Tag Archives: standard possession order

Responsible Separation Is Harder than it Sounds

My ex and I tried to have a low-conflict cooperative divorce. Only problem is, she got an attorney, I didn’t. As cooperative as we were, when it came time to draft the decree we left it up to her attorney to set up the fair separation of our financial and parenting duties. It wasn’t fair and balanced. It was “responsible” for sure, because we agreed not to sue each other, but I was given the SPO (standard possession order) and the child support payments, just like 80% of other men getting a divorce with children in the early 2010s.

What she was doing was going outside the marriage, and outside our therapeutic relationship with our counselor, and consulting a divorce attorney to see what she was going to get should she choose to take further action.

What my then wife did, by seeking counsel before she mentioned it to me, by consulting with an attorney to understand her options, was she loaded the deck in her favor. By the time the “idea” of divorce was broached to me, she already knew what she wanted, she knew how it would likely go down, and she was fine with the consequences of her actions. Regardless of how those actions affected my kids and me, she was prepared for her “best case scenario” and I sort of gave it to her.

Again, let’s step back and take a snapshot of the days before my then-wife let me know she’d consulted with a lawyer to understand her options.

  1. We were not happy.
  2. We were not having sex.
  3. The money coming in from my full-time job was adequate, but we’d really need to discuss both of us working to get ahead.
  4. We focused on the kids as a way to not focus on our relationship.
  5. We were both seeking support and comfort outside the marriage. (Not an affair on either side.)
  6. We were living like roommates.
  7. I was beginning to express my dissatisfaction with the status quo and asking for changes.

And while I was doing my best to be an adoring husband, the lack of intimacy was wearing on my soul and my physical joie d’vivre. We were in couple’s counseling, but it always seemed the focus was on something I’d done wrong, like not tell her about a speeding ticket I got over the summer.  We never got around to talking about the relationship, or the lack of intimacy. Always some crisis of faith, some test of my “trustworthiness” was on the line each week as we meet and attempted a joining of the hearts and minds.

There was no join to be had. The sessions were cold. She was very guarded and withdrawn. She used the word “cynical” to describe our therapy at that time. I’ve never considered it any other way, but perhaps she was using the therapy to let me down easy. Anyway, she didn’t come out and tell me, I had to grill it out of her.

“Are you telling me you’ve been to see an attorney?” I asked during our penultimate session.

“I was just gathering information.”

Actually what she was doing was going outside the marriage, and outside our therapeutic relationship with our counselor, and consulting a divorce attorney to see what she was going to get should she choose to take further action. I was stunned in the session. I was hurt. I was furious.

“How could you not bring that up in here BEFORE going to see a lawyer?”

I was lead to believe that the kids needed their mom more than me, that a mom’s love is somehow superior, or more comforting than a dad’s love.

I pounded her via email over the next few days asking her for a decision. I had been in the cuckold box long enough. This moment of truth was either a time for us to regroup and join together again, or for us to work out the details of our divorce. While I was fighting during those first few days, I believed I was fighting for my marriage. What I didn’t know at the time, is I was fighting against the divorce more than for anything. See, I wasn’t happy either.

Responsible separation in the case of Laura A. Munson meant fighting for her marriage. Fighting against her husband’s depression and mid-life crisis, and fighting FOR the relationship. She simply didn’t buy her husband’s claims of being bored in the marriage. “Nope,” she said. “That’s not good enough.”

I wish I had been stronger. I don’t know that the outcome would’ve been any different. We would probably still be divorced. But I wished I had been able to question her about her motives for breaking up our marriage. Was it greener grass she was seeking? Was she asexual because she was no longer attracted to me? Was there someone else in her life that gave her joy?

What her move did, by going to see an attorney before discussing it in therapy, or talking to me about it, was it put the divorce into action before we had a chance to really map it out. She’d already done her due diligence. She knew what to expect from the court system in Texas. And she knew, like any mom in Texas filing for divorce knew, the mom usually get’s the kids, the child support, and the house. BINGO.

It’s unfortunate that the Bingo, or win for my ex-wife, had to be such a simple open and shut case. In several forums I was told that my ideas of 50/50 parenting were simply not realistic. I was made to question whether I could provide the love and care for my kids half the time. I was lead to believe that the kids needed their mom more than me, that a mom’s love is somehow superior, or more comforting than a dad’s love.

I lost 70% of my kids life in that split second in the therapy session when she said she’d seen an attorney. She knew she’d get the custodial parent role and approximately 70% of the custody. She knew she’d get the house, nearly paid for. And she knew she’d get a healthy monthly stipend that would allow her to keep the house without too much stress. She also knew she had to get a full-time job to divorce me. So she did.

It’s odd how the entire year leading up to the big fail in therapy, she’d been “looking for a job” that suited her sense of self. We’d been down several career changes together. I was supportive even as the bills were threatening our house, because I wanted her to be happy. The last year before we got divorced her income was actually a negative number. She was demanding I get the full-time job again, and she was apparently unable to get a job herself. Until she wanted the divorce.

Responsible separation would be 50/50 parenting, just how we did it when we were together. Responsible separation would mean not attacking the dad for being a second-class parent so the courts would rule in favor of the 70/30 standard possession order that is common in most states.

She knew what she was going to get. She placed her bets and altered the course of all of our lives to meet some new agenda she had cooked up alone. Or, if she had counsel, it wasn’t from me, or our couple’s therapist. He was as shocked as I was that she had seen an attorney.

The business of divorce took place over the next few months. I gave in on most issues. I was too depressed to fight. At that point I wanted to end the fighting and pain and get on with whatever was next in my life. I’m still sorry she chose the course she did. And I’m sorry the state of Texas still rules in mom’s favor 80% of the time, rather than in the favor of the kids by granting 50/50 custody.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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1/3 Dad: Most of Your Nights Will Be Alone

WHOLE-snaps-2016

If you’re a dad you’re likely to have your kids half as much time as their mom. Them’s the unfair breaks of divorce in the US. (It could be worse.) But if you’re willing to do the work, I hear things are getting better for dads who want to go 50/50. That’s what I fought for, but in 2010, I lost. (To be honest I never went to court about it, we were doing a cooperative divorce and I gave in to the wisdom of the counselor we were meeting with.)

I wonder, if we balanced out the divorce picture, and assumed 50/50 and no immediate payday for the mom, would we lessen the number of avoidable divorces?

Seven years later, I still miss my kids every night they are not with me. Some nights are better than others. Some nights I have plenty of activities planned and I don’t miss them as much. But the agreement I had with their mom when we decided to have kids was equal parenting. And that’s what we did. Until the divorce, when she decided she could have it all. She met with a lawyer before telling me we were in serious trouble. (I hear this is also often the case, where men are caught unaware.)

I wonder, if we balanced out the divorce picture, and assumed 50/50 and no immediate payday for the mom, would we lessen the number of avoidable divorces? Or is that even a thing? If the divorce was going to happen, should we have tried, should I have tried, to avoid it at all cost? Should I have continued to sublimate my joy and desire in order to keep it together “for the kids?”

Today, looking back, I can easily say, that the divorce was a good thing. It might have been the most painful thing, at the time, but in the end I have been released to find a better relationship (and I have) and she too has been given a new opportunity for love. And this weekend, while she was getting married, I was trekking on a 7 mile walk around the lake with my fiancé. I have to say, I am glad I was in a relationship before she got remarried, it might have been tougher otherwise. But looking back, today I can see the road ahead is much more optimistic than that final year in my marriage.

Still, the loss of so much of my kid’s lives at that tender age really had an effect on them and me. I can’t really point at anything specifically. But I know the effect my dadless years had on me as a young boy. While my brother can cook anything and fix anything mechanical, because he did those things with our dad, I am a bit of a mama’s boy. If my car needs an oil change I go to the quickie place. If something on the house needs repair, I call someone. I lost the opportunity to learn from my father, those essential, manly, skills.

What is an evening with your kids worth? Is there an amount of money or time spent elsewhere that I wouldn’t give to have more time with my kids?

Sure, I got other skills in place of those dad-skills. And I’m grateful that I missed out of most of my dad’s heavy drinking years. But I’m not so sure that my son wouldn’t have benefited from a bit more time with me. And my daughter, I think she still misses me for being away so much. AND… at that same moment, she’s asking to be gone the entire weekend coming up. My weekend.

As teenagers we have a different kind of time together. Those kids of 5 and 7 could’ve used my positive and joyous influence. And I could’ve used more weekends on and more days and nights on. And I can be sad about that, or I can move on to what I have.

Under the traditional SPO (standard possession order) the mom gets the kids about twice as much as the dad. That’s just how the court sees the correct order of things. If you want something different, you’re going to have to fight. Even if you start cooperatively, be warned that as emotions heat up, and push comes to shove, you’re going to have to litigate to get to 50/50 parenting, if that’s what you want. The mom doesn’t have to do anything to get the SPO, that’s how the courts will rule unless you fight.

What is an evening with your kids worth? Is there an amount of money or time spent elsewhere that I wouldn’t give to have more time with my kids? Back then, when they were younger things were different. Today, as teenagers with their own agendas and schedules, it’s much harder to get together time with them, even when they are with me. But it doesn’t make it easier.

And my life has new adventures that don’t involve them. Sort of like an early empty nest. They are going eventually, you might as well begin to build the rest of your life.

Recently I’ve been using SnapChat to keep up with them. I’m meeting them where they live. Sure it’s just a picture that says, “I’m here right now, and thinking of you.” But the return messages are always little warm fuzzies. And today my Snaps get responses about twice as often as my texts.

So we learn to adapt. My kids have done fine with only 1/3 of me. I too have survived and begun to thrive. Today I’m not sure I’d opt for 50/50. I’d have to factor in time with my fiancé, and the real role of parenting at this stage, transportation and food. While I begrudge my ex-wife for fighting me on 50/50, today, as they are older, the win might actually be in my column. Is this bad to say? That I love my time with my kids, but as teenagers my 1/3 time is enough?

I’ll end with the beginning. I miss my kids every day of every week. As we all adapted to the 1/3 dad schedule we became grooved. Today this is our cadence. And my life has new adventures that don’t involve them. Sort of like an early empty nest. They are going eventually, you might as well begin to build the rest of your life.

That’s sort of what divorce and the brutal reality of the SPO did. I’ve had to build a good portion of my life without my kids. It’s not how I would’ve orchestrated it, but that’s how it happened. Today, we’re all okay with the mix.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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

WHOLE-legosummer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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

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

WHOLE-twoinawagon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time is the number one parenting resource.

Stay positive. Love your kids. Respect your ex.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Loss of the Proximity Effect as a Divorced Dad

WHOLE-repoop

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

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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