Tag Archives: single-dad

The WholeParent Mission: Positive Single Parenting Year Four

Here’s the starting mission statement written back in Sept. 2013.

My unwavering and immutable mission:

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

I thought I would give pause and reflect, update, muse, on what’s been going on here and in my single-parenting life.

One way I’ve wavered from the original missions, is the 100% positive part. I realised that not letting any of the anger, conflict, and struggles out was not painting a very accurate picture of being a single dad. So, while I try to keep the focus on myself and not others, I am sure I have let a zinger or two fly here. I think it’s more important to be real.

I do believe that my kids come first. The marriage is over, but my parenting never ends. If I can stay focused on their wellbeing I can get over any frustrations I have with their mom. I am committed to being the best dad I can be, in spite of troubles, depression, anger, flights of fancy.

And the final mission, “honest feelings” is the glue that makes this entire adventure work. I think that’s what keeps this blog going even when I’m not contributing to it. I went on a year or more hiatus from writing here and the blog was still getting 100 – 200 reads per day. That’s pretty exciting. So, it seems like my voice is resonating with some folks. I’ll do my best to continue, even in the hard times, even in the blissful times when I don’t feel like writing. Most of all I will continue to be the best single dad I can be. And if I can give you a glimpse of what my life is like, struggles and all, then I have done my best for you as well.

Keep the faith, and if you need someone to talk to, check out my coaching page.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image:  recent pic of me, creative commons usage allowed

The Single Dad and His Teenaged Kids

Well, it’s official. My kids are both in the separation phase of growing up. My son, 16, is driving, has a girlfriend and it not responding to my texts about 75% of the time. Get used to it. It’s not about you. My daughter, 14, is a true social butterfly and stays over at friend’s houses every night in the summer, and on the weekends during the school year. She’s better at responding to texts. And always responds to SnapChats.

The kids I once knew as “kids” are gone. The easy planning has become a stretch for me. If I don’t put plans together (not my strong suit) then plans don’t happen. I’m asking them for more interactive feedback these days, and I’m getting mixed results. At least we’re trying. Well, I’m trying and they are trying to figure out what kind of relationship they want with their dad.

I miss the little kids. I miss the years that I’ve missed by being a single dad. They are much closer to the 75% parent. MUCH. And that’s okay, she’s done a terrific job a parenting them. And she’s been solo up until a year ago. I keep thanking her for the job she’s doing.

You can see it in your kids when they are thriving. They have ideas of their own. They do respond when the offers are made, and they often respond in the “Yes, I will be there on Saturday.” And I’m learning, again, to be alone in a new way. The primary relationship I’m working on at the moment, given recent events, is my relationship with myself.

And to get the elephant out of the room, my kids are very aware and sensitive to my depressive episodes. I’m sure their mom has had numerous chats with them about “What’s happening with your dad.” That kind of makes me sad to think about, but when I’m in a DOWN I’m in no position to try to explain what’s going on. When I’m doing well, like right now, I’m happy to update them with more information. But they’ve learned, from experience, not to fully trust my moods. Heck, even I’m not fully trusting of my own emotions.

I’m getting better at that too.

When you lose your kids to divorce and then to teenagehood, you really have to begin letting them go. It’s only two years before my son will be heading out on his big adventure. What can I do with him in the next two years? How can I show up for both of them?

Those are the challenges ahead for this single dad. I’m up for it. And I’m in a good place to pick up the pieces, again. And fortunately they are resilient. We all are. May you spend as much time as you can with your kids, and find ways to connect in real-time non-phone ways. It’s a journey.

How are you keeping in tune with your kids? Let me know in the comments.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: happy family, creative commons usage allowed

A Muse Enters and Leaves

I’m all about having a muse. A romantic ideal that I can project all my needs on. And last week a woman showed up in a big way and became a muse. We met for coffee and she said we couldn’t date but we could be friends. “Fine with me,” I said. “I’m not looking to date anyway.” We made tentative plans to play tennis over the weekend.

She lodged a possibility in my emotional mind. “This is a woman who could challenge and reward me in a new way.”

So I did what the 38 Special song says, “Hold on loosely.” I texted her a few times over the weekend suggesting times and got nothing back. “Hmm,” I thought. “Maybe she’s just not that into me.”

But she did finally respond with a positive text. And we, again, tentatively, made plans to do something during the week. Today’s Thursday and this morning she said. “All those ideas you have are great but they sound like dates. I’m going to pass.”

So like that, before we had our second conversation she was gone.

Her ideal, however, lingers on. It wasn’t about her. It was about my projection of what I want in a relationship. Let me try to define the qualities she had that heated me up.

  • She was very smart, witty, and psychologically deep.
  • She was beautiful in a simple way. Her smile was killer.
  • She was fit and very active.
  • We seemed to hit it off with our conversation.
  • She liked me.

Perhaps she did not see the potential to love me. Maybe she didn’t see the same spark that I did. For whatever reason, she passed. Not what I was anticipating, but okay. I can move on from here with a better idea of what I’m looking for. And a muse is a near miss. A woman who I can see potential and hope with. A woman that meets some unspoken standards, and fits some magical equation in my heart.

Thank you, muse, for giving me something to shoot for in my next friend.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: autumn woman, creative commons usage allowed

relationships, breakups, divorce, single dad

What My Breakup and Recovery Have Felt Like

4 weeks ago I lost my best friend and lover. I moved out of her house and promptly fell apart. But then again, I didn’t fall apart like I thought I would. I was certain that deep depression was in my near future. I was certain that I would give into the pull of isolation and shut everything down and everyone out. That didn’t happen.

Here’s what I did. I put my mind on the next step. Heal. Grieve. Get my shit back together. And move on. I kept my exercise routine in place, every single day. And I found support in Al Anon. I did not isolate. In fact, I was less isolated than I had been in my partner’s house. I kept my chin up and felt the overwhelming sadness and kept going.

I also shut down 100% of the communication between us. This was advice from a brilliant book Getting Past Your Breakup by Susan J. Elliott. They called it NC, no contact and I believe it was essential to push me into the longing and loss I was feeling. I tried to find things to make me cry and I cried. I tried a new therapist along with my current therapist. I knew it was going to take some time for me to even feel normal again, much less able to consider a new relationship. The NC was key for me. Everything I wanted to tell her I wrote in letters I knew I could never send. I found my anger. I found out how much I missed the little things we did together. I dug into the tears and kept saying, “Goodbye” over and over until I believed she was gone.

I’m not saying I’m over her. I’m not. But at least I’m not thinking about her every single day. In fact, deep relationships you may never get over fully, but they take on less weight as time goes by. So in some ways time does heal all wounds. I wasn’t going to take the passive approach. I went after my grief with a vengeance.

And something good came from all this. I no longer felt constant anxiety about losing her. She was gone. I no longer pined for us to be together again. And I started to think about other women in my life. I contacted some old friends, mainly women, just to be around different women. And yes, I got on the online dating sites, but I’m not really looking for a relationship. Too soon. I’m just looking for some ways to talk to and be near women. And it made me feel hopeful that some women seemed to like my profile and want to talk to me too.

In Susan’s work we say “Do the work. Feel the feelings. Make peace with the peace.” And that’s what I’m still doing. I might always feel the prick of a finger every time something reminds me of her, something we did, something we talked about doing, anything really. But the prick doesn’t have to derail my day. Sometimes it only takes about 30-seconds before I redirect my wandering mind back to something more positive.

I’m not saying I’m over it. I’m not saying I’ve moved on. I’m saying I’m happy by myself for the first time in a long time. And I like it this way. I’m exploring new horizons and new options. From here I can go anywhere.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: https://goo.gl/images/DhYpZh, creative commons usage allowed

My Side of the Mountain – Understanding Depression

I can only talk about myself and my experience. And my experience includes some serious lapses into depression. Hard for me to admit, I’ve got an achilles heel, that scares the hell out of me and everyone near me, including my marriage and my last relationship. The disease is hard on everyone. And if you’ve never experienced it, you have no idea what it’s like, but I’m going to try to give you a glimpse into my dark days.

Depression is different from feeling sad or unmotivated. Depression is not laziness, though some of the symptoms may cause your loved ones to think you are just not trying to get better. I can assure you I was doing everything in my power, using all of my tools, to get well. But sometimes, even when things seem to be going well, the meds poop out and the depression grabs me and jerks me back below the surface of the water. Depression feels kind of like the flu. It’s as if your body has no energy for doing things. And nothing, I mean nothing, sounds good. You don’t want sex, you don’t want ice cream, you don’t want conversation, you just want to isolate and be quiet with your dark thoughts. But that’s a bad idea. That’s always a bad idea.

Depressions are usually triggered by some major emotional event. And my variety of depression comes along before your twenties and colors the rest of your life. My first freak out happened when I was sixteen years old and away at prep school. I’ve been touched ever since, with varying degrees of seriousness and duration. And I learned early on that meds were my friends, that I needed the equivalent of a pharmaceutical vitamin to keep me regulated. Over my life, it has been a real struggle to accept that fact, and several of my falls have happened years after I was off all medications and seemingly doing great. But it’s always there in the back of my mind. What if it comes back. And it just did, and probably will, with variations and if I’m diligent with smaller and less severe cycles. But I know that it will be back. This disease once it has been diagnosed doesn’t ever get cured.

I’m not trying to have a pity party here, or get sympathy. What I am trying to get is some clarity on what just happened to my loving relationship as a result of a prolonged bout of depression. They call it treatment resistant depression. That’s when the meds that used to work, just stop working. My free fall into fear and anxiety happened last December. And by January things were tense and unhappy in my relationship. Not just her. But I was deeply unhappy too.

The thing about my symptoms is I go off on apocalyptic fantasies about the future that I can’t stop worrying about. And I’m not just talking about some vague concerns about money, or career, or the future of my relationship, I’m talking about wild ass fantasies that consumed my consciousness so that I became forgetful and scattered. And this kind of depression makes it very hard to keep a job in the high-tech sector of marketing. But I couldn’t just get over it. I couldn’t just “man up” and keep going. I almost became mute because I didn’t want to share what was going on in my head with anyone. Fortunately I had a loving therapist who consoled me. Unfortunately there was no one consoling or coaching my then fiancé.

Here’s what’s scary. This same pattern caused the failure of my marriage to the mother of my children seven years ago. And I don’t know if this disease is going to continue to show up, freak out my partner, and end up with me alone and more depressed and hopeless. It’s hard for me to imagine it’s not going to happen again in some car wreck of a breakup. And that’s a way to get hopeless pretty fast.

But there is some good news. My story is going to end on an up. For me, meds work when they work. Unfortunately it may take a lot of tries to get it right, but when they kick in I am my old creative and loving self within weeks. And that’s just what happened two weeks ago. After being on a new med for 45 days I suddenly began to have creative thoughts. And this was after I broke up with my fiancé. So even in the depths of what would cause normal people to be sad, my meds allowed me to get a handle on my mind, put things back into perspective and develop the most critical part of recovery: hope.

Today, even alone, I feel hopeful. I know more about what happened. Perhaps I’ll learn how to get my partner to get a support system that will help her through her own doubts and fears. And here’s the plan: when a med works, stay on that med. So I could have years of good results, with ups and downs like everyone, but no crashes. That’s the goal, and that’s what I believe. When I was 16 my brain shut down on me and brought my sophomore year of high school to a screeching halt. And at several points in my life since then, during some major life crisis, I just give up. Well, I don’t give up, I’m fighting like hell, but my brain gives up and focuses on creating pictures of doom so dark I was afraid to tell my therapist what I was thinking sometimes.

So we start again. I’m alone but hopeful the next relationship will get it right. Of course, the relationship I need to work on most is with myself. Forgiving myself for my part in the demise of a seemingly brilliant relationship, with a committed future. And then, letting go of my best friend enough to imagine myself in a new relationship. I’m not there yet, but I have the clarity and energy to work on it.

Oh, and the funny thing for me, is when I’m starting to feel better my creative drive comes back and I start writing. Yesterday, with my blog post, I was showing myself that I was emerging from one of the longest depressions I’ve been in as an adult. For me creativity and brain health go hand in hand. So I’m happy to be back, still working, but on the up swing.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: john mcelhenney, creative commons usage allowed

What I Wish My Ex-wife Knew

I’m not writing this blog to my ex-wife, but there are times when I wish she would read my words. I still love her, because of our connection and history with children, but she makes it difficult to remain objective sometimes. One of my outlets is to work it out, alone, right here. Again, I’m certain she’s NOT reading me, but these posts could help our relationship. Soften her up a bit, perhaps. And then again, I’ve given up imagining that my words or actions can change her in any way. We’d like to think we can make another person happy, or comfortable, or secure. Unfortunately, we cannot.

If I could give my ex-wife a quick list of posts to read, this would be the shortlist.

As it is, we’re supposed to have moved on from the charged feelings towards our significant, but no longer spousal, other. When the anger and defensiveness is quick to surface there may still be some emotional work to do. Somedays I’d really like to send her a link to my prayer for her. I don’t. Again, I’ve learned it’s not for me to change her, but really learn to love and adapt to her as she is today.

She’s remarried. She’s got money again. She seems to be enjoying her job and the job of parenting, but she still complains a bit too much for me to buy the slick surface. I’m not taking her inventory here, I’m releasing her. I just wish my loving words could reach her some days. And I hope, everyday, that my loving actions will soften her heart enough to give her peace.

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: red flower, creative commons usage

The Joy of Divorce and the 3 Gifts of Breaking Up

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While we held it all together for our family, it was not all that ideal. But I was convinced that life was not ideal, and that for the comfort and future joy of my kids I would stick it out, no matter what.

As it was happening the divorce was the worst experience of my life. I was the one who wanted to work on things, but was told, “It is over.” I struggled with my own sadness and the imagined sadness that I knew my kids would experience. I tried to entice my still-wife back into the idea of staying together. I tried to bully her into realizing how bad things were going to be without me. I tried to convince her that she was wrong. I did everything I could think of to save the marriage.

Here’s the rub. The marriage was hard. Outside of the first few years of parenting (including the global crisis of 9-11) things in the relationship were not ever easy. We had very different styles of housekeeping, very different ideas about what made up a perfect weekend. And while we held it all together for our family, it was not all that ideal. But I was convinced that life was not ideal, and that for the comfort and future joy of my kids I would stick it out, no matter what.

My then-wife, on the other hand, decided for us both that “no matter what” was over. And though we said, “’til death do us part” we really didn’t mean it. She decided for us that it was over. And all the second person can do at that point is go through some of the Kubler-Ross grief stages.

But the gift of the divorce was bigger than I could imagine. Looking back, now seven years, I can say it was the most transformative event in my life. What cracked with the fracturing of my marriage was my own protective shell. The heart that was suddenly in so much pain burst forth from my chest and I started writing about it. Writing like I’d never written before. Writing, in some ways, to survive the crisis I was in. And I’m still writing.

Even alone, I was happier than I had been for the last few years of my marriage. As I began to discover the activities that gave me joy, I was able to include my kids more regularly in those activities.

The first gift divorce gives you is time and solitude. It’s painful. It was lonely. But in the hours and days of my loneliness I had to search again for the things that gave me joy. I no longer had the family group to mingle and play with, I had to find my own happiness. My alone happiness.

I wrote. I started playing my guitar more regularly. I walked the neighborhood endlessly to get into shape. I rejoined a tennis team. And I allowed the sadness and aloneness to transform me. I began to find happiness outside of being a parent. I got to discover my life’s joy in the times when I could not be with my kids. It was a moment of crisis that turned into a moment of self-discovery.

The second gift divorce gives you is the perspective on love and life. During the throes of divorce I was not able to see how this was ultimately going to be a good transformation. But as time wound on, I was able to reflect, first to myself and then to my kids, about how things were actually better now. I had a conversation with my daughter one morning before school that went like this.

“I know this divorce thing has been hard on all of us, but you do see how somethings have gotten better, right?”

She did not look convinced. “Like what?”

“Like how you and I are playing tennis together now. When I was married to your mom it was harder to find time to do stuff like that.”

“Okay…”

“And you can see how happy I am, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, maybe it wasn’t going to get any happier with your mom. Maybe she was looking for something different. And even if I didn’t know it, maybe I was too. But now, as we’ve all gotten a little time away, can’t you see that we’re all a bit happier?”

“I guess so.”

The biggest gift of my divorce was the release to become a happier, healthier, and more loving partner to a new woman. I bring my joy and my affection, and this time, the rules of engagement are very different.

Granted, she was eight years old then, and not really processing all that I was saying. But the message was this. Even alone, I was happier than I had been for the last few years of my marriage. As I began to discover the activities that gave me joy, I was able to include my kids more regularly in those activities. About six months after that conversation I had standing tennis games with my daughter on the weekends they were with me. It was a peak moment to be on the tennis court hitting balls with someone I loved so much. I had tried to get her mom interested in tennis, but it wasn’t meant to be.

The third gift divorce gives you is the freedom to go forward in your life and find someone to love again. And, if we’re lucky, and if we’ve done our homework on what broke down in the marriage, maybe we will find someone who we can truly love and who can love us back.

The biggest gift of my divorce was the release to become a happier, healthier, and more loving partner to a new woman. I bring my joy and my affection, and this time, the rules of engagement are very different. There’s something about a post-divorce-with-kids relationship that sort of puts things in perspective. The divorce taught me how to be alone and happy. The divorce gave me two great kids that are dependent on me for love, support, and encouragement.

And then the divorce gave me the time back. The time to be myself and discover my core talents again. And this is the me that my new fiancé fell in love with. Independent. Joyous. A dedicated father. And a creative madman. And this creative whirlwind came from the trauma and transformation of my divorce. As I was losing everything I discovered a larger me, a meta man who could rise above the distortion and anger and love in spite of everything else.

What I do best in life is love. And that I have been given a gift for sharing that experience via writing and music, is one of the major wins in my life. This new lease on love is another. May you find what you were looking for. May you find the happiness that comes from within so you can share it with others. The divorce gave me back my joy and freedom and allowed me a second chance to find life-long love.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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image: with kids at enchanted rock, creative commons usage

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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image: promotional photo from the movie Boyhood, creative commons usage

My Little Rocket Ship of Hope and Love

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

What I’m going to let you know is this: you can lose everything. And I mean everything. And still wake up on the bright side of the day each morning.

Just to set the stage, a woman I was talking to on the phone a few days ago, about my current living situation, said, “That’s amazing. You should write a book or something. That’s hilarious.”

She was talking about the fact that at 52 years old, I am living in my mom’s garage. Damn! Sorry. I even crack up now at the absurdity of the situation. But so it is. And here I am. Like a twenty-something regrouping. Except I’m past middle age, I’ve got two kids in middle school and a nice child support payment to go with it. And I’ve had some serious setbacks. And again, I’m not going to bitch about it. I’m not going to tell you how the world economy has done me wrong. I’m not even going to tell you how my ex-wife done me wrong. I could, but I’m not. (I’ve done that elsewhere, anyway.)

What I’m going to let you know is this: you can lose everything. And I mean everything. And still wake up on the bright side of the day each morning. Excited about your first and second cup of coffee and all the dreams ahead. Even after great setbacks, like divorce, or job loss, or whatever, with the “bright side” outlook, you can find hope. That’s all we need. A tiny bit of hope.

We do have to back track, just for a second, for me to set up the situation.

  1. Economy – yadda yadda.
  2. Divorce/Depression/Job loss – yadda yadda.
  3. Parent with boatloads of money decides what would be best, and it ain’t keeping the house.
  4. Even my storage unit of things, everything, is sold unlawfully.
  5. A fantastic new job, several months ago, hires me with great fanfare and fires me on the second day for my contributions to the Huffington Post.

START. AGAIN.

When the woman said how funny it was, my situation, I laughed with her. What I’ve gotten out of this morass is a deep appreciation for one thing: me.

FINE. I GET IT. Something in the universe, in my karma, in the “future plans” for me, was not working correctly. And for the second time in my life I got a full reset. The first time was when my then-wife decided she no longer wanted to be my wife. Okay, RE-SET. Start over. And if you blow it, start over again.

When the woman said how funny it was, my situation, I laughed with her. What I’ve gotten out of this morass is a deep appreciation for one thing: me. I’m not ashamed of what’s happened. And while I’m not proud of it either, I am aware of a new internal strength that has come from restarting from ground zero. And, even in the middle of it, taking the serenity now approach to my life, at this moment, I AM the happiest I’ve ever been. Hard to imagine.

And there are moments when I wonder if my positive attitude is some sort of hypnotic delusion that I feed myself, like some NLP self-regulating ritual. But I shake off those thoughts too. I’m just happy.

In my core DNA, I enter the world each day as a positive force. I have plans and dreams and I’m up-and-at-‘m with vigor and caffeine. And that’s what gets me the job, and also what gets me in trouble. Sometimes, the jetpack runs out of fuel. Sometimes, I run out of mojo, fuel, energy, optimism, hope. I’m sure we all do. But when you’re a hard-charger, the dramatic switch from extrovert to introvert is jarring to most people, and absolutely terrifying to some. You might try to label this drop bi-polar, or some other diagnosis, but I’m thinking it’s more about jet-fueled optimism and dreams, and the momentary sputtering of the rocket itself inside me.

So I’m a little rocket ship. And when I’m well-fueled, well-balanced, and have a good map in front of me, all systems are go, green lights across the board, look out, cause here we go. When the map gets torn in half and the fuel supply is momentarily shut off, I do tend to flounder. Well, I actually gained strength and insight this time. So what’s changed?

I’ve learned to keep a reserve tank of optimism. I’ve packed a secondary map, a meta-map, for where I’m going. And once I established my larger goal, the goal beyond what I wanted, I was able to see the setbacks as mere interruptions rather than disasters.

This is a fairly recent addition to my rocket ship design. And the disasters of these last six months have given me a chance to test all of my backup systems.

When divorce interrupted my interstellar travel plans over five years ago, I did not have any backup plans. I had put my entire dream and fuel source in the family unit we had been working on for 11+ years. When my mission control center went black, I was literally lost in space. I not only lost mission control, but at the moment I agreed to try a space walk out of the capsule, I began a free fall without precedent. Everything I knew and counted on in my life was suddenly out of view for long periods of time. And at times I did not thrive alone in deep space.

But it was during this long period of holding my breath, conserving resources, trying alternative fuel sources, that I started learning to focus on survival and perseverance rather than the immediate crisis. I learned to be sad about my situation, but not pity myself. I learned that my actions were more important than how I felt on any given day. I took a Radiohead lyric deep into my DNA during that time. “Just because you feel it. Doesn’t mean it’s real.”

Even beyond my own self preservation, I put all of my remaining energy into being a good dad.

And while the divorce and the separation of me from my kids and my house and my primary relationship was real, those losses didn’t actually pose any threat to my life. (Depression might have, if I had not found a way back to hopefulness.) If I could learn to breathe easily, even under major duress, I could learn to bring calm and hopeful rationale to focus on the situation. The road ahead in those first months seemed insurmountable. No house. No job. A new monthly child support payment that was supposed to come first, before shelter, food, or clothing for me. And a few times it was easier to give up. It seemed appropriate to sink into depression for a bit. It seemed like an acceptable response. I could hear myself, saying, “Sure, I just got divorced, I’m depressed. That’s okay.”

But I needed to transform that sadness and hopelessness into something else. Even as I was homeless and loveless I remained focused on one priority alone. Even beyond my own self preservation, I put all of my remaining energy into being a good dad. Sure, my kids could tell their rocket ride was not in service. And I’m sure the loss inside the home I left was also quite tangible and painful to everyone involved. But when they were with me, I simply focused on being dad. Everything else became unimportant when my kids were with me.

And the kid-first approach worked quite well when they were with me. When the rocket ship had kid cargo I was all-systems go, even if I couldn’t tell them when I would have a house for us, I couldn’t tell them, when we might take another vacation together, I couldn’t tell them, when they’d get their own rooms again, in MY house. I simply didn’t have any answers. And we learned to live together in our alternative rocket ship, the one where they had to pack bags each week, and learned to love each other anyway. Even without a map, fuel, or a plan, I stayed with my ability to connect and be emotionally available for my kids. I could fall apart, take on maintenance and repair tasks when they were planet side, at their mom’s house.

And we survived. And in that surviving we all got stronger. And when we were together we kept the joy and humor flowing. I began to chase and wrestle them again. I began to remember what life was about. I rediscovered the deeper mission within about being a great dad. And yet, that wasn’t enough. When they were not around I could fall back into deep despair. I could spend “off” weekends in bed, not tending to repairs, not moving my plans forward, not seeing any happiness in my future, but when my kids arrived again. This is not a sustainable model. As happy as I was (outside) when they were with me, I was just as dark and hurt when they were away. I needed some deeper fuel source. I needed some way to get out of the self-pity mantras that haunted me during the “off” times.

I put what was left of my things in storage and moved into my mom’s garage. And again, I went back to the drawing board in search of a better map.

Even stumbling along in the dark I had a few successes. I was recruited and hired by a startup to drive their digital marketing program. And within months I was purchasing a home and giving my little crew a new command module for the next leg of our journey. Things were exciting. Good. Stressful. And my orbit was still quite wobbly when the kids were away for the long 5-6 day stretches. But at least we had liftoff again and were headed in some direction. The maps might have still been unclear, but we were in motion. Until the company decided they weren’t going to be in the “consumer” business anymore and killed my position along with the line of business.

Then I had a shiny new six-month old ship that was leaking fuel, money, and hope. I thrashed a bit. The economy was still rough and my job prospects were challenging. I interviewed, I consulted, I did freelance, I sold a lot of my things, all in the spirit of keeping the rocket heading forward. But it wasn’t enough. A lot of things did not work out. Still, our little crew kept our sense of humor and adventure. My ex-wife wasn’t so understanding. Even my mom and sister, began to point out the weaknesses and obvious problems they had warned me about when I first made plans to get my own ship again. Lots of people were unhappy. But inside the failing rocket, our little trio, laughed, celebrated, jumped on the trampoline, sailed through a few more years of school and weekends together.

A year ago, at Christmas time it was clear the only way to survive was to abandon the spaceship. In a few short months of hand-wringing and furious activity, I got rid of about 50% of my things, and sold the spaceship and returned to the “captain without a ship” state that I find myself in right now. I put what was left of my things in storage and moved into my mom’s garage. And again, I went back to the drawing board in search of a better map.

Have you read the entire series? Click below for more excited episodes.

deepspacedivorcesaga

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: 1947 Rocketship Galileo, tom voter, creative commons usage

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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.
___

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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image: girl & dad, james chew, creative commons usage