As someone who has been through the very difficult travails of divorce and undertaken various versions of shared care over the past 15 years, I understand all too well the confusion, stress and sadness these difficult travails bring with them.
I have, however, learned a few things along the way that I hope might be of benefit to those fellow travellers who are about to, or are, experiencing similar life experiences.
I am currently researching whether it might be possible to create a ‘Divorce GPS’ App that could provide evidence-based effective advice and referrals for fathers and mothers walking this difficult path once the decision has been made by either or both parties.
Many partners (as well as the children) are totally discombobulated at the shock of the disintegration of the dream of an intact family life that they imagined would be life-long. A relevant app would hopefully provide a user-friendly and easy-to-use format that would maximise the chances of navigating towards the best possible outcomes for affected parents and their children. Meanwhile, here is a short summary of some of the things I have learned.
1. Your Children Are Your Priority
Yes, I know it’s an obvious statement for any committed father (or mother), but it is important to keep that thought front and centre as one is wrenched from one difficulty to the next in this often very challenging path.
If, or when, you suffer unfair treatment — at the hands of your ex-partner, perhaps even your children, or institutions commonly involved in family breakdown such as the police, the courts and bureaucracies like the Child Support Agency — and you are tempted to retaliate verbally or in written form against the injustice of it all, keep this thought front of mind to guide your behaviour accordingly.
One thing for certain, in this often muddied and confused blancmange of calamity that is family breakdown, is that your children did not choose this path and had no say in it at all. If it was even possible or worth categorising in terms of injustice and the magnitude of the impact of family breakdown upon all of its victims, your children would clearly be at the top of that unfortunate hierarchy.
2. Get a Lawyer Son (or Daughter), Better Get a Real Good One
In my now clearly apparent naivety for nearly eight years post-separation, I didn’t engage any major legal assistance in support of my situation of family breakdown. To be fair, I knew enough about the legal system that it was one in which an average person’s meagre savings could be too rapidly consumed, and sometimes for not much real practical return or value.
Be that as it may, as someone who inherently knew the importance of children having a meaningful relationship with both parents throughout their whole childhood — whether or not family breakdown had occurred — it was naive and a high-risk strategy to trust upon the goodwill of a former spouse with whom there had been a momentous and life-altering fracture in our formerly assumed lifelong relationship.
In my own case, after separation, there were very many years of fairly non-confrontational relations, which in hindsight was largely due to me being too acquiescent to the unreasonableness of my ex-wife and her desires and demands as to how things would play out following her extra-marital affair and ongoing relationship with that person.
As but one small but insightful example of the temperament of the person I was dealing with, just six months after terminating our family unit, my ex-wife was insistent that I should mind our children — not on my parenting night I might add — so she could have a romantic Valentine’s Day date night with her new lover. On this occasion, I did show enough gumption to refuse her, and her own brother was appalled at her selfish and careless attitude.
However, suddenly after years of me bending over backwards to make things work as best as possible for my children, including providing pickups from school and after-school care every weekday for very many years — when at best I had 50% care — a few months after my son turned 16, his mother called to tell me he was staying with her 100% from now on.
I have only recently discovered that perhaps it was no accident that this disturbing development occurred when it did, because really under the Law (and I am talking all the way back to the Law as expressed in the Australian Constitution of 1901, so it is not really able to be legally challenged), at that age children can be deemed to be outside of their parents’ control and influence, and so a child under the influence of a manipulative parent could be used for personal monetary gain by a disingenuous parent.
Over the years, I also lent my ex-wife money to help her manage herself, even though I was on a lesser income (and to be honest she was no spendthrift), and provided extra loans in addition for her to meet her share of the children’s educational resource needs.
But when it suited her, because 100% care of my son meant my child support payments for my son went from $800 a month to more than double that overnight, my parental interests and really the best interests of my son in receiving parenting from both parents, were carelessly cast aside.
If I had engaged a lawyer much earlier and got a formal legal custody settlement, that might have mitigated the fears I had for years of the shared parenting arrangement ending at any time at the whim of the other parent — which is exactly what eventually happened.
It is important to get a Specialist Family Lawyer (the Doyle’s Guide is a good source — it rates lawyers and lists their qualifications and specialisations), and ‘be on your game’ as they say — no one cares about your family and your children interests more than you.
Time and again, despite expert legal help (I did engage very late in the piece), I picked up on lawyers’ general failings in terms of attention to detail, laziness and indifference — at times it felt like they should be paying me, but that’s just the way it is.
3. Avoid or Minimise Contact with the Other Parent
This may sound harsh, but for many, it is the safest route. You are no longer a couple, so don’t be deluded into thinking your interests are their interests. They are not. I would also suggest that you pause before saying or writing anything that might be in a moment of response to injustice.
Fairly inane and harmless words can be purposely taken out of context and weaponised so that one is verballed to create a trope that could be understood in a totally different way by an opposing lawyer or the courts.
There are a few apps around for organising things like shared care, pick-ups, changeovers of care and sharing of expenses to minimise your risks on that front, and some also can analyse your message to advise whether its tone comes across as harsh or problematic.
4. Look After Your Psychological Health
Do as much as you can proactively to manage your and your children’s psychological health. That usually involves seeking out professional and properly qualified help. Like any service, it is worth testing out a few practitioners if you find that you don’t gel with them, or their advice is questionable. In my experience, most such professionals were very good — but quite frankly, some were a bit whacky.
One particularly useful lesson is: ‘Structure is Your Friend’. You may be moving from a family life that is highly structured and revolves around you, your spouse and your children to something quite different, and consequentially a lot of time on your own. Although that may sound like Nirvana, it is not.
It is important to develop a structured broad weekly plan to have a sense of direction and purpose throughout your week, knowing that it can be adjusted as need be. Try to avoid slipping into destructive and/or excessive behaviours involving drugs, alcohol, sex or eating, and get help as needed.
5. Look After Your Financial Health
Look after your financial health, which also provides you with the capacity to support your children well.
Make a budget and create an automated spreadsheet with formulas so it can be easily adjusted as circumstances change — get professional assistance to do that if needed. This segues into the next topic regarding Child Support and the Child Support Agency (see my article, 7 Point Plan for Reform of Child Support System).
I have written before about some of the problems with the Child Support Agency — I am not against the concept per se, but how it is assessed and implemented, and what parameters, variables and ideologies employed to underpin it make all the difference to the actual outcomes.
6. Look After Your Physical Health
Engage in regular exercise, which is a great stress reliever. In my case, taking up surfing late in life has been a lifesaver for me. Monitor your health regularly and get regular check-ups so that you will be around to be the parent to your kids you want to be, when you do get the chance to do that.
7. Family and Friends and New Partner Relationships
Many friends won’t understand what has happened at the end of your family unit, and many will choose to drift away. This may also be true of family members as well. Do what you can to explain the situation, but also realise you may now need to construct a new life post-divorce, which will include new friends and perhaps different relationships with family members.
As far as new partners go, understand your responsibility to your children to provide a stable and loving environment in your home — particularly after what you have all been through in the ending of the primary family unit. Particularly when the children are very young, their need for that must take primacy over any of your needs, wants or desires. You do owe them that, although it may seem all a bit unfair.
Finally, don’t settle for just anyone for a new partner — this doesn’t really honour you, them or your children, and will likely end in disaster. Especially if you are ignoring very obvious areas of concern in the new relationship. It can be a quite lonely life as a single parent — but forcing the issue by taking up with just anyone to beat the loneliness is a recipe for disaster.
8. Spiritual Health — Time to Heal
Do what you can to be kind to yourself, give yourself time to heal, and engage in regular spiritual practice like prayer and meditation. Such a significant breakdown in an expected life-long relationship is no small thing, and you need to respect the process and the time it takes to heal such a rupturing of your soul and spirit.
My Christian faith and relationship with God, Prayer and Worship, is in the end what really saved my life, including some very particular interventions in times of crisis — but everyone is different. Just be aware of the spiritual element, how are you feeling, and be realistic about what you can expect of yourself and others.
I Wish You Well.
Photo by cottonbro.