Tag Archives: single parents

All of the White Horses Have Already Been Taken

Today is my son’s 17th birthday.

I am not my son’s hero.

My son needs a hero.

Several days ago my son experienced an existential crisis of some magnitude. Things could’ve gone much worse. I was not there.

When my daughter called it was to let me know him mom was going in the ambulance to the hospital and would I come take her and my son’s girlfriend there. I was now in the loop. We all waited in the hospital together. My son’s girlfriend, my ex-wife, her husband, and my daughter. There was nothing any of us could do but be present, and pray. We shared as much information as we had. We worried about my son’s surgery and mental state. And we waited four hours before we could visit him.

My ex-wife and I stood by his bed. He was scared. He was disoriented and rambling. He reached out and grabbed her hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. He repeated this mantra several times over the next 20 minutes as we stood vigil over our confused and recovering son. For that minute we were a unit of love, of healing, of caring, and hopeful prayers about the future. And then I went home around 10pm. His mom would stay with him through the night as he continued to come back to lucidity.

I didn’t get to see my son again until several days later when I was bringing him dinner, his favorite dinner, provided by my mom. He’d already eaten but he sat with me and his girlfriend while I ate some of the fried fish. He seemed okay. He felt slightly humbled. But his old cynical self seemed to have re emerged intact.

I will not be the hero in this story. I am playing a bit part. My ex-wife stayed with my son on-and-off for the 72 hours he was in the hospital. I had to work. I was not invited. In fact, for part of that time his visitation was shut down and only she could be there. She kept us, his family, informed via a few hopeful texts. She was always hopeful and positive. And she stayed by his side. There is no substitute for the mother-son bond. I am so grateful for their close relationship.

He and I, while not estranged, don’t have a lot to talk about these days. We share a love of music and occasionally turn each other on to new bands. We’re both into technology, so he will occasionally tell me about some programming project he is working on in a language I don’t know. But it’s great to hear him excited about something. In general, however, he seems kind of pissed off. Not at me. Pissed off at life. Like he got a rotten deal. Oh, and we go to action movies together from time to time. It’s hard to forge a relationship with a 17-year-old boy who has his own car and a girlfriend. There’s nothing that can rival that freedom, and I’ve found my place as a supporter in his life play. That’s okay. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

Still, I was most connected during those hours in the hospital and the twenty minutes his mom and I spend at his bedside in the ICU.

My future role is to be supportive, available, and as loving as possible. Even when he’s not returning my texts. Even when he’s having trouble. Even when he’s in crisis.

As we move forward as a fractured family, the lion’s share of his time will be spent at school and in his mother’s house. I will have a bit part to play. I will continue reaching out as often as I can think of something to say, as often as I can find an activity we might do together, as often as I can offer to take him to lunch, or breakfast, or dinner. He does like to eat steak and eggs.

While I have not been able to be by his side as much as I would’ve liked in his 17 years of life, I have been consistently available and actively present. I have made sure he knows, and I continue to make sure he knows, that he is loved unconditionally. Of course, I struggle with my own demons. I hope that I am not the cold and distant father that I had. I hope that I have done a better job of staying close even under trying circumstances.

Divorced and playing the single dad is not an easy role. Often decisions are made without my input. And most of their time as a family, the real work of being a family, doesn’t include me. I understand and accept my place. And I work to maintain my own positive attitude so I can continue to be a supremely supportive, if absent, dad.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: gifted hero, creative commons usage

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

A Good Man in a Storm, Even After Divorce

WHOLE-2015-writer

The irony here is often the storm is me. I’m sorry about that, me and my depression can cause a few problems. But for the most part, about 85% of the time when things are tough and about 95% of the time when things are good, I’m an excellent companion come rain or shine. It’s the rain times that broke apart my marriage.

She no longer believed in the promise of our marriage, and she decided to take her chances, and unfortunately the chances for the rest of us, with other options. Divorce options.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. We tried. We survived. We worked through enormous hurdles and came out of the trials and tribulations with two beautiful and blessed kids. No noticable defects so far. (grin)

But the hardships were unbelievably hard. In my mind that gave us even MORE staying power through the down times. But for my then-wife, something must’ve broken at some point. She no longer believed in the promise of our marriage, and she decided to take her chances, and unfortunately the chances for the rest of us, with other options. Divorce options.

It was sort of sprung on me, even though we’d be in couples therapy on and off for several years. You can’t say we didn’t work it. We were doing the best we could. And we did pretty damn good through the hospital times with our second child. And we did okay in the times when my depression debilitated me for about a year. (I can explain this later, but not excuse it.)

So we’d been going to therapy, not to fix our relationship, specifically, but to help us learn how to communicate better. To stay in the reality of the situation rather than our own projections of what we “thought” was going on. SCT, it was called.

And that aspect of our therapist was grand. He really was helping us break down our own fears and misperceptions and get back to what was actually real, what the other person had intended to say, rather than what we heard. He let us know he was not a couples therapist. He was helping us get centered and clear with one another. And maybe that was exactly what he did.

The problem with SCT, however, is it does not really deal with emotions about the realities. It simply redirects you to what you know and what you are projecting about the future or lamenting about the past. We spend, as humans, a lot of time OUT of the present moment. And that’s a problem. So Rich, wasn’t trying to fix us or fix our marriage, he was trying to get us to tell the other person what we really wanted. What was really bothering us. And keep it 100% real.

Now, it seems to me that this would have been the perfect venue for my still-wife to tell me she was considering life without me, BEFORE going to consult with an attorney. But she didn’t do it that way. I found out in REALITY THERAPY that she’d already been to see a lawyer. Then when the emotions flooded forward from my disbelief and shock, our therapist sort of fell short of the mark. He consciously didn’t jump in the middle of it. Well, actually he did. I’ll get to that in a minute.

“You have a very hard time with honesty. And I don’t trust that things are going to get better. And I don’t have hope for the future of this marriage.”

When my then-wife said exactly what she felt was her truth, it was actually a projection about the future. So in that aspect the therapist should’ve redirected her back to this moment and what was real. He did not.

Here’s what she ultimately said, “You have a very hard time with honesty. And I don’t trust that things are going to get better. And I don’t have hope for the future of this marriage.”

Here’s what I was saying about my reality. “Things have been hard. We’ve done great at working through hardships that have been thrown at us. And at this moment in time I have MORE hope that our future is as bright as it’s ever been. Even this therapy is stripping away our worries and helping us focus on what is real.”

But it wasn’t enough to convince her to stay with me. And I was devastated right there in our our little “emotion free” therapy session. And while Rich allowed her to stay in her projected reality, he also took her side when she asked that I simply walk out of the house that night and tell the kids I was off on a business trip.

Again, bullshit, and again a failing of our therapist who should’ve been helping us communicate rather than siding with one of us. He agreed that she was under such stress that she needed some time off. Some time to recover her center.

“Why doesn’t she leave the house, then?” I asked, point blank.

Neither of them supported that idea. I’m not exactly sure why. And I fought with both of them, again. Not really the right place for an SCT therapist, but that’s what really happened. He was convinced I should leave her and the kids alone for a bit and regroup to see if there was something to salvage. I was in my own reality that THIS WAS THE EXACT TIME TO STAY REAL rather then lie to the kids and run out the door.

So I stood and fought. And we went to two more sessions with Rich, more for closure then progression. At this point he retreated back into SCT and the reality of the situation. The last session was more of an apology between the three of us for not being able to save the marriage. We were saying goodbye to each other and to Rich as our enabler.

Some people have different happy set-points. And I think her’s is very different than mine. A ton of things could make her unhappy. And often she found, still finds, ways to make it about me.

I’m not sure I would’ve gotten better results from a Gottisman couples therapist. I’m not sure I really needed to stay in that marriage. Sure, I can say I’m sad about all the kid years of time I lost to her rash decision and our therapist’s inability to keep himself out of our business, but in the end, today, I’d have to say it was a good thing.

You see, some people have different happy set-points. And I think her’s is different than mine. A ton of things could make her unhappy. And often she found (still finds) ways to make it about me. How I’m not taking care of her in the right way.

Again, SCT would direct her back to the reality of the situation.

  1. You are unhappy.
  2. You think he is causing you to be unhappy.
  3. But the unhappiness is in your thinking and not in his actions. He is not preventing you from changing the situation if it gets that bad.
  4. You can change your thinking at any time.
  5. The house is not too messy. The house is more messy than you would like it. It’s not his responsibility to clean house until you feel better. That’s why you hired a maid.
  6. You’re too focused on what he’s doing or not doing. Focus on yourself.

Those are some pretty good words of advice for any relationship. Oh and this one.

If you’re not having sex with each other, and the disconnect goes on for months at a time, something is out of whack. Even an SCT therapist should key in on this REALITY. But he didn’t.

I hope the best for my ex-wife and the mother of my two kids. I see now, that with her new man, she’s still about the same. She’s not all that happy. He’s probably not doing exactly what she would like either. But that’s the real lesson here. In relationships people need to look after their own realities and the ways those realities intersect with another’s reality.

In the case of my then-wife, she was unhappy about many things. I was happy about many things. It seems to me today we’re pretty much in the same situation, we’re just no longer married, and there have been some real complications put into our court. And she’s pretty convinced that I’m not supporting her correctly. The good part is I am no longer answering to her happiness, I no longer need to do her chores. That was about her. And perhaps more about her lack of desire for sex.

It was a reality I could not manage. In the end it was a reality that should’ve split us up and did. I am now free to have a relationship with a woman who enjoys life, who wakes up laughing, like I do. Sure, she’s got a list of things she’d like me to do differently, and I’m sure I have a few items for her. BUT we’re here by choice. WE love each other, daily, by choice. We don’t even have kids between us. But we love, laugh, and let go.

Love. Laugh. Let go. That’s a much better fit. So, in the end, I guess I’m grateful to both Rich and my ex-wife for releasing me for the next phase of my life.

LOVE.

LAUGH.

LET GO.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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10 Things I’ve Learned In the 5 Years Since My Divorce

WHOLE-dapperdad

It’s all about the kids. If you’ve still got a beef with your ex you need to get over it. There’s no point. You might have disagreements about stuff, but those should be handled with the same intensity as a convenience store clerk. “How much for a pumpkin spice latte?” “Four-twenty.” “Great, I’ll take two.” Beyond that, you should get support and counseling elsewhere if you’re still steamed about “issues.

There will issues in the course of parenting children, but the negotiation and consultation should be accomplished without drama or large emotional toll on either one of you. Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. My kids-time is the most important resource I have.

I cannot get enough of them. The divorce gives me less time. But it also gives me the opportunity to be more present when they are with me. I can parent at 110% when my kids are under my roof. And when they are with their mom, I can also offer help, transportation, and regular check-ins. If you can put your kid’s schedules in front of your own, you’ll be doing yourself and them a favor.

2. The nuclear family relationship never ends.

My ex and I have a lot of business to negotiate over the next 5 – 10 years or so. Our kids are 12 and 14, but the obligation to them and to each other doesn’t end at 18. What ever anger or unrest I have about my divorce or about her life, I need to take that up with my therapist, minister, or friends. My ex is struggling with her own issues, her own life, her own navigation of transportation and counseling required by being the parent of young children. Anything I can do to get my “issues” out of the way, I’m going to do it.

3. Take Some Time Off

Your emotional baggage must be cleared before you begin dating again.You can try jumping into a rebound relationship. You can try online dating as an escape from feeling what you’ve lost. You can try serial dating, or casual sex. You can try to jump straight from “family” to “single and dating” but it won’t work in the long run. The issues that caused your marriage to fail are likely to require some self-examination and recalibration. And any anger that you still hold towards your ex is going to come out in current relationships as sideways outbursts. Those moments when you’re furious about something rather trivial. If you’re experiencing anger sparks do your part and “take them outside.”

4. You Are the Project

Once you depart the family unit you’ve got a lot of time and a lot of questions. The time alone is a big gaping hole for a while. You may need support outside your family to get your alone-needs met. The quiet time, alone, is where you begin to remember what kind of activities make you happy. The first woman I dated asked me, “When you are really happy, what does that look like?” I was stumped. I was also clearly unready for a relationship, until I could answer that question. I needed to find my happiness again.

For me those things that fed me before my marriage and during my marriage were writing, playing music, and playing tennis. In the maelstrom of divorce I lost all perspective of what *my life* was going to be about, if not my marriage and kids. But that’s the key question. It’s another chance at resetting your life towards your ultimate goal. Asking yourself, “What is my life about?”

5. The Journey is the Goal

It’s easy to get wrapped up in your single parenting activities. And while you’re feeling the need to be super-parent, and you’re juggling after school activities, and all the other newly single activities, you also need to learn how slow down the pace and enjoy the steps along the journey. For several years I was actively seeking a relationship. I felt I had done the work on myself and I deserved an awesome relationship. I was in a hurry. I thought I wasn’t, I tried to play it cool, but I was striving a bit too much. I would go after second dates with online connections that were obviously not a match. I was running profiles on OK Cupid, Match.com, and Tinder. (Without much luck, btw.)

I was working too hard. I was too earnest as I looked in my date’s eyes for a clue or a spark. I was self-generating romance and potential where there was none. And as I accepted the frustration of my first two relationship attempts, I decided to stop broadcasting my availability. I decided I was NOT GOING TO DATE. And I was really not going to use online dating sites as an excuse for not engaging people in the real world.

The real switch was falling back in love with my life and orienting my “off” time around passion and joy. I was turning things inward and becoming the person I wanted to present to the world. My idea involved becoming the radiant lover I was looking for, and actively not looking for her. Sure, I was writing love poems and broadcasting them elsewhere, but I was determined that I was going to find the next relationship or I was going to be alone, for a bit.

6. Winning is a Team Sport

Things began to go right for me again, after several breakdowns and derailments. And as I was telling my son the other day, “When things go good for me, I can help with other things in your life as well.” I had given him a $150 pair of sunglasses unexpectedly. “And things are good in my life,” I said. “I’m glad,” he responded.

As I lifted out of the muck again, and continued to work on my positive influence, I noticed how things go easier between me and my ex-wife as well. As I was able to offer my help and support in various ways, she was able to relax her vigilance in other ways.

Yes, the best revenge is living well. But the better revenge is everybody living well and giving up the need for revenge.

7. Love Can Awaken and Nourish Your Soul Again

A new relationship arrived out of the blue. And the realignment of my life didn’t take long. In love, so many of life’s other complications fall off the radar. Magically, my ex-wife’s gesticulations became less overwhelming. It wasn’t that they changed. I changed. I began to glow with my own joy. I began to resonate with another person in a way that I wasn’t sure was possible again.

I had been hoping, praying, and working towards finding a *next* relationship. When the relationship showed up, in the real world, I was ready, willing, and able. That the transformation was mutual had more to do with magic, or prayer, or timing. But really, it had to do with my own relationship with myself and my kids. And as I continue to let go of my ex-wife, and continue to release even the frustrating parts of that relationship, I find even more of my livelihood waking up in my new love life. And my kids can see it.

8. The Ultimate Goal

We alone are responsible for our own happiness. And finding that happiness after divorce is a process of recovery. We must recover what was important in our lives before kids, and reset our our path back towards our larger goals. The journey is the goal, but our own happiness results from finding ourselves along the path. And as we bring that happiness back into the lives of everyone around us, we begin to see positive changes in everyone else.

9. Happiness and love are infectious.

10. Always Love.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: dapper dad, cc 2014 john mcelhenney, creative commons usage
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We Almost Lost the Ship

WHOLE-spaceman

Things in the new ship have been a bit rocky. Fun, but we’re talkin bare metal and exposed wiring. For starters the old farty dog has a bad leg so when he poops or pees he simply walks back and forth in the filth until you clean it up. You often need to wash him as well. And the cat, though he has a clean and available litter box prefers to find his own places to poop and pee. We’ve been through this on the other ship. Not sure what his problem is…

And a few things have already broken down. But that’s par for the course, as this is a nice house, but not a very modern house. After the first use the dishwasher spilled it’s soapy warm contents all over the floor of the kitchen. The repairmen arrived and almost laughed as they opened the old GE. It took them 3 minutes to report back, “This one’s too far gone to repair. We’ll get back to you. This landlord is usually pretty good about getting back to us on these. We’ll get you another unit. That was last week. The new dishwasher was approved, but has not been installed.

“I think we should take a little bit of time getting stuff for the house this time and not just get crap because we need something cheap. It might take us a bit longer to furnish everything, but we’ll get nice stuff.”

As the kids arrived we’ve been enjoying the proximity to their mother’s place. They keep dropping by for stuff. It’s always nice to see them. A bonus! And they can walk or run between our houses in about 10 minutes.

I dreamt this set up back as we were in the earliest phases of the divorce process. I was still living in the house. I was committed to finishing out the school year before leaving the house. And in these strained times, I often made conversation with my soon-to-be ex about “maybe we should reconsider.” She would have none of the idea, but I chatted along anyway. So, in this dream I suggested we not get a divorce at all. I’d just move out and get another house, a little bit away. The kids could circulate easily between either house. We could all benefit from the proximity of each other.

And today, I think I’m just about there. My dream, five years ago, of having a house near my kids and their mom is now a reality. We’re divorced. But we could be entering the closest time in our relationship. We’re not there yet. The child support payments have just kicked back in at 120%. And I wanted to text her today, “A rising tide benefits all boats.” While things have been tense and rough from time to time, we’re still really only looking out for our kids. We’re both invested in their great lives. We have our own struggles to deal with, but our kids are what’s next. They carry our ambitions and our fears. My ex-wife and I are both doing our best to give them confidence and resilience in all areas of their lives: emotional, mental, physical.

And the journey has had some unexpected twists and turns. The little blind dog has recovered much of his bounce when he’s roaming free in the back yard. He no longer has to fend off the big pitbull mix. He can’t see or hear, but he can smell. And as he wanders around you can tell he is looking and smelling hard.

Then we hit a cold snap and he had to be kept inside. It was a near complete disaster. He pooped and peed and walked around in it. It was not working. He was stinky, cranky, and probably humiliated in his shameful place. But even in his disgrace, he shows his old spirit.  He’s trooping along with us. Maybe not as full crew member, but a member emeritus that we all love and hug on as best we can.

And it seems to me, a lot of the time, as a divorced family, that’s what we are doing. Our best. For everyone involved. Even the exes deserve happiness. I still root for my ex-wife. I do hope her relationship is the one and that he speaks a love languages that makes hers resonate.

We’re still a bed down. But I told the kids as we were getting ready to load into the ship for the first time. “I think we should take a little bit of time getting stuff for the house this time and not just get crap because we need something cheap. It might take us a bit longer to furnish everything, but we’ll get nice stuff.” They agreed. And the first run to Ikea for a bed was a complete null sum gain.

Any ice at all usually shuts down the schools and then you’ve got to take a kid day. Well, I don’t have my kids, but if it ices over, they can sled all the way down the hill from my ex-wife’s house and get hot cider her, with us.

The funniest part: We drove out in my 4-door coupe. (Ikea’s always seem to be on the other side of the earth.) I needed to borrow a car for the run, and I’d just forgotten and driven there with not possible way to pack in a bed. I laughed. “So this is more of a shopping run.”

And, in fact, we walked all over the store and didn’t see a single bed that was interesting to my daughter. And we were going to buy some new sheets but the lines for check-out were insane, so we bought cinnamon rolls instead. The kids ate them, I only got one bit. Even my daughter is interest in my fitness.

But probably the most spectacular part of this opening montage of our new journey, the co-pilot seems to have arrived. And when she says, “I’m planning on sticking around.” I get the idea that she’s serious.

The last time I moved into my own place, I did not have any help. The new ship is filled with her things. Wow. Her energy is here even when she is not. I know, it’s still early, but she’s got a great attitude and approach to getting stuff done.

So while the crew has had good and bad days, we’ve all come through them. We’re rounding the corner on the third week.

Captain’s Log: Monday February 24, 2015. Daughter arrives at doorstep knocking loudly. She wants her hair flattening iron. “I’ll go get it,” she says, unsuspecting. (We’ve got both cars in the garage tonight, because a deep freeze is expected.)

“I’ll get it,” I say, heading up the stairs. Laughing as I open the master bedroom door on said copilot put my fingers to lips. “Shhh.” At this point in the story, copilot is a “known friend” to the kids. But that’s as far as it goes.

I return to my daughter and give her the iron. “Love you sweetie.”

“Good night dad.”

Back to more strategic planning and chart mapping with my copilot. The air is good and a bit chilly tonight. But I’m hoping for us to get iced in so I can snuggle a bit late. A few of Texas’s nice features. Any ice at all usually shuts down the schools and then you’ve got to take a kid day. Well, I don’t have my kids tonight, but if it ices over in the future at some point, they can sled down the hill from my ex-wife’s house and get hot cider here.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Whole Parent Journey – Year One Retrospective

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It’s been a year since I started this blog. 80 posts later, one firing, and a ton of growth, I am very happy to have set out on this journey. Today I’d like to celebrate the wins and learnings that have transpired over this first year of publishing. Let’s look at how we began, back on Sept. 21, 2013. [see the Full Index of all posts]

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Here is a gallery of all the cover images once I defined the brand style. I’ve covered a lot of territory. Not all of it easy, but hopefully in keeping with my 100% positive mission statement.

My goal has always been to improve my understanding of co-parenting, and how to keep coming back to the issues with a positive approach. It’s kid’s first. Nothing else matters.

As the divorce issues and parenting issues have gotten resolved the next progression along the path of wholeness is returning to the idea of being in a relationship again. And while this blog did not start out with a “dating” agenda, I believe that “wholeness” will come from finding a long-term romantic relationship again. Along that path I have journeyed back into the dating pool, and here I have attempted to capture some of my self-observations and lessons. Again, these are my observations, your milage may vary.

It’s been a great run so far, my traffic today averages 300 – 500 visitors a day, thanks to my affiliation with The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. And I’ve even been made a contributing editor of the GMP.

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And the monthly growth has been pretty astounding.

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So here’s to the next year. Thank you for joining me on this journey, I hope you stay tuned.

Click here to see the Full Index of all posts.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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