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Growing Into Parents and Growing Apart as a Couple

From the moment I knew my son was on the way, I was transformed. It took me 9 months to fully understand the changes coming my way. My son was born in October 2000 and nothing in my world would ever be the same. And post 9-11 we still proceeded with plans to have another baby, and my daughter arrived in Nov 2002. Life was complete and very complex, as 9-11 rearranged what many of us did for a living. My freelance business, based primarily on Real Estate in Austin, was a complete bust. Every single client froze their business after 9-11. My income went from healthy and sustainable to ZERO.

And we had two young kids.

When Life Gets Hard

My wife and I didn’t really know each other when we reconnected 20 years after high school. We were both once divorced and in pursuit of a kid-worthy partner. She was a bit more motivated than I was, probably by the ticking clock. Our agendas blended nicely and our attraction was complete. We married and started our unprotected journey toward parenthood while on our honeymoon. The first cluster of cells didn’t make it beyond 30 days. But the second YES was born 9 months later. We became a family.

For me, all of my priorities and ambitions changed from ME to my son. I would’ve made a great stay-at-home dad. That wasn’t the plan. My wife, and new mom, went back to a part-time schedule after a few months off. She kept her employment just high enough to still get health insurance. And boy did we need it. My daughter started her journey with a rare blood incompatibility with her mom. My wife’s body was trying to kill the baby. The journey to get her to term began with a trip to the neo-natal surgeon.

And for the last three months of her pregnancy, my wife and I arrived on Monday mornings at his office to take a health reading on my daughter’s battle. It was pins and needles right up to the moment our daughter arrived. She was healthy, and vital, as I pulled her from her mom’s body. My life transformation was complete as my days of fathering children came to a calculated end. My life as a new father returning to work was not easy. The post 9-11 marketing environment was still in a shambles and I took a series of bad jobs just to get by. This uncertainty would frame the first years of our lives as parents. It was stressful. Money was often tight. And we sailed on in our leaky boat.

The early years with kids are tough, but they are also highly entertaining. Most parents put their partnership on hold as they dive into the role of Mom and Dad. And for the first 5 – 6 years things were tough but united. We struggled together. We communicated well. And we focused almost exclusively on our two fantastical kids. And then things got hard again.

Identifying Depression

Both my wife and I have had run-ins with depression. As things continued in this mix of bliss (kids) and bust (money) we struggled overall. We focused on our jobs as parents with the hope that our financial situation would eventually recover. But in this period something else happened that would change the course of all of our lives.

My wife began to blame me and my depression for her and her depression. We started couples therapy, trying to rebuild our communication skills and trust. The sessions seemed to always be about my wife’s problems with me. My inability to make her happy. Heck, I wasn’t even meeting half of her demands.

Of course, looking back it’s easy to see how her formula was based on flawed thinking. She was depressed and having a hard time deciding what she wanted to do with her life. Besides being a great mom. I was struggling to keep a job in the misunderstood “social media marketing director” role. She was struggling to find herself. As our kids now left for school at 7:35 am on the bus, and returned at 3:45, there was a lot of time she needed to fill. But somehow, she focused on me as the problem. Somehow, I was the cause of her unhappiness.

I’d say we were both doing the best we could under difficult circumstances. When I doubled down in my own individual therapy and moved from one crappy job to the next, I was aware that things were hard at home. I would often come home from work to my wife and kids and things would be unhinged and chaotic. For the most part, she was a stay-at-home mom struggling with post-partum, what am I going to do with my life now, depression. She wanted to point at me for her unhappiness. In therapy, we learned that wasn’t really helpful to her or the relationship.

I Alone Am Responsible for My Happiness

Stress, money issues, and emotional troubles are all part of the parenting life. Both parents must evolve beyond being Mom and Dad into who they want to become. As the kids begin going to school, moms are often caught in a dilemma. The pull of being a mom vs. the pull of being a successful breadwinner. In our situation, the neighborhood and house we wanted to keep was a slightly out of range of my “social media” job for more than a few years. We ate into some savings. Mom stayed at home. Mom returned to part-time. And finally, Mom didn’t want to return to the office.

Again, my wife had her own personal struggles, but her struggle with me happened in 2009 when Dell laid off 50% of my digital marketing team, including me. The good news, I was given a six-month severance with insurance and annual bonus. The bad news, my wife simply wanted me to replace the big job with another big job so she could continue volunteering at the elementary school and doing her “consulting” business part-time.

The loss of the Dell job hardened us. I looked for a new big job AND I continued to write a blog and pursue freelance work. My wife decided she needed to find herself and her career by getting into something more meaningful. I supported her research and lack of income contribution even as we were getting by on what was left of my pre-marriage savings. As she was furious with me for losing my Dell gig, she was also furious that I was experiencing some success with my marketing blog and writing. After six months, as the severance was coming to an end I got a new big job with a former Dell boss. We were saved. Except, we were also terminally broken.

Finding our own inner source of happiness is a critical life skill. As we become parents our lives shift and for a period of time “the kids” are all that matters. But as they go to school and get friends and plans of their own, the couple’s focus either returns to relationship-building and connections or blows apart. Even as we were saved and my job sent me to San Francisco for a week of orientation, my wife was still angry, lost, and afraid.

What I Do Know

My wife was still in crisis at home. I was walking all over San Francisco and getting to meet my new colleagues and get up-to-speed on a host of clients and projects I’d be working on, my wife was contemplating her *bliss* and unable to find comfort. The new job and the new income were not going to change her perspective. The *happiness* equation was not adding up in her life. She had given everything to be a mom. What in the world of work could give her comfort after that golden moment of parenting was coming to an end?

We entered couples therapy a second time as we were struggling between my loss of the Dell job and my San Francisco recovery. Even as she was attacking me on my first day in San Francisco, I was trying to figure out how to support her. I invited her to come to SF for a getaway. My mom had agreed to keep the kids for a long weekend.

My wife said, “We can’t afford it.”

“We can’t afford not to do it. We need a win. We need a break. We need some couple’s time.”

I lost that discussion.

Four months later, I was fired under dubious circumstances (awarded double their severance offer) and my unhappy wife changed the game plan. It was a swift development. She went to see a divorce attorney, got briefed on the divorce brochure for women and decided that was the path for her. I don’t think she ever considered the path of our kids. She certainly didn’t consider me. That’s okay, somehow she had constructed a story that I was the problem. Her happiness was about me and my inability to meet her expectations and demands. What was really happening, I was unable and unwilling to continue trying to make her happy at all costs.

And from May to August we navigated the hell of divorce negotiations. She renigged on our 50/50 shared parenting agreement and went for the full-Monty. She wanted everything. And in the state of Texas, she was going to get it.

What she would not understand until years later: I was not the reason she was unhappy.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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