I remember acutely hearing an account by Bob Geldof of what it felt like to arrive at the front door of his old house to collect his children. To ring the bell, and then stand on the doorstep – like a stranger. Hearing that tale all those years ago, I felt the mixture of pain, confusion and horror at what that must have felt like, even though at the time I had never directly experienced family breakup, nor considered myself particularly empathic. But it must surely be a deeply humbling experience.
These days as the Alternative Divorce Guide, I hear many variations of how fathers access their children and the rules by which they are bound, and I still feel that intense compassion for what must be a profoundly painful experience – one that many do not comprehend until it’s too late to change the course of how that particular dance is played out. Because I believe that they do have clear choices in the run up to that day of reckoning. Divorcing dads have plenty of opportunities to practice which steps of the dance they wish to perfect – and my hope is that this short article will help some father’s focus on those stark choices.
I lay these options out in the clear acknowledgment that in a parental alienation or domestic abuse situation – yes, men can be on the receiving end of psychological and physical abuse – then the situation is not so simple. But in the vast majority of cases, this is what is available to you chaps, so please pay attention:
Option no. 1: Don’t turn up on the doorstep at all
You could choose to just not engage at all as a father – perhaps convincing yourself that you can later on rebuild a relationship with your kids after they have left home, or on your own terms, and avoiding the humiliation of having the neighbours watching as you step through the front gate that is no longer ‘your’ front gate, or that uncomfortable shuffling on the doorstep after ringing the bell. Or you may go further and commit suicide. Opt out all together. They say that the suicide rate for men doubles post divorce.
But from the child’s point of view, either option is deeply selfish and damaging. So personally, I would recommend that all parents put their egos away, get some coaching and counselling to deal with their situation, and focus on the love they have for their children. Withdrawing in any way from being an active parent, is a negative choice.
Option no. 2: Not be allowed to come onto the property at all
Exclusion zones enforced by the police may allow you only to wait at the end of the street – or have contact in a specified contact centre with a stranger chaperoning you and your child for limited specified times. It is amazing how many men choose this option. Of course some have it forced upon them unfairly (note earlier caveat) but many choose to be verbally abusive, damage property, make threats. Having a tantrum and smashing a few household items and other outbursts is a good way to ensure you end up not being allowed anywhere near the family home post-divorce.
Anger and emotional pain need to be expressed – but don’t do it in the family abode or in front of your Ex spouse (or even down the telephone line or by email) – because that behaviour can lead you towards a destination that is not a nice place to be. But it is a choice nonetheless, and if you choreograph those steps in the run up to your divorce, don’t be surprised if those formal police warnings turning into a restraining order.
Option no. 3: Not invited in
I always imagine this to be a particularly painful option. People will only invite you in if they want to. And if you spend the months or years preceding this day making your Ex miserable, why are they going to suddenly turn round when they have their own independent front door and ask you in for a cup of tea? Nope – it ain’t going to happen. Even if it’s raining, you can just stand outside while the kids get their boots and coats on.
The relationship you forge during a separation and divorce is your responsibility. Don’t turn round at the end and expect your Ex to forget all those unkind words, that lack of trust, that emotionally bullying. They won’t. This is a common option men choose perhaps because they don’t want to ‘be friends’ with their children’s co-parent. But you don’t need to be friends – or even like each other anymore. But to not even get invited over the threshold when collecting the kids? Come on, that’s shit. Who would want to make that their outcome?
Option no. 4: You have the choice of accepting that offer for a cup of tea
Imagine arriving to collect the kids and being asked in for a cuppa while they get ready. Imagine having a polite, possible stilted at first, conversation about how they are doing at school; did you get the letter about the parent’s evening? When are we going to do the diary about who has the kids over the holidays? What are you doing over Christmas?
As the saying goes, it takes two to Tango – so you can try to blame your Ex as much as you like – but you are the partner in this co-parenting dance, and you may not get to choose the dancehall, or even the music – but you sure as hell get to choose which steps you take and whether you put your children’s experience of co-parenting before your own damaged sense of self worth. Smashed self esteem and a deep sense of injustice can be healed. But in the meantime, it isn’t going to help your children learn how to build healthy relationships by them watching their parents treat each other without any respect. Or compassion.
Imagine having the opportunity to say: “Thanks for the offer of a coffee – but we need to get going.” ?
No being stranded on the doorstep. No exclusion zone.
And apart from how that might feel for you – how is that going to feel for your kids?
Four clear choices. The preparation starts earlier than you think. Which are you going to choose?