My parents were married in 1963. Fifty three years ago, they said "I do", and they are still doing. For me, I never had to worry about whether or not my dad was coming home every night. I never had to worry about whether or not he loved me enough to always "be there". My dad has always loved my mom, and showed me what a good husband and father should be. He may not have done everything right in his life, but all my life he has been, and still is a constant, loving presence on whom I could always depend.
My mom is...my mom. When they say "There is nothing in the world like a mother's love", they are talking about my mother's love. The love she taught me by example. I know there are some screwed up mothers in this world, who don't know how to love their children, and who are NOT an example of a "mother's love", but today, I want to talk about dads.
Kelly Clarkson's latest song, Piece By Piece is the story of a father who walked away. By all accounts, it is the story of HER father. It is a song my daughter can't listen to. When it comes on the radio, she will make a comment like, "I HATE this song!", before slapping at the dial to change the station. (Be quiet! Yes...I listen to the radio. I'm a fossil.) But for my girl, her dad didn't walk out of her life. He just divorced her mother.
I have no intention of talking about what led to the divorce. I'm sure you're all as sick to death of hearing about it as I am of living the reality of it, so for the purpose of supporting this story, let's just say, it has been a hostile divorce. While the last few years of the marriage were hateful and ugly, it wasn't always that way.
When our kids were small, the ex was an awesome daddy. He took his turns feeding them, dressing them, playing with them, and he really loved them. The beginning of our experience with autism was difficult for him, and it took him a while to realize our son was not "broken", but that our boy was different than the child we...expected. I realize that none of us has a right to "expect" anything from our children, but it took the ex a while to come to...acceptance. His relationship with our girl was more like worship, right from the very beginning. The sun rose and set on that child. He spoiled her, carried her everywhere, played games with her, bought her anything she wanted, and spent all his waking, non working hours with her. When she was 4, High School Musical was a big deal on The Disney Channel, and we all watched it 86 THOUSAND times. Daddy bought the girl a karaoke machine and sang all the HSM songs with her. He sat with her watching every episode of Hannah Montana and later, Wizards of Waverly Place. They watched The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, and Good Luck Charlie. They sang (so badly) together. They danced. They laughed. They were best friends.
While all this fun was going on, I was the hardass parent. I was the one who said "no". I taught manners and encouraged consideration for others, and even though daddy was bowing down before the girl, I made sure she never believed the world revolved around her. I encouraged her to be thoughtful of others and to always be kind. Those were all easy lessons for her, as she was a naturally kind hearted child from the start, and was always looking for ways to help everyone around her.
By the time the girl started kindergarten, the boy had already been in school from the age of 2. Between school and therapies, I was constantly in the car, and it was quite a juggling act to be where each child needed me to be. We were extremely fortunate that MAC's business was doing well, and he was able to work his hours around the kids. Most days, I would be running with the boy, and daddy would pick up the girl, take her home and help her with homework, get her changed and run her over to dancing school. He was the dance dad. By the time we all got home, I would either cook dinner and we would eat late, or we ordered in. We had made some friends on our block, and we often had company. Even if we weren't all eating together, there was usually a big crowd on our stoop until it was time to get the kids to bed. (Or, PRETEND we could get them to sleep!) During all this time, daddy usually had the girl, and because I was the more patient of us, I was with the boy. Of course, there were plenty of times we were all together, or we switched it up, but daddy and the girl were close. There was no doubt. And then we moved.
Moving to the suburbs was hard on MAC. He was used to the constant motion, and commotion of a busy neighborhood. There was none of that here. People drive up, click the garage opened, drive in and close the door. We hardly saw anyone. Well, except for one person. The combination of a suddenly TOO quiet life, and that one person was the beginning of the end of the marriage. By the time I found him where he shouldn't have been, we were finished, but it took 2 years for MAC to finally walk out and end it for good. During that 2 years he locked himself in the guest room. At first, he tried to bring the girl up there with him. He wanted her to do homework in his room. He wanted her to watch TV up there. He wanted her to play cards with him up there. She would even fall asleep in his room some nights. PLEASE don't let any creepy thoughts lead you to believe there was anything grossly sexual about any of it. It was NEVER like that. It was more his way of staying connected to her, while punishing me with isolation for not being the wife he wanted in his head. But I wasn't having it. I told him, in no uncertain terms, it was NOT ok for him to draw our daughter into his chamber of solitude. If he wanted to spend time with her, he would have to spend it in a common, family area. He tried, but ultimately, his hatred of me took precedence over his need to interact with his children. He locked himself away until the day we found his room empty.
I have spoken about my daughter's initial heartbreak upon his exit. He had made some suggestions of a plan to leave, but he really blindsided us in the end. She was devastated. It took us some time to get used to the changes, but eventually, she warmed up to the idea of visiting dad's house. Daddy will tell the whole free world that I badmouthed him and filled my girl's head with hateful thoughts of her father, but I didn't. The truth is, that day I found him where he shouldn't have been, she was with me in the car. She saw for herself. When she started going to his house, she saw clear and present signs of that "one person", and even though MAC swears he never had a bad word to say about me, the girl has very different memories. Whenever he spoke of me AT ALL, it was with such hatred, there was no mistaking his negativity toward her mother. And then, her grades started to slide. The ex likes to believe it is because I am such a terrible mother, I wasn't paying attention to her schoolwork. But she was self-sabotaging. I knew it. Her teachers knew it. But suddenly, daddy dearest was becoming combative with the girl for whom he would once have wrapped up the moon. Instead of complying, she rebelled. He went from being "Good Time Charlie", to attempting to be the man in charge. And she was not interested.
In the almost 2 years he's been gone, puberty has hit my girl hard. Naturally, the loss of our family unit, and the daddy who transformed into someone else have hit her even harder. Adolescence is an already difficult and confusing time for every kid. This transition has been brutal on her. And the more daddy tries to take control, the more she pushes him away. There have been some tumultuous situations, and the girl is still making some bad choices, (nothing major, but enough to cause me some concern), all in the name of "Fuck you, dad!" I have given her every opportunity to work through this safely on her own, (as she has previously refused to attend counselling), but we'll be heading into some family therapy soon. I am doing all I can to encourage her to connect with her dad, and to let him know how she feels, but it all seems to be coming out in angry outbursts. To me, she has mentioned the pain of his exit. She doesn't understand why it hurts so much. She won't let him back in her life because she doesn't want to give him another chance to leave her. During some of their combat, she has told him she hates him, has drawn hateful pictures, and locked herself away from him. He has called her terrible names, said awful things about her mother, and after an especially volatile exchange, told me he "only wants (the boy) this weekend". To my girl, it doesn't matter that they are fighting. All she hears is, "He doesn't want me."
HE DOESN'T WANT ME.
And THIS is where my message begins for the dads who are thinking of walking away.
Divorce happens. As much as we all enter into what we believe is "happily ever after" with the greatest faith in our love, divorce happens. And to all the folks out there who tell themselves, "I'm divorcing my spouse...NOT my kids", wrong. When the marriage ends, and someone moves out, the kids FEEL divorced. You may have every intention to maintain a strong bond with your child (children), but I'm not sure you realize how much time and effort that will require. You're going to have to go on living your life, but you're going to have to make EVERY EFFORT to make the kid(s) believe you are STILL THERE FOR THEM, NO MATTER WHAT. Maybe you've moved on and there is someone else who is depending on your attention. I hate to break it to you, cupcake, (or beefcake...whatever floats your boat), the kids should come first. I surely don't mean that after divorce there will be no time for a NEXT romance, but getting the kids through the divorce process is the top priority.
How the "post divorce" relationship with kids is established will set the tone for every relationship those kids will ever have. Romance, friendships, co-workers...how much trust these newly "divorced" kids will be able to extend will depend TOTALLY on how much they can depend on a newly absent parent. If you're supposed to be there, be there. It doesn't matter how much you hate your ex. It doesn't matter how much you'd like to be spending all your free time with your new paramour. YOU brought your kid(s) into this world. It is YOUR job to NOT screw them up! It is your job to give them a sense of security. It is your job to stick around, even when it's really hard to stick around.
It is your job to make sure your kid(s) feel loved.
Now, I am no trained professional. I have no degree. But I know people who have been destroyed by an absent parent. I am watching my child be torn apart by the pain of losing her daddy. No matter how much he thinks he is present for her, he isn't. And I can see where it is all going. I'll help her the best I can, but I can't undo another person's behavior. I may not have any personal experience in how it feels to be a child of divorce, but as the child of parents who are still together, 53 years later, I can say I have a sense of self respect, and self confidence that was built on childhood security. I went through the most typical of adolescent drama, and drove my parents sufficiently crazy, but I came out of it all believing in myself. I have chosen all the wrong men in my life. I have been disappointed every time. But instead of wondering "what's so wrong with me?", I feel bad for the fool who lost me. Even though I have had my heart broken, I still believe in me.
If you are recently divorced, or are contemplating a split, I BEG YOU, please don't ever miss an opportunity to make your kid(s) feel worthy of your love. And please keep in mind, they really are.