Here’s how it happened. We divorced. I was terrified and homeless. My kids were 7 and 9. In a flash of courage, I took a vacation with both of them to Port Aransas, Texas, to the beach.
“Whole” Parent Dawns on Me
I was with both kids at the beach, it was about 10 am on a cool June morning. They were busy digging and building a sand castle. I was lying beside them on a towel with my cd player playing some classic rock, trying to get my groove on. I looked at the two most important people in my life. “Come on, dad!” my daughter yelled.
It hit me. I’m it. I’m 100% responsible for their care and happiness at this moment. There were no naps ahead in the lazy hot afternoon. I was going to become a whole parent again. No longer having a 50/50 partner, it was up to me alone.
I turned off the music and got into the sand castle project.
Continuing to Grow as a Single Dad
Over the last 12 years, I have evolved into a more involved and confident parent. While my ex-wife ran off into some dark anger of her own, refusing to co-parent with me, I have remained steadfastly committed to the support and nurture of my kids. Even today, she’s a bit unhinged with anything related to our kids. She made it hard. She continues to hold on to her anger and vengeance, many years after she was awarded the divorce and child support she asked for.
I try and roll with the punches, I try and “let it all go,” but there are things that could’ve been easier. Even today, as my kids are about to be 20 and 22, I cannot talk to my ex and her OCD husband about anything. I guess that’s the way she likes it. She doesn’t have to co-parent. It’s how she worked a lot of things in our marriage: just throw up so much *bs* and resistance that you give up. I suppose I was in the process of giving up when her irrational anger had continued for well over a year of our marriage. Instead of giving up, however, I used my anger and self-righteousness to confront her about our relationship.
I was no longer going to be a cuckold in my marriage. I wanted to know why she never wanted to be intimate. I was no longer going to be on the receiving end of her shaming and blaming, I was going to fight back. I was going to fight to keep my marriage. I got us back into counseling. I was going to fight for the relationship I deserved.
Moms and Dads From Different Planets
Not only did we not resonate with the same love language (I don’t think the book had been written at the time) we didn’t see the goal of our therapy in the same light. I was fighting to keep my marriage, improve our relationship, and build a better partnership. She was compliant, in coming to therapy, but at the same time, she visited a lawyer’s office.
She knew things were messed up. She would yell “fk you” out of frustration from time to time. She could not contain her disappointment and anger. She needed to control a situation that was uncontrollable. So she loaded up on “he is the problem” tea and discussed her potential victory with a divorce attorney. Great. I was hoping to save the marriage, she was hoping to keep me managed while she made her excel spreadsheets and plans for the “me less” future.
There was a history of mental illness in her family. So, it would make sense that she would get triggered by my post-9-11 bout of depression. A few years later, she seemed convinced that I was the problem. For her to survive, she had to leave me. Something about the marriage was killing her.
That’s the only scenario I can imagine, 12 years later, for why she chose to blow it up rather than work on it. Here I was, asking to work on it. Here I was offering my best effort and optimism. The more I tried to be a better husband, the more she pointed blame and spit harsh epithets about me being the issue. It didn’t really work in therapy, though. It was a communication problem of some sort, the therapist thought. We were working on communicating with each other with more honesty and integrity.
And she forgot to mention, in our honest therapy, that she was going to see a lawyer about her options. It slipped out. I still wonder if she didn’t agree to therapy as a way to contain me when she decided she wanted to leave.
Moms Don’t Leave, Dads Do
She knew from that first meeting with the attorney, that she would not be leaving the house. In Texas, over 80% of moms end up with primary custody and child support. She was entitled to that, she was told. She liked the plan. She wanted the house, the majority of the time with the kids, and half of my future income until the kids were both over 18. She agreed, she was entitled to the “deal.”
What is not considered in most states, when mediating divorce, is the importance of BOTH parents. When awarding divorce time and money is rationalized like this: first, moms are more important as nurturers, therefore they should get the majority of the time with the kids; second, dads have less time with the kids so they can earn the extra money now needed to pay for child support. It’s like paying more for your kids and getting less of them. So, in theory, for the next 12 years my ex-wife was going to get 3/4 of our combined income, and 2/3 of all kid-time. For her, she got every other weekend off and the mortgage paid.
I got a big monthly bill on top of my need to find a new place to live. I had to make twice as much money just to have a place where my kids could come visit on my alternating weekends. Dads are asked to give up their kid time, give up their established community and neighborhood, and provide the money for the house he is now leaving. For less time with my kids, I got the majority of the bills.
My kids won’t ever understand what it was like. To them, I became a weekend dad. My house was never their house, it was dad’s house. My weekends were more like short breaks in their real life. Initially, my wife suggested we just tell the kids I had to leave on a business trip when she first broached the divorce. That’s sort of how it is for everyone else. Dad leaves the house. Life carries on for mom and the kids. And dads are left to fight for ways to stay in their kids’ lives.
What 50/50 Shared Parenting Looks Like
Rather than the assumption that dads are less involved or nurturing, a balanced parenting schedule respects the modern science that shows both dads and moms are essential for their kids’ health. My kids would’ve gotten a better version of me. We would’ve stayed a bit closer as a family, even after I left because the bills would all be split. And my house would’ve been just as comfortable as mom’s house.
I support 50/50 shared parenting in most cases of divorce. You agreed to have kids together, you should agree to parent together. In the case of my ex-wife, she decided early in the divorce not to involve me in most of the parenting discussions or decisions going forward. I had to lobby the kids’ schools each year to include me “as well” in the emails and parent/teacher conferences. Dads are viewed as second-class citizens after divorce, even if we were the ones trying, and fighting, to hold the marriage and family together.
Let’s do this 50/50 or let’s not do this at all. I believe my kids would’ve been happier with a half-dad rather than a one-third-dad.
John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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