Tag Archives: parenting plan

Focus on Your Kid’s Strengths

Screen Shot 2016-09-15 at 7.48.28 AMDivorce is hard on everyone, especially the kids. And through the process you’ll do everything you can to put the positive spin on things to keep them from feeling the full burn of the bad feelings between you and their “other” parent.

This morning when my son texted me that the lead guitar solo in a song (Muse – Knights of M…) was inspiring him to think about picking up the guitar, I encouraged him. We’ve been talking about guitar lessons all summer, but he was busy having a summer and taking some online summer school classes. To have him express the desire, out of the blue, was quite a thrill for me. It woke me with a big smile. (He goes to bed at midnight on weeknights, and I’m ALWAYS asleep, since I arise at 6 am.)

Also this morning, my ex-wife sent me an email detailing the current situation with the kid’s teeth. The dentist has got them doing Invisilign and both of them are complaining about pain. WHAT? When did we decide to do braces (even cool high-tech braces) for the kids? She’s taken to making decisions without consulting me. This is not in the spirit of co-parenting. And it defies our agreements about the kids and their management and healthcare.

So I said to her, “Neither kid needs braces. Period!”

So while I’m sure that her motivation is more about them than her or me, I’m pretty sure she made the decision 100% without talking to me about it. GRRR.

And still… I was writing about staying focused on your kids so they can develop their own super powers. I’ll let them take charge of the situation, with my support. After I sent her the email I sent my son and daughter this text.

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In our parenting plan we’re supposed to agree on these time of actions or they don’t happen. So…

Let’s see how this develops. The kids are doing fine with their beautiful teeth just as they are. And you should see their smiles. YES, we’re doing something right. Co-parenting, maybe, not so much.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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reference: The 5 Love Languages  by Gary Chapman

Back to School and Summer’s End for the Single Dad

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NEWS FLASH: Back to school can hurt.

My rebirth or collapse has often happened during the first few weeks of “back to school.” Am I suffering from micro-empty next syndrome? Or am I just sad that summer has come to an end?

One thing that will never change: Parents miss their kids when they are gone. Even when they were tiny I hated to leave them. Going to work for the first 5 years was torture. (And maybe I could’ve done a better job at that, but the post 9-11 world was strange and uncertain in business as in life.)

You go from full-time parent to 31% parent. 3-of-10 school mornings will be awarded to you. Everything else, for everyone else, is pretty much status quo. Except dad isn’t around.

The other day, my son and I were driving past the pre-school where they learned to swim, and read, and begin to become separate tiny humans. Dropping them off some mornings was a sad affair, more for me than for them. After my son entered elementary school, I would still stop by with my daughter, and push her on the swings before heading to work.

“One more push, daddy,” she would yell as I was trying to tear myself away. The staff was supportive. The would frequently come and push her on the swing while I made my quiet and miserable escape.

Dad’s have a different relationship to parenting. We typically don’t get to be the “stay at home” parent. We typically feel more of the financial pressure as the bills and responsibilities become more urgent. And each morning, we’re off to work. And yes, mom deserves all the rest and recovery she can get, but it’s different. Leaving your sleeping child and wife on the bed to dress, make coffee, and head out the door, is difficult. Perhaps this was the massive transformation as a parent that occurs for the dad. Time for work. Sleepy, cuddly, baby-fest is over.

Even as the kids grew older leaving them at school felt like a loss of some sort. And this as a happily married man. Work was a nice distraction when it was engaging. When it was mechanical and dull, being at work and getting a text from your wife about the baby’s first word… Well, you miss a lot as a dad. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how it will continue to go. (Don’t talk to me about the joys of being a SAHD. I don’t want to hear it.)

Divorce is like a trial run at the empty nest experience. And dads typically get the lion’s share of the “off” time.

Today, the kids start their next cycle of school. My son enters 9th grade and accelerates up the four-year launch ramp to escape velocity. He will be gone gone.

In divorce, they were both gone gone a lot of the time. Since the divorce (Aug 2010) I’ve missed 5 of 6 back to school mornings. We cobbled some reason for me to bring my ex coffee on that first one. She was feeling magnanimous. And she was probably out of coffee or something. Since then I have not had the joy of packing, preening, and pushing them off to their first day at the start of the new semester. It’s okay. It’s what divorced dads get.

So now, today, I realize that divorce is like a trial run at the empty nest experience. And dads typically get  the lion’s share of the “off” time, and thus the majority of the “empty nest” sadness. When you are making the plans for divorce, and trying to be civil about the schedule, the gap between kid-time can be overwhelming. You go from full-time parent to 31% parent. 3-of-10 school mornings will be awarded to you. Everything else, for everyone else, is pretty much status quo. Except dad isn’t around.

I could blast my way into the first day of school mornings, but what’s the point? They have their routine. They have their process, path, and protocol for making it to school on-time. And they’ve done it 70% of the time over the last 5 years.

As I prepare for my back to school, end of summer, dip I know that I am better prepared for the eventual final departure of our kids. I just wish it hadn’t come so soon in my marriage.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Transcendent Single Father

Relationships come and go. Breakups and divorces happen. Heck I’ve had two divorces. The real transformation comes when you have children with a partner. Almost by magic, the shift happens. You’re still in love with your partner, but suddenly this other tiny human is sucking up all of your love cycles. You love them both, but push comes to shove, you’re going to go with the kid. It’s human nature. Nurture, I suppose, is the word. You’re going to protect, cuddle, shelter, and encourage this tiny human for the rest of your life.

The basis of that parenting plan was built on the old model of parenting. Dad = breadwinner, Mom = love & nurture. That was simply not true for us.

If the marriage comes to an end, often it is tragic, but survivable. And for me, the children were the shining point of truth for me. Was I going to give in to the depression and financial crash of the divorce, or was I going to get back up and be the dad I needed to be? My choice was clear. My path to recovery and resurgence was less assured.

At the very beginning of the end I had a tough choice to make. Things had been strained and getting worse between my then-wife and I for almost a year. When she snapped and blurted out in couple’s therapy that she had, in fact, gone to see an attorney, I was caught with my proverbial pants down. I knew things were tough. I knew we were more friends and parents than lovers, but D I V O R C E ? What?

In that very session, she asked me to leave the house. “Give me and the kids some relief. Some quiet time. A little cooling off.” Our therapist seemed to agree. Again, another shock. Wait… What?

Time slowed down. My mind flashed back on my parent’s divorce and the bloodshed that followed. I had never contemplated divorce from this woman staring angrily, tearfully, at me from across the therapist’s office. The both awaited my response.

“No way.”

It was early April. Our two children (3rd and 5th graders) had two months left to go in the school year. And these two people were suggesting we tell them, “Daddy had to go on a business trip.” I paused and took a deep breath.

In this collaborative process of divorce I was a bit naive. I trusted that we were negotiating with everyone’s interest at heart. I was misled.

We were not really in couple’s therapy. We *were* in therapy, for sure, but it was a slightly different approach. SCT (Systems Centered Therapy) is about separating what’s real from what are merely feelings and emotions. And while I still respect the therapist deeply for all he was trying to do, he missed the mark on this one. By a long shot.

“Our kids are two months from finishing the school year. We’ve lived as roommates for six months. I’m sure we can be big enough to share the house until Summer break.”

They both looked at me with concern and disapproval. We ran out the clock on the session with us agreeing to disagree about this MAJOR POINT in our marriage and eventual divorce. Mind you, this was the first time I learned that my then-wife had been looking at her “options” with a lawyer.

It was the counselor at the kid’s elementary school who talked some sense into my then-wife about letting the kids finish the year. “They will need the time to regroup. Don’t do it while they still have to come to class every day. Give them some time off in the Summer. I’ve seen this kind of thing really hurt children in the long run.”

Yes. We, as the adults in the room, can take the high road and figure our shit out. Our kids needed to finish the year, and maybe even have a few weeks of Summer before we split the atom.

It was a rough few months. I fluctuated from anger to compassion. I wanted to patch things up but there was no talk of reconciliation. She was still convinced that maybe a separation would give her some perspective. She dangled it out there like some hope. It was a false hope. She was making plans, doing spreadsheets, and outlining her roadmap towards divorce.

Occasionally we’d cross paths in the hallway and I’d extend my arms, almost by instinct, to hug her before I realized what I was doing. I usually mumbled an apology. “Sorry. I’ll figure this out. I’ll do better.”

As the weeks drew on it was harder and harder to make nice. We could easily disguise our frostiness while getting the kids ready for school, because I was usually the one up and making breakfast and corralling everyone, while my then-wife got her hair and makeup done. This was my time, my mastery: joyfully waking, feeding, and delivering my kids to school. The fact that it was our last year as an intact family, was known only to myself and my soon-to-be ex-wife.

All this time, over those two months, we were meeting with our “parenting plan” therapist and our “financial split” accountant. And she was meeting with her attorney. Since we had agreed not to fight over anything I didn’t seek legal advice at that time.

So we examined our combined estate from the three scenarios. 1. she keeps the house and pays me for the equity; 2. I keep the house and pay her for the equity; 3. we sell the house and split the equity. And we began to talk about what was “in the best interest of the children” in the divorce therapist’s office.

In this collaborative process of divorce I was a bit naive. I trusted that we were negotiating with everyone’s interest at heart. I was misled. As it turns out, my then-wife knew, and the divorce therapist knew, but I did not know, that we were going to straight for the divorce-in-Texas package. See, traditionally men have been assholes as well as the primary breadwinner. And traditionally, the mom has been the shelter and love provider, and perhaps even the stay-at-home family hub. And for us, the stay-at-home-mom-plan is sort of how we initially set out on our parenting journey together. However, I was no absent father. That had been how my dad was.

The part that is missing, the heart of my relationship and my agreement with my then-wife, was that we would parent these children 50/50 with all of our love and focus. Everything in our lives revolved around being the best parents we could be. I handled the first half of the day (wakeup, breakfast, and school) and she handled the afternoon. We both wanted the kids to have a parent home when they got off the school bus. And we were 100% successful in that accomplishment. And I believe our kids still show the resilience of that decision. We parented 50/50 because that’s how we believed our kids would become balanced individuals themselves.

In the divorce therapist’s office, however, the story changed. Questions about our parenting responsibilities became much more loaded. And I was challenged on my ability to fix dinner. What? Seriously? I tried to push back, “And what about mornings and breakfast and getting the kids to school? How much of that responsibility have you had in the morning, over the last 5 years?” I was a very conscious and present dad. I was not the absent father with she was not the stay-at-home mom. We *had* been doing parenting 50/50 just as we planed.

I was not the absent father with she was not the stay-at-home mom. We *had* been doing parenting 50/50 just as we planed.

Divorce however, is not about what’s fare, or what’s real. Divorce is a battle. Even in the most positive divorce, with the most friendly parents, things can get messy pretty quickly when you’re talking about the rest of your lives with your children. I’m guessing her maternal instinct kicked in.

The conversation about the schedule and parenting plan changed dramatically. And when things got too heated, the therapist would talk to each of us individually to reset. In one of these cooling periods, she leveled with me, “Here’s what she’s going to get if you guys go to court.”

And it was at this very second, when my heart was shattered and broken, that I gave up. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t know what else to do. The toll of the two months of guarded-living had broken my fighting spirit.

Maybe I had done enough. Maybe some of the wisdom about the “mom” and the nurturing was true in our case, even if it didn’t feel as lopsided as the term non-custodial parent indicated. And I was facing my divorce therapist alone. And she was looking at me and saying things like “in the best interest of the kids,” and “most fathers react this way.”

I was NOT most fathers.

We tore up the 50/50 schedule that I brought into the counseling session. We started again with the SPO and the non-custodial rights and responsibilities. And while I gave up a huge piece of my “dad time” that day, I’ve never stopped working to show up for my kids at every opportunity afforded me. That I am afforded that opportunity only 31% of the time, instead of 50% is an issue. But that was not the time to fight. Or if it was, I was not capable of another battle. And the therapist was looking at me, sharing her compassion with me, and telling me, “This is what she’s going to get. Let’s start here.”

Today I’m certain I would try to do it differently, given the chance. And perhaps in the near future I will be given an opportunity to reset the schedule. But the damage was done, the divorce proceeded with all the typical restrictions and legalese. When I did consult a divorce attorney it was only to look over the decree her attorney had drafted. For me it was really about the parenting plan, and we had gone over that with a fine toothed comb.

The basis of that parenting plan was built on the old model of parenting. Dad = breadwinner, Mom = love and nurture. That was simply not true for us. And it is not true now. But now, my kids are in 7th and 9th grades and the time with them is much more sparse and rational. My then-wife and my fancy divorce therapist sold me the old party line about Dads and Moms in divorce. I hope that if you are in this situation you consult a lawyer who can negotiate on your behalf. If you parented 50/50 you should divorce 50/50 as well. The traditional divorce schedules and laws established when my parents were fighting it out, no longer apply for most families.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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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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Divorcing with Kids: The Golden Rule – It’s About Time Not Money

WHOLE-twoinawagon

[Disclaimer: I am not a divorce attorney or a licensed therapist. The information I provide is my own story and my own experience of divorce. Please consult professionals if you need help negotiating your divorce or parenting plan. I am also not a men’s rights advocate. I believe in equal parenting roles as they best serve the children.]

Divorce was the biggest disruption and reset of my entire life. And because we had kids, I knew the way we handled the separation and business of divorce was going to be of critical importance to them. My Dad’s departure from the scene in my 3rd to 5th grade years, changed everything about my life.

Even though a lot of the divorce process is about money, the focus should really be on the time.

I remember the moment I learned that my then-wife had been to consult with an attorney. I called my long-time mentor and sometimes therapist and asked how soon he could see me. Within hours I was in his office sobbing. It was clear as I began talking about what was happening that I was grieving as a 7 year-old boy. I was crying for the sadness inside me that was really about *my* parent’s divorce.  I could still feel the broken heart as if I was reliving it.

My concern, going into the divorce was how to protect my kids from experiencing the disruption that had blown through all of my childhood family dreams. Later that evening I argued with my then-wife about her request that I simply leave the house. “We can tell them you’re going on a business trip, or something,” she’d said, earlier in the therapy. She said she needed a break from the intensity.

It was April. Our kids were in 3rd and 5th grade, two months from completing the year. I flat-out refused. Even as the therapist was telling us he thought we could use some time apart, I disagreed.

“The divorce is going to take a while to figure out,” I demanded. “We’ve been living as roommates for some time. We can make another 6 to 7 weeks until school is out. I’m not disrupting their school year because you want a break.”

It was a very hard close of the school year, but I am proud I stuck to my guns and stayed in the house. Sure, my kids were aware that things weren’t great, but they didn’t have the ground torn out from underneath them either.

I lost over 65% of my kid-time because I was “given” the SPO and the non-custodial parent role.

As we went into the negotiations around separating our two lives, we did a good job keeping the “best interest of the kids” ahead of our own. We paid money to an expensive and fantastic therapist who made her living helping couples build amicable parenting plans to guide the next 5  to 10 years of their kid’s lives. We paid to meet with a divorce accountant who modeled the various scenarios. (She keeps the house. You keep the house. You sell the house.) We did everything right, as far as we could tell.

In this process, I was grieving as we went along. I even caused a pause in the process when the parenting-plan therapist learned that I didn’t want to go through with the divorce. We took and extra week, and a few sessions to see what that might look like, if we didn’t get a divorce. I was trusting in the team we had hired and in my still-wife’s good intentions towards the kids. Everything was about the kids.

Even though a lot of the divorce process is about money, the focus should really be on the time. As I was trying to be the compliant good dad, good guy, good divorcing man, I began to compromise on some of the items I had come to the negotiations with. And as my then-wife was focused and clear on her desires (custodial parent, house, child support) I was a bit disoriented. My only expressed desire was 50/50 custody and 50/50 parenting.

The problem was, even the cooperative therapist began to tell me I should settle for what she wanted. And at that time, six years ago, in the state of Texas, she was accurate when she said, “That’s what she will get if you go to court. She knows that. So let’s just start with things we can negotiate.”

Even as I was clear and determined to have a low conflict divorce, and to get as much time as possible with my kids, I was a bit misled by our counselor. It was 50% of my money that we were paying her to stay out of the courts. And she quickly sold me into the bad deal that is offered as the typical divorce in the state of Texas. (And likely in your state.) The phrase Standard Possession Order becomes the law of the land, and in our case, I was asked to accept that *very* unbalanced arrangement so we could move on to the schedule and the money.

The money will come and bite you in the butt if you don’t pay attention, but it was the kids and time with the kids that I was most interested in. And within a few weeks I my 50/50 schedule ideas were tossed out.

You may, in fact, have to sue to get what you want. But if what you want is to be present with your kids as much as possible, you should go for it.

Now, five/six years later, I can tell you this: If you want 50/50 parenting, go for it. Sure, you may have the odds against you, depending on your state and your case, but if that’s how you parented, I think that’s how you should parent after divorce. The old concept that the mom is more essential to keeping the kids happy, simply doesn’t hold true. The attorney I talked to recently about renegotiating my divorce arrangement said, “If you go in looking for 50/50 parenting, and have some reasonable evidence to support your ability to parent, we’re liable to win.”

The tides have shifted somewhat. I believe you will most likely be offered the simple deal. And for some more traditional marriages, the non-custodial/custodial parent plan works. But for the dads who are 100% into their role as DAD as well as their role as breadwinner, I believe the effort well worth it.

I lost over 65% of my kid-time because I was “given” the SPO and the non-custodial parent role. I also ended up paying more than I should’ve, because the theoretical job didn’t materialize to support the decree. By that time, the only option was to sue my ex-wife for a different arrangement, or different financial terms. 1. I didn’t have the money to fight; and 2. I didn’t want to sue anyone, much less the mother of my kids.

You may, in fact, have to sue to get what you want. But if what you want is to be present with your kids as much as possible, you should go for it. I didn’t have the choice, based on the people I put trust in and the system that was setup years ago in favor of the mother. And my regrets are few overall, but with hindsight today, if I knew how much I was giving up, I would have fought for the TIME. The money, even as unbalanced as it was, was less of an issue.

If you put your kids first you may need to fight to get what you want. And by putting your kids first, sometimes you may have to fight their mom. But to be the best dad you can be, you have to be there, you have to spend time with your kids. All of that time that was taken away is now water under the bridge, but today it’s much more clear for me. I take every offer to have the kids an extra night, or to support my ex when she has to work late.

Time is the number one parenting resource.

Stay positive. Love your kids. Respect your ex.

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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The Cadence of Co-Parenting; Staying Close Even After Divorce

WHOLE-mom-kid

There are not fewer things to coordinate when you become a single parent, in fact there are more. The things you once traded equitably, now fall 100% in your lap when it is your parenting time. This new cadence can be jarring, frustrating, and make for some upset campers on all sides, unless you plan ahead and go 100% Positive.

Here’s an example.

When you were married and one of your children woke up sick it could make for a challenging morning, as you juggled timing and sick-kid duty with your spouse. As a co-parent, when then this happens, things can get a little more tense. The goal is the same, get your child a chaperone for the day and a chauffeur to the doctor, if necessary, but the negotiations about who can “afford” to stay home, and who’s got the most important meeting, can foul up the good will.

The trick is to remind yourself, the drill is the same, the requirements are the same, but the cooperation with your ex-spouse needs to be even more careful.

In general, if the kids are with me and one of them is sick in the morning I figure out how to reset my “in-person” obligations so I can provide the care my child needs. I’m lucky to have a virtual-type job in digital marketing.

“Just checking to make sure you’ve got this” from the ex-wife have proven to be, as they were when we were married, a lifesaver.

When my co-parent wakes up with a sick kid, and no babysitter until school lets out, she occasionally has to rely on me. If I thought she was dumping the responsibility on me I might get mad. And I suppose, if it happened all the time, for some reason, I might also begin to suspect foul play. But when I know that she is cooperating as a parent, in the other areas of our kids lives, I extend that faith to these events as well.

By keeping the lines of communication open with my co-parent, I can defuse my own misperceptions and remain focused on the solution.

Our sick kid needs a parent, what can I do to help? It’s the same issue, with a different relationship and balance of trust. As co-parents, we rely on each other, we still talk about our kids, and we hope to continue growing our trust in this cooperative parenting after divorce.

The routines around school always seem to be the most challenging. Who’s taking who to the next cross-country meet? Will both parents be going? And asking questions like, “Are you okay with me signing our daughter up for volleyball?” are all part of the balance of parenting with another person, now no longer your primary partner. And I will admit, the occasional emails, “Just checking to make sure you’ve got this” from the ex-wife have proven to be, as they were when we were married, a lifesaver.

We are certain to hit a few bumps from time to time, but if we can focus on the kids and what the requirement is, we can save ourselves, our kids, and our former spouse a ton of heartache and frustration.

I still smile at her, “Just being a mom,” tag she throws in when she knows she’s sent three or four reminders. And I go above and beyond to let her know I really appreciate her efforts too. She was the more calendar-oriented partner, and when I can give her thanks for alerting me to a looming deadline, I do it.

It doesn’t take much to keep the goodwill flowing between you when you remember the needs of  your kids and leave any emotional content out of the negotiations. In a divorce recovery class, someone said, “Deal with your ex like you do the convenience store clerk. You go in, get what you need and take care of business. You don’t really need to know about the rest of their lives.”

When your kids come first you can find the flexibility to work with your co-parent at solving the complications that arise. And sharing that appreciation with your kids serves to let them know you still value their other parent, and you are working together with them to be the best mom and dad you can be, even in this different configuration.

It wasn’t always easy. And we are certain to hit a few bumps from time to time, but if we can focus on the kids and what the requirement is, we can save ourselves, our kids, and our former spouse a ton of heartache and frustration. This is my fourth year as a co-parent, and while I still have disagreements with the mother of my kids, I never resent her efforts nor take them for granted. And I try to give her support and appreciation as often as I can. Our happy and healthy kids are the result.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The New Father’s Day: My Day of the Week After Divorce

The New Father's DayThe SPO, or Standard Possession Order is what 90% of most co-parents will agree to. It’s not 50/50, but over time, the courts have determined it is the easiest schedule for fractured families to adhere to. I’m not always sure I shouldn’t have fought a little bit for something more equitable, but this is what we’ve got.

In my little universe, within the SPO and non-custodial parent role, I have ONE DAY every week that is MINE. Thursdays are my unofficial New Father’s Day. Your parenting plan with your co-parent may assign that day on a different day of the week, but Thursdays are my day.

Even on the off weeks, like tonight, when I only have my kids this one night before surrendering them back to the care of their mom, even on these single nights, it feels like a holiday for me. I’m not sure how it feels to the kids, since most of their time is spent at their mom’s, the marital home, their real rooms.

The one thing I am certain of, is Thursday is my favorite day of the week, every week. And one of the positive benefits of this schedule is when they come to my house, I am always 100% excited to see them. I laugh with them. Joke with them in ways only a dorky father does. And I bring my own perspective on life into their lives. We have a good time.

There is nothing mundane. No time with my kids is ever taken for granted. If I have been given one thing by the divorce it is the raised awareness that every night, every moment with my kids is sacred.

So, I declare a NEW Father’s day. Not one founded on marketing or advertising promotions, but one that focuses on the primary day of the week when Dads are reunited with their kids. Cherish it, cherish the time you do have with them, and make the most of your interactions with them. Let them know how special they are, and how happy you are to see them. Over and over again.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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And your participation via Facebook and Twitter.

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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