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As a Nice Guy, My Cooperative Divorce Was Not Fair Or Balanced

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I felt like I had a pretty good idea of the way the divorce was going to go, once I agreed to actually get a divorce. We went, eyes wide open, into the negotiations about parenting rights, money, schedules, and I also felt like I had a cooperative soon-to-be wife who was not going to try to destroy me. The first part was true, the second part, well… Let’s see how the story goes.

Cooperative divorce is not for everyone. Some couples will have fights about money, kids, things, houses. Some couples may be able to part as friends. We decided we would put the kid’s needs above ours in every matter. That was the spirit of the start, as we began the road towards getting a divorce.

She had met with an attorney before we began these talks and she wanted what she knew she would get if we went to family court.

It just so happens that a lot of our individual desires can be expressed as being “in the best interest of the kids” when in fact they are just requests and preferences. AND the traditional divorce has always favored the mom-as-caregiver and dad-as-breadwinner and the legal system and precedents have all been set up with this in mind. I did not know this going in to our initial discussions with a divorce therapist, who was engaged to help us through the process of setting up a parenting plan, and staying focused on the kids needs rather than our issues or frustrations.

And again, I was imagining that I had a good perspective on my own feelings and needs. I did not. I knew that I was depressed about the divorce, but I didn’t know how this would affect my negotiations and participation in the process of divorce. I thought I was going to be able to hold my own. I was not.

In the first weeks of our “planning” we started discussing schedules and what each of us wanted. My first mistake was assuming that we both wanted a 50/50 balance in our divorce. We had decided to have children as a balanced decision. We parented them to this point in a very 50/50 style, though I would be the one making the most money to support her time with the kids. But this was a choice we made together, not just a stereotypical marriage.

Since accepting the fact that I was getting a divorce, I had been reading a lot of great books about balanced parenting, and fair divorce. When we were asked to bring in our schedule ideas I lead with a 50/50 split that had been recommended by one of the progressive books I was reading. What I didn’t know was my still-wife had gotten other advice. She had met with an attorney before we began these talks and she wanted what she knew she would get if we went to family court.

She wanted the traditional split in Texas (80% of divorces follow this structure)

  • Mom gets the house (so the kids can stay in their family home
  • Mom gets child support to keep the kids in the lifestyle they have grown accustomed to
  • Mom gets primary custody, which awards her some significant rights in the eyes of the state
  • Mom gets a significant amount more time with the kids in the two-week cycle (something known in Texas as the Standard Possession Order, or SPO)

She knew this is what she could expect to be awarded if we were to go to court, so this was her starting point. This was her “best interest of the kids” scenario, as backed up and supported by the State of Texas Attorney General’s Office.

If you are a dad and you really want to be there as much as you can for your kids, FIGHT.

Now, I give my ex-wife a lot of credit for being organized, for planning ahead, and making great decisions both financially and about the kids. In this case I believe she was acting out of her own best interest as well as the kids, and I believe she was well prepped by her lawyer to enter the cooperative negations with this significant advantage on her side: she knew that if things didn’t go as she wanted, at any time, she could pull out and we could go to court and she would get exactly what she wanted.

When our high-paid counselor dismissed my 50/50 dreams with this statement, “That’s what she’s going to get if you guys go to court,” I should’ve been clued in to my mistake. I thought we were negotiating from a balanced perspective. I was sad. I wanted to get out of this “fight” with as little bloodshed as possible. I did not fight when this statement effectively tossed my 50/50 schedule in the trash.

It is at this very moment, if you are going though a divorce, that you should really know your goals. I was too emotionally wrecked to put up much of a fight. Even though I had a lot of good books and experts on my side, my idea of 50/50 parenting was dismissed within three sessions. Again, I didn’t want a divorce. I didn’t want to give up my time with my kids, and I didn’t want to agree to anything less than 50/50 parenting. But when push came to shove and the counselor started telling me to give up on that idea, I accepted defeat. This moment was the darkest in the entire process of divorce for me. What I feared most was losing time with my kids. And even thought I was paying half of the counselor’s fees I was given my starting point to be a lot less than I wanted.

If you are a dad and you really want to be there as much as you can for your kids, FIGHT. I did not fight because I was depressed, because I was the nice guy, because I wanted to avoid conflict. And while I don’t think my kids have suffered as a result of following the example set by the State of Texas, I do think I have lost a significant amount of time with my kids. Time I should’ve had as part of a more equitable split.

Today’s research about divorce and parenting shows that BOTH mom and dad are equally important in kid’s lives.

It turns out, I’m going to have to go to court now, six years later, and sue for balanced custody and a 50/50 schedule. Turns out that if she’s making more money than me she should be paying me some support. Perhaps this would’ve been a better plan in the beginning. Perhaps this would’ve been better for my kids. It’s not what happened, and I’m not sad about it, but today, knowing what I know, I would’ve stood my ground.

My son would’ve had more of me standing up for him as a young kid. He might now be more courageous to try new things. My daughter would’ve had fewer nights missing me. I would’ve had fewer nights missing them.

Today’s research about divorce and parenting shows that BOTH mom and dad are equally important in kid’s lives. So if you’re heading into divorce, and you parented in a balanced way, please take the time, make the effort to fight for what you know is right. By all means, if you don’t want 50/50, you can relax and let the standard deal get established. I didn’t have all the facts in front of me, and I was at a disadvantage. So I lost.

Today if I want to reestablish a 50/50 plan it’s going to cost me money and necessitate a legal fight, if all goes as planned she’s ready to agree to the 50/50 idea anyway. But you never know with my ex-wife. She’s got plans and ideas of her own. Stay tuned. And if you’re in a divorce planning phase, stay frosty. Don’t miss out on getting the time and closeness you want.

Stay positive. Love your kids. Respect your ex.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: daughter, best friend, and me, john mcelhenney cc 2015, creative commons usage

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

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[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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Loss of the Proximity Effect as a Divorced Dad

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My children bring such joy in to my life when they are around. Their absence doesn’t make my heart grow fonder, it just reminds me of how much of their lives I’m missing as a divorced dad.

I’m watching my kids grow up from a distance, and it’s painful. Sure, I have the standard possession order, the simple divorce equation for 80% of dads. But we’re getting the raw end of the deal. Actually, divorce is the rawest end of the deal, but once that’s determined, the only thing you can do is hope for maximizing your time with your kids. Still, it’s not enough.

Divorce is like an empty nest trial run that happens every week. My kids are here, we’re laughing, chatting, I’m fixing them food and taking them all over the city to friend’s houses, appointments, movies… It’s a parent’s life. Joy is the theme. Togetherness is the melody. And on the days when my kids are with me I perk up like a… well, like the dad I have always been, the dad I want to be, and the dad I lost in my parent’s divorce when I was 9.

There’s no accounting for the loss in a parent’s life when their kids are gone. Sure, a lot of people are dealing with divorce (and worse PAS) but just because it’s a new normal, does not make it acceptable. But accept it we must. What are the options?

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 6.07.18 PMIn my divorce I went for low-conflict, easy negotiation, and shared responsibility. I also went to the divorce counselor’s office asking for 50/50 time with my kids.  That’s not what I got. Even through we were both paying for our parenting planning, the therapist quickly shut down my 50/50 notions. “If you go to court she’s going to get the SPO.” While I argued that we were seeing her to prevent us from ever having to go to court, I eventually gave in and became a team player. We built our kid’s futures and my limited-fathering contract around the “court’s traditional decision.” I listened to the therapist when she talked about what was “in the best interest of the children.”

Listen very carefully when you hear that phrase. It’s a signal that you are about to be force-fed some wisdom or legal precedent that you’d just as soon accept. And that’s just what I did. The rest of the divorce planning went pretty smoothly after I gave up my dream of being a 50/50 parent.

But it’s how we shared the parenting duties when we were together. Even when I was the primary breadwinner, shipping off to a nearby town for the big bucks, I was holding up more than 50% of the parenting duties. I shopped, cleaned, ran errands, and tried to provide the evolved male version of cooperative parenting. However, the minute we were in the counselor’s office my wife’s intentions became loud and clear. She was always big on the planning and I was usually the one who followed her budgets and plans. Both my wife and the counselor smiled when I showed them my 50/50 parenting calendar. I had been studying the options, reading the psychology, gearing up for the discussion.

Even as I miss them when they are gone, I am learning to celebrate and appreciate them more deeply when I am with them.

I still wonder if they’d had a sidebar and set up their “plan” before we ever started negotiating in her office. They both smiled and politely told me why the kids needed their mother more than their father in the early and young years of divorce. That’s not what my books and research were telling me, but that seemed to be the consensus of our “divorce team” and the typical will of the courts. Mom’s get the time, the house, and dad’s get the time to stay focused on work, because they are now going to be responsible for their ex-wife’s house and whatever shelter they can afford for themselves. That’s just how it was in Texas in 2010.

Today, in 2014 I hear things are beginning to balance out a bit, thanks to the men’s rights movement. And while some of these organizations seem rabid and furious, my attorney said if we wanted to go for 50/50 now, he imagined the court would hear my case and we had a pretty good chance of winning. Hmm.

Would *that* be in the best interest of the children, today? I don’t know. Would I be striking out to fill my own empty nest time with more kid time? Again, I don’t know the answer, I’m still exploring my feelings around this idea.

There are some benefits to being a single dad with the SPO.

  • I have a lot of time off from parenting. (I’m rested and pursuing my dreams again.)
  • I have time to work overtime if I want to. (Mostly I have to, but that’s a different story.)
  • I could spend time dating and looking for another relationship.
  •  I have a lot less school-wakup-morning duties. (During my On-Week I have two school mornings. On my Off-Week I only have one.)

And there are some painful losses.

  • I’m often not clued into my kids school activities. (I have to be vigilant to say on the parent-teacher mailing lists, and make sure I’m available for all meetings.)
  • I miss whole weeks at a time. (As my kids are getting older, I am noticing how much they change between visits.)
  • My house is more of a “hotel” than a home. (Since they are not with me very often they keep 90% of their stuff at their mom’s.)
  • I miss teaching my son how to shave. (His mom let him use one of her razors. When I asked him about it, he was proud that he already knew how.)
  • I miss a lot of the nuance of growing up. (Even subtle changes seem big when you haven’t seen them in a week.)

Basically, I miss a ton of their life experience. I am not involved in 80% of their week night, school work, family dinner routine. And yesterday we stopped at a cafe for breakfast along the route of taking them back to their mom’s house. As my kids sat across from me, joking, poking and prodding at a each other, I felt a pang of loss. So much of life is sitting around the table “living” with each other. And my involvement in this activity was reduced by much more than 50% in the divorce. I’m guessing, because of the structure of the SPO I miss about 80% of my kids daily lives.

They’ve still got two loving parents, we’re just playing our roles alone on some imbalanced schedule that was worked out without much input from me.

As they get older now, they both have a ton of activities and sleep overs. Even on *my weekends* I often see my social daughter only briefly on the weekends. And observing her and her brother yesterday I was even more aware of my loss. Even as they are accelerating towards launch and college, in many ways, the divorce takes a large portion of their lives from me every week. And on off weeks, I notice the gap by how much they have changed when we’re back together. It’s like getting random and sporadic updates from teenagers about their lives, rather than living their lives with them.

Would I want to still be married? No. But should I have fought for 50% of my time with my children? Maybe. Still, that’s not where we are today. We move forward with the standard parenting plan and we do the best we can. Even as I miss them when they are gone, I am learning to celebrate and appreciate them more deeply when I am with them. They’ve still got two loving parents, we’re just playing our roles alone on some imbalanced schedule that was worked out without much input from me.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: a note I wrote to myself, then added to by my daughter, age 6, while we were still married

The Fracture of Divorce: My Dad’s Hand On My Head, Forever

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Sometimes I am more struck by how much I miss my kids when they are with me, on Dad’s weekend. Divorce is a bitch. Everyone is pulled apart. And the emotional ripples continue for the rest of our lives. And while I miss them terribly when they are gone, I am often struck by my longing while they are still with me. Last night, watching a movie with my 11 year-old daughter, I was so content. When she fell asleep midway through I turned off the computer and put my hand on the top of her head before I turned off the lights.

I never imagined a time when I would not be able to put my hand on the heads of my sleeping children. You don’t think of divorce when you get married and when you begin spinning up the plans for having children. Their loss is not something you can fathom. And until you are divorced, their potential loss revolves around things like accidents and illness. And then you are divorced, either by your choice or against your choice, and you no longer have access to your children the way you imagined you would.

A non-custodial father (like the other 80% of fathers in my state of Texas) really does not have a fair or balanced schedule. The courts and the counselors will tell you it’s almost 50/50 but they are lying to you. In practice, the non-custodial Standard Possession Order (SPO) at least in my state gives me access to my kids around 1/3 of the time. The little lies come in with things like the “full-month in the summer” that are all but impossible for a working parent. So you’re going to have a lot less access to your kids. Forever.

And still there was nothing more that I could do to keep my family together. There was no drinking or infidelity, but something more difficult to troubleshoot.

That sucks. And it sucked when my parents got divorced. Even though my dad was a tyrant and a yelling, drinking, angry man, he was still my dad. There’s no substitute. And once he was gone from the family home, in my case, he was truly gone from my life. Sure, alcohol played a huge part in his retreat, and even in his death, but for all intents and purposes my mom “won” me in the divorce. My dad often offered to build me a room on top of his fancy new garage on his massive new home. But he offered, he never built it.

And I really didn’t want to live in my father’s house. He yelled. He drank. He got sloppy about boundaries and yelled at us kids a lot. And these yelling-dad memories are still etched in my mind, even though my dad left the house for the last time when I was about six. So don’t ever think your kids won’t remember the bad times. We might get over them, or act like we do, but we’ll be working some of the same issues out in therapy 30 years later. Oh well, it’s better to keep working towards a healthy mental attitude rather than collapse into the ongoing dysfunction of our parents.

And I can’t put more than a cursory framework around my ex-wife’s family of origin drama. And I should really try. We married, we had kids, we did our best, we (she) decided it was time for a change. I went along with it after fighting for a few months. One person cannot keep a marriage together. She was headed out. And with her went my access to my kids.

It’s bigger than you can imagine, this loss of time with your kids. If there was one thing that really crushed me into a depression early on it was the time alone. Truly alone. I was okay with leaving the marriage behind, the anger and unhappiness was worth escaping, but the escape left behind my true happiness, my children.

After divorce you learn how to rebuild your inner-happiness. You’ve got a lot of time for this. Because you are alone for a good portion of that time. And your kids are no longer the buoy of joy in your life. Missing my kids was the part of the divorce that nearly killed me. And how ironic that suicide seems like an option, in the lowest moments, when suicide is the ultimate ALONE. Gross. Needless to say, divorce and suicide go together often. And more often it’s the father who exits both the marriage and the physical plane of existence. Sad.

My dad didn’t kill himself, but he certainly didn’t get well either. He didn’t stop drinking. He didn’t change his lifestyle after his second or third heart attacks. There was a part of my father that wanted to die. He was alone, with a new wife, and a new adopted daughter, but he was probably missing the family and life that he trashed with his drinking and refusal to get help. And he never got help. He drank himself into oblivion every night from then on. As long as I knew my dad, as an adult, he was a drinking alcoholic. There wasn’t much room for emotions and getting reassurances or pats on the head from that father. I made a promise to myself that my kids would never know that absence.

If my plans are moveable, I will always take my time with the kids. That’s my priority. That was apparently not hers.

And still there was nothing more that I could do to keep my family together. There was no drinking or infidelity, but something more difficult to troubleshoot. Ennui, perhaps? Or just greener pastures. But certainly my then-wife’s decision to depart, or force me to depart, was in part fueled by her own parent’s horrible divorce struggles. Again, I’ll skip taking her inventory here, and let rest with the statement that her mother and father were both tortured by their divorce for years, even remarrying at least once over the years of my wife’s elementary years.

So we move along, and we do the best we can. In the non-custodial role I have attempted to pick up more time with my kids whenever possible. But even in that I’ve been less demanding than I could’ve been. In divorce you are *always* trying to compromise with your ex, so that when you might need a favor they will consider your request with a positive attitude. But even in those actions I have lost more time with my kids.

When my ex partnered up again, after about six months, she was quick to ask for an adjustment to our expertly crafted non-custodial parenting plan. She wanted to switch the schedule so that her time synced up with her new boyfriend’s schedule. At first I was belligerent. “Why would I want to make adjustments to lessen my time with my kids to accommodate your new relationships?”

I did. I gave up my 5th weekend gifts. As she asked to go “every other weekend” rather than the ordered 1st, 3rd, and 5th. And while I really struggled with why this was a good idea for me, I still, somehow wanted her to be happy. Yuk. But what I gave up was my double weekends that come around 3 – 5 times a year. She made some overture about giving me the time back, “You can ask for an extra weekend any time you need it.”

And so, even in my already compromised schedule she was asking for me to give up more time so she could be with her boyfriend. Um… Why do I care about her time with her boyfriend? I didn’t. But I did agree to her request. It’s sort of what I do. I compromise and try to avoid conflict.

As a divorced dad, or maybe as a single parent in general, you get a preview of what the empty next syndrome feels like. It hurts.

And in many ways I’m still doing this. She can be an hour late picking the kids up and I’m okay with it. Or ask for me to take the kids at the last-minute, due to some “work crisis” that seems to arrive with about the same frequency as it did when we were married. And most of the time, I take the kids when I can get them. If I don’t have plans, or if my plans are moveable, I will always take my time with the kids. That’s my priority. That was apparently not hers.

I’m not here to take her inventory, however, but to lament the loss of all the evenings with my kids, for the rest of my life. They are growing at an amazing rate. (11 and 13) And I treasure every moment with them. And I haven’t put a priority on finding a relationship. My priority has been on my kids and my own mental and physical health. I’ve struggled. But I’m strong and healthy now. Perhaps a relationship for me is in the cards over the next few years, but I will never put that desire of mine, above the care, love, and feeding of my kids.

Last night as I was resting my hand on my daughter’s head, I was so aware of all the nights I have not been with her. She exhibits the signs of missing me when we get back together. And we are making the most of our time together. My son is a bit more self-contained and advanced in his parental separation process. My daughter and I just enjoy spending time together. And as she has gotten older I have been so delighted by her stories and epiphanies. The things she is excited about, I am excited about.

In the last six months of my father’s life he went through a remission period. And due to the chemo he could no longer drink. So he sobered up, for the first time in my adult life. And when I was 21 I spent some quality weekends with my father, for only times I could remember. Other than those few months, his relationship to me was more about yelling and avoidance, rather than nurturing or pats on the head.

In the last month of his healthy period, my father asked me if I wanted to sleep in the big bed with him. We were at a condo he had purchased. It was a child like request. It was an echo of the times we had spent at the beginning our my parent’s divorce, when we would cuddle. At 21 I was unable to see the poetic moment. “No dad, I’ll see you in the morning.”

We were both hungry for more time, more head pats. And that’s a feeling I still ache with as I watch my children sleeping. Even when they are with me, the knowledge and feeling of the coming loss, just a day or so away, is painful. I don’t show them that side. I put that here. I show them the happy and healthy dad. And I let them know all the time how much I love them, and how they are still THE priority in my life.

Soon they will really be gone. See as a divorced dad, or maybe as a single parent in general, you get a preview of what the empty next syndrome feels like. It hurts. And after 5 or so days, they are back with me. We’re all making it the best we can.

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 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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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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