A Dads Guide to Divorce
Posted on July 17, 2012 by Lou
I started writing a book ten years ago about being a divorced dad. Conceived as a guide for men in similar circumstances, I wanted to make a few key points. Above all, that it’s critically important in a failed marriage for dad to immediately turn his attention to the kids.
Dads face a particular challenge, I wrote, if the children are very young and in what I called the “maternal orbit.”
To stir up the topic, I urged my brothers to not be sidetracked by an understandable impulse to find another relationship right away. Even if you feel hurt, disrespected and horny, it’s essential that you focus on your role as a father and your need to bond with the kids through this transition.
Sure, you want to get laid, I said. But be careful not to get “enmeshed.”
I wasn’t advocating deprivation or chastity; just a little self restraint. I recounted a story about two recently separated dads who were totally dedicated to their kids. Both had put meeting women on the back burner. I explained how one of my new pals was very good-looking and the other extremely wealthy. My message, of course, is that if these dads could control their sexual urges, we regular guys could do likewise.
As always, I wrote in a conversational and anecdotal style, using modestly self-deprecating humor to win my audience. My book would contrast with most of the other titles I saw which fall into this category.
The lawyer’s books for divorcing dads, for example, prepare the father for combat. This is what you should know about state laws, family courts and current custody trends. Useful information, to be sure, but tedious reading.
The psychologist’s books for divorcing dads offer “support” for their reader’s ordeal but, as you’d expect, could be pedantic and dreary.
My guide was supposed to be an easy-read during a stressful time.
Next, I wanted to make the case that though it’s very tempting, it’s essential that you don’t demonize the mom.
Even if you were dumped, suck it up and recognize that your ex will likely be your parenting partner for years and decades to come. Subordinate your pain and hostility in the interest of cooperation. Establish lines of communication, I urged.
I described how my own marriage ended with my wife leaving for another man. Though it wasn’t quite that simple (it never is), this agonizingly painful rejection actually let me off the hook. The fact that I didn’t initiate the separation insulated me from being branded as the bad guy. With her focused on trying to build a new life with someone else, I could zero in on connecting with my kids.
I also outlined how, as a modern and active dad, I had already spent a great deal of time alone with my kids while the mom had worked and taken time for herself. That gave me the confidence to handle all the parenting details alone.
But as I worked my way through the first draft of the “guide,” its problems became evident.
First of all, it was based on extensive and excessive extrapolations from my own experience (this worked for me, so you should try it). How applicable could that be?
The other obstacle was even bigger. Much of what I had written – diary-like musings – were completely off limits. No way could I disclose personal details like these about my family.
Other topics were more open to the public:
I discussed with some honesty and insight my thoughts on custody arrangements. Separating couples are sometimes very quick to develop and then “codify” the child care routine. Many experts think it’s is a good idea to work out a fixed and reliable schedule. Dad will have the kids Monday, Tuesday, until sundown on Wednesday, every other weekend and on those Christmases ending in even numbered years.
I threw a wrench into this approach by offering what I called a “seamless” arrangement in which I saw the kids nearly every day. Predicated on my own flexible schedule (and my willingness to drop everything), I conceded the mom’s house as their primary residence and made the most of my role as driver: shuffling my son from school to baseball practice or picking up my daughter from a “play date” and dropping her at moms for dinner.
I think my overall message hit the mark. I wanted my brothers to accept the fact that no matter what you try, you can’t replace the mom. Children’s natural or even instinctive attachment to their mother must be recognized. The father may have to take on the role – for as long as necessary – as a secondary parent. Dads who reject, disregard or minimize this reality could be inflicting emotional damage on – and impairing their own relationship with – the kids.
But, ten years later, the particulars of my narrative seem a little naïve. I’m more aware now of the consequences of inconsistency in raising children. And I know plenty of divided families who survived quite nicely on a clearly-established and predictable custody plan and schedule.
Also, what I didn’t fully admit at the time was that my aversion to a standard custody arrangement was based partly on my need for the kids, their mom and I to feel and appear “normal.” By sitting together at school plays, concerts and little league games, we could show off how well we were handling our broken family. Don’t feel sorry for us. We’re doing just fine.
Finally, I tried to tackle the subject of money.
I admitted right off the bat that I had dubious credentials on this matter; that, in fact, I had done a poor job managing family finances before the separation. Nevertheless, I wanted my imaginary readers to hear me out.
Many dads freak out about alimony and child support and sometimes resort to extreme measures to hold onto what they believe is theirs. Though maybe not the best guy to give advice on the subject, I encouraged my fellow dads to consider taking a “soft line.”
I recalled my visit to a divorce lawyer. I had been separated for a couple of years and was renting an apartment about two miles from the house.
The kids were used to moving back and forth between my apartment and mom’s place but the house always remained home base. That was fine with me as long as I was welcome there. When I dropped off the kids, I explained to the divorce lawyer, I’d sometimes stay for dinner.
It was an amicable arrangement all right, but there was a hitch. The mom wanted me to sign over all rights to this valuable piece of property on a quiet street in the Mar Vista section of Los Angeles (west of the 405 and north of Venice Blvd., three miles from the beach).
This attorney had a reputation for being tough – she had represented a friend of mine with lots of money and property in a particularly contentious divorce – but in listening to my story, she zeroed in on the good will which was central to our family arrangement.
She asked me if this was worth jeopardizing because of money. I said it wasn’t’. She said “then give her the house.”
I didn’t recommend that dads necessarily follow my lead, but did caution against allowing the fight over finances to poison the atmosphere.
What I tried to communicate throughout is that divorced parents can spare their kids – and themselves – considerable trauma by basing a post-marital relationship on mutual respect and sacrifice, love for the kids and, when possible, love for each other.
In the first draft of my guide, I consciously engaged in “guy talk.” (I was, in fact, talking mostly to myself). But when parenting status changes, you join a varied and expansive community of divorced, widowed, gay, straight women and men.
So maybe there’s enough raw material to expand into a guide for divorced parents. But, then again, I’m not sure what conclusions I would reach.
On the biggest question of all, I don’t have an answer. Which does more damage? When couples in conflict stay together “for the sake of the kids” or break up the family.
Give me another ten years to think about that one.