I learned how to be a better father the hard way. Waking up that first morning, groggy, shrouded in a mental fog I looked around and realized I was no longer “Home”. It was a crippling dose of reality as I realized that I no longer had a Home.
Laying on a half deflated air mattress with a hastily packed bag of essentials beside me I blinked my eyes open as I started to fully wake. The scene around me a reminder that the events of the day prior were not some bad dream but in fact my new reality.
One final counselling session that had taken an abrupt, hard and unexpected turn. The therapist brought me back into the room after a private conversation with my wife.
“Mike, it is probably a good idea if you pack a bag this afternoon and find somewhere else to stay.”
In a split second a combination of many variants of relief and terror washed over me. Holy shit, after 15 years this was actually happening.
When we go through a separation or divorce, whether by choice or by circumstance, it can be incredibly devastating. For me coming to terms with the fact that my marriage was not going to work was one of the most difficult things I had to do.
As a man, I put a lot of value on family. It was something I had looked forward to since I was in my early twenties. I had grown up in a picture perfect family setting. The house in the burbs, a father that worked hard and loved us very much. A mom that stayed at home for the majority of our youth even though she was a professional. My siblings and I never went without.
I had been modelled a strong example of what a family, and especially a father, should look like. At least in a traditional sense. Maybe this example set me up for unrealistic expectations or perhaps in my quest to paint a similar picture for myself my wife and I just chose the wrong person.
Whatever it was I can assure you that when I eventually came to the conclusion that my marriage was not going to last there was a myriad of emotions that came up. Grief, loss, shame and failure were just some of the feelings that arose.
The reality is that we had really stayed together “for the kids” as one so often hears. In my hierarchy of all the manly things, most certainly being a good father was at the top of the list. I worked hard to live up to the good dad moniker. I rarely missed sporting events, I coached soccer for both our kids, and there was not a play or recital that I skipped out on. I was ever the present father. Or was I?
You see, as my relationship with my wife became more and more distant I threw myself deeper and deeper into my work. As a stay at home mom she went deeper into her role of mother. The result for me was that I started to feel like an outsider. The three of them a little clique that I bounced around the fringes of. I didn’t really see it that way at the time. I deluded myself with the traditional breadwinner role and accepted that this was just the way it was. This feeling of being the outsider coupled with the narrow view of being the provider moved me to spending more and more time in my work environment where I felt valued as a leader.
It was finally, on a beach in Jamaica where it all came into focus for me. I tell the full story in my book but the short version is that watching an elderly couple walk hand in hand down the beach triggered an epiphany for me. In the state of my current relationship I was never going to have that kind of connection. This was something I desperately wanted long term for me and my partner. I knew then that something had to change. In that moment I made the decision that either we would fix it completely or break it off completely.
Fast forward through the trip home, a number of counselling sessions and ultimately the decision to split and once again I was at a transition point in my life. The amount of shame I felt over this epic failure was immense. If only I had.. Or I had… oh fuck it. None of that mattered now. I was here. I was here and I was alone, even though I wasn’t ever alone. I was desperate to ensure that I did my best to become that exceptional father that I always strove to be.
How to be a better father
One thing was certain. I would no longer be bouncing around the outside of their little clique. I now was forced to confront the fact that I would have to build my own little circle with my two lovely young human beings. M was 10 when we split and C was 12.
I was fortunate. Financially we were in good shape and while there was some animosity we both had the best interest of the children at heart. I bought a house 5 minutes down the road from our matrimonial home and set up a new base so that the kids could have some stability and easily move back and forth on the week on, week off rotation we had agreed to.
During my week when the kids lived with me I was more present than I had ever been. They became my focus and not my sideline. It is amazing what you take for granted when you have it all. I started to align my business travel schedule with my kids schedule so I was rarely out of town when they were scheduled to be with me.
I felt like I would have to make a substantial effort to make sure my (our) home environment was one that the kids would enjoy. While I never wanted it to be a competitive situation I can assure you there was a little bit of that competitive feeling that crept in. Fortunately my ex and I maintained a reasonably good relationship and always put the kids’ needs first.
During my weeks without the kids I made sure that I used soccer games, recitals, etc as a time to reconnect and show them I was there. My separation led to a lot of personal deep work, where I found yoga, meditation and endurance sport. The result was a much more present, patient and connected father than I had ever been. It’s funny now I was finally becoming that better man that I purported to be while keeping my marriage together.
For many of us men, a large part of our identity is wrapped up in being a good husband, being a good father and ultimately being the provider. While I realize that this may be an antiquated way of thinking, it is a truth for so many of the men that I work with.
The reason I write this piece today is to show you that you can still be a good father even after the dissolution of your marriage. I want to show you that you are not alone in your shame, your loneliness, and your feelings of guilt and remorse. That you are not the only one that may feel like a failure that you couldn’t keep your marriage together.
The good news is that while the good husband ship may have sailed, the good father ship has lots of sea yet to sail. For so many of us these divorce transitions can feel catastrophic. For me I had to shift my perspective and look for the opportunities. So my challenge for you today is to look at how you view your current circumstance. Are there opportunities here for you to grow as a man?
There are so many stories of men who turn their shame, anger, frustration and animosity into either self loathing and depression or they become vengeful to their former partner. For me this was an opportunity to truly live my values and be the man that I wanted to be despite all of these feelings. It was an opportunity to practice being the man I wanted to be.
For me it was important that I remained a good husband, even as an ex-husband. Even as a couple apart I could still be a good man to my former partner. I could stand firm in my boundaries while still being a good and decent man.
This was also an opportunity for me to become an even better father. For me this was a beginning not an ending. It was a chance for me to step into the man that I truly am and stop trying to be the man that I thought everyone expected me to be.
Who knows, If you are anything like me you may find that in fact this ‘failing’ is, in fact, how to be a better father. And while this is likely painful for all in the moment, I want to remind you that almost everything beautiful is on the other side of something shitty.