Tag Archives: fathers and sons

Hey Dad, Fancy Meeting You Here 20-years After Your Death

WHOLE-dad

This morning I was on my merry way towards a productive day of business proposals, meetings, and getting things done. (GTD) And just as I was about to turn on my noise-canceling headphones, the crappy sound system here at my remote location brought my dad’s ghost up front and center with his cryin-in-his-whiskey song. The song that characterized my 5th and 6th years of life. I knew the song well, but Shazam confirmed the gristled face that came to represent the look and feel of my dad in divorce, and the sad sounds of Charlie Rich singing The Most Beautiful Girl.

WHOLE-charlie-rich-dad

Boys will always attempt to connect with their dads. It’s a father and son thing. (Daughters too, but I can only speak about my experience.) Even as my dad drifted into some state between depression, anger, and a drunken stupor, I kept returning to his apartment on the appropriate weekends. My dad loved me.

But my dad completely fell apart when he was asked to leave the family home. My mom claims she put the options to him, “The alcohol or me.” My dad chose poorly and suffered for the rest of his life from his decision.

There’s no darker state for a divorced father than the days, months, years immediately following divorce.

A son’s love is strong and persistent, even if undeserved. There is always the hope that your dad will SEE you.

While my dad had all the resources at his disposal, and plenty of money to pay for them, he chose to move away from feeling, away from loving his family, and into some black place that was typified by this song. On weekends that we were together, by ten pm he would be drunk and crying to this song. Singing with tears in his eyes about “The most beautiful girl, who walked out on me…” As terrifying as it was, I tried to be there for him. I tried to say connected even as his rage could strike at any moment and I’d find myself on the receiving end of a tirade.

My dad was a successful physician. He was adored by his office staff and loved by his growing stream of patients. He was an astoundingly successful young doctor by 30.  But by 44 he had blown all of his hard-earned success in a choice away from self-examination and truth. He turned towards the bottle in his divorce. And within a few months of his second excommunication from the family house on the lake he was engaged to be married to a younger and drink-friendly woman with a young daughter.

Today my father showed up in my life in his crying and depressed state and I was able to process the pain and loss of him from my perspective as a divorced dad myself. Had he not been my father, but a friend in my life today, heading into divorce, I would’ve sobered his ass up quickly. “Dude, pull your act together. You’ve got everything. And now your flushing it all to keep the alcohol in your life.”

Throughout the rest of our relationship, as my father remarried, drank, and eventually succumbed to the disease and destruction of his life, I tried to reach out to him. I tried to maintain some attachment to a man who brought me only pain. I stumbled along as an adolescent with troubles at home, attempting not only to understand his destructive power but it’s rather potent effect on my life.

Several scenes come to mind to illustrate my unrequited commitment to my father.

The night he met his future wife I was with him at a local art festival. We stayed until they kicked us out. I had been laying under the stars with the other kids who’s parents were still drinking. The festival and music had been over for an hour, but they had more beer to sell. In the drive home, my father could hardly keep his fancy car on the road. I was terrified. On the last turn into his apartment complex, he missed the turn and drove right up into someone’s front yard. (Later his car would require several thousand dollars of repair costs that he yelled about for months.)

At that moment, at 7 years old, I made the decision never to ride in the car with my dad again. From then on my nights and occasional weekends with dad would be chauffeured by mom. A hard boundary for a kid to have to make with a parent. Shouldn’t it be the parents setting boundaries for the kids?

Many years later, a junior in high school, my father had built his ultimate dream palace on a hill overlooking our city. I lived down the street in a condo with my mom. Several times, when it was my night to have dinner with my dad, I would run several miles, virtually all uphill, to his house. I wanted him to see me as strong, healthy, and athletic. I wanted him to SEE me at all.

He quit trying to reach me as his divorce took everything out from under him. And rather than get help he got more rigid and set in his pattern of working hard and drinking harder.

Most of the time he was drunk before I even arrived. And his new wife was fueling the party and partying herself. They often became incoherent before I left. They seemed to be communicated with each other, but I could not understand a word of their drunken language. One of these nights my dad insisted that he would drive me down the hill to my house. I essentially had to run out of the house to prevent that from happening. Of course, the next time we talked he had no memory of the event.

I never forgot it, but I never stopped trying to run up the hill to meet my father at various points in his fatal trajectory. A son’s love is strong and persistent, even if undeserved. There is always the hope that your dad will SEE you. Even as he died at 53 (one year from my age now) he was only able to really recognize me in the final chemo-enforced sobriety months. He couldn’t drink. And as he came to his senses he finally got a snapshot of what he was missing by being so removed from my life.

“We need to do more of this,” he said, as I was leaving one Sunday morning, a month before he died. “Yes, dad, we do.” My dad’s sorrowful memory seeped into my bones from the sad song that he used to sing throughout the divorce process.

Today, in this moment as a divorced father, I know I am not repeating my father’s mistakes. My son and daughter hear from me all the time how much I see and love them. I try to meet them on their level, rather than making them adapt to mine. That’s a depth my father and I never had. He quit trying to reach me as his divorce took everything out from under him. And rather than get help he got more rigid and set in his pattern of working hard and drinking harder.

Love Always,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: the early mcelhenney family, john mcelhenney, cc 2014

I’m Proud of You: The Dance of Fathers and Their Sons

WHOLE-sons-pride

I am fairly certain I never told my dad I was proud of him. There were lots of reasons for that. Last night when I was having a casual chat with my son about my new job, this conversation came out.

“this is a HUGE job… I know it doesn’t make sense to you at this moment, but this is the biggest job of my career so far”

“I’m so proud”

“you are?”

“XD” (this is the text icon for a smile so big your eyes are squinting shut)

“cool”

It didn’t really strike me until this morning that my son had told me he was proud of me. I know there were a lot of factors in his declaration, but the moment really came home as I was thinking about my dad. And I’m pretty sure, due to the uncontrollable circumstances of his drinking that I never told my dad that I was proud of him. And maybe his dad had never said it to him or visa versa.

But last night my son gave me a gift. Without even thinking about it, at the speed of text, he said it. And backed it up with a super smily text icon. We moved on to discussions about what kind of computer I was going to get and how many monitors I would have on my desk, and other techie stuff. But the chord of joy was struck in me. My son is proud of me. And while my new job will lighten up the financial load a bit for all of us, his mom included, what I heard from my son was, “I am proud of you.”

What my dad didn’t ever understand is that if he would just sober up and take care of himself we would *all* be set.

In the last months of my father’s life we had some sober days to recover what we could of our relationship. He had left the home when I was six and turned into more of a bear and bastard as he married a new drinking partner. There was so much anger and sadness around my father that it was hard to maintain any relationship at all with him. But sons will be sons and I continued to try and have an impact on my dad’s life. I tried to show up at his house and dazzle him with my accomplishments. But nothing really worked.

I hoped when I won the district tennis championship in 7th grade that my dad would acknowledge me. Or when I got all a’s, or was accepted into the most prestigious prep school in the country… But he didn’t. In fact with the prep school announcement he actually raged at me in a drunken stupor late and night and kicked me. He seemed incoherent, but it was clear that he was unhappy about me escaping his circle of influence. But of course that was the goal of going thousands of miles away to school.

My escape didn’t last long. Over the first Spring break, when I didn’t come back to town, my father suffered his 3rd major heart attack. I was summoned to the dean’s office for a phone call. It was his new wife, slurring and crying telling me about him. He was okay. Still in intensive care, but he was going to make it. It was the worst phone call of my life. Ever.

My life spiraled into a series of bad decisions and depressions that lasted most of my young adult life. And during my sophomore year in college my dad died of cancer. More chaos. More sadness.

And even after all this, today, I am aware that I didn’t say how proud I was of my father, ever. I’d like to say it now. “My dad was an amazing doctor. His patients and staff loved him. And his success in medicine would be hard to replicate in any field. He took better care of his patients than he did his family, and certainly much better care than he took of himself. Dad, I am proud of you. You were amazing.”

My dad might have wanted to change, but he didn’t find the way to do it until the medical procedures prevented him from drinking at all.

As he was dying we had an opportunity to reconcile to some extent. He never really understood my English degree at the university. He was expecting a doctor or lawyer. Maybe both, he told me once, “A medical legal lawyer,” he said. “Then you would be set.”

What he didn’t ever understand is that if he would just sober up and take care of himself we would all be set. He didn’t take care of himself after the divorce and he slipped further away from being my dad. He made some offers over the course of my high school years. He would build a room for me over the garage. (But he didn’t, and it was an after thought on his brand new house. There was no room for me.)

And one day while I was in college, I brought him a particular short story to read. It had been published in the university literary magazine. He read it but I could tell it didn’t make sense to him. He smiled, sipped his Cutty Sark, and said it was “nice.”

I was never able to live up to my father’s dreams for me. He died before I even got a chance. And in the same sad way, I never got to tell him how amazing he was to me. Of course I’d be talking about my memories of him from 0 – 5 years old. Not a lot of time with my hero-dad.

Today I am not a hero to my son. I’m simply a dad who is present and caring. I am interested in every one of his activities as he grows and changes in the first weeks of 8th grade. And I can see what an amazing young man he is turning into. I wish my father had gotten the same opportunity to recognize and appreciate me. And perhaps I would’ve been able to appreciate him back.

We cried, laughed at “what might have been even” in the tragedy we all knew was right around the corner.

Instead he was cut loose from the family, as a result of his own decisions to maintain a drinking relationship rather than a human one. And as he descended further into hell, we all went with him, even as we were trying to escape the loss and vacuum his absence created. And when he died my two sisters and brother and I stood together and wept. He had become so fragile as he was dying. We could hardly remember the scathing rages that had terrorized our lives while he was living in the same house.

We are tied to our parents emotionally for our entire lives. The relationships we had or have with them form a lot of the information around how to be in a relationship at all. And as I forgave my father, after his death, I began to forgive myself for not being able to save him, or at least be awesome enough that he would quit drinking.

I know now that waiting for the other person to change is a dead-end street. My dad might have wanted to change, but he didn’t find the way to do it until the medical procedures prevented him from drinking at all. And then for a few short months of remission his children all rushed back to town and to his side to attempt our repairs with him. And we all did our best. We cried, laughed at “what might have been even” in the tragedy we all knew was right around the corner.

I’m excited to live through those times WITH my kids. And I will be 100% positive and 100% present for all of them, as long as I live.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Note: I have written the experience of losing my father, the death bed scenes, the aftermath of his death, my entire writing career. I will probably keep trying to capture the depth of the emotion of that loss for the rest of my writing life.

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image: father and son on enchanted rock, john mcelhenney, (cc) 2014

Father, My Father: Forgiving My Dad and Myself on Father’s Day

WHOLE-fathersday

My father was an alcoholic and it broke my family in two. And over the course of his short life (he died at 55) I struggled to gain, or regain, some form of relationship with my father. He left and struggled to win me in the divorce between my 5th and 7th years. It was a very unhappy time for all.

I stayed with my mother. And over the course of the next years until he died, my father attempted to win me over with offers of a “room above the garage” that was never built, and other opportunities to come live with him and his new wife. I never accepted his offer, but I did continue trying to establish some connection with him.

We didn’t see eye to eye. I remember one evening in the hot Texas Summer, I had run up the mile-long hill to my dad’s castle-like house on the hill to have dinner with him. My first year of college was done and I was excited to tell him about my writing.

“I don’t understand what you’re going to do with an English degree.”

He had ideas for me. If I would get a medical degree as well as a law degree I could be a medical legal lawyer. You see, money was quite important to my father. And fortunately for us, then and even now, he made a significant amount of money during his lifetime. He was certain that I could make a lot of money with two advanced degrees.

I wrote stories and poems. And I shared, or tried to share them with my father. He simply didn’t understand what I was trying to say. But more importantly he didn’t understand how my writing was preparing me for the future. And he was right. Being an English major did not point too directly towards a career. But I’m glad I didn’t follow in his footsteps or take his advice on the 12+ college degree plan he had in mind.

How could my father not get his life together after his first heart attack. In my life, after the divorce there were moments when I was not certain I was going to be able to survive.

A major turn in our relationship occurred when I was in my 20th year. My dad had his third major heart attack. And within weeks of returning home from the hospital, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. The restored blood flow had caused his melanoma to bloom. It was a horrific moment for all of us. He never quite got over the shock. “How could lightening strike twice in the same place, in my life.”

Over the last nine months of my father’s life, he was forced to sober up because the chemo caused him to get radically ill when he drank. For the first time in my just beginning twenties, my father came to his senses. We didn’t have much time, but we made up for our loss by spending a lot of time together.

In the last weeks we forgave each other for a lot of our transgressions. ‘Im sure he never understood my writing, but he did appreciate my presence in his life. It was a sad prodigal moment, and as he died, we were absolved forgiven.

Today there are still a lot of things about my father that I can’t possibly understand. A few of the things I DO understand are things like: stress, the working-man’s blues, the sadness of divorce and the loss of your family.

And things that I didn’t understand: how could my father not get his life together after his first heart attack. In my life, after the divorce there were moments when I was not certain I was going to be able to survive. And at once I understood a deep sadness, perhaps the deep sadness that must’ve haunted my father as he struggled to win me back from my mom. I’m sure it didn’t occur to my father that he was trying to buy me, but it came across differently to me. I saw the consequence of his drinking every time I was with him and his new family. I wanted no part of that life. I wanted my dad, but not the alcoholic dad.

This father’s day I celebrate my fatherhood, and the father I have become. Different from my father in so many ways, and similar in some ways as well.

As my marriage began to fail, the hauntings of that pain and the little boy ache that was still inside me  for my father, literally tore me apart. I was not sure how I would survive the divorce. I was most sad for my son, who I projected my own sadness on, imagining how hard my parents divorce had been on me. I was sad for them, both my kids, more than I was sad for myself. And somewhere, deep down inside, I understood for the first time, how my father might have continued drinking and smoking even after his first heart attack. I could understand wanting to blot out the pain with something.

But I didn’t exit my kid’s lives. I didn’t fight their mom to win money or custody. I went easily, sadly into being a divorced dad. The good part is, I survived the depression. I recovered my self-esteem and rebuilt my own life so I could stand strong and proud beside my kids.

Their mom and I have been through some hard times. And we still have disagreements from time to time. But through it all, we’ve always put our kid’s interests above our own. And for that, on this father’s day, I give thanks to my ex-wife and mother of my children.

And as I forgive my father for his loss of control and family, for the divorce, and for not taking care of himself long enough to see me and my kids. Today, I forgive him, but I am also learning to forgive myself for the failure of my marriage.

This father’s day I celebrate my fatherhood, and the father I have become. Different from my father in so many ways, and similar in some ways as well. There are more connections between my father and I then I can understand. But with each year that passes, each father’s day, I get more opportunities to be a better father, and understand myself and my kids better.

Learning to be a better father on father’s day, that is my ongoing mantra each year.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: me and my dad

Positive Divorce: From Blame To Forgiveness

positive divorce - the whole parent

Be warned, some of you are not going to like this next sentence.

The divorce was a good thing.

I know, I can’t say that with any information about your situation. But hear me out, and let’s see if we can work through this concept of positive divorce. This is my story.

In the beginning we got married to start a family. And two bright shining babies came along just as we had hoped and prayed for. Healthy, beautiful, undamaged.

Then the path of life had its way with us. Economic pains, emotional pains, growing pains, all stretched us to our limits. And for a while we were both strong enough to hang on, hope for better times, and keep the family together. But we broke something in the process. We had different coping mechanisms for the difficulties. Some were helpful, some were destructive.

If we move through our own recovery process, we begin to emerge from the blame and anger. We often then move into grief and loneliness.

In the latter stages of our marriage things were difficult and dark. We struggled to keep the edges from showing too much to the kids, but we had begun sleeping in different rooms and speaking only as necessary to get the job of parenting done. We were doing the best we could, given the circumstances.

And that’s the hard thing to remember. As mad as you get, as much blame as you can hurl at the other person, you have to get to the understanding that, as difficult or hard as it was for you, your partner was equally distressed and trying to cope and adapt and survive.

When survival kicks in, you’re in the final stages of the married part of the relationship. Even if you weren’t the one who asked for the divorce you were most likely looking and hoping for some release from the painful bonds. Perhaps you hoped, as I did, for the other person to change. Perhaps you just wanted to feel wanted again. Perhaps there was dysfunction to the point of concern for the wellbeing of your children.

Something happened, at some point and you both began to imagine life without your marriage. And even if you are in the throes of it now, in the anger and blame and bitterness, you will eventually grow out of that. You will pass through the stages of grief just as if someone had died. And in fact, that’s a good analogy. The marriage has died.

If you have kids, however, the relationship will last a lifetime. It’s often a bitter pill when you discover how entwined you still are years after divorce. How decisions your former spouse makes can drastically alter your life.

If we move through our own recovery process, we begin to emerge from the blame and anger. We often then move into grief and loneliness. At this stage it is common for one or both of the partners to jump back into relationship. To find someone else to fill the gaping hole. But, I would caution this enthusiasm for a bit longer. And here’s why. There is still more growing that needs to happen within you, before you are ready to attempt a new journey. Why would you want to cover over the past mistakes and repeat them with another person.

As loneliness and possibly depression is being plumed, you may often seek support in the form of counseling or therapy groups. I personally joined a divorce recovery class in my city, and spent the next 10 weeks meeting with 18 other divorced people, men and women, to discuss and map our growth out of the hole of shame and blame.

Emerging again from the emotional wreckage of divorce you may be ready to date again. And this time you hope, find ways to cope and navigate the relationship in more constructive ways. But even as we go on to date, kiss, have sex, and perhaps even marry, we still often have work to do on the hidden anger and resentment of our divorce.

How can I explain the positive side of divorce to any daughter who misses the daily connection with her dad? Or the wounded sons I see who don’t see or receive any love from their absent fathers?

In my case I felt betrayed. I was never willing to give up. I was fighting to stay in the marriage even after I learned the my wife had already seen an attorney. So I was devastated and deeply depressed when I had to agree, finally, to the divorce. And I sunk to the lowest point in my life. And I needed help.

And there was no way for me to process the divorce when I was in such a wounded place. I jumped quickly on a few dating sites, determined to jump into bed and heal my sexual emptiness. But that didn’t work out. And I’m kind of glad it wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. My heart still had a long way to go to release the obsessive compulsive desire that had been created by the last few years of my divorce, that had been rather sex-less.

Today I mark the fourth year since I walked out the door of my house, and gave primary custody of my two children to my ex-wife. And I’m just now beginning to understand how deep the forgiveness must go, for me to completely agree that the divorce was a positive event in my life. And even more so, a positive event in the lives of my kids. (Now 13 and 11.)

How can I explain the positive side of divorce to any daughter who misses the daily connection with her dad? Or the wounded sons I see who don’t see or receive any love from their absent fathers? Early in the process of divorce, it is nearly impossible to imagine a positive side to what is happening. And if the echoes of your parents divorce still haunt you, like they did me, I was certain it was the end of everything. (Much like I did when I was 5 and learned that my dad had moved out of the house.)

And here’s the grace note. You will get through it. Your children will get through it. And eventually, you will (I’m still hopeful anyway) find another “love of your life” to try and reassemble your loving relationship around.

The first step of letting go is just beginning to understand that the blame, regardless of what happened, is squarely and equally on both your shoulders. I know, again, there is no way I can know or say that about your marriage. But if you can just imagine that it is half your fault, even if you have to pretend that you believe it, you will pull out of the pity and sorrow much quicker as you release your feelings and anger at the partner who is no longer your spouse.

Positive divorce is a choice. And the process to get there requires time, insight, and often the help of professionals. But the alternative is bitterness and continued failings at love relationships as you make the same mistakes, miss the same red flags, and put up with the same behaviors that got you into divorce in the first place.

Get help. Reason things out with another person. And let go of your blame. The rest of your life you will be relating to this person, if you have kids, and your healing can go a long way towards healing everyone.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: over you, woodlywonderworks, creative commons usage

Listening to the Little Man Inside, Healing Our Hearts

image courtesy of david jewell

I didn’t notice it in my son’s behavior or anything he said to me. It was a story he wrote, about a summer trip he took with his mom and her boyfriend to Washington, D.C. The story describes him swimming in a lake and feeling something frightening brush up against his leg. I was just printing it out for him.

“I swung my body onto the clearing, panting and asking myself what I was going to tell my parents. I decided nothing, it was enough for me to know, and she was already dealing with a divorce at the time.”

Boom. It struck me. How it was for me dealing, and “being there” for my mom after my parents got divorced. The “Little Man” standing beside his mom, protecting her, hugging her, staying fiercely loyal and loving towards her. In my case, my dad had launched a legal campaign designed to cripple my mom. I guess the idea was, he would make her pay for divorcing him, and then perhaps, would get me back as part of the consequences. It didn’t work. It distanced me from him even further as I stood beside my mom. Any violence he would launch at her was going to come through me. Oedipus be damned.

I see that he misses me. I see that for most of his life now, I will be a fraction of a father to him.

But in my son’s case I was confused. We had orchestrated the divorce so favorably towards them and their mom. Keep the house. Keep most of the kid-time. I wasn’t sure how to interpret the sentence from my 13 yo son.

Sure they, we, are all “dealing with a divorce at the time” but for me, I figured we had mostly moved through the tangible suffering. Perhaps not.

And then I started noticing the Little Men all around me. Several of the women I was interested in had small boys, single children. I saw one of them peeking around a door occasionally, but mostly these young boys existed in photos their mom’s had taken. I could almost feel the missing dad in some of the pictures. It was sad chord that struck something inside of me. I wanted to step in and be a great role model for them. All of them. I longed to heal their little pains, their brave hearts, and their fierce manliness.

The boy alone with his mom is a hard road. Both working so hard to support the other’s independence and growth. Yet, each so enmeshed in the romantic-archetype that is hard to escape.

I am not the healer. But I can see the need for that masculine energy in their lives. Even in my own son’s life. I see that he misses me. I see that for most of his life now, I will be a fraction of a father to him. And even as he loves me deeply, he has the awareness of his mother’s “divorce.”

All the times after the divorce when I strove to get my father’s attention, to show him what a success I was. And all the times he was missing.

As I grew into a man, and my father died, I had to again confront this sadness at never really being able to confirm my father’s love for me.

I try to show up for my son in every way I know how. I am never far from his phone. I commune with him in his computer gaming and online Skyping. We have a bond around computers. And even when he is away, I can ping him on Skype. And mostly, I get a response. He does occasionally ignore my chat requests. (I’m sure this is going to be more obvious in the coming years.)

And even with all this, there is so much of his life that I am simply missing. The routine around school and homework is largely dependant on his mother’s support and encouragement. Even his new sport, cross-country, is a gift from his mom, the runner. I am happy for their bond.

I was pained to understand from his story that he still feels he needs to protect her from some of the difficulties he’s encountering, because of the hardships of the divorce. Even with everything we do, there is still the hardship of divorce. There is no way around the scaring.

In positive divorce, we know it is critical to keep both parents involved. And yet several of the women that I’ve met recently are happy to have the dad out of the picture all together. Of course, I can’t take inventory or know what’s going on in their situations, but for me, the pain of losing my dad could never be replaced by the grand mothering that my mom attempted. She did the best she could. But there was simply a huge hole in my life.

As I grew into a man, and my father died, I had to again confront this sadness at never really being able to confirm my father’s love for me. I never really knew that he saw me, or understood what I was about. And until he was dying of cancer and could no longer drink, our relationship seemed like one big argument. I got a few months with my sober father before he died. We made up for lost time, but it wasn’t enough. I still feel the wound of the Little Man inside, who didn’t quite get his you’re-a-man papers from his father.

And if we (dads) aren’t invited in, we all might miss an opportunity for connecting.

And maybe that’s something I can consciously give to my son. I can’t be there for him on all occasions, as I might have if I was still married to his mom. But I can do everything I can to show up for him in real-time with real feedback and real attention. And I do my best. We share a lot of symmetries and likes. And, though he is still very young, we’re pretty good buds.

And I’m not trying to make the case for fathering these other boys I see. I can only really take care of my own. But I do see them, and wish them well. And if I could give their single moms some advice, I’d say, keep it light. Keep it positive. And take any negativity outside the family and get help releasing it elsewhere. And if possible, keep the dad involved in the parenting decisions. We care. We’re here. And if we (dads) aren’t invited in, we all might miss an opportunity for connecting.

It’s true my ex-wife is “dealing with a divorce” and so is everyone in our family. What I can do as a dad is heal my own Little Man inside and give a place for my son’s Little Man to get expressed and released. That will come later. But I know that I am doing everything to show up for MY little man as he grows into a young man and on.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: courtesy of David Jewell