Dad Next Door: Not how it was supposed to be
A little encouragement from across the fence
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
A friend of mine just found out that her ex-husband is dragging her to court claiming she violated their parenting agreement. It’s going to mean weeks of lost sleep and antacids. It’s going to divert most of her son’s college fund into their lawyers’ pockets. Eventually, it’s going to end with roughly the same result as if two adults just sat down and had a conversation about it. She called me up the other night, seeking advice and wisdom.
“That really sucks,” I said.
This is why I make big bucks as a parenting expert.
But really, what else is there to say? Any of us who have parented our way through a divorce can testify that it does suck, in every conceivable way. It sucks that the person you loved and wanted to raise a family with doesn’t love/like/give a rat’s ass about you anymore. It sucks that you can’t walk away from that person because you’re legally tethered to them for the next umpteen years. It sucks that your barely-adequate-two-income financial plans have been blown to smithereens. And most of all, it sucks that you’re only going to get half the birthdays, half the holidays, and half the precious moments with your child from now until eternity.
Like I said: It really sucks.
That’s the obvious part. The question now is what to do about it. Having gone through all of this myself, with plenty of mistakes to learn from, I’ve got a few ideas on the subject. Of course, everyone’s situation is different, so take it with a grain of salt. Your results may vary. Still, it’s a place to start.
When your dreams get tossed into a dumpster fire, don’t dive in after them. Sorry, that was harsh. What I meant was: those old dreams that included your perfect little family staying together forever aren’t on the menu anymore. But there are seven pages of perfectly good dreams that are on the menu, and that includes desserts and cocktails! Okay, mixed garbage-food metaphors aside, you have every right to grieve the things you’ve lost, but don’t build your future on them. Grief isn’t a good foundation for life planning. We dig our heels in. We get angry and petty. We take “principled stands” that undermine our own interests, not to mention those of our kids. You have important decisions to make. Make them for the future, not the past.
Don’t compete for your kid’s love. If your kid loves your ex, and they love your kid, only good can come of it — even if your ex hates your guts. Your child’s affection is not a limited resource. The more love they receive, the more they have to give, and that includes what they give to you. Ah, you say, but what if your no-good, dirty-rotten ex starts badmouthing you and turns your kid against you? I promise, that’s going to backfire like a ’72 Dodge with a bad muffler. Your kid has firsthand knowledge of you that’s powerful enough to withstand any untruth from any source. Love your kid the best way you know how. The rest will take care of itself.
Your ex is not trying to destroy you. OK, I don’t know that for certain. Maybe they’re a monster. Maybe they spend all day fiendishly plotting to make your life a living hell. But more likely, they’re just like you, and they only spend a couple of hours doing that, tops. The rest of the time, they’re just an imperfect, confused human being thrashing around in their own poop, and you happen to be the one who’s standing in the splatter zone. It’s really icky, but it’s not as personal as it seems. A lot of the ways that this sucks for you might suck just as badly for them. Maybe worse. After all, would you really rather be them than you? I didn’t think so.
This won’t last forever. It probably won’t even last until your kid turns 18, though that’s what your parenting agreement says. Time passes, people move on, your ex finds some other partner to love or torment, and life gets better. Kids adjust to having two households, and time without them starts to feel like an unexpected gift. Maybe someone fabulous learns to love you, even with all your baggage and flaws. Imagine that: brand-new dreams, even better than the ones you lost in that dumpster fire.
I don’t mean to be glib. When I went through it, it was the most painful thing that ever happened to me. It still is. But I have two great kids, and a really wonderful life, and I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t walked through that hell. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I hope it turns out as well for you as it did for me.
I like your chances.
Jeff Lee considers happiness the ultimate revenge, in Seattle.