A few weeks ago, I asked The Knucklehead if there was anything he’d like me to write about. He thought about that for a few minutes and said, “Divorce. You should write about divorce.”
No way, I thought. That’s entirely too big a topic for my little blog. I have nothing to say on the subject that hasn’t already been said by people way smarter than me.
I’m really good at rationalizing my way out of scary stuff that way. However, The Knucklehead is equally good at cutting straight to the heart of the matter, and in that sense, I’ve learned to pay attention to what he has to say. Besides, it’s not like he’s asking for the last word on the subject, any more than anyone else is climbing a mountaintop to hear what I have to say. He just wants to know what was going through my mind. Maybe that’s all you’re here for, too.
(Also, there was one other time I asked him what I should write about, and he told me “Tae Kwon Do.” I didn’t think that was such a hot idea back then, either, but to humor him, I wrote “Jackie Chan and The Knucklehead,” which is now sitting at the top of the pile as my most-viewed post ever.* So, maybe the kid’s worth listening to after all.)
Knuck’s mom and I separated a few months after he turned three, and were divorced a year later. We divorced because we knew we could each create happier, healthier households for The Knucklehead separately than together. Sure, we were concerned about our own happiness, but we were willing to shelve that for as long as it took. No, what turned divorce from the unthinkable to the necessary was knowing the tension between the lives we each wanted couldn’t be contained just between us. Sooner or later, despite our best efforts, that tension would spill out into our parenting, and The Knucklehead would be caught between two people he loved. We divorced.
And that, as Mr. Gump says, is all I’m going to say about that.
Let me tell you, though, the first night you spend under a roof without your child is the longest of your life. You are visited by ghosts of doubt, guilt, and loneliness, and you second-guess not only your decisions, but also your worth as a parent and a human being. Knowing you made the only decision you could for your boy’s sake doesn’t help get you through that night. You just have to endure it.
And then the next morning, you get right back to work being a dad.
Divorce is a scary thing for kids, because almost everything is out of their control. So you look for ways to give them control over the situation. For example, you let your knucklehead decide what stuff stays at which house. There were a few basics we kept at my place, just so he’d always have something to play with, draw with, or read. But as he was growing up, every time I gave him something, it was up to him to decide where it went. I believe that if you give someone a gift, it becomes theirs to use as they see fit, and children are no exception. That means, whenever I gave The Knucklehead a toy, a book, a game, a shirt, I was mentally prepared to never see it again. If he kept a gift in his room at his mom’s house, then that was his choice. At least he had something there to remind him of me. I never told him a gift had to stay at our place – I didn’t want to take that control away from him, or start qualifying tokens of my affection. Little kids (and big kids, and teenagers) are forgetful, and won’t always remember, “Right, dad gave me this, I’d better make sure he sees me enjoying it.” So some of the stuff you give them – invariably the coolest stuff – you may never see again. Accept it. Like you, your knucklehead is trying to handle divorce as best he can, and he’s just a little kid. Cut him some slack.
And while we’re talking about letting go, let’s talk about child support. If, like me, you are on the giving end of the child support payment, that first check is going to sting. I won’t lie. It’s a big check, your first under some precarious new financial circumstances, and you’re writing it out to the last person in the world you’re feeling generous to. I paused, I did, for a good minute, maybe two. And then I realized that this wasn’t my ex-wife’s money. It was my son’s. Child support ultimately wasn’t a promise I made to my boy’s mom, it was a promise I made to The Knucklehead himself.
I signed the check, and never thought twice about it again.
You have to let go of that, too, because you’ll go nuts trying to put strings on that money. If you’re paying child support, once you write that check, you’ve kept that particular promise, and it’s out of your control. You can’t worry about how it’s spent. Unless your former spouse is actively neglecting your kid’s welfare, you can’t worry about where each dollar goes. Now, that’s a little easy for me to say, because The Knucklehead and I were lucky. His mom stayed just as focused on his happiness as I did, so ultimately, I knew I could trust her decisions. That’s something I tried not to take for granted. But if you go over to your ex’s house and see a new car, or work being done on the house, and you think, “Hmm. I wonder if any of my child support went into that?” – zip it, mister. Put it out of your head, and under no circumstances say it out loud. Let it go. Let it go, let it go, let it go.
Do your job. Don’t worry about if your kid’s other parent is doing hers. Focus on the stuff that you’re in control of, and you’ll maintain your focus on your kid, where it belongs. Focus on what your ex is doing (barring actual negligence or abuse, obviously), and your knucklehead will pick up on your distraction.
The most important quality of divorced parents is also the most important quality of married parents: reliability. Of course you need to love your knucklehead, but that’s just the fuel of the relationship. Reliability is the engine. Reliability, steadfastness, that’s the way you put your love for your kid into practice. Keeping your promises is the single best thing you can do for your child.
When people hear that I took The Knucklehead to all 30 major-league baseball parks as he was growing up, I always hear, “Wow! You’re a great dad!” That’s nice of people to say, but Knucks and I know better. Keeping the promise to visit all those parks took a lot of planning, but it wasn’t anything any other parent with a steady income and the desire to do it couldn’t have done. Compared with other possible vacations, it wasn’t even that much more expensive, and there were plenty of ways we could have cut costs and still hit all the ballparks. To us, the ballpark trips were always the icing on the cake, the shiny, glossy bauble that everyone else looked at. We saw them as an outward sign of the real relationship, of the everyday work that all committed parents do for their children.
Whenever I picked my kid up from school, I was keeping a promise. Whenever I got him to soccer practice, or baseball practice, or band practice, I kept a promise. Whenever I made my son a good dinner, or even grabbed us take-out Chinese food, I kept a promise. Whenever I took him to a movie like I said I would, I kept a promise. When I took him to our 30th major league ballpark (June 16, 2011, Chase Field, Arizona Diamondbacks beat the San Francisco Giants 3-2 on a Justin Upton walk-off homer in the 10th inning), I kept a promise. When I read to him every night he fell asleep under my roof (until he was old enough to politely decline), I kept a promise. When I followed through on consequences for misbehaving, I kept a promise. When I helped him shop for birthday, Mother’s Day, and Christmas presents for his mom, I kept a promise. When I delivered every single child support payment to his mom on time without him even being aware of it, I kept a promise. When he found a letter in his mailbox from me every single Thursday of his freshman year of college, I kept a promise. When I held him when he cried, I kept a promise. When I bathed him as a toddler, I kept a promise. When I packed a haiku in his lunch, I kept a promise. When I showed up at his soccer and baseball games, even though I brought a book, I kept a promise. When I held onto a job that was crushing my spirit, I kept a promise. When I quit a job that disrespected my time with my son, I kept a promise. When I cared for him when he was sick, injured, beaten down by life, or heartbroken, I kept a promise. When I followed him across two states when his mom moved him back to her hometown, I kept a promise. Whenever we played catch, I kept a promise. Whenever “no” really did mean “no,” I kept a promise. When I listened to what troubled him, I kept a promise. When I nagged him until he told me what troubled him, I kept a promise. When I hugged him, I kept a promise.
I never left him with his mom without asking, “When do we see each other again?” It got to be rote. Another promise.
Parenting isn’t easy, but it’s usually not all that complicated, either. It’s being reliable. Being consistent. Keeping a thousand little promises. The ones only you and your kid know about, and often, not even your kid. It’s the boring stuff, the things that make you dull and predictable to young eyes, that’s the stuff that counts.
30 baseball parks in 10 years? Please. That was just the gravy.
When you’re divorced, you feel that burden more acutely, because you don’t have a partner (a teammate, as I used to describe his mom to the young Knucklehead) to fall back on. You feel more exposed. My worst day as a parent? The day I slept through my alarm after working 40 hours over a weekend on evening/night shifts (a 16-hour shift Friday night and two 12-hour shifts Saturday and Sunday nights) because I’d had to drive two and a half hours home from the hospital I was working weekends before I could grab three hours of sleep before picking The Knucklehead up from school. I woke up an hour after school let out, panicking, because no one had called.** Fortunately, he was safe at his grandparents, and was far more forgiving of me than I was when I showed up. To this day, I feel the pain of that afternoon. Why? Because I broke a promise.
If you’re sharing custody with another parent, look upon your time with your knucklehead as what it is; a priceless, irretrievable treasure. Treat it as such, but at the same time, don’t begrudge him his time with his other parent’s side of the family. If he had a cool vacation with his mom (or his other dad), let him see you’re happy for him; there’s nothing to be gained from attacking the other central relationship in the kid’s life. If you honor the time your kid spent with the other parent, he’ll be more at ease in the time he spends with you. I promise that if you malign or undermine the other parent, it will eventually and certainly come back to bite you. If you stay on the high road, especially if that’s not being reciprocated, your child will see the truth. You might have to be patient with this, but your kid will see it over time. That’s another promise to your knucklehead; never giving up the moral high ground, not in the face of adversity. All the more reason to let your house be the emotionally “safe” house, the home as drama-free as possible.
And if the other parent is reciprocating in honoring your role in your child’s life (which I gratefully acknowledge was the case with The Knucklehead’s mom), you have indeed salvaged something beautiful from a failed marriage. Not only have you spared your knucklehead the trauma of one house against the other, you’ve given him a roadmap for success in his future relationships. Like I used to tell my boy, even though his mom and I weren’t married anymore, we were still teammates.
Whew. That’s enough for today. Maybe this isn’t what you were looking for, Knucks. Maybe it is. There’s lots to being a divorced parent, but those are the things I tried to keep on the front burners as you were growing up. Like I said, the important stuff isn’t all that different from being a married parent.
When your mom and I divorced, I was the first person in my entire extended family I ever knew to end a marriage, except by death. I was starting from scratch, I had no role models to help, not even bad ones. Maybe that helped me. It made me think through every decision. Even if I made bad decisions (and I made quite a few), it got me into the habit of parenting with intention.
I think that gift may end up being the best one I could have passed on to you.
*Thanks primarily to The Knucklehead’s Tae Kwon Do instructor, who graciously shared the essay among his students and colleagues.
**Schools like to deal with one parent, and that’s generally the mom. Even when the dad (ahem) volunteers at the school. Something dads have to learn to get used to in some parts of America.