kids before the divorce

The Inner Life of Your Kid: Navigating Our Own Rainy Fridays

Walking down a hallway this morning I observed a young man (elementary school) deep in thought as he wandered towards his classroom. I wanted to say hello and ask him if he needed help finding his room. It was after the 2nd bell. He was going to be late!

Kids Have Their Own Journey

I stopped myself from intervening on this young man’s journey of discovery. It was the beginning of his school day and he was taking his time and enjoying the walk. He seemed unconcerned about the tardiness and he showed me this with his meandering walk and the song he appeared to be singing in his head. He was mouthing the words to something I could not hear or comprehend.

He was on his own. He was fine. It was my duty, as an adult, to recognize his individualism and give him plenty of room to pass me without any intervention or interference from me. I loved his whimsy. I loved his distracted and happy walk, as he sang himself to class on a rainy Friday morning.

It’s the same journey all of our kids are on. We, as parents, often want to cajole, reorient, and encourage our children. And often, we are trying to shape their journey, influence their inner-narrative, giving them all the advantages we didn’t have in our dysfunctional families. I wanted what was best for this young man. And I wanted to allow him (to pause in my desire to interrupt or reset his behavior) to carry on without my help. He was fine. And, on this rainy Friday, perhaps, he was more content and happier than I could imagine.

We Project Our Stories On Our Kids

What I saw in this young man was my own journey. I saw my distracted and somewhat lost elementary-aged life, as I watched him approaching me. I felt MY feelings. I was observing him and tuning into myself. What was this young man triggering (not all triggers are bad) in me? He was singing, so what would my elementary-self be singing? The Beatles, Hey Jude? Summer Breeze by Seals and Crofts? Horse with no Name, by America?

I saw this young man and in recognizing him, I saw myself at his age. I felt the weight of my family’s troubles. My dad was drinking heavily every night. My mom was crying a lot. And the amazing castle my father had built on the side of the beautiful lake, was not feeling all that safe. When I was this man’s age, I remember setting my room up one night with a huge force of army men. I built a massive fort out of wooden blocks, and I arranged all of my green plastic army men along the walls. They were all pointing their weapons at the door to my room. (???)

What was I afraid of as a seven-year-old boy? Who was the big bad wolf that I was protecting myself from? I also remember, having a small western six-shooter cap gun that I tucked under my pillow. In my young mind, I imagined the Russians might rush in and try to take me back to their country. I had a “move.” I was going to roll out of bed, gun in hand, and crouch behind the army fortress, firing all of my bullets into the bad men.

I don’t think I really need to tell you who I was afraid of as a 3rd grader as I went to bed every night. (Sad feelings arise in me as I type this. Why would an 8-year old boy, go to bed with so much fear?

We Can’t Protect Our Kids from Themselves

As much as my mom tried to comfort me in those twilight days of their marriage, I was terrified of the raging bear that would come home and upset the evening routine. It wasn’t always that bad, but it was always tense. My mom (and I) never knew what to expect each night. I think Friday nights were the worst, as my dad might stay at the office even later, getting in a few drinks before heading home.

With all the love and support my mom gave me, I was still frightened of my father. So was she. How could she provide comprehensive support and “air cover” when she herself was frightened of the potential hurricane as my father stepped in the door. There was no, “Hi, honey, I’m home,” refrain in our house in those years at the big lake house.

As best I could, I navigated my young life, I struggled with my fearful thoughts, I tried to focus at school, I tried to forget (at least during the day) that my dad was becoming more and more terrifying. And, even though I was surrounded by other kids, and a somewhat supportive elementary school staff, for the most part, I was left to my own thoughts. I was wandering recess with dark movies in my head. I was trying to sing, “take a sad song and make it better,” but I often couldn’t get there.

Take a Sad Song and Make It Better

In my young life, I was pretty much on my own. Mom tried. Dad raged. And I was left to my own imagination. I built forts and I carried a loaded gun to bed.

For this young man, in the hallway, I was a bit like a guardian angel, in my mind. As he passed, I flashed on my own troubled walk down the hallways as a kid, and I blessed him. I didn’t interfere in his song. I didn’t reach out and tell him it was going to be okay. In fact, I didn’t know anything about him, and I would’ve been a lying angel had I tried to say, “Everything’s going to be okay.”

In reality, everything is not going to be okay.

I survived my parents’ terrible, awful, no-good, divorce. I survived the breakup of my own young family, years later. And I saw my kids walking the walk of “what’s going to happen next?” As their dad, I was given a fractional role. (Non-custodial dads get their kids less than 1/3 of the time.) My world collapsed in the moment I walked out of my house, knowing I would never be allowed to return. It was “her house” the minute I retreated to my sister’s basement apartment.

And in some ways, their lives continued on as usual, just without me around as much. And every other weekend (1st, 3rd, and 5th weekends) they would come to be with me. I did my best to put on a brave face for them, but I’m pretty transparent with my depression. When I’m depressed I get quiet. I don’t write. I don’t speak much. My fear is, that if I tell you the crazy shit going on in my head it will frighten you. I’d best keep these dark thoughts to myself.

My journey was also my own, as an adult. I had all I could do to manage my own life, my own walk down the hallway.

And in the nine years since the divorce, I have been trying to transform my sadness and struggle into hope and prayers for others. I am hoping that I am like a guardian angel from some of my readers. I can’t really affect their walk down the hall, but I can think about them, I can give them loving ideas when they are feeling down, and I can show them (by my life example) that survival and even joy is possible again.

Joy Is Possible Even After Divorce

We’re all walking down our own little hallways. We’re all singing our inner songs. And we’re probably all a bit distracted and unsure of exactly where we should go. We know the way to our homeroom, but we may not be sure about how to navigate the rainy Fridays along the way.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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a good dad's guide to divorce, by john mcelhenney

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