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A Pervasive Divorce Bias That Has to Change

I believe with all my heart that I was an equal parent both while I was married and after my ex chose to disrupt our vows and my family plans. I say mine, because she also took the state-sanctioned “package” after negotiating with me in good faith in a cooperative divorce. She renigged on our earliest agreement about having children: 100% shared parenting, forever.

Lawyers Embrace the Bias

I was having coffee at a local establishment this week and was introduced to a woman who self-identified as a former divorce attorney. As we chatted about our lives, our loves, and our work, she began to argue with me about divorce and women’s privilege.

Her primary rationale for the imbalanced start of divorce: men make more money and should required to pay child support. She also related a debatable factoid, that women do much worse, financially, after a divorce than men.

First off, I must take this discussion to encompass only my personal demographic and experience: upper-middle-class and educated parents with dual incomes and similar earning power. And let’s, for the sake of my story, imagine that BOTH parents want to do what’s best for the children. Dad is not at risk of becoming a deadbeat. Mom is making plenty of money. If we take those factors into consideration, what is the reason my state (Texas) immediately gives 85% of moms the custodial parent role which generally includes 70% of the kids’ time as well as a hefty child support payment? In our case, she also took the house and the car which was paid off.

Other than my wife’s self-interest, why does state law lead with this imbalanced starting point?

Money. The attorney’s offices of most states generate 60% of their income/revenue/budget from child support enforcement. If Texas was a 50/50 state, my ex and I could’ve negotiated our initial divorce agreement (50/50 shared parenting, shared expenses, no child support needed). As it stands today in most states, dads are forced to fight in family court to reach a 50/50 shared parenting plan. And, if both parents agree to no child support the state gets nothing. So, do you think there is much cause for the state’s legislators to change or balance, the family court system? No.

US states parenting after divorce

And guess what industry benefits the most from this system remaining broken besides the state government? The divorce attorneys. If we started at 50/50 and cooperative, as my soon-to-be-ex and I did, we could’ve avoided 95% of the attorney’s fees and skipped the child support requirement altogether. We were both cooperative and willing until one of the final meetings with our “parenting plan” psychologist. At that meeting, we began to discuss the actual calendar and schedule.

I had come with documentation of the benefits of 50/50 shared parenting and equal access to both parents. As I also showed a few printouts of sample 50/50 monthly calendars, my then-wife balked. She stopped the session with her “nope.” The therapist took me aside when I got upset and said, “She knows if you guys wind up in family court that she’s going to get the custodial parent role and you are going to get the SPO or standard possession order.”

Things devolved from there. I was not about to sue my current wife. I wasn’t going to bring up our mutual anti-depressant use or her drinking. I was not going to burn down my relationship with my ex-wife. Today, I’m not sure if I did the right thing. Of course, that doesn’t matter now.

Here is what a non-custodial parent’s schedule looks like.

a 70/30 parenting schedule

Every other weekend, and virtually ZERO school connections. It’s no wonder the elementary school system is also so biased against dads. For the most part, the SPO eliminates all but the most committed and aggressive dad’s inclusion in the school events, parent-teacher meetings, and most of the functions of being a parent of a school-aged child.

In my case, I had to argue and fight with the school (an upper-class public school that should’ve known better) to get a second email and phone number added to student records so I would also get alerts of absences, tardiness, and upcoming teacher meetings. This school simply had not been forced to accept BOTH parents as active and involved.

Dads Do Good Anyway

I was frustrated but not bitter about the broken system we entered the minute we were divorced. I worked with the school to change things so I could also be included in my two children’s notifications. At the beginning of each school year, I learned, I had to ask the teacher to ALSO INCLUDE ME in correspondence and meeting requests. My efforts were not always successful. It would have been okay if I had a cooperative co-parent. I did not. My ex-wife actively excluded me from meetings, forgot to tell me about important appointments, and kept an irritated and indifferent facade to all of my requests for inclusion.

I didn’t have a choice.

I worked within the system I was given. I asked to be included. And I did my best to stay involved and connected to both kids throughout their public education experience.

Life After Divorce

My ex-wife found and married a semi-successful man four years after our divorce. But she is not the norm. One of the main reasons (again, recall our demographics) women don’t fair as well as men after divorce is this: most women vow to stay single and don’t remarry. Women often absorb themselves in their “single mom” persona that smothers their children and discourages future partners.

I’ve met tons of these uber-single moms. They wear their badge of dishonor on their sleeve like a right of passage. I even dated one a number of years ago. But it was her neighbor who was a more extreme helicopter single mom. Both of these women were mid-40s single moms. Before I met the neighbor for the first time, my girlfriend said, “Be careful what you say. She really doesn’t like men.”

It was clear when she said hello that her attention was going to ignore my presence. It took a few months (of course I was only “dating” the other single mom) before she was even remotely kind. Over the course of the two-year relationship, she came to call on me as a friend, to help with some projects around her house. She didn’t need me, or a man, but it would make the assembly of her new trampoline a bit easier. I was happy to help. Happy to be a friend. But, I understood that our friendship was tentative and conditional.

The pandemic hit and all hell broke loose for everyone with a school-aged child. For the first six months, I tutored my girlfriend’s son. The neighbor frequently remarked how great it was that she had “a partner” to handle all the complications. As we all adjusted to the panic and fear, the neighbor put her son’s bed in a canopy tent beside her bed. She moved him into her bedroom. This is a 4th-grade boy sleeping in the same room with his mom. Better, I suppose, than letting him sleep in her bed, but a bit over the top. Again, not judging, we were all doing what we thought was the best way to survive.

When the pandemic began to wane, however, son and mom continued to share the same bedroom. The boy’s room became more of a playroom.

This is just one example of what can happen when boundaries are not established and moms begin to overcompensate for any difficulties their children have. We don’t want our kids to be sad or lonely, so we protect them from ever dealing with feelings, hardships, or loneliness. In many ways, my girlfriend was exhibiting the same over-reach on most interactions with her son. I get it. We want to comfort our kids. However, not allowing them to develop self-soothing skills is a boomerang issue that’s going to bite both of these single moms in the butt as their sons enter (oh, right now) sixth grade.

Dads Deserve Time Too

There was no doubt that I was a compassionate and available father. We did not fight or litigate which of us deserved the 70% gift of the custodial parent role. It was given to my ex-wife by the state and then enforced by the state’s attorney’s office. There was no reason for me to be considered a deadbeat dad, yet when my ex-wife filed our decree with the AG’s office three years after our divorce, it was not because she was worried about child support or me abandoning our kids. My wife weaponized the AG’s enforcement system to punish and hurt me.

It worked. But, should we keep allowing this *bs* to happen?

In my case, both mom and dad made similar incomes. Both parents were willing and able to parent equally. And my ex-wife used the system to hurt me. And each time over the course of the 13 years I was under the burden of the “deadbeat dad” status on my credit report, she continued to skip or miss meetings with our AG case worker. She said she was willing to adjust the child support during one period when I was unemployed. But she wouldn’t come to the meeting that was set. The last time, the AG case worker said, “If she misses the next meeting we can file an injunction against her.” Rather, I got another job and continued to pay.

Dads *can be* equal parents. Yes, there are exceptions. There are awful moms as well as awful dads. But, if two parents want to co-parent as friends, want to share expenses as co-parents, and want what’s best for their kids, WE HAVE GOT TO CHANGE THE SYSTEM.

The lawyer that I was chatting with over coffee, continued to contradict the above thesis, siding with the theme that most men are assholes and will skip paying child support at any opportunity. That could be the case with some men, but this man (me) was a 100% involved and engaged dad from before either of our kids were born. I expected that I would be a valued partner even after we divorced. My ex-wife, the one who chose divorce and then chose to give me less than half of the time she had with our kids, had other plans. She did whatever she wanted. She knew I was not going to sue her about the co-parenting or parenting plan.

The miss, however, is this: she did not understand that arrows fired at the other parent will ALWAYS damage the children. She still does not understand that core principle. She still lofts incendiary bombs into my relationships with my son and my daughter. I’m not sure how she doesn’t understand her actions are hurting her relationship with them more than mine. She’s blind to the emotional impact of her animosity. Heck, perhaps that was the problem all along. The lack of empathy for the father of her children continues.

I do believe, my ex is sleeping in the bed she made, with a man who’s as OCD as she is. Maybe that’s what she needed all along, but it’s sure not what my kids needed. At least now, as they grow older, they get to decide.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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