I come from a long line of divorced fathers. My father divorced my mother when I was 12. I use “divorce” not as a noun but as a transitive verb because, as I watched my mother in the months that followed, the divorce felt like something my father did to her. A generation earlier my father’s father divorced his wife, my grandmother.
And so statistically, I was a likely candidate for divorce. But I was determined to avoid the sins of my fathers. I didn’t realize that unlike a marriage, which requires two willing parties, a divorce requires only one. My first wife asked me for a divorce after 14 years of marriage. Our kids were 10, 7 and 4.
I was devastated. In the wreckage, I clung to my children as if they were life rafts. I quickly learned that the trick was to appear to be their raft, buoyant enough to get them to solid ground and tricked-out enough to make the journey fun.
My soon-to-be ex and I agreed to share parenting duties. She stayed in the house until we could sell it, and I started building the raft. I moved in with a friend who lived in the neighborhood, a divorced guy with no kids. I moved in for a few weeks and stayed 15 months. My kids took over every square foot of Paul’s house. Paul looms large in our family story. It’s not often you meet a saint, let alone live with one. My kids remember that year with Paul as one of the best times of their childhood.
The reality for me, at least in the first few months, wasn’t quite as rosy. Our oldest child, Zack, had suffered great bouts of separation anxiety when he was a toddler. The books told us to be calm and firm, which usually didn’t work. Now I knew the panic he must have felt, because that’s exactly what I was feeling — a terrible, overwhelming urge to hang on. It’s a physical need, this desperate clinging to bodies. Love and safety become smells and textures, and to let go of them is to risk death.
I found that the only way to get through the anxiety of being separated was to be fully present when my kids and I were together. That became my goal, and I often fell short. But that’s the great gift divorce can offer fathers: the freedom to parent without distraction. Suddenly, you’re not negotiating bedtime or how many cookies is the right amount of cookies. Now you’re in charge, freed from the constraints of Mommy Culture. And Mommy Culture is like air; you can’t escape it, and you don’t even know you’re struggling to breathe in that thin air until you experience a sudden change in altitude. At least that’s how it felt to me.
I don’t want to start a gender war here. I can feel the fingertips of a million mothers getting ready to set the comments section aflame. But here’s my take: I think mothers have a much tougher job than fathers because the expectations of them are so unrealistic. They’re expected to know everything about being a mother the instant their child is born.
And society scrutinizes their every move. Which leads to anxiety, a burden most fathers don’t have. Each decision a mother makes becomes monumental, from which breast pump to buy to how to put baby down at night — side or tummy? Moms feel judged by the binkies and sippy cups they choose.
In my experience, all their anxiety leads to a lot of rules, some sensible, some arbitrary. And those rules are usually not democratically arrived at. There is still, even among couples who attempt to parent equally, a bias toward Mom’s approach. In even the most balanced parenting equations, which my wife and I enjoyed, Mom is still the commander-in-chief, and Dad, a high-ranking general.
Mom’s parenting style almost always sets the default. And defaults are hard to adjust. The negotiating that goes on over those settings can often suck the focus away from actual parenting.
So shared parenting gave me a chance to adjust the default and to develop more fully as a father. I learned to negotiate play dates, schedule carpools and braid hair (sort of). I taught my kids to play poker, which cost me all my spare change, but taught them about chance and human nature. We turned almost everything into a game. Going to the art museum became a competition to see who could give the untitled pieces the best names. Buying fruit at the outdoor market became a math game: Who could get the most peaches for $2? The playground turned into an obstacle course. Things were counted. Scores were kept.
My daughter, Zoey, the youngest, became the house champion cribbage player. By 6, she was pretty tough to beat in poker, too. My kids learned to compete. Sometimes we played games to decide who had to do extra chores. Occasionally a later bedtime went to the victor.
Without the safety net of Mom, we learned to fly. Sometimes we landed hard. And occasionally we soared.
Much has been written about the devastation divorce can cause, financially and emotionally — on kids, on mothers, even on grandparents. And it’s true. There are statistics and studies and servers full of evidence. I don’t dispute any of it. Cancer, too, wreaks a great deal of devastation. Yet there are still uplifting cancer survivor stories. This is my divorce survivor story. Nothing more. Certainly not a manifesto for divorce. Not an attack on the culture of mothering. Just part of one father’s experience.
I hope my sons, Zack and Max, now in their 20s, become the best fathers they can be without the trauma of divorce. I hope they learn that being fully present is more important than establishing the right schedule or adopting the right parenting philosophy. But this is my story, not theirs. They’ll have to find their own way through the obstacle course of parenting. They’ll have to create their own rules of engagement.
Jim Sollisch is a creative director at an ad agency in Cleveland. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.
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