Tag Archives: dad in love

The Training and Education of a Reluctant Divorcé


It does not matter if you are the parent who says, “I want a divorce,” or the parent who is surprised by the fracturous disclosure, your life and the lives of your children will be forever changed. You can’t walk that one back.

For me there was no mystery that we were in trouble, the admission came during couple’s therapy, but the form and bluntness of the admission was even more devastating. Something she was saying, in response to a question from the therapist gave me a hint that all was not well. I struck with some sort of defensive instinct. I asked, “Have you already been to see a lawyer?”

That second. When she blushed and nodded. That second began my training to become a divorced dad.

In many ways I went under the bus with a quiet gasp. I agreed after several sessions more that working together required both of us wanting to be married. One of us didn’t.

The separation of divorce is not horrible. The divorce may actually be better for all parties involved. It is our reaction and past-history with divorce that becomes the issue.

I cried and wailed, but mostly to my individual therapist. And mostly I was crying about my parents divorce. I did not ever want to inflict that kind of pain on my kids. And at the outset of our divorce planning I was determined not to repeat the bitter struggle that defined my 3rd grader through 8th grader experience of life. Yes, my parents divorced over a long and extended battle. But it wasn’t so much about custody. It was about money.

We didn’t have a lot of money to argue about. We had debt, which would come into play later. And we had two kids, a house, and two cars. What we had from the start, and what we continue to put at the front of any of our discussions is the “best interest of the children.” Now, this phrase may come back to haunt you, but there are ways to get over your own pain and continue to be an awesome divorced parent.

It was early on that we agreed to do our divorce cooperatively. We would focus primarily on the kids and the parenting plan. We’d get a divorce accountant to help us “run the numbers.” And we’d agree to not fight with lawyers. We got through all of those agreements pretty quickly, once I agreed that divorce was the only course of action.

I sometimes try to play the higher/lower game where I blame my ex for the divorce. “It was her idea.” But the reality is, I was just as angry and frustrated by our relationship as she was. It was my parent’s divorce and the devastating aftermath that kept me terrified of divorce.

Newsflash from the present me to the just divorcing me, “It’s actually going to get better after you divorce. It might take a while. You’re going to have to do some work on yourself. But the divorce is the best thing for your situation.”

It’s no mystery that an unhappy marriage and angry parents breeds some pretty unhappy kids. Had my parents stayed married my life would’ve looked a lot differently. And while it’s easy for me to see how their divorce distanced me from my father’s alcoholic demise, I could not understand or cope with the loss when I was 8 years old.

Things are very different now. Most of my kids friends have divorced and remarried parents. It’s not a stigma for them. It’s *us* the parents that have to get out of the way and let the separation not be a horrible, awful, most destructive thing. Let me say that again for emphasis.

The separation of divorce is not horrible. The divorce may actually be better for all parties involved. It is our reaction and past-history with divorce that becomes the issue. I had a hard time with the divorce. I hated the idea. I fought to keep things together. And in the end I fell into a depression over the loss of my 100% parenting role. All these antics and struggles I needed to go through, I suppose, to finally break down enough to let go.

In the end, divorce is about letting go. But we’re letting go of the things that don’t work. We let go of the pain that comes from being in bed with someone you love and feeling more like surfing Facebook than making love. We let go of the fantasy that we had when we started the marriage and parenting journey, where we claimed, “We will be different. We will win. We will never divorce.”

The biggest transition in my life happened when I lost my marriage. The amazing thing is, out of the other side of this wreckage that I became, I also re-emerged as a writer. The plays and novels I had been trying to write, suddenly spilled out in blog posts about divorce and parenting.

What my divorce gave me was the freedom to become who I wanted to be all along. The roles and constraints of my marriage had strapped me into a course of action that was killing me. At my high-paying corporate job I was gaining weight, developing high blood pressure, and feeling pretty crappy about life. Sure, I came home to the picket fence and the smiling kids, but the wife was not so happy, and dinner was rarely in the oven.

Thriving as an artist, even if I don’t make a penny from it, is also part of my gift and my message to my kids.

The parenting dream and the American dream and the artist’s dream are often set up in opposition. If I can’t make a living as a writer or musician, I’ve got to find ways to make a living and hope that I can keep my creative passion alive in the fragments of time I have left. And parenting was the biggest responsibility I had, and have. There is nothing more important that my kids… Wait a minute. Let’s back that one up a minute.

More important than your kids is YOU. In order to be a good parent you have to survive. Depression and soul-crushing workloads are not acceptable. And more than survive you have to show them how to thrive, even under the circumstances that seem dire and depressing. In becoming a stronger person, in showing them how I could roll with the punches and get back up as a man and a father is one of the most important lessons I can transfer to them.

Thriving as an artist, even if I don’t make a penny from it, is also part of my gift and my message to my kids. You need to know what you want. From there you can rebuild from any set back and regroup, reset, restart.

The divorce was a hard reset for me.

The gift that I was given by my then-wife’s admission, was the gift of my creative soul. If I had aligned myself towards corporate work and being the good dad with the nice house in the nice neighborhood, I might have really suffered a death. My own creative death, and ultimately the death of many unhealthy white professionals who struggle along with little joy or passion.

I had the joy and passion in spades. I had a mis-aligned marriage which generated two wonderful kids. Today I have reset myself towards a creatively fulfilling life. I hope that my children learn from my example. That even in the darkest of times we may find the answer we were looking for all along.

My divorce was also my rebirth as a writer and musician.

My new relationship came to being out of an alignment with my dreams and hopes for the future, and hers as well.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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image: father and son, creative commons usage

Single Dad In Love, a Happy Story


Love is such a wonderfully ecstatic place to be. And as we enter the relationship that will eventually spawn a family we have to have entered a higher plane of love. (This is about conscious parenting, and not accidental pregnancy, though perhaps the accidental parent experiences the next stage of growth.) And before we become new parents we start preparing the nest and ourselves for the upcoming “love hurricane.” And nothing we prepped for and nothing we read about it could have really gotten us  spiritually prepared for what would happen next.

And this little trio of wonder and worry is launched and everyone is now headed in a new, and collective, direction. You’re all in, and all in it together.

In my case, and for the sake of this story, I’ll assume, for my now-ex-wife as well, all moments in my life pivoted on that first scream and bloody little package that slipped so easily into my hands in the hospital. There are BP and AP realities. In that hospital, at the birth of your first child, you shed your old before-parent lives. And you emerge, together, as a trio of lovers and spiritual beings, together finally, after all that anticipation and loving worship.

And you are in the rush of love and chaos that is new parenting. And all of life is miraculously transformed. Some of the changes are hard: sleep is a bit more of a negotiation and a rare gift, every poop becomes an event worthy of study and discussion and of course clean up, and the tired mom requires several added doses of patience as everything about her body has just shifted in a 180 degree u turn.

And some of the changes, the ones you might have read about, are magical, mystical, transformations that affirm our belief in God. At least that’s how it felt to me. This little soul has entered and torn up the house and every aspect of the life before him (we had a son first) and each parent is forced to come to terms with his/her spiritual beliefs on the spot. There’s an amazing transformation in your wife’s body and even though sex is off for a bit, the glow of her body and her amazing orbs are all gifts from a higher power. And the body-soul connection of the breast-feeding is a fascinating thing to observe. And this little trio of wonder and worry is launched and everyone is now headed in a new, and collective, direction. You’re all in, and all in it together.

We didn’t really start talking about a second child for a while, I mean, we were getting the hang of this parenting thing, and the wonder overwhelmed the stress and struggle of growth required.  But there was a distinct moment when we decided if we wanted a second child, and we did, that NOW would be a good time to begin “trying” again. And there’s a lot of fun associated with the trying.

In our world, the second pregnancy was a replay of the first one for about two months. We started the Bradley classes again, just as a way of bonding and preparing for the process again. We loved the time in the car heading to our “birthing” classes. So reverent. And even the little man started calming down a bit, as if he somehow sensed some new adventure was on the way. We sailed into our second pregnancy with flying colors. Until the first sonogram.

She had a complication. A medical condition was starving our arriving daughter of oxygen. And we were whisked off to a neonatal surgeon’s office for a more accurate assessment. And the world went topsy-turvy for all of us in one visit with our loving and happy OBGYN as we got the referral and insurance information for this new specialist.

We were in it together, but we weren’t exactly sure if we were all going to make it. And I might have been the weakest link.

He was a wonderful doctor, and his attitude probably carried us along. Our case was mild compared to most of the people in his office. But still, every Monday morning for 5 months we would need to visit his office together and see if our little girl was getting enough oxygenated blood. There were a lot of things the surgeon could do, but they all sounded experimental and risky. And they were. He admitted to only doing one prior in-vitro blood transfusion. ACK. He never showed his anxiety, but he was hoping right along with us, that it wouldn’t come to that.

And along the way, the three of us outside the womb began to show signs of stress. My consulting business crashed around our wounded heads with 9-11, and we suddenly didn’t have a clear financial picture of the future. But we marched along. I started a rabid search for full-time work and we showed up at the doctor’s office every Monday morning for a red blood count of our month’s old daughter.

We were in it together, but we weren’t exactly sure if we were all going to make it. And I might have been the weakest link. Something about the combination, parental responsibilities, a crushing job loss, and a weekly medical drama that played out with ever-more wringing of hands and worry on all sides of the sonogram’s monitor.

I cracked. I’m sad to say it now. I fell to pieces and while I did my best to maintain my support, my attention had to turn inward for a bit while I struggled to get my act together. Yes, I admit it, shamefully, I left my wife mentally, for a short period of time during our greatest challenge. There are still some ideas in my head that point back there to our eventual breakup, but that’s a much later story. We rowed along in our little boat of 3.5 and we did the best we could. But for a short period of time, when she needed a boat captain the most, she was both crew and captain.

In the low-moments I showed up. In the crisis moments I was able to pull up my suspenders and dig in as Dad, and Husband, and Protector. But I was wobbly.

Our daughter practically jumped out of the womb when it was her time to arrive. And to everyone’s amazement, she was not only not anemic, she was just a regular old healthy baby. All the emergency options were not needed once she was out of the inhospitable womb. We were all so glad to see her, and she was so glad to have arrived that we hit another love hurricane. And waves rolled in on all of us. Even our son got into the act with his new sister. He was jumping all over the house, wielding spatulas, and yelling, “Ta tai do!” It was as if he had created his own warning and challenge to any of the darkness that was still threatening us.

We hit another period of bliss and wonder. Now 4 of us in the bed, and 4 of us as happy as four well-tucked space travellers could be. Our journey now turned towards ideas of school and plans for redecorated rooms. We had made it through the trial by fire and we were exhausted but still in tact. We enjoyed a few blissful years.

I spent a lot of time after everyone had gone to sleep, standing in my kids room and watching them sleep. It was a quiet little church.

And, in fact, those blissful feelings have never changed when looking at my kids. Our marriage had a few more surprises ahead, but the kids were the focus and the purpose of our journey. We were dedicated to the task. I rejoined the corporate workforce and travelled far from home to provide the job-free time for my wife. We were aligned in our goals and dreams. And as I packed off to my daily commute I was smiling the entire way, even pulling out of the driveway I had a sense of working for something bigger and more important than myself. It was a hard journey, but a good one.

And each night as I got home after dark, often bearing dinner or groceries for the awaiting family, I rejoiced even as I began to show signs of the stressful job. I gained a lot of weight, though I tried to make it to the on-site gym. I walked with my wife, pushing the dual stroller up and down the hills of our neighborhood. And we did yoga together in the morning to support each other’s health and well-being.

And I spent a lot of time after everyone had gone to sleep, standing in my kids room and watching them sleep. It was a quiet little church. With soft lights, warm smells and sounds, and this little magical being who had chosen to come live with us. I was convinced this was the meaning of life, for a while. To serve and love these little creatures into bigger and better creatures. And that is so. But it’s only part of the story. And here our journey departed from the mapped trajectory and the capsule opened up and I stepped out for a space walk alone.

There has never been a second since my kids were born that I did not recognize the gift and suffering my beautiful wife took on to bring these little travelers into the world to join us. And even as they often travel in the same space ship without me, I am still orbiting and loving with all my heart.

And the saddest moment of parenting after divorce is the moment when your kids are suddenly gone from your life for days at a time. It’s the one thing I can’t quite fathom. Those nights when I want to return to the church of children and listen to their tiny snores and sighs… And they are not there.

I used to have nightmares about something happening to them. Perhaps even before my departure was written into the flight plan. And I still suffer minor sadness, that seem to come upon me at random times, with random triggers. Like their cereal bowls the morning after I have dropped them off at school and know I won’t see them for almost a week. (SAD.)

I can only guess that my ex has the same pangs of missing them. And in my early drafts of our strategy at becoming parents I never imagined this was a possibility, this five-day absence, that comes every other week. And we travel on in our separate ships and our passengers move through the air-lock of elementary and middle school as they transfer to mom’s ship or dad’s ship.

I am still in love with my kids and even the woman who brought them. It’s evolved into something very different than I planned.

This is no 3D IMAX movie. This is not Gravity. This is real life after divorce. And the joy I feel at seeing my kids has even gotten stronger. Perhaps the longing when they are not within touching or hearing distance causes me to appreciate them even more. I’m not sure how that could be possible, but I do know that my hours with them are  focused and joyous even when we are doing the most mundane things. And when they are asleep in my house, I am complete again, even as a solo-pilot. And I can check in on their pulses in a different way, touch base with their school work and their frustrations, and hear what’s going on.

I am still in love with my kids and even the woman who brought them. It’s evolved into something very different than I planned. And even as I hope for a co-pilot again, there will never be an astronaut who turned herself so completely inside and out to be a family together. I bless her for them constantly. And I travel along alone for a good percentage of my days. But I’m no Major Tom. I’m more of a Tom Hanks. I’m going to solve the issue and get through this crisis too.

Always Love, and always love your ex for what she gave,

John McElhenney

Note: A friend keeps asking when I write these kind of posts if I wanted to get back together with my ex-wife. And loving her is very different from wanting to be with her again. We’re well beyond that. Sure, the kids might secretly hope for their parents to get back together, forever. But that’s not going to happen.

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image: tom hanks press photo for Apollo 13, creative commons usage