When I offer resources like “12 Tips for Live-Away Dads,” I invariably get angry emails from a handful of men who dismissively say: “Get real, Joe!” These men seem disgusted that my tips encourage divorced dads to work and communicate with their exes (if at all possible) for the well-being of their shared children.
Such men tell me to either: 1) “Abandon your naive ‘feel good’ strategies and man the battle stations in the fight against the family court system, which is out to screw men”; and/or 2) “recognize that my ex is a low life b----h who had the child just to get money and turn the child against me.”
I understand that another parent—including a mother--can behave in extraordinarily destructive ways. Having been in the trenches of fathering work for a long time, I’ve heard just about every horror story there is to hear. I keep that reality very much in mind—and call on the help of numerous divorced dads—when creating resources for live-away dads.
But I also know that our children suffer when we blame other people, places or things for our problems and father from a position of bitterness, anger and resentment.
Our kids need us to focus on our own fathering; OUR words and actions, not the other parent’s. In the end, that’s all we can control. As adults, our own words and actions are not predetermined by the words and actions of others, no matter how much difficulty we encounter.
When parents engage in (excuse the phrase) a pissing match, it creates a toxic rain falling on their kids. If such battles start, the children are far, far better off if one parent refuses to participate … when one parent is the sane, loving-no-matter-what person in a kid’s life. The person who refuses, regardless of the provocation, to wound their own flesh and blood by denigrating the other parent who made this child. Divorced dad and author Bill Klattte says denigrating your child’s other parent is like stabbing that child with a knife—because that’s how it feels to the kid who, after all, literally comes from that other parent.
If you’ve followed my work over the years, you know that I’m a hard-ass on this subject. My job as a dad is to work on strengthening my relationship with my children. The first, primary step in that process is self-examination: looking at my own attitudes, values, words and actions. Close on its heels is the step of responding to my self-examination--and the situations (including difficulties) that life presents--in ways that best support and strengthen my children’s physical, emotional, spiritual, social and psychological growth.
These steps regularly demand self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice is seldom fun, but that's life; if I didn’t want to have any self-sacrifice, I should not have become a father.
Since I can never control the attitudes, behaviors or words of another person, my job is to keep my side of the street as clean as I possibly can—not matter WHAT anyone else does. If I want to fight injustices in the family court system, then that requires two things of me:
1. That I do it without fostering an atmosphere of anger, bitterness and resentment in my home. My children should experience my fathering as a sanctuary of love, limits, affection, expectations, encouragement, stimulation, imagination and all the other traits that contribute to healthy childhood.
2. That I recognize (and fight) other similar injustices, like violence against women, racism, gender discrimination, homophobia and the like. Experiencing an injustice myself does not absolve my responsibility for the injustice(s) I might foster in the lives of others—even by being a silent bystander.
Bitterness and resentment have no place in parenting, no matter what injustices we or our children encounter in the world. Bitterness and resentment are terrible for our children, and not terribly effective for us, either. As the old saying goes: “Resentment is the sword with which we pierce our own soul.” Or as longtime University of Tennessee football coach Phillip Fullmer answered when asked if he resented being fired after many years of success and a national championship: “No, because resenting someone is like taking poison and expecting the other guy to die.”
I find it helpful to ask what the child is going to think and feel about the post-divorce custody and child support battles once one or both of her parents die. It’s even more compelling to keep in mind what I am going to think and feel about those bitter battles if my CHILD dies. I know too many parents who have been in this latter boat, and they swear that they would endure any and every additional difficult circumstance in exchange for just one more precious moment with their child.
Like I said, I’m a hard ass on this. A fair number of people don’t like or respect that, but so be it. But even if you’re angry, please do yourself the favor of taking a deep breath, looking at the situation from your child’s point of view, and trying any one of my 12 Tips for Live-Away Dads. I’m pretty sure that it will make your children’s life better…and maybe yours, too.
As a father, my job is my job and my life is not someone else’s fault. To think or act otherwise is to think and act as a child. And when I’m a dad, someone else gets to be the child—not me.
Joe Kelly has two adult daughters; he’s been married to their mother for nearly 30 years, but both he and his wife are children of divorce. Kelly is a speaker, blogger and author of seven books, including the best-seller Dads & Daughters®: How to Inspire, Support and Understand Your Daughter. He runs the website www.TheDadMan.com.