On July 20, 1969, at 20:18 UTC, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made a smooth touchdown as the first humans on the moon. Armstrong told flight controllers on Earth, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Though I had no map for the road ahead, I did have my own core happiness and strength.
When everything in your life is threatened or taken away you get stripped down to the basics rather quickly. What is important in your life? It’s not the things. It’s not your house or your car. It’s not even your own happiness. Those things are malleable, flexible, discardable.
What you discover in the event of a massive crisis is how to continue to command your crew even if you have lost your rocket ship. When I lost everything again and I was stripped down to the basics as a man, a father, and a spiritual being, I learned that the most important thing after survival was not my happiness. And actually, it was not even the happiness of my children. I could not control that, or make any other person happy. What I discovered in the vacuum of deep space (divorce) was the most important mission in my life.
My role is to lead and support my children through tangles, roughs, and snares. And in this leadership, I must always demonstrate positive momentum, optimism, and hope. Even when our ship disintegrated around us and we were forced to abandon our plans, we did not, I did not, abandon hope. I learned that beyond everything, even (in some cases) beyond my own health and wellbeing, my mission was to set an example for my children about how to live in a world of uncertainty, setbacks, and absolute disappointments.
Unless you’ve been through it, you can’t really understand what the feeling is like, this total loss of control in divorce. When things have spun dangerously out of orbit and you realize the only course of action is to abandon ship, the feeling of anxiety in the free fall into deep and lonely space is overwhelming. In the first part of the divorce, one of you is asked to leave the capsule and make their way alone, in deep space. When I left behind my house, my wife, and my kids, and slept at my sister’s house for the first time, I had entered the moment of great darkness and angst. And in the following months, I struggled through many dark nights of the soul. Even as my old family was intact as if I were just on vacation or a secret mission, I could only look back at the life I had created and wonder if I would ever see such joy and wholeness again.
This is not melodramatic. Perhaps it is the “feeling” captain’s log. But the reality is this: the father in divorce usually gets the order to abandon ship. The trick is not to abandon hope. The only way forward is to lead in spite of the loss, and lead by example, as your kids are watching in some small state of panic of their own, you can not waiver. The true captain must show the entire family what strength and positive perseverance looks like. That is the only way forward. Your resilience and resurrection is the new prime directive. And by leading your fractured family with grace and patience, you can help everyone, even your ex-partner, who is struggling with their own internal issues. Everyone is redrawing their own navigational maps. The captain has the responsibility to keep the meta-map for everyone and maintain focus on the way ahead, the way to survival first and a return to joy second.
What you learn, is that even from outside the mothership, you are still the head of household, you are still the captain. The sooner you get over your own desperation, the sooner you can begin contributing to the health and well-being of everyone involved. It sucks sometimes to have to be the bigger person in the throes of divorce. But the alternative is what? Self-pity and sadness. Both temporary states we all go through from time to time, but not where we want to live.
So back to our tale of space travel and togetherness.
The ship was no longer functional and life support systems were beginning to fail, and so last March, 11 months ago, I sold my house to avoid losing it in foreclosure. That was not in any of my instruction manuals for being a good parent, a good man, or a competent captain. We were in uncharted territory and in the next move I knew I would be required to sustain the optimism for the entire family. My ex was not winning in this unexpected loss either, though she was still observing everything safely from the original mission control center. Like space travel, divorce is not about what’s fair.
Moving back to your mother’s house at 51 is a real humdinger of a disappointment. As a man, I was forced to simply give up my pride and self-esteem and focus on survival instead. For a moment, at the beginning, it felt a bit like the initial separation of the divorce, but there was a distinct difference. During the four years of recovery, I had learned how to sublimate my own wants and desires in order to support and show up for my kids as Dad, no matter what. No matter what the situation, I could remain Captain Kirk for them. Through alien planets and hostile environments, I would be the person calling to get us all “beamed up.”
Again, my struggle when the kids were not around was mine alone. The brave face I projected at all times was not one of stoicism but optimism. I was able to share with the kids a bit about what was happening. We talked about how the little house was not really right for us. We talked about how our next house (still the “other house” for them) would be a better fit. We crash landed in the Sea of Tranquility but we remained upbeat and happy to be together.
Maybe that was one of the advantages of still being alone at this time. I had time to grieve again. I had to renegotiate with myself about what was critical path and what was non-essential. I had to come up with a new Modus Operandi. Mine would be kid’s first, everything else second.
In this new episode, I had to reinvent myself.
- I could only focus on my own actions.
- I had to take responsibility for my physical, mental, and spiritual health.
- I recommitted to transforming my work into a larger cashflow.
- I lost all pretense about how successful I was.
- I focused on my own creative output.
- I took every opportunity to engage and be present for my kids.
But we were about to hit one more snag.
In the process of depressurization and rapid evacuation, it was necessary to place 90% of our gear in a storage facility. And over the course of the next few months my financial situation ebbed and waned. And in my hyper-focus on survival skills, I ignored a few nagging bills for a month or two. And when in November, when my daughter and I headed out to the storage unit to pick up the juicer, we discovered that everything had been lost. Even though their emailed invoices to me said nothing about legal action or “auction” the storage facility had taken the opportunity, with a $350+ amount owed, to sell off everything I owned.
In that very moment, with my 11 yo daughter by my side, I responded as Kirk would. “How very interesting. Time for a new plan.” I didn’t even break stride. I laughed with her about needing to find another juicer.
What we had at that moment was each other. And what I knew at that moment was I would do fine with nothing, again. I had been here before. I had survived. This time I already knew what great loss felt like and I knew I could navigate and survive this as a minor setback not as a crisis. Even as we were driving away from the storage facility I was telling my daughter how it was going to be a lot easier moving into a new place when we didn’t need to hire a moving service. “All that stuff can be replaced. It’s not a big deal.”
It was kind of a big deal. It put my escape trajectory on a steeper course. But it also pointed out, once and for all, to me and my kids, that WE ARE NOT OUR THINGS. What we have is each other and hopefulness. With clear leadership and discipline, everything will eventually be set right again.
Something clicked into place for me over the next few hours. I was stripped clean. I had no house. I had no worldly possessions. I didn’t have any options other than perseverance and joy. Despair was not an option. I’d already done that and it didn’t serve me very well.
Though I had no map for the road ahead, I did have my own core happiness and strength. And even though the future had suddenly appeared darker and more ominous I responded with laughter. The situation was not funny. But the hopefulness that bloomed in spite of the loss, right in the very moment that it was happening… The optimism I was able to give to my daughter, in the moment we discovered everything was gone, and she appeared slightly frightened and unsure of how to react…
That moment, that optimistic approach to catastrophic failure was one of the shining moments of my rebirth as a leader. Captain Kirk would be proud.
But wait… There’s more… To be continued shortly…
John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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Have you read the entire series? Click below for more exciting episodes.
Here are my books on Amazon:
- Single Dad Seeks: Dating Again After Divorce: Advice and Strategies on Learning How to be Loved Again
- Fall of the House of Dad: My journey through divorce, from loss to joy, again and again
- A Good Dad’s Guide to Divorce: One father’s quest to stay connected with his children
- The Sex Index: Getting Our Love Languages Right in the Bedroom
- Here Comes the Darkness: Surviving and Thriving After a Mental Illness Diagnosis
- The Third Glass: When Drinking Becomes an Issue
- The Storm Before the Divorce: When One Parent Wants Out, That’s the End
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image: 1947 Rocketship Galileo 2, tom voter, creative commons usage