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As a Single Parent: Love Fiercely, Because This All Ends

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Here is my message to single parents this year:
Love now. Love fiercely. This all ends.

Your divorce cannot keep you from being the best dad you can be. In spite of your ex’s maneuvers, you can and will maintain a solid relationship with your kids. It’s your priority now. As a dad, you’ve got a responsibility to your kids that transcends your marriage and any bad blood you might have with your former spouse. This father’s day, give 100% to your kids, they deserve the best dad you can offer.

After divorce, father’s day is a very different experience.

You probably have much less time with your children than you did when you were married. Even if you worked all the time, when married, you probably saw your kids every night or at least every morning. As a divorced dad, I got to see my kids about 30% of the time. We had the Standard Possession Order (SPO) otherwise known as “the deal.” I’d like it to be known as “the bad deal for dads” but at this point, it’s what 80% of dads end up with in my state, Texas. It’s not fair. It’s not equitable. It’s awfully harsh on dads’ relationships with their kids. And, frequently, it places the dad in a financial black hole that is difficult to recover from.

I’m nine years into my divorce, and I’m still recovering financially from my divorce. I’d love to say we did the best we could, but we did not. My ex-wife knew exactly what she was going to get if she filed for divorce. She’d been to a divorce attorney before bringing up the issue with me, to see what her options were. Well, the divorce brochure that the lawyer laid out for my then-wife seemed like a good deal for her. So, she signed on the dotted line and let our lives, all of our lives, get thrown into the shredder.

I’d have to say, today, I am happier because of the divorce. But as it was happening, I was certain my then-wife had lost her mind in favor of the rosy financial picture she saw laid out ahead if she chose to divorce me. I’d like to tell you she was wrong. I’d like to claim I was the righteous party, as the dad and partner who was left. But none of that is true or accurate. I can tell you she saw her options and took the necessary actions to break up our marriage before she ever consulted on negotiated with me. It was a surprise.

We Were Not Happy, So Why Stay Together?

Did my ex-wife do us a favor by initiating the divorce? Probably. Did she do us a favor by setting up the divorce 100% to her advantage? No. Would I have done the same thing had I been given the opportunity to go for primary custody and child support for me? No. No, 100-times no. We parented 50/50 why would we not continue to parent 50/50 after divorce?

The answer is as plain and simple as it is painful: MONEY.

My ex-wife was given the divorce brochure by her experienced divorce attorney. She was told if she went to court she would win 100% of what she wanted. And at the time, in 2010, in Texas, she would’ve been correct. Today, however, I understand the odds are more evenly matched. The family courts still start out trying to fit each divorce neatly into the SPO, but as I have been told, if you argue to go 50/50 the other partner would have to put up a compelling argument as to why this would not be in the “best interest of the children.”

Here’s the truth: dads are just as important to their kids’ lives as mothers. AT EVERY SINGLE AGE. All other news, facts, and studies, are biased and should be challenged. The science is in. Dads matter just as much as mothers. Sure, in the early infant stage we cannot provide mother’s milk, but we can do feedings using mother’s milk if our ex-wives express the milk and provide it for our time as well as their time.

Money, on the other hand, is all about power and control. My ex-wife wanted to keep the nice house in the nice neighborhood. My ex-wife wanted to keep the car that was paid off. My ex-wife wanted to work part-time and keep most of her focus on raising our kids. And in theory, I was all for that concept. In practice, however, our family financial strategy was killing me. While I worked the big job for the first 10 years of my marriage, I was growing in size, raising my blood pressure, and dealing with an unhealthy amount of stress. Sure, the “stay-at-home mom” is what we wanted. But, in practice, our house was a bit too nice, and the property taxes were a bit too high. And when my job gave me a 6-month severance package with benefits, I took it as an opportunity to readdress my financial deal with my then-wife and mother of my kids.

When The Marriage Fell Apart

One year after being laid off from Dell Computer Corporation my then-wife filed for divorce against my wishes. When working through the details of our parenting plan, she played the “family law” trump card and let me know I would not be getting 50/50 parenting, because if she went to court she knew she would win exactly what she wanted. From the moment she filed for divorce, with her attorney, she was at a distinct strategic advantage. To fight against her would’ve cost $50,000 – $100,000 and I probably would’ve lost. In suing your co-parent for divorce I was going to have to share reasons why I thought I was a better parent, and why I thought she didn’t deserve the 70/30 parenting split that was common in Texas.

We agreed to a collaborative divorce. Then she took me to the cleaners, took away 70% of my kid-time, and signed me up for 10 years of child support payments to support her lifestyle and her work schedule. She was not a bad parent. But I was also not a bad parent. We should’ve parented 50/50 even after the divorce. What I got was more like a 30% solution and a huge financial burden that crushed my lifestyle in the name of maintaining the “lifestyle that the kids had grown accustomed to.” Yeah, that’s not such a good deal for the dad.

The family court likes to say things like:

  • living conditions in the manner to which they are accustomed
  • primary care was provided by the mother
  • the dad worked out of the home most of the time
  • dad should continue to earn the same or more after the divorce
  • the mother’s role is more important to younger kids
  • the standard possession order is “in the best interest of the children”

And while these things may or may not be accurate as they relate to your marriage and eventual divorce, they were not correct in our case. Several things are clear, however, when examining the family court’s logic in deciding parenting roles and responsibilities for divorcing families.

  • divorce is hard on everyone
  • if the dad has been the primary breadwinner for a long time, it might be important to reinforce this situation with a joint financial plan
  • just because the dad has been the primary breadwinner (or the mom) this does not mean they are any less involved emotionally, physically, or spiritually
  • all situations are unique and may require unique solutions and unique financial and parental contracts

And what I believe is more reasonable:

  • divorce should start at 50/50 and work any variations from that win-win position
  • financial obligations should be shared 50/50 forever
  • individual parents can apply for variations from 50/50, but they explain and justify their requirements
  • divorce lawyers would be less predatory if they were beginning on an even playing field

Today, we see some states making great strides towards an opening proposition of 50/50 shared parenting.  In Texas, I am working directly with several non-profits on behalf of all parents, to rewrite family law to starting with 50/50 time, assets, and income. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this controversial subject in the comments. And this father’s day, please join me in celebrating dads, single dads, stepdads, and non-dads who are showing up for the young people in their lives.

In the end, I believe 50/50 shared parenting is a spiritual issue. Did my then-wife really think she was the better, more nurturing parent? Probably not. Was she forced to say those things to get the divorce to go her way financially and schedule-wise? In Texas, the answer was no in 2010. Today, in 2019, perhaps the discussion would’ve been more cordial, and more balanced, and we’d have been able to have a collaborative divorce.

Happy Father’s Day from one happy single father to the rest of you.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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