[An update one year later: Finding Joy as a Single Parent During the Holidays: Our Celebration]
I have come out of lightspeed and back to the known universe. There are some good things about this and some things that feel disappointing. As the hyperspace experience of the last few weeks has come to an end I am both relieved and exhausted at the same time. Let me back up, and look at what triggered my sadness in November of last year, and what I’ve learned since then.
When Things Go Really Well, It’s Exhausting
As things accelerated over the first half of May my body, mind, and spirit began to feel the strain of the joy coursing through my life. Leaning into two different relationships I was excited and curious about how I might fit with such completely different women. As it happened, the first woman dialed back our connection (she is an introvert) and the second woman dialed it up. But this isn’t really about either of them. This hyper-fluidity came from the culmination of months of work since mid-November 2018, when the rocket system shut down on my last high-and-healthy run of about 9 months.
I was struggling to maintain my center of joy after returning from a perfect birthday/vacation celebration with my two children. (16 and 18) As I hit the tarmac back in Austin, I became a bit distraught at the reality of my revised parenting schedule and the fact that I would probably not see my kids for several weeks. I let myself feel the sadness of the awareness: 1. at how wonderful it was spending time with my two cool kids; and 2. at the horror that is the Standard Possession Order in common divorces, where I lost 70% of my time with my kids. And even more to the point, as teenagers, my kids had opted to stop switching houses on alternating weekends, essentially giving my ex-wife 100% custody. The hit I took was feeling the high of our time together and the low of losing them and our connection over the future of their lives as high school students. I felt the pain of the last nine years, and the 70% our their lives that I had only been marginally able to participate in.
The Loneliness of the Fractional Dad
Let’s examine the SPO for a second. The family court system in Texas likes to promote this parenting plan as fair and “in the best interest of the children.” And in some bastardized new-math formulas they will try and convince the losing father (dad’s get the non-custodial role 85% of the time in Texas) that they get almost as much time as the mother. But this is a lie. Their little math comes unraveled when you look at the SPO and the summer month of possession.
A Month In the Summer with Dad
In the Standard Possession Order, dads are able to have their kids for an entire month in the summer. This little wrinkle is the court’s justification for the imbalanced and unfair 70/30 split that is the SPO. I’m certain that this part of the “plan” was put in place for the dads who moved, or were forced to move, out of town and could not see their kids on a weekly basis. In these cases, the kids could go live with dad for a month during the summer. The problem with this plan is this: I have NEVER been able to take a month of vacation to be with my kids in the 9 years since my divorce. Oh, add to the equation that the dad will most likely get a hefty child support payment (in my case $1,500 per month + health care for both kids (add $300 – $550 depending on my employment status) and you can see while I was hustling to have enough money to get even a crappy apartment to live in. Compound this financial equation with the fact that the money you pay your ex is tax-free, meaning you’re going to pay the takes on your take-home pay and then give her/your kids $1,500. (Meaning you will need to earn about $2,300 per month just to pay your child support bill.) THEN you have to provide health insurance for the kids, THEN you can think about food, clothing, and shelter for yourself. Forget about entertainment, there will not be anything left over. And in most cases, you will run at a deficit. Chances are, most fathers will get behind on their child support at some point in the divorce journey.
If I had ever had enough money to give my kids the “summer with dad” experience I would’ve jumped at it. As it was, I was struggling to keep a roof, any roof, over my head most of the time after the first year of divorce. My ex-wife, on the other hand, had the equivalent of $2,300 in income, had the nice house with a favorable interest rate, and the car that was paid off. Okay, so mom’s get a great deal financially when they divorce a dad who makes a healthy living. And that’s when things get tough.
How Entitlement Begins to Estrange the Parents After Divorce
It’s logical that the mother of your children would begin to feel entitled to the supportive income. It’s not only the law (enforced with vigor by the Attorney General’s office) it’s her right now, and it’s “for the support and care of the kids.” Yes, of course, it is. But this situation can quickly turn into a big fight when/if the dad struggles at any point during the post-divorce years. In my case, after about a year and a half, when I was 5 weeks late with one of my child support checks, my ex-wife threatened to turn our case over the Attorney General’s office for enforcement.
“Please don’t file with the AG’s office,” I pleaded. “My company has suffered a setback but we’re in the process of replacing our lost business, and I will catch up shortly.”
“I am sorry about the timing,” she said. “But I’ve already sent in the paperwork.”
Two things about her aggressive action and her hollow apology.
- She was not in some financial crisis at the moment, she was doing fine financially. She was vindictive in her action, she was throwing me to the debt collectors of the Texas AG’s Office, not because she needed the money, or because I was hiding money or refusing to pay. No. She filed with the AG’s Office to hurt me financially and emotionally. She knew I was trying to refinance my house, and she knew that this AG action would prevent me from being able to keep my one possession, my tiny house.
- She was not sorry at all. She did it in spite of knowing my situation. She did it even when she was not desperate for the money. She did it to be mean and to hurt me.
How the Loss of My “Kid Time” Crushed My Spirit
Jumping back to the present year, my enhanced parenting moment, a three-day weekend with my kids in NYC, was a true joy. We celebrated our time together. We laughed. We told stories. We caught up on a lot of lost time. And then we were back in Austin, and they were back to their busy lives as teenagers. And they were back to living 100% of the time at their mom’s house.
I worked hard to maintain my emotional balance over the few days after returning from our NYC holiday. Even with full awareness of what was happening, even with a therapist and a psychiatrist, even with all the writing and self-care work I could manage, I knew I was slipping into a depression. I knew I was being triggered by this great-then-terrible feeling. I was feeling and re-experiencing some of the trauma of the divorce. I felt the loss of the majority of my parenting time over the last nine years. And, consequently, I descended into an OFF state. But here is also where the new learning began to take place.
Leaning Into Depression and Making Friends with the Dragon
There were a lot of factors in my descent to sadness that weren’t related to my divorce, my kids, or my lack of time with them.
- My brother died in August of last year.
- My girlfriend of six months freaked out and walked away from our relationship
- My ex-wife took my kids to Washington DC, where her new husband’s family lives
- My sister took her two kids, and joy-creators, on a trip for two weeks over Christmas
- My mom, struggling with the death of her second child, was going to be my only family for the Christmas holidays
I’m not whining or complaining, but my darkness arrived as a perfect storm. But here’s the hopeful part: I did not completely fall apart.
Here are the things I did:
- I attended al-anon meetings every day to keep from isolating and to feel like I was part of a community of people aligning towards living a healthier life
- I kept my exercise schedule a priority in my planning and daily living (tennis three times a week was my saving grace)
- I kept regular sleep hours
- I journaled, did gratitude lists and gratitude practices every day, I prayed and wrote my plans every morning with my first cup of coffee
- I went to talk-therapy every week, I was never late, I never missed an appointment
- I landed two new clients and was able to deliver on creative solutions (even when I felt I could not do ANYTHING creative)
- I even started going on a few “hello dates” using online dating apps (even when I felt like a total failure)
- I made believe as if I believed
- I celebrated simple victories as if they were huge WINS
- I started applying for “possible” jobs and “impossible” jobs as an act of faith
- I stayed focused on supporting and loving my mom through our joined and enmeshed sadness about my brother
- I kept a curious perspective about my own life: I wonder where all this is leading me, I wonder what I am learning from all this suffering, I wonder how this plays into God’s plan?
Coming Back To Life
I can’t tell you exactly when I began to feel better. But all the things above had a cumulative effect on my mood and energy.
As I rounded February into March a few things began to shift. I didn’t have any successful first dates, but I was able to laugh at my experience. “I must not be that fkd up, if these several women agreed to meet me for a glass of wine.” I even had fun chatting with them, even when there was zero chemistry.
A few of the big shifts happened when I got my new part-time job. (giving me a financial base to continue my own business) I started seeing a very attractive woman and exploring what “we” might look like. She has a 12-year-old son, full-time, and I was going to have to adjust to that idea if I wanted to continue a relationship with her. But she was amazing and completely worth it. Within a few weeks of seeing each other, she invited me to her Seder. I was thrilled and impressed by her fearless approach to getting to know me.
Even as things didn’t catch fire with this badass woman, she opened my heart and my future for another potential relationship. And as I wade through those challenges in the coming months, I can take great comfort in my “depression” and what really looks like a high-functioning life during a difficult time.
I Am Reframing My Depression
I was sad from Nov – Mar, but I was not clinically depressed. I was doing all the healthy things I could do to get my energy and spirit back on the right track in my life. And while I was not immediately joyous as a result of these efforts, I learned that by sticking with the program, my program of healthy and conscious living, I could have all the things I wanted in my life. I’m still building that dream for my future. But I’m leaving behind this concept of myself as a “recently depressed” person. I went through a season of death and loss. I survived and came out the other side with grace and grit.
I walk forward after this experience, with a new respect for my mental health and a new frame for emotional pain and sadness. And even as I reset and rebalance in my relationships, I am realigning with myself and my health BEFORE bringing any more partners onboard.
In this pause, I am relaxing into my own rhythm again. And from this place of independence and strength I can make decisions about who and how I want to date, relate, and eventually settle back into a Relationship with a capital R.
John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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- Finding Joy as a Single Parent During the Holidays: Our Celebration
- More Self-Care, Less Rush Rush Stress and Anxiety
- You Are Loved: A Meditation on Self-love and Self-awareness
- Even the High Is Exhausting: A Mindful Pause
- If You’re Happy and You Know It: Our Spiritual Connection w/ Each Other
- You’re a Hard Act to Follow: Breakups, Divorces, & Learning to Move On
- The Big Lies My Wife Told and Our Divorced Parenting Relationship
- Get It Done When You’re Depressed
- An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness
- Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness
- Listening to Prozac: The Landmark Book About Antidepressants and the Remaking of the Self
- Against Depression
- How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me: One Person’s Guide to Suicide Prevention
Here are a few of 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
- Dating 2.0: Aiming for the Love of Your Life