We told our kids a lie about the divorce. Sure, we did. They were six and eight years old. The divorce, at the outset, was intended to protect the kids, above all else.
“Your mom and I have decided that it would be
best for us to live in two different houses.”
My son immediately shouted, “Two Christmases!”
My sister had gotten divorced several years earlier and we always noticed the abundance of Christmas gifts both parents tried to heal some of their own guilt by overdelivering on presents. My son was optimistic about that turn of events. The “sit down” occurred in June, just after my kids had finished 3rd and 5th grades.
The Horror of Divorce
At the moment I understood that repairing my marriage and the relationship to my wife was not possible, I began a slow death spiral into the depression that I knew was coming. How is it possible that I am not going to get mornings with my kids, making them breakfast, serenading them with songs as they got dressed, and shuttling them to school and then onto the bus? How was I to account for the loss of that ritual?
And what about bedtime, study time, sports? How was I going to stay positive and strong in my kids’ lives so that I would continue to have a loving impact on their lives? I was certain it was going to be the hardest breakup I’d ever imagined and the years that followed were mostly sadness, interspersed with moments of joy and connection. But, for the most part, I gave up a whopping 70% of my time with my kids, starting immediately.
The non-custodial parent, and the standard possession order that governs about 90% of all divorces in Texas, is a bullshit set of standards that were designed when my parents got divorced, and most men were the sole breadwinners in the household. What was presented as FAIR and IN THE BEST INTEREST OF THE CHILDREN was clearly neither. And my then-wife didn’t have to fight for it. Nope, I agreed to it. It was a huge mistake, but in 2010 my efforts at litigating the divorce would’ve drained thousands from the joint bank account while still resulting in the “divorce package.”
The Kids and My Ex-wife Retained Their Lives
To some extent, the divorce for my kids, was as if dad was on an extended business trip, and they got to see him on alternating weekends. Their house, their lives, their routines continued as seamlessly as possible. I mean, that was the goal. We wanted our kids to suffer the least.
And still, the imbalance of that “deal” is quite significant for a single father. I lost my house, my neighborhood, most of my time with my kids, and I had to essentially pay for my ex-wife’s (excuse me, my kids’ house) before I could even consider figuring out how to pay for an apartment. Every single aspect of my life changed the second I walked out the front door of the house, now her house. From that moment on, my partnership with my ex-wife would come to an amicable end. At least that’s what it seemed like, as I agreed to lie to the kids about who’s the idea of divorce was, and who was fighting against the divorce.
Never mind, you cannot win an argument with someone convincing them to stay in their marriage. Once my then-wife had gotten the “divorce package” from her attorney she was practically giddy to get on with the divorce. She would get her house to herself. She would have two weekends off a month. And other than that, not much would change for her and the kids she was now protecting so vigorously.
Lies You Tell Your Kids About Divorce
The next eleven years of my life have been incredibly difficult. I am certain my kids did not thrive under the 70/30 arrangement I was stuffed into. But the details of that warping process, the next 11-years of becoming more and more of a ghost to them, were some of the most painful moments of my life. As we struggled along, I did fall down again. The divorce initially threw me into a major depression as I moved into my sister’s basement. But, over the course of the next eleven years, I struggled with employment, depression, and financial hardships.
As my life got tougher, my ex-wife continued her angry repose. She didn’t want to co-parent with me, as she didn’t want to share 50/50 custody with me. She didn’t really need me in the picture to get the job done. What she was missing, is the rest of the story.
Kids need their dads just as much as they need their moms. Go Google it. It’s not a mystery, it’s science. And my ex-wife, for reasons only she can know, decided it was in the best interest of the children to deny me 50/50 custody. It was not about child support for me. I was fighting to get my balanced time with my kids. I was blindsided when my then-wife decided not to support the 50/50 schedule but opted to get the deal.
Was this in the best interest of the children? Did my ex-wife think there was some fundamental reason her parenting and caregiving were more critical than mine? Or was she just being selfish? Sure, eleven years later I can understand the fear of giving up 50% of your time with your kids.
But in what universe was she able to make believe that losing 70% of my time with our kids was going to be a good thing for them? How did she come to believe that her parenting needed such a priority over mine?
When Do Dad’s Come Clean About Divorce Lies?
About two years ago I had a coming out with one of my children. We were a bit closer, so the exchange went rather simply.
“I need to tell you something important about the divorce,” I said.
“We lied to you. I lied to you. The divorce was not a joint decision. The divorce was your mom’s deal. I actually fought against it for two months, while we waited for you guys to finish 3rd and 5th grade.”
“I’m so sorry. I decided I couldn’t lie to you anymore. I wanted you to know I was fighting for you guys to have both parents, always. I lost the fight.”
And like that, it was over. I had a tear or two, and my kid actually consoled me.
I can be grateful for two things I learned that day. 1. My ex-wife had never laid the blame on me. In the years of divorce, she stayed true to her plan to keep it a “joint” decision. 2. My relationship with my kids is the most important thing in my life. Even today, years later, much of my hope and joy is invested in my children’s lives and prospects.
The Lost Parent in Divorce
I wish my optimism had been more a part of my kids’ lives growing up. I would’ve liked a more balanced amount of time with them, so that my parenting, my ideas, my influence, had not been minimized. There is no way a dad (or mom) with only 30% of the time with their kids is going to be able to stay fully engaged. I did the best I could. But so much of their lives happened outside of my earshot, days away from our next visit, years away from any meaningful conversations. They were kids after all. And while she argued that our kids needed their mother more than their father, even today, she knows she was wrong.
If you have the agreement to split parenting duties while you are married, wouldn’t it make more sense if you continued that joint spirit of cooperation later, even after divorce? If we parented together, shouldn’t we single parent together?
I don’t want a single parent to get lost in the shuffle of divorce. I want fathers and mothers to have equal access to their children, even in the case of divorce. Sure, there will be exceptions, and those can be litigated, but today we need a 50/50 Shared Parenting starting point for discussions about divorce. I am fairly certain my then-wife’s “divorce package” would’ve looked much less appealing if she was giving up 50% of her time with the kids. That extra 20% shifted towards one parent creates an unbalanced relationship that continues for the rest of our lives.
I will never regain the lost time with my kids. I will still struggle to find ways to entice and encourage them. I will look towards the future as my prime parenting years. But, my loss was massive, devastating, and should not be the usual way dads get the shaft in a divorce with kids.
John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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