How one dad saw divorce as an opportunity to be a better father.
I wrote this shortly after my divorce, when I first began to sense the opportunity before me: not a second chance to be an authentic dad, but a first. I share it hoping it’ll help newly-separated dads understand and recognize the road of joyful responsibility that continues ahead.
“Daddy, lock your doo-wer.” Cindy says as we pull out of my ex-wife’s driveway.
Cindy and her six-year-old twin, Miranda, are already in pajamas and buckled into second-hand car seats, their arms just long enough to flip the door locks. My nine-year-old son Charlie is locked and loaded into the back seat between his sisters.
They’re with me from Friday night to Saturday night every week. We call it “Lazy Dadurday.” And lazy it is. We wake up late, then trek to the bookstore, the pet store, the mall, or the pool, and just let it all hang out. It amazes everyone except actual parents that kids enjoy an errand run to Kmart just as much as seeing a movie or eating bad pizza in an arcade with oversized mouse robots.
My kids love hanging on to the sides of the shopping cart like sanitation workers on a garbage truck as I make gratuitously sharp turns in the hardware aisle. They don’t require these Saturdays to take a page from Fantasy Island. And my joy is simply being with them.
I flip my car door lock per my daughter’s plea, and thank her for looking out for me. Feeling the increasingly familiar weight of sole parental responsibility, I proceed down the long suburban road that will eventually take us from their mother’s home to mine.
“Everything OK, guys?” I ask, glancing at them in the rear view mirror.
“Sure,” offers Charlie.
“I mean with the divorce and all … do you have any questions or worries or anything?”
“Nope,” he replies for all of them.
But Miranda has a question: “Why can’t Mommy sleep at your house with us?”
I imagine the scene—my girlfriend, my ex-wife, me, five cats, three kids, one bedroom.
“Remember, you have two homes: one with Mommy, and one with me,” I say, not answering the question. “You don’t just visit me; you live with me, too.”
I remind the kids that, while other things in life may change, even crumble, a parent’s love never does. The words sound pathetically trite in my head, but it’s the most important thing to convey—not what changes, but what doesn’t: Two parents. Eternal love. Lots of pillows. Endless Cheerios.
In the first few weeks of the separation, I was the one feeling I had lost a firm grip on my own life. Seeking reassurance, I turned not to therapy, but to Google, plugging in search terms as if posing questions to a great swami:
“Fathers and divorce”
“Children of divorce”
What came back was a chorus of single-minded advice: DON’T DO IT.
Think it’ll be better for the kids? WRONG.
Think you’ll find the girl of your dreams? KEEP DREAMING.
Think it’ll make you a better parent? NOT ON YOUR LIFE.
According to almost every web resource on the subject, divorce drives kids bonkers and parents to the poorhouse.
Yet, over a year later, I don’t feel emotionally, financially or parentally bereft. A little stretched, but not impoverished. My children are usually thrilled to see me when I pick them up, and just as excited to return home and share their adventures with their mother.
More importantly, I’ve located my inner parent, the one who tells me when it’s OK to let my son stay up late, and when it’s not; when it’s appropriate to be interrupted on the phone by a whining daughter, and when it’s not; when a tense situation calls for stern rules, or just an all-out, no-shoes family wrestling match. I’ve weaned myself from my parents’, my ex-wife’s, and even Dr. Phil’s parental expectations of me; I now provide my own.
In short, it took divorce to make me a better father.
“Dad, let’s play pod-racer,” says Charlie, a few miles from my garden apartment.
“OK,” I say, and select the Star Wars theme on my MP3 player. I maneuver around the other cars like a spaceship pilot, dramatically barking navigational orders all the way.
“Commander Cindy, prepare the right side thrusters. On my word … engage.”
We make a sharp left into my apartment complex, and I hustle the kids out of the car, holding their overnight duffel on my shoulder and their hands in mine. As usual, the bag is overstuffed with art projects, stuffed animals, and board games they’ll never touch while in my twenty-four hours of care, but I’m happy for all the pieces of themselves they care to bring along.
Once inside the apartment, the girls brush their teeth, then burrow their tiny bodies into small Dora- and Pooh-inspired inflatable beds. I get their bedtime “sniff shirts.” One is their mother’s worn blouse from home; the other is my own T-shirt from the laundry basket.
When they first started staying with me overnight, Miranda asked for a “Mommy sniff shirt” to help her sleep. When her sister requested a Daddy version a week later, I couldn’t run fast enough to grab it.
“Eeeeewwwwww,” Cindy said, giving it a strong smell.
“No. I like it,” she replied matter-of-factly, putting the T-shirt to her nose and closing her eyes.
I make some popcorn, which Charlie eats ravenously while playing on the computer. I’m tempted to ask, “So, everything’s really OK?” but enough’s enough. I’m not really looking for answers so much as affirmation anyway, and that’s not worth an interrogation. It’s my children—not Google—who hold the secrets to how this is going to work out, but those truths will be revealed at their own slow pace.
Eventually, Charlie traipses into the bedroom, collapses on the queen-sized bed, and allows himself to be swallowed by the warm comforter.
Hours later, before my girlfriend Anne and I take our positions on the living room’s convertible couch, I peek in the room.
Watching them all silently sleeping, their bodies frozen in soft contortion, I know I should go to bed, too. But I treasure the moment, just as I did after each was born.
At the time, seeing them asleep came as a relief.
Now, it’s a gift.
—Photo Andrew Currie/Flickr