Tag Archives: non-custodial parent

Custody Should Be a Collaborative Term

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If you are getting a divorce and you have kids, go for 50/50 parenting or nothing at all. FIGHT for 50/50 parenting and JOINT custody. Do not agree to be the non-custodial parent, under any circumstances.

Today custody in divorce w/ children usually means someone loses. Sure, there is joint custody, but the states usually like someone to be listed as primary custodian, otherwise recognized as “the custodial parent.” And for the rest of us, usually men, we are called the “non-custodial parent.” Seems like semantics, but let me assure you, it’s serious as hell.

In my case, even though we share joint custody, my ex-wife has the custodial parent role. While we were negotiating the divorce, this term didn’t mean anything to me. I was assured that the “joint custody” covered me in all issues and decisions related to my kids. That was a lie.

What it really meant, is that the minute I got the slightest bit behind on my child support (the non-custodial parent ALWAYS pays the custodial parent) my wife was able to file our decree with the OAG (office of the attorney general) and put my life into a living hell.

Imagine if you’re struggling already. Imagine asking the co-parent to wait a few months while the work situation settles out, so you can get back on track with payments. Then imagine your significant other saying, “Sorry, I’m filing with the AG’s office today. It’s for the kids, not for me.”

BS.

Once the decree is signed and you (the dad) have agreed to a specific payment each month, the AG’s office becomes a collection agency. They’ve got one of those lovely phone trees that asks before anything else, “If you are the custodial parent press ONE, if you are the non-custodial parent press TWO, if you are an attorney press THREE.”

You don’t want to be the non-custodial parent under any circumstances. Remember all that stuff you learned in couples therapy about power and control? The divorce brings out the worst of the dysfunction. And if your co-parent becomes a custodial parent, you are about to get punched in the balls. (Pardon my assumption that the dad is 80% of the time, the non-custodial parent, in my state of Texas.) If you are the mom who is non-custodial, then you can be prepared to have random titty twisters anytime there is a dispute.

But we weren’t having a dispute. I was telling her exactly what was going on. “My company just lost a big client, we’re struggling as quickly as we can, so if you can be patient…”

She was not patient. She waited exactly one month before sending me threatening emails. Talking about “for the kids,” and “not doing them a favor by letting you continue to not pay.” But here’s the problem with that ill-logic. Once you’ve signed a decree for divorce with kids, the child support agreement goes into law. Not even bankruptcy can wipe away your child support obligations. So if my wife was smart, and she was, she would’ve known this. I’m sure her attorney told her as much.

So if I’m not ever going to be able to skip out on my financial obligation to my ex-wife and my kids, what’s the point of filing against a cooperative parent? Power. And. Control. Now she has 100% of the power. And with the arm of the law she also has compete control over my financial future.

By filing with the AG’s office she effectively prevented me from restructuring my mortgage with Wells Fargo. She also got a lien placed on my credit score that began to damage my financial stability and resources immediately.

HARD AND FAST RULE: If you are getting a divorce and you have kids, go for 50/50 parenting or nothing at all. FIGHT for 50/50 parenting and JOINT custody. Do not agree to be the non-custodial parent, under any circumstances. You will regret giving in on this single point more than any other item in your divorce, so PAY ATTENTION.

In my future, I have my ex-wife to thank for the hardship of used car loan rates in excess of 19%. And she could care less. She claims to be all compassionate and always interested in protecting the kids interests. But suing your coparent is not protecting anyone’s interest. There was no need to attach a debt collector to my account, I was on the hook 100% and willing. But I went through a minor setback for one month in the summer three years ago. And I still can’t get a car loan.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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reference: The 5 Love Languages  by Gary Chapman

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Dear Non-Custodial Dad: Here’s What You’re Getting

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Instead of access to your kids all the time, you can now only see them 8 – 10 nights a month. For me this was the biggest loss in my life.

There is no way around it. The first time I was given my “options” I cried. I had been pulled kicking and screaming into the divorce counselors office to draft the parenting plan for our upcoming divorce. A divorce which I didn’t want, didn’t ask for, and felt drafted into. There was no hope for repair, once she’d revealed she’d been to see an attorney. She’d been looking into her options long before I knew the marriage was in trouble.

“We see this all the time,” the expensive Ph.D. therapist told me. “Dads who are oblivious to the forthcoming divorce. They tend to be overwhelmed, disoriented, and not ready to prepare themselves for the next chapter.”

While I went to these sessions with the idea that we would spilt the schedule evenly, to allow for both of us to have the same amount of time with our kids, that was not what she wanted. And having consulted with an attorney, that was not what she knew she would get if we went to court. We had decided we were going to leave the financial and legal aspects to our cooperative style. Once I came around to the idea that a marriage was not viable with only one willing partner, I was actively participating in our plan. But the deck was stacked against me.

Today in 2015, I might have a better chance of getting the joint custody and 50/50 schedule I wanted. In 2010 things were a bit different. So as I brought in my half-and-half schedule, and books about co-parenting, I was told I would take the non-custodial role and get the Standard Possession Order (SPO) to start with. Everything else could be negotiated.

They were still struggling in their tiny lives, to understand why their laughing dad wasn’t around all the time to lighten things up.

Well, the way it’s explained to you, when you first hear it, is every other weekend and one week night on the off weeks. There’s some provision about a full-month in the summer to make up some of the imbalance, but that’s not a reality in today’s working parent’s lives. So with the SPO, in my state, I get to see my kids 29% of the time.

The crushing news to me at that moment, and to most newly divorced dads was this: Instead of access to your kids all the time, you can now only see them 8 – 10 nights a month. For me this was the biggest loss in my life.

I could suffer the loss of the relationship. I could suffer the alone time and losing the house and neighborhood. But the loss of those kids, those childhood years, are still painful to me. It should not have gone that way. We should’ve agreed to figure the 50/50 parenting thing out, but I was negotiated into the box of the non-custodial parent and the SPO.

Today, just over five years later, I am still struck by the loss of my children. As I was closing up their rooms this afternoon, I tried to avoid feeling the hurt. I had a great send off this morning. I saw them off happy and well fed. And now they are gone.

As it turns out, we’re modifying the schedule a bit more this coming year. On the off weeks, so the kids don’t have to transfer their things, I’m settling for a dinner rather than a sleep over. And frankly, that’s a pretty good deal for me. Again, it’s not what I would’ve chosen, but it appears to simplify their lives. And in some ways it simplifies mine as well. In the coming year, I will have 2-of-10 school mornings every two weeks. That’s the hardest part of the routine. Getting everyone up, fed, and to school on-time. Giving up two of those mornings a month wasn’t a hard decision.

Still, back then, back when my kids were finishing up 3rd and 5th grade, there was no rational reason for giving up my 50/50 request. I simply got what was coming to me, and agreed to settle for 29% custody and a substantial child support payment. (Those things go together. The non-custodial parent pays the custodial parent.) Back when my kids were younger, this time was so precious. This loss of time was much more painful. I could feel it in my kids hearts when we got together, how they had missed me. How they were still struggling in their tiny lives, to understand why their laughing dad wasn’t around all the time to lighten things up.

There are some discussions about going to a more balanced schedule, but none that have gotten beyond the “what if” stage.

Today, with some guidance, perhaps my then-wife and I would’ve negotiated a more balanced schedule.

So today, dads who are looking at divorce, I’d suggest you consult an attorney. Even if you’re planning on doing a cooperative divorce. You need to look after your own best interests, because your ex won’t be thinking about your needs at all. And your high-paid counselor might not put much importance in the idea of 50/50 parenting after divorce.

My ex is still not sure if that’s what’s best for the kids, five years later. So we’re heading into another grossly imbalanced school year. It’s okay. I’m enjoying the time in my new relationship. So I’m not lonely, or pining away at the empty rooms. But I feel their loss, their absence, every time they leave. And they’ve been leaving for 5 years. I’ve got 6 more years to go until my youngest is gone for good. I’d rather find a way to reach parity, even this late in the game, sooner rather than later. Of course, there are a lot of factors involved. And with school starting next week, it’s easier just to leave things as they are.

Sad but easy. The non-custodial parent is treated a bit like a second-class citizen in the legal system. If you want to go for 50/50 divorce parenting, I think you’ll need an attorney. I also think it’s worth it, if you want to spend as much time as possible with your children. Just a few years ago the fight would’ve been uphill. Today, with some guidance, perhaps my then-wife and I would’ve negotiated a more balanced schedule.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Reference: What Percentage of Custody Do You Have – State of California

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Dads, Fathers, & Men: Single Dads Are Pro Family, Too

WHOLE-sunset-daughter

Divorced dads have a harder time staying involved in their kids lives, even when they make every effort, keep every appointment, and ask for extra time.
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A funny conversation took place a few minutes ago about the popularity of the “Dads & Families” on a website where I happen to be a contributor. See, that section is getting some great writing, some great writers, and some (even more important) great traffic. All good.

Well, except the single dad, is not included anywhere in the section. We’ve got a disconnect somewhere. Because I write all the time about parenting, and family, and … divorce. Well, maybe that’s the buzz killer right there. But here’s the real buzz: dads after divorce are still dads, our families are still families. And the challenges for the single dad are not unlike the same issues for dads, but we often lack the partner to assist in the daily tasks of being a dad.

We’re talking semantics, I get that, but I’m talking about the META-discussion. Dads and Families, INCLUDES single dads of divorced families. Or, extending a bit further, step-dads.

I’m not sure if this was a result of the divorced dad stigma, the absent father stigma, or the uncaring direction of my ex-wife, I have no way to know. I can ask. I did ask.

The new film Boyhood, does a great job of watching a divorced family over a 12-year period. Sure, it’s all about the boy growing up. But it’s really about the family. The fractured family that over 50% of young families will become if statistics hold up. The divorced family is mainstream. We’re working to make it better, to make the divorce less stigmatized, but we’re still struggling a bit with the parenting piece. It’s hard being a single dad. (I don’t know about a single mom, but I’ve seen my ex-wife go through some serious growing pains as we no longer share all the chores and bills.) It’s rough.

So the meta-category in all blogs and sites about parenting, Dads & Families now needs to include, in my mind, single dads and families, or dads who still support their ex-wives and are trying to win points by being the best dad they can be. Dad’s are critical to families. And single dads are also critical and maybe in a more urgent way. The single dad is not assumed to be supportive, responsible, caring. In fact, the divorced dad might be viewed as something of a threat from time to time.

Last year, at my daughter’s elementary school it was a bit of a struggle to stay informed of parent-teacher decisions. And while I made every single parent teacher conference, I still missed out on some of the big decisions. Those decisions were made by my ex-wife and my daughter’s teacher. Did they think about asking me before moving my daughter to a different math class? I’m sure it crossed both their minds, but they didn’t. My ex, failed to give me the information to even be part of the discussion. Did they have my email address? Yes. Did they just forget? Um… Was I unavailable, or uninvolved? No.

So the Dad & Families who actually still has his family intact does benefit from some of the positive images of wholesomeness, honesty, good dad. A married dad is safe, responsible, and trustworthy. And yes, I’d bet, a good percentage of those married dads let their wives make math class decisions all the time. In fact, I’m sure I would’ve given my had-we-still-been-married wife my proxy to make the decision. But I would’ve heard about. I would’ve had an opportunity to ask, “Why.” As it happened, I was left out of the loop completely.

At the parent-teacher conference where my ex-wife and I met with the teacher the information was presented as, “She’s doing so much better in the new math class.”

Your family never end when you have kids. The marriage may be over, but in the profound words of Erma Bombeck to Arianna Huffington. “Marriages come and go, divorce is forever.”

I was confused, “What new math class?”

I could see it in both their eyes. They had made a critical decision and left me out. I’m not sure if this was a result of the divorced dad stigma, the absent father stigma, or the uncaring direction of my ex-wife, I have no way to know. I can ask. I did ask. The answer, “It  was just a miss.” Um, yeah.

Okay, here’s the wrap: Dads are Dads.

Divorced dads have a lot harder time staying involved in their kids lives, even with they make every effort, keep every appointment, and ask for more time then they are given with them, post-divorce. I am that dad. I’m still a Dad & Families dad, only I don’t have a female partner any more to help me navigate the complexities of elementary school.

We need to keep “dad” connected with +families, +responsible parent, +care provider, +nurturing, +100 present, +supportive of the ex-wife, even when he is a “divorced dad.” That’s a long way from deadbeat dad, or irresponsible dad. What’s it called when the divorced mom and the teacher make decisions without including the dad? Is there a handy label for that?

Your family becomes a lifetime commitment when you have kids. The marriage may be over, but in the profound words of Erma Bombeck to Arianna Huffington. “Marriages come and go, divorce is forever.” This is especially true if you have kids.

Please, let’s keep the conversations crossing boundaries and labels. And lets assume Dads are Dads even if they are no longer married to the Moms.

Love Always,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Super Judo Warrior Dad in Divorce

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

But what’s fair?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OUCH #2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Timing, Money, and Parenting Within the Standard Possession Order

Let’s clarify a few things about the SPO right off the bat.

  1. The Standard Possession Order (SPO) is convenient for the courts, because it’s simple and already been litigated repeatedly.
  2. The SPO is not even close to 50/50 parenting (though you may hear otherwise – more on this later)
  3. The real deal of the SPO is money is traded for time

SPO - divorced dadWhile at first you might fight the SPO, if you are a dad and looking to lose a good deal of contact with your children. And for the first few years, while my kids were younger, I was pretty sad that I had accepted the SPO-as-a-given and not fought for a real 50/50 solution. Today my thoughts about it, four years in, are mixed, but I have some updated information that might help others facing the same decision or fight.

To change the child support amount requires basically hiring an attorney and sueing your ex.

Today I see the trade with my ex-wife as a simple money for time exchange. For money (child support) she bears the bulk of the mundane–getting them ready for school in the morning–tasks. And my advantages are pretty good, considering I don’t see them as much as I would like to.

A few highlights:

  1. I usually get the kids ready for school 6 days a month. 4 of those days are Fridays. It’s easy to motivate with “Hey, It’s Friday.”
  2. I do get a substantial amount of time to go about my own business. While in the early stages of divorce this is the “rough time,” as you get more healed, it becomes abundant “me” time.
  3. If we were both having to pay for after school child care, she would also be shouldering the bulk of the expense, since most of my time is on Saturday and Sunday.

As a trade for the money, the other partner is supposed to take care of clothing and supplies. And for the most part, doctor and dentist visits will happen during their extended kid-time.

A few lowlights:

The hardest part is missing your kids. Not having access to them every night to tuck them in, hear about their day, whatever.

  1. Child support is a lot of money. It usually works out to 29% of your take home pay. And that doesn’t cover any of the things that you will be paying for when your kids are with you.
  2. In the SPO the imbalance in time is brought closer by giving the non-custodial parent (NCO) a full month during the summer. (I assume this is for NCO’s who live in a different city.) The lie is, if you are working, there is no way you are going to take on an entire month. If you had to pay for childcare the entire time you were working it would be expensive. And full-time parents would typically have two-weeks vacation. So you do the math.
  3. On the off week the NCO gets the kids for one night. This is a pain on everyone. Less than the pain of not seeing them at all, but doing the house shuffle for one night is hard. Better than nothing, but not ideal.

If I had it to do all over again, I’d probably argue with the counselor and my ex-wife and negotiate something a bit more even. You will be advised not to do this. “It’s easier for everyone if you just accept this plan, it’s been working for families for years.” And they might even tell you, “If you go to court, the mom usually gets the SPO to start with, unless there are extenuating circumstances.” And what they mean by that, is unless you are ready to fight.

Once you have agreed to the SPO and the amount of child support (a fixed percentage of your estimated income) it is very hard to change it. To change the child support amount requires basically hiring an attorney and sueing your ex. To change the schedule might be easier if you and your ex-partner are on speaking terms.

And here’s the final part of the SPO that seems problematic.

As the NCO, I am ALWAYS craving more time with my kids. Given the request to take them for another night, an extra say, or a random weekend, I almost always say yes. I don’t get enough time with my kids. On the other hand, I occasionally get the feeling, and no slam against my their mom, that she would love to have me take them for more time.

So now that their older, the negotiations, at least between us, can me more about what we want. Other than the money, we can negotiate pretty well on schedules. And I’ve even taken them for an extra day on my off weeks. A win for me (more time) and a win for her (more time with her boyfriend). It’s odd to me, but that’s probably because I don’t have a significant other who I’d rather be spending time with. In fact, I gave up my Friday nights to pick up the extra day.

My priority is my kids. I cannot speak for hers.

Always Love,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is wrong.

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

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

This is also wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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