before his divorce was final he was remarrying another alcoholic and the slide down into darkness was as swift as it was complete. I have no idea what his new wife felt about his kids, but it was clear that neither of them cared about their kids as much as they cared about partying together. I recall this period as one of estrangement. I could no longer get close to my dad. He was either drunk lamenting his divorce, or drunk celebrating his newfound love. But there was not a lot of love to go around. The love was for the bottle. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s more truth than myth.

What my dad missed from my 6’s on was everything. I was a star tennis player (as my dad was a tennis player) but he never hit with me. I was a successful football player but my dad made one game that I can remember, and he brought “her.” I was an awful baseball and basketball player, and today I can see how other kids dads were instrumental in helping them get over the fear and challenge of competitive sports. But my dad was nowhere to be found.

Sure, he was a hard worker. He was a successful doctor. And somehow he kept his schedule and his medical practice even as his vitality was going down the tubes. You’d think after his first heart attack he would start making changes in his life. You’d think. And maybe the second heart attack would really be a wake up call. But, in fact, my dad had three heart attacks before he was forced to quit drinking and smoking due to the chemotherapy that was required for his cancer treatments.

For the first time in my young life, from age 6 on, my dad got sober. It was a glorious and amazingly sad time. As his brain unpickled, he began to speak about “missing so much of your life.” He was dying, and yet he began to understand what he had lost in the 15+ years since the divorce.

I took all the time with him that I could. I spend weekends out at his condo, at the golf course, with him. I even tried to play golf with him, but he was still a tyrant and jerk about losing balls. Well, me losing balls. Him losing balls, no problem. I was satisfied riding in the cart with him and enjoying spending time with him. Even though his body was emaciated, he did his best to enjoy the last year of his life. But the poignancy of the loss was almost too much to bear.

On Sunday as I was about to drive back into town, he said, “I really want to do more of this with you.” We had spent the weekend playing cards, me watching him play golf, and essentially catching up on our lives. The next weekend he was admitted to the hospital for the last time. What glimpse I had of my real dad was short and sweet. He died about three months later, after a protracted withdrawal phase where he couldn’t speak or communicate by more than a squeeze of the hand.

I miss my father. I wish he had been around to see my kids, to know my kids, to enjoy my kids. But not if he had still been drinking. So maybe he did us all a favor, by allowing the alcoholism to cure and then kill him rather than prolong his agony and drunken stupor. I’m pretty pragmatic about drinking these days, I do it some, but more than two beers simply does nothing for me. Why blunt my experience of living.

My father was blunting his experience of loss. In his marriage he made the wrong decision. He chose to leave and lose the best family he could ever have imagined. And even as he tried to grandiosely celebrate his new wife and new adopted daughter, the real love of his original family escaped him. Until he was dying. Then we all came rallying to his bedside. All four kids spent the last few months in town, trying our best to be cheerful and supportive, but quietly crying with each other at what we had already lost and what we were losing.

Today I saw a dad and his kid on the baseball field. I wonder if I would’ve been a better baseball player if my dad had not been an alcoholic. I wonder if I could have played first string basketball if I’d had someone to shoot hoops with. As it was, I was left to playing horse in the driveway by myself. My mom tried, but she wasn’t all that sporty.

Dad’s fulfill a vital role in our lives. When that role is limited or eliminated the children suffer the consequences. Let’s put the balance back in parenting. And when divorce happens, let’s fight to make 50/50 the norm and not the exception. I don’t think it would’ve made any difference in my father’s case, he didn’t want 50/50, he wanted out, in some respect. But the out he was granted was final and absolute. And until he was dying he drank to keep himself from feeling the loss.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: father son, creative commons usage

The Fracture of Divorce: My Dad’s Hand On My Head, Forever

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Sometimes I am more struck by how much I miss my kids when they are with me, on Dad’s weekend. Divorce is a bitch. Everyone is pulled apart. And the emotional ripples continue for the rest of our lives. And while I miss them terribly when they are gone, I am often struck by my longing while they are still with me. Last night, watching a movie with my 11 year-old daughter, I was so content. When she fell asleep midway through I turned off the computer and put my hand on the top of her head before I turned off the lights.

I never imagined a time when I would not be able to put my hand on the heads of my sleeping children. You don’t think of divorce when you get married and when you begin spinning up the plans for having children. Their loss is not something you can fathom. And until you are divorced, their potential loss revolves around things like accidents and illness. And then you are divorced, either by your choice or against your choice, and you no longer have access to your children the way you imagined you would.

A non-custodial father (like the other 80% of fathers in my state of Texas) really does not have a fair or balanced schedule. The courts and the counselors will tell you it’s almost 50/50 but they are lying to you. In practice, the non-custodial Standard Possession Order (SPO) at least in my state gives me access to my kids around 1/3 of the time. The little lies come in with things like the “full-month in the summer” that are all but impossible for a working parent. So you’re going to have a lot less access to your kids. Forever.

And still there was nothing more that I could do to keep my family together. There was no drinking or infidelity, but something more difficult to troubleshoot.

That sucks. And it sucked when my parents got divorced. Even though my dad was a tyrant and a yelling, drinking, angry man, he was still my dad. There’s no substitute. And once he was gone from the family home, in my case, he was truly gone from my life. Sure, alcohol played a huge part in his retreat, and even in his death, but for all intents and purposes my mom “won” me in the divorce. My dad often offered to build me a room on top of his fancy new garage on his massive new home. But he offered, he never built it.

And I really didn’t want to live in my father’s house. He yelled. He drank. He got sloppy about boundaries and yelled at us kids a lot. And these yelling-dad memories are still etched in my mind, even though my dad left the house for the last time when I was about six. So don’t ever think your kids won’t remember the bad times. We might get over them, or act like we do, but we’ll be working some of the same issues out in therapy 30 years later. Oh well, it’s better to keep working towards a healthy mental attitude rather than collapse into the ongoing dysfunction of our parents.

And I can’t put more than a cursory framework around my ex-wife’s family of origin drama. And I should really try. We married, we had kids, we did our best, we (she) decided it was time for a change. I went along with it after fighting for a few months. One person cannot keep a marriage together. She was headed out. And with her went my access to my kids.

It’s bigger than you can imagine, this loss of time with your kids. If there was one thing that really crushed me into a depression early on it was the time alone. Truly alone. I was okay with leaving the marriage behind, the anger and unhappiness was worth escaping, but the escape left behind my true happiness, my children.

After divorce you learn how to rebuild your inner-happiness. You’ve got a lot of time for this. Because you are alone for a good portion of that time. And your kids are no longer the buoy of joy in your life. Missing my kids was the part of the divorce that nearly killed me. And how ironic that suicide seems like an option, in the lowest moments, when suicide is the ultimate ALONE. Gross. Needless to say, divorce and suicide go together often. And more often it’s the father who exits both the marriage and the physical plane of existence. Sad.

My dad didn’t kill himself, but he certainly didn’t get well either. He didn’t stop drinking. He didn’t change his lifestyle after his second or third heart attacks. There was a part of my father that wanted to die. He was alone, with a new wife, and a new adopted daughter, but he was probably missing the family and life that he trashed with his drinking and refusal to get help. And he never got help. He drank himself into oblivion every night from then on. As long as I knew my dad, as an adult, he was a drinking alcoholic. There wasn’t much room for emotions and getting reassurances or pats on the head from that father. I made a promise to myself that my kids would never know that absence.

If my plans are moveable, I will always take my time with the kids. That’s my priority. That was apparently not hers.

And still there was nothing more that I could do to keep my family together. There was no drinking or infidelity, but something more difficult to troubleshoot. Ennui, perhaps? Or just greener pastures. But certainly my then-wife’s decision to depart, or force me to depart, was in part fueled by her own parent’s horrible divorce struggles. Again, I’ll skip taking her inventory here, and let rest with the statement that her mother and father were both tortured by their divorce for years, even remarrying at least once over the years of my wife’s elementary years.

So we move along, and we do the best we can. In the non-custodial role I have attempted to pick up more time with my kids whenever possible. But even in that I’ve been less demanding than I could’ve been. In divorce you are *always* trying to compromise with your ex, so that when you might need a favor they will consider your request with a positive attitude. But even in those actions I have lost more time with my kids.

When my ex partnered up again, after about six months, she was quick to ask for an adjustment to our expertly crafted non-custodial parenting plan. She wanted to switch the schedule so that her time synced up with her new boyfriend’s schedule. At first I was belligerent. “Why would I want to make adjustments to lessen my time with my kids to accommodate your new relationships?”

I did. I gave up my 5th weekend gifts. As she asked to go “every other weekend” rather than the ordered 1st, 3rd, and 5th. And while I really struggled with why this was a good idea for me, I still, somehow wanted her to be happy. Yuk. But what I gave up was my double weekends that come around 3 – 5 times a year. She made some overture about giving me the time back, “You can ask for an extra weekend any time you need it.”

And so, even in my already compromised schedule she was asking for me to give up more time so she could be with her boyfriend. Um… Why do I care about her time with her boyfriend? I didn’t. But I did agree to her request. It’s sort of what I do. I compromise and try to avoid conflict.

As a divorced dad, or maybe as a single parent in general, you get a preview of what the empty next syndrome feels like. It hurts.

And in many ways I’m still doing this. She can be an hour late picking the kids up and I’m okay with it. Or ask for me to take the kids at the last-minute, due to some “work crisis” that seems to arrive with about the same frequency as it did when we were married. And most of the time, I take the kids when I can get them. If I don’t have plans, or if my plans are moveable, I will always take my time with the kids. That’s my priority. That was apparently not hers.

I’m not here to take her inventory, however, but to lament the loss of all the evenings with my kids, for the rest of my life. They are growing at an amazing rate. (11 and 13) And I treasure every moment with them. And I haven’t put a priority on finding a relationship. My priority has been on my kids and my own mental and physical health. I’ve struggled. But I’m strong and healthy now. Perhaps a relationship for me is in the cards over the next few years, but I will never put that desire of mine, above the care, love, and feeding of my kids.

Last night as I was resting my hand on my daughter’s head, I was so aware of all the nights I have not been with her. She exhibits the signs of missing me when we get back together. And we are making the most of our time together. My son is a bit more self-contained and advanced in his parental separation process. My daughter and I just enjoy spending time together. And as she has gotten older I have been so delighted by her stories and epiphanies. The things she is excited about, I am excited about.

In the last six months of my father’s life he went through a remission period. And due to the chemo he could no longer drink. So he sobered up, for the first time in my adult life. And when I was 21 I spent some quality weekends with my father, for only times I could remember. Other than those few months, his relationship to me was more about yelling and avoidance, rather than nurturing or pats on the head.

In the last month of his healthy period, my father asked me if I wanted to sleep in the big bed with him. We were at a condo he had purchased. It was a child like request. It was an echo of the times we had spent at the beginning our my parent’s divorce, when we would cuddle. At 21 I was unable to see the poetic moment. “No dad, I’ll see you in the morning.”

We were both hungry for more time, more head pats. And that’s a feeling I still ache with as I watch my children sleeping. Even when they are with me, the knowledge and feeling of the coming loss, just a day or so away, is painful. I don’t show them that side. I put that here. I show them the happy and healthy dad. And I let them know all the time how much I love them, and how they are still THE priority in my life.

Soon they will really be gone. See as a divorced dad, or maybe as a single parent in general, you get a preview of what the empty next syndrome feels like. It hurts. And after 5 or so days, they are back with me. We’re all making it the best we can.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: father and daughter, peter werkman, creative commons usage