Divorced with kids? Graham Scott has been there. He has some good words for you.
This is simplicity itself. All you need to do is this: Get married. Have a child. Get divorced. There you go, you’re a divorced father.
But there is also one simple fact you need to bear in mind. You divorced (or were divorced by) your wife. You did not divorce your children.
The children are innocent. They did not cause or encourage the divorce. They did nothing wrong. Yet they are suffering every bit as much as you are. So your responsibility as a man and as a father is clear: you must do all you can to lessen the pain and misery for your children, regardless of how you feel. This is not primarily about you, it’s about them.
Which is kind of a weird mash-up of all those tricky conversations you’ve had with partners or potential partners where you go: ‘No, it’s not you, it’s me.’
And it most certainly is not about the mother. She may well be feeling hurt and abandoned, or she may be feeling full of victorious glee at having got everything she wanted from the divorce process. In some ways how she feels doesn’t matter either.
What does matter is that you’re both still the parents of those children. So if you can make some sort of relationship between the two of you, it will be much better for the children than if they have two hate-filled individuals they have to shuttle between, like sad little pinballs.
If you let your rage and hurt become the dominant feelings then you’re not helping your children, and that is your role. And, actually, you’re not helping yourself either. You are still a father and, if you handle it right, you always will be, whatever else happens in all your lives.
And the rewards that can result from that are so much better than any material possession or other relationship that you’ll benefit enormously. See, you can help others by being selfish!
I am a Divorced Father
I’ve been married twice and divorced twice – you can tell I’m a fast learner – and have a son by my second marriage. This marriage ended when my son was two years old. I suspect, although who really knows, that it is better that it happened when he was really young rather than older, since he doesn’t hold himself remotely to blame for the break-up. Older children often seem to, wrongly, blame themselves at some level.
It was a horrible period. I remember, having left the family home, I slept for a few weeks at my dear uncle’s house. It was all a disorganised mess. Every night I’d wake up in a narrow single bed, usually because my foot had hit my suitcase that had to lie virtually on the end of the bed because it was a bit cramped. All my things at that point were in the suitcase. I was in my late 40s.
Fast forward a few months and I’d found a small house to rent. My dear, adorable and confused son had been with me for the night and the following day I’d had to return him to his mother. That night I went into his empty bedroom where I’d set up his little bed. I reached down and picked up the blanket he’s slept under the night before and went back to my bedroom.
I wrapped myself as much as I could in this small blanket which smelt so sweetly of him. Pulling it over my face, I cried and sobbed until the blanket was damp with tears and I eventually fell asleep.
That was the better part of a decade ago, but that night still has the power to make me cry. Hell, I’ve cried hundreds of times since then for the same reason, many of those tears shed on the car journey back on a Sunday evening after dropping Sam back after a weekend with him. Real men don’t cry – really? And I like quiche.
The Early Years
Those early years of separation and divorce are the hardest. There’s often so much anger and bitterness and guilt and massive disappointment that it’s too much to bear. But those feelings do subside in time. Even the most hate-filled ex-wife eventually gets bored of it. The children get used to it, up to a point. And the dog doesn’t care, he really doesn’t.
But through all those storms and raging winds you have to chart a course that gives you time with your child. Sure, this can be very difficult indeed if the ex is going to be vengeful – which will conveniently disregard the fact that, statistically, she’s far more likely to have instigated the divorce in the first place.
I know it can be hard. The scheduled time with your son which is suddenly not on the schedule. The agreement that you can share your Christmas Day with him which is suddenly not agreed. What can you do? Whine that it’s not fair? Go and get an expensive solicitor? You know you’re wasting your time, the cards are too heavily stacked against you.
But through all this remember that this isn’t primarily about you, even when you’re angry or so full of dismay and horror and misery that you feel like you’re becoming a black hole for any happy emotion whatsoever. Drag yourself on – hopefully these points will help.
1) Keep some things to yourself
Don’t slag off the mother to the boy. She may slag you off – most seem to – but don’t do it. A boy needs a mother he loves, he doesn’t need you adding any more poison to the well. Don’t make snide comments about her to your son, don’t be unpleasant when the three of you are present. His feelings count for more than yours. Just mutter them to yourself later, when you’re alone apart from a dram of single malt.
2) Represent Masculinity
Try so hard to be cheerful and masculine when you’re finally with your son. Do stuff. Do man stuff. One common outcome of divorce is that the boy will spend more time in a matriarchal society than he used to. His mother, his mother’s female friends (who will all slag you off in front of him), his grandmother – he will have a lot of older females around. So you may have to over-compensate.
I’m aware that sometimes I do more ‘manly’ things with Sam, like kicking a ball around, or rough-housing than I would otherwise, but he needs the balance. And, at 11, he’s constantly testing his own strength which is growing by the day. Of course, he tests that against me, the yardstick (well, okay, a rather soft and wobbly yardstick but one nonetheless!).
This is how a boy or a young man learns about self-restraint, self-discipline. Play hard and then stop, and teach him how to moderate his force and then stop. At first he won’t be able to, and he’ll keep trying to rugby tackle you or whatever, and it’s from you that he will learn to control what, one day, will be a power capable of inflicting massive damage on someone else.
3) Be organised
Don’t, under any circumstances, give your ex or the rest of her coven the satisfaction of rolling their eyes and going ‘Men’ because you forgot his school uniform, or you take him back horribly late because you stopped off somewhere and lost track of time. (Bear in mind that actually the mother will worry if you’re late back, imagining all kinds of horror events.)
4) Be like Jamie or Michel
Make sure you feed the chap properly. I was taught how to cook by my mother, so my son is being taught how to cook by both parents. He eats properly. Money is tight so we can’t eat out much even if I wanted to. I can get a plate of pasta with Pesto sauce ready, complete with pine nuts, grated cheese and basil, far faster and cheaper than any take-away or convenience food. Put the effort in. Watching Sam wolf down a casserole or whatever I’ve made is one of life’s great pleasures. The best chefs are virtually all male – plenty of role models there.
5) Do Dull
Share the burden of the dull stuff. Make sure he’s up to speed with his homework. Has he bathed or showered enough and is he keeping up with brushing his teeth? Does he need new shoes? Would it benefit him to go over that French homework one more time in the car? Do your level best to ensure you attend Parents’ Evenings and suchlike, you should be as involved as the mother. Make sure the school have your email and contact details and that they know to send out briefings and invitations to you both separately.
6) Be a role model
Don’t tell him to do some reading while you’re playing on a computer game – read a book yourself. If you’re trying to teach him manners make sure yours are delightful when you go out to the shops of see friends together. Show him how a man interacts with the world – not false aggression hiding insecurity, not drunk, not loud, not hanging out in a pack, but a man in full, with quiet self-confidence. Watch him mimic that and realise the power and responsibility you have. Here’s one tiny example that made me realise how careful I needed to be.
Some years ago he and I had got home and I’d got changed into some more comfortable clothes for the evening. Later, Sam went to bed and eventually so did I. I kissed his sleeping head goodnight in his room, walked into mine and stopped. There on the chair was my pair of trousers I’d taken off earlier and, thankfully, I’d folded them over the arm of the chair. And there, neatly folded over mine, was Sam’s pair of long trousers.
You don’t need telling this, do you? Love him. Of course you do, but show it, say it, let him know it every single day or every time you see him. He lives in a world that can be very confusing, alien and simply not what he wants. He wants two parents together, he wants the ideal happy family, and he hasn’t got it.
It’s pointless explaining that if you and his mother got back together again it wouldn’t be Happy Families. If it had to be a card game it would be Snap! So you can’t give him that, but you can give him love, sympathy, compassion and support. The stiff upper lip thing never worked, it just drove it all underground. I tell him I love him a lot and actually I think it lowers my blood pressure just saying it. Maybe we should get a cat as well.
I love my son more than I have ever loved any other human being ever. I thought I knew all about love but then, at 44, I realised I knew nothing about it the first time I held him in my arms and watched him take his first breath in this world. I love him more than I even loved my VFR750 Honda. I know, I’m just soppy.
—originally posted at Fellow HQ.