Decades ago, but not too many decades ago, divorce signaled a father’s presence fading into the family background. More times than not, the mother was awarded sole custody and after the dust settled, the kids saw Dad on every other weekend, and then the checks came regularly. This became the new family normal. Mom struggled and Dad found a new girlfriend, but eventually all families reconfigured and healed as best they could, except for the kids. They held and kept secret – into early adult life – the last vestiges of loss, close to their heart.
Being a great father means being present
You can’t define the absence of your father. But you know it when you see it in a friend and in their relationship with their father – any kind of loving father. You can feel the invisible presence of loving guidance, of a playful connection, of warm arms to wrap around you. You can never know what it is like to not have a father until you start to understand love, and then you will feel it’s painful sting all around you.
The first piece of advice I would bestow upon any father contemplating divorce is to make sure that you plan on being an equal and present parent. If it means cutting back and reconfiguring your life or making financial sacrifices, do it. You child – your children need you no less than 50% of the time.
It will break your heart, every time that they leave, but this is how it should be. An absent father feels his heart break once, then heals and protects – to never be put in the position of losing you again. Missing someone you love isn’t so bad. It motivates you to get your work done and to clean the house in-between visits. Simply being present will put you on the path to being the best parent you can be for your sons or being a great parent for your daughters.
Love your children’s mother to be a great father after divorce
It doesn’t matter why you got divorced. Maybe you were bored and had an affair. Maybe she was angry and intolerable – maybe she was? Maybe the both of you fell out of love and lost the connection and friendship that is so vital to keeping a marriage and a family together, and no matter how much you both loved your kids, it became a painful drain on your family, your happiness, and your mental health.
Divorce forces your children through an impossibly painful and potentially traumatic change with lifelong consequences. It will take time to heal, and what your child needs is two loving parents who are cooperative and kind to each other. Being a good father means keeping your painful feelings or angry feelings towards your spouse to yourself. Protect your children from blame, and love their mother. Remember that the both of you brought them into the world. Remember that somewhere – this all started with love. Love and honor what you started together and love your child’s mother, because they need a mother as much as they need you.
Bring new people into their lives carefully
You will most likely fall in love again or at least test the waters. You might not want love, but long for company and fun and pleasure and companionship. Be a vigilant protector of the time you have with your kids and whomever you might bring into their lives. Don’t get into a serious relationship with anyone who doesn’t like kids and who’s not interested if not eager of meeting and building a connection with yours. A relationship with you is also a relationship with your children.
Make bedtime conversations a ritual
Divorce is a challenging time for your kids. The changes that have been forced upon them linger long after they have new beds and they have adjusted to new schedules. When it’s time for bed, take a few moments to lie down with them and read and talk. This is the time of day when they reflect on what’s happened and what’s going on in the big picture. This is when they open up to you. This is when they feel safe and they can ask questions and be vulnerable. This is the time of day when they open up to you, and you discover who they are quietly becoming, in their own words.
Be sure to reflect on the good points, “what was great about today?” At the same time, make sure to say that you are sorry for any pain or frustration that they have experienced.
Never forget to say, “I love you” before bed.
Have rules, guideposts, values – even if you’re the only one who enforces them
Look, you’re on your own. When your kids are at Mommy’s house, no matter how collaborative and friendly your relationship is with your ex-spouse, kids may experience different rules and expectations. Let your kids know where you stand, so that they have guidelines and expectations for their lives. Let them see you as a beacon of standards that you would want them to live by. Do what you know is right and help your kids be the best versions of themselves.