The Good Dad’s Journey Through Divorce

Sometimes losing yourself is just what you need to find out what's important in life.

The last good summer, before my divorce.


As a man’s life falls apart during divorce, his priorities as a father must be self-affirmed.

I am saddened, eight years after my divorce, when I see pictures like the one above. I lost so much in the divorce. About 70% of the time with my kids was robbed from me by the decision of my then-wife to seek greener pastures. The crisis of the divorce hit all of us. But it hit me, as a dad, particularly hard for several reasons.

  1. I was being asked to leave the house where we’d built all of our hopes and dreams
  2. I was going to pay my ex-wife a sizable sum of money every month for the next 12 years
  3. I was losing every social-comfort aspect of my life thus far (social, friends, neighborhood, tennis leagues, spending money)
  4. I was even losing parenting rights as my soon-to-be-ex began to make unilateral decisions without talking to me (against the legal law of the parenting plan we negotiated together)
  5. I was going to spend most of my time without access to my kids

My kids were young. A 5th grader and 3rd grader. And, even though I was asked to leave in April, I fought to stay in the house, together, until my kids had graduated from their school year and would have some privacy and recovery time during the summer.

But the divorce didn’t hit them as hard as it hit me. Not much changed in their lives, except I was gone. Mom and kids soldiered on as if I was just on an extended business trip. I was certainly on a trip of some sort, but it was a trip of the mind. I lost mine in the fallout of the divorce. The loneliness and isolation, the loss of everything I knew and trusted about the world, and immediately the loss of my nighttime family ritual: dinner, bath, reading, bed. I lost my ability to be a father to my kids for 70% of their lives from that point on. And everything would be dictated by my ex-wife’s authority and possession of the house and the lion’s share of the kids time.

Dads Are Alone in Divorce

For the most part, men don’t talk about feelings. There’s no buddy network you can turn to during divorce to get encouragement and ideas. Women, on the other hand, rally around each other. It was as if I were the bad man to half of our couple friends. The women became my wife’s champion, and the palpable disgust was hard to understand. But nothing happened between us, I didn’t cheat, I didn’t start doing drugs or gambling, my then-wife merely decided, for her own reasons, that she was done. And when one partner is done, the marriage is done. There was no Gottsman book or couple’s therapy that was going to put us back together again.

And yet, a next door neighbor started ignoring my hellos in the local grocery store. I wanted to confront her the fifth time it happened. I wanted to walk up and say, “You know, Kelly, I didn’t do anything wrong. Whatever you’ve heard or imagined, I’m not the bad guy here. I’m a good guy, trying to do his best now as a divorced dad.” I never did confront her. And four years later, after her only child had graduated, her marriage broke down, and I wanted to, but didn’t, ask her how it felt now?”

So, several of our couple friends rallied directly in the mom-camp. I wasn’t given any notice or explanation, but I was no longer invited to kid’s birthdays. Even the husbands of the newly allied women were cold and held me with some level of contempt. I remember one husband, who was close while we were married, merely ignoring all of my attempts to keep up our friendship. Granted, his wife was my wife’s best ally during the divorce, but… Well, a few years later, his wife used my wife’s successful divorce as a roadmap for following her own bliss outside the current marriage.

The Good Dad Does Not Always Prevail

No matter how much I try to please my ex-wife, even in divorce, she rarely treats me with anything but disdain. When the kids were younger there was a bit of tenderness that would pass through us on holidays and birthdays, but today, there is nothing. Only some unfounded bitterness and resentment. At what? At my own happiness? I’m not sure. But I am sure that I am no longer responsible for navigating her happiness or unhappiness. And today, I’m detaching from her even more as I let go of my own hopes for being friendly parents. I don’t spend much time thinking about her, but I’m sorry her rage has become so fundamental to her response to me via email, in-person, or via texts. It’s a bummer. But of the divorce journey is a bummer.

What I learned by being the good dad and trying to appease her and my kids at every request, was that I couldn’t do it. I could not make my kids happy. I could not make my ex-wife happy. And the only person I could put my faith in was me. God and me. It seemed like a lonely team, but that’s what I had for most of the 8 years since my divorce.

As I look back on my journey thus far, I mark the creation of this blog, The Whole Parent, with a transformation in my approach to co-parenting. As I wrote my intention to be a positive co-parent, no matter what, I began shifting my own perspective about the divorce and my relationship to my kids, versus my relationship to their mom. If I could take all events, good or bad, and focus on the joy and support of my kids, I could let a lot of the shitty stuff go by without a response at all. Even today, as my 17-year-old son makes his way in the differentiation and growth period of his life, I’m constantly having to let go and focus on my own expectations and my own happiness regardless of any response of love from my kids.

Moving On As the Father of Teenagers

And, of course, my kids love me. I have never abandoned them. I have tried to remain as close as possible, through my own tribulations (job loss, depression, bad relationship) as well as theirs. We are in a sweet spot at the moment. It’s summer and my son will be a senior in high school in September. My daughter will be a sophomore. And we’re spending some time together, talking, joking, and learning about each other’s lives. It’s not enough time for me. But it’s what I’ve got.

My goal, as a good dad, is to be available emotionally and physically to my kids all the time. They know where I stand. I’ve never bad-mouthed their mom. And as they continue to grow and mature into adults, I’m back to having an equal opportunity to be with them. I am a good dad. My kids are finally in a place to make their own decisions about how to relate or not relate to me.

As they go away to college and their lives beyond, I know that my dadness will not change. I am will continue to present opportunities to get together. I will continue to ask about their lives and encourage their dreams. As for their mom and me. Well, she’s on her own and remarried now. I have only respect for her parenting skills. Her co-parenting skills… not so much.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: the summer before the end, john mcelhenney, creative commons usage

Originally published at wholeparentbook.com

Wisdom, Parenting, Health and Wellness, Father's Day, Dating, Father

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