Is there Life after Divorce?. I became a single custodial father when my wife of 2 years and I split up,back in May of 1995. My son was 18 months old.

One morning, when my wife came home from partying all night, I told her that we couldn’t go on like this, and she suggested we get a divorce.

As part of a separation agreement, I moved out. I found a rental house about a mile away and signed a one-year lease. This is how I discovered the first three fundamental rules of divorce:

  • Rule 1: Never do anything permanent when your life is in upheaval.
  • Rule 2: Realize that anything you do temporarily will eventually become permanent.
  • Rule 3: Before you do anything, draft up a temporary separation agreement. Spell out who gets what, who lives where, who pays for what, and what happens to the child[ren] in the meantime. Get it in writing and get the other party’s agreement.

The first night my son and I spent in our new home, I put him down in his spartan little crib in the barren little house in a run-down neighborhood, and he began to cry. So did I. I wept huge salty tears all into his soft baby hair, and told him it was all a mistake, a misunderstanding. Mommy didn’t understand what she was losing; she was just confused and all. I’d call her tomorrow and we’d work it all out. We didn’t. We couldn’t, really. How do you work things out between two parties when one of the parties isn’t the same party who made the agreement? In other words, she wasn’t “her” anymore. For the most part, she was now, or on the way to becoming, someone entirely different, and this new person was no more the woman I married than a snake is its shed skin, or a butterfly is the caterpillar that it was.

So life began again for me. Parenting was not totally novel to me; I had had plenty of experience in raising my boy. For the most part, life continued the way it had since she got her evening job, about a year before we split up: I’d come home from work and take care of him until bedtime, then I’d go to bed. The difference was, I no longer had a partner to talk to, someone to plan and dream with, not even a few times per week. So my next big challenge was to determine what my new hopes, dreams and aspirations were.

As the first year wore on, my focus went from mere survival (finding a home, moving in, cooking, cleaning, paying the bills) to peering into the future. Where would I live? What would I do? Would I be single for the rest of my life? I had to re-cast my dreams, re-define my future, reorient my goals.

That first year was a bear. It’s tough on any single parent, no matter what the situation. Suddenly you have to get by on fewer resources, with greater demands. For several years, I’d collapse into bed each night, weary with commuting, work, housework, and yes, even the time with my boy wore me out. I felt the guilt of withholding some of my time and energy from him, knowing I’d have to hold something back in order to get through the day. But that exhaustion helped me get to sleep at night, when I would’ve otherwise been tossing and turning, wondering what I did wrong that caused me to lose my family, something I had worked my whole adult life to envision and create.

I faced some big challenges during this time:

  • Not getting lost in despair.
  • Not seeing divorce as failure, but the beginning of a new life, maybe a better one.
  • Letting go of traditional preconceptions about what constitutes a family, so you can include all the people you care about in your life.
  • Learning to be emotionally independent.

Remember that saying about “behind every great man is a woman”? Some of the strongest men I know are that way because of the love of a good woman. But how to be strong without that love, that affirmation, that constant reassuring and soothing presence? Now *there’s* a challenge, especially after a marriage falls apart, and everything you invested your effort into has fallen to ruin, and you’ve been repeatedly told that it’s all your fault.

Many of my male friends who went through a divorce struggled with alcoholism in the first few years. I guess it’s part of how we deal with depression. My dad said it was like an anesthetic after amputation, like morphine. It didn’t take the pain away, but it made you indifferent to the pain. Being a custodial dad helped me greatly in that respect. Who has time to be an alcoholic when you never have time or money to go to a bar or the energy to get blasted at home?

Another aspect of single parenting that I believe is tougher on a man is the career question. There’s no doubt that this is tough for both sexes, but I believe it’s a little tougher when so much of your identity is wrapped up in your family and your job, and your family (as you’ve defined it) has rained out from under you.

So you have this job, a career really, and you’ve been working toward it since high school. At first it was your main source of social contact, but when you got married you noticed that it had a tendency to take you away from your family. On the other hand, it’s supported them well, helped you to create some financial security, and besides, you had someone to help take up the slack nurture-wise. Now that’s gone, but you’re back in the financially insecure zone, and you’re still putting in the hours, still hoping that career track is going to take you on to greater things.

If you give that up and take a much lower paying job closer to home or with less responsibility, will you be able to get back on that track if/when Ms. Right #2 shows up? If you don’t take the lesser job, how will you make up for the shortfall in the quality and quantity of attention given to your kid? Is this a permanent response to a temporary problem?

But on the other hand, if you do take that other job, how will you get financially independent enough so that you can do the things you want to do with and for your kids when you get the time?

I’ve known single moms who have no qualms about going on public assistance and devoting all their time to raising their children, even if the kids are teenagers. “After all”, they say, “this is the nation’s future, shouldn’t the nation fit the bill?”

But I know of very few single dads who are willing to go this route. They see their kid’s self image and self esteem strongly linked to, and similar to, their own: “What do I do? What am I contributing to society in order to make it a better place? What does my dad do for a living, and how is *he* contributing to society?”. Blame it on ego, call it hubris, chalk it up to old societal roles, but here we are.

I also wrestled with the idea of dating and socializing. Forcing yourself out of your shell, and into situations where you can make social contact. Do you really want to find someone to watch your child while you squander what little time and money you have for him on randomly bumping into people who most likely will not be worth the trade-off?

Making the decision to purchase a home or car can be frustratingly difficult.

  • Vehicle selection: “If I buy a two-seater, am I not excluding the possibility of having other people in my life? On the other hand, if I get a four-door grocery-getter or a minivan won’t folks (particularly women) just make the assumption that I already am part of a nuclear family?
  • Home selection: Should I buy a two bedroom, one bath home, or 4/3? Who will be my partner, who will I do this all with and for? How do I make space for her and her children if I don’t know who she is or how many they are? If I choose to proceed without her, will that exclude her somehow?
  • Home Decoration: What color should I paint and tile my kitchen? White is so boring, but anything else might be an absolute nightmare! What future am I planning for, and with whom can I discuss it? This would be so much easier if I had someone to talk about it with! Women discuss these things with their friends. They seem to be able to visualize the whole thing in their mind. Guys just shrug their shoulders and say, “my wife handles that stuff; I just do what she wants”.

For all I’ve given to this experience, I’ve gotten much more out of it. I’ve experienced the joy of seeing everything for the first time again, through my son’s eyes. First, it was simple objects and events: wheels spinning, running through the sprinkler, the softness of a dog’s ears. Now, it’s concepts and philosophy. What are stars? What does it mean when you say we only see their history? Where do we go when we die? Do leaves get hurt when they fall? And so on.

Eventually, I suppose the key is to just settle down and realize that everything is for us and for now, and will have to be good enough for us, for now. When we create that space for ourselves, a place of comfort and fulfillment, then we eventually awaken and find ourselves grateful and blessed.

So it becomes a win/win vs. lose/lose situation. If we focus on what we’ve lost, on being miserable and lonely, we will be miserable and lonely, and people will avoid us like the walking plague. If we focus on being happy and fulfilled, good folks will gravitate toward us, toward the happiness and light in our lives.

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