The Cut-out Dad

November begins the season of holidays and birthdays in my family. Remembering when the kids were young and Christmas was still a mystery. My son just turned 17 and my daughter will be 15 this month. And to say they are in a period of disconnection would be an understatement. But there’s something more disturbing that’s been happening.

Their mom has been leaving me out of critical parenting discussions.

  • Like if my son is allowed to sleep over with his girlfriend.
  • Like if he’s been prescribed anti-anxiety medication.
  • Like if it’s okay to smoke pot in her house.

I don’t know what else I don’t know, these things were big enough. I only know about them now because of the crisis we went through several weekends ago. And then was not the time to “go into it.” But today I wrote her a letter stating my disappointment and asking to open communication between us back up. There are no excuses for keeping your co-parent out of parenting discussions. If you go it alone you are giving a strong signal to the other parent and the kids that one of you doesn’t matter. I was not considered when these decisions were being made.

As I head into the holidays I hope to recommit to reaching out to both my kids daily to let them know I am here. I know that when I was in college all I wanted was for my father to see me, to recognize me and what my strengths were. I think I do a good job of affirming both my kids all the time. I am not there as often as I would like, but in the time given I show up.

There’s no good way to share that the holidays are a tough time for me. I will be looking after my own health and happiness much of this season, to assure that no melt down occurs in my life. But I will also leave some of my bandwidth open for my kids. Letting them know I am here. Letting them know I support them and their ideas.

I hope my ex agrees to co-parent with me again, rather than going rogue. It makes things easier on all of us.

Sincerely,

The Off Parent

@theoffparent

image: father son, creative commons usage

My Miss Fortune

In my first two marriages I had money in the bank. My relationship to money has been challenging my entire life, why should now be any different? I thought by the time I reached 50 I would’ve had this career-thing down. Turns out, the market is ever-changing, and ever more competitive than before. And if you happen to be in social media, the millennials have sort of taken over the game. I’m now considered an older worker. (For at least 10 years now, but I failed to make note of it before.)

In marriage one, my starter marriage, I had money in the bank, a good job, and the prospects for more. We lived pretty high on the hog. In fact, we both took off full-time work for over a year. It was a great year. I worked on my writing and small press publishing. She painted. But it couldn’t last. The estate of my father turned out to be a lot more complicated than originally thought and we were both back to working. I started working in Advertising. As the marriage broke up, she did some weird things, however. Months before the end she was putting money in a different account and buying a lot of expensive jewelry. I didn’t really see it coming, so I also didn’t suspect anything. Boom, I was taken for a lot. And in the end I paid her a good portion of the money I had in the bank to end the prospect of paying for both sides of a divorce.

In marriage two, the one with a pair of kids, I was also in a positive financial position at the start of the relationship. I must’ve looked like quite the catch. I owned my own condo near downtown, and was working freelance for a company out of Boston. She moved in with me over the first six months and we were already talking about having kids. We were getting to be that age. And as things went, my earning capacity stayed strong, if somewhat uneven, over the next six years we were married as we became new parents. And her full-time gig was put on hold, so someone, Mom, could meet the kids at the bus. The lifestyle we chose, and the neighborhood we selected for the schools, was just a bit too expensive to have her be a stay-at-home mom, though that would’ve been my preference. I never, we never, quite got there.

When my big corporate gig ended, due to the 2009 economic meltdown, we began to fight about money. She wanted me to go straight back to another corporate, well-paid, gig. I wanted to take some of the six month severance time and look into doing something a little different for a living. She was not happy with that idea. But we agreed to disagree. Just over a year later we would be divorced. And a lot of it had to do with money. She didn’t really go back to full-time work until she decided she wanted a divorce. Then she had no option. And, jump forward to today, I am very happy my ex-wife has maintained a well-paid job ever since we divorced. She’s a great worker, and is a good and committed mom. No harm or foul there.

But the money had been the root of the disagreement. Now, looking back on it, I wonder, was she right?

Since the divorce, where I signed a contract to deliver child support based on my average $72,000 per year salary, I have not been able to achieve that income level for more than six months at a time. And the child support police don’t care if you’re unemployed. The bills keep coming in, the crackdowns keep happening, and despite any goodwill or promises, I’m seen in the eyes of the Texas Attorney Generals Office as a dead beat dad. I’ve paid her a percentage of everything I’ve ever earned. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough to make her happy. And by default, it’s not enough for the state of Texas either.

So I’m currently living in default, in deficit, as the asshole who won’t pay his ex-wife. Of course, I mean, pay the money for the support and care of my kids, but you’ll forgive my ambiguity. Today I have no money. I’m working an hourly job (I’m not whining here, just stating the facts.) that won’t make my car payment. And it certainly won’t make much of a payment on anything when she and the kids get 50% of all of it. How can a dad make ends meet?

The truth is, often the dads are the one’s who fall under the bus, financially. In my case, I was also challenged by some serious bouts of depression, resulting from the divorce. So, needless to say, I have never been able to pay 100% of my child support since year two. And two months after I was late my ex-wife called in the authorities to enforce the judgement. I don’t think it helped. I haven’t been looking for a job any harder since they entered the picture.

I’ve had a few jobs. I’ve had some good freelance gigs. I’ve made some money. But it’s never enough. And at the moment, it’s really not enough. But I stay positive anyway. I’m interviewing for real jobs. I’m exercising regularly. I’m happy. I’m single. And, while I don’t get to see my kids as much as I’d like, I think we’ve all come to an understanding. All of us except my ex-wife and the AG’s office. See, she could cut them out of the equation with a single phone call. But somehow, she feels it’s better for my kids to have the AG’s office on my ass, and a lien on my credit. She’s determined to get her money.

See, that’s the funny part. Or is it the sad part? I think I was being sarcastic. The sad part is, she was/is going to get all the money she is entitled to anyway. By law I cannot shirk a single penny of my obligation. I’m happy to pay it, as I keep working, and I will/am paying it. It’s just a bit slow at the moment. But somehow, she’s happy with the arrangement. She’s always been happy with her decision to toss me to the wolves. Her new husband once told me, about the AG’s office, “It’s just how everyone does it these days. They’re like an accounting department.”

Well, that’s bullshit. She never needed to file against me. She still doesn’t need to ask for their protection. And yet, there they are, freezing my bank account ever six months or so to take half of the cash am holding on to for bills and food.

Everyday she doesn’t release us from the AG’s supervision is a day that I wake up and have to forgive her for acting and continuing to act on her fear. I’m paying as fast as I can, it’s just less than we both expected.

Ho hum. And onward we go as single parents.

Note: If you are a woman and are reading this as a complaint, as a whining dead beat dad, I might ask you to reconsider this. Shouldn’t both sides of the family live at the level of income they can provide? Today she still lives in our nice home in the nice neighborhood, and for my kids that has provided unequalled stability. But she has done this even with my payments getting behind. Was it necessary to punish me with the AG’s involvement? I am struggling to find the money each month to keep food in my mouth, much less the mouths of my kids. She is not struggling, and that’s good for my kids. For that I give her my sincere thanks.

Sincerely,

The Off Parent

@theoffparent

image: tango, creative commons usage

Going for Gratitude No Matter What

Every morning I wake up and contemplate my gratitudes. Often it is in contradiction to how I feel and I use the first moments of the day to reorient my attitude. It would be much easier to wallow in the negative, the losses, the current crappy situation I have landed in. But I know the negative can rule my life. I can live in the down and depressed. Anger on the other hand is an emotion that I have a hard time accessing. So if I can even be grateful for the anger in my life, perhaps I can harness some of the energy that’s caught up within that emotion.

This morning’s meditation came back with plenty of the negative aspects of my current situation, as it does many mornings.

  • I’m homeless (my last relationship included her house)
  • I’m alone (as it should be, I’m refinding my solo-self)
  • I’m working a shit job (it’s the most fun I’ve had at work, but it won’t pay my car payment)
  • My ex-wife gets half of everything I earn, after taxes, so my effective hourly rate is somewhere in the $5 – $6 hr range.
  • I feel the frustration of the pennilessness every day.
  • I no longer see my kids every other weekend, I don’t have rooms for them, so I see them “as I can make dates with them” and with teenagers that’s a challenging goal

And somehow I feel entitled to more. I should have a job that utilizes my 15 year career and college degree. I should have rooms for my kids, though things are a lot easier on all of us now that we’re not switching every other weekend. I would love a relationship, an opportunity to be building again towards the future. And I’d really be happy to reach some arrangement with my ex-wife that takes the impossible financial burden off my daily life and ties the payoff to the sale of a piece of property that I inherited. But that’s not how things work. We go through hard times, we survive, and we come out the other side changed. And I think we either come out smarter, leaner, and more optimistic, or we break and become bitter. It is through the active reframing of my life, with positive affirmations and prayers, that I am changing my attitude about my situation.

  • I am grateful that my kids are healthy and doing well in school and life.
  • I am grateful that my ex-wife has maintained gainful employment since the divorce.
  • I am grateful that my mom (humbling disclosure) still has an extra room that I inhabit.
  • I am grateful that I am able to maintain joy in my current job.
  • I am grateful that I have the financial help of my mom, as strained and emasculating as that is.
  • I’m grateful that I am super healthy and getting plenty of sleep.
  • I’m grateful that my creative energy is strong and my inspiration is growing.

Today, I have everything I need. I may not be close to having everything I want. But my basics (food, shelter, safety, community) are pretty well covered. If I can keep my attitude at the proper trajectory I can see that my current state is temporary and my prospects are ever-growing and improving. I have to believe that. I have to believe that I can find a high-tech marketing job as an “older worker.” I have to believe that I will grow out of this phase of my life back into the self-sufficient adult that I thought I was, that I have been, that I will be again. It’s like a prayer, really, these affirmations. I keep repeating my thankfulness. I keep appreciating what I have. I keep letting go of my expectations and immediate gratifications. And I am learning, everyday, to be closer to living in the moment. I am appreciating my current life, my current job, my current loneliness. And sitting in this place, I am also learning to become more conscious, more compassionate, and more humble about what I have vs. what I want.

Just for today, I will rise above it.

Sincerely,

The Off Parent

@theoffparent

image: man in stress, creative commons usage

What Every Dad Loses In Divorce

Everyone loses in divorce. But in many ways the dad in the equation typically loses more and much faster than any other member. It doesn’t have to be this way. In my opinion, 50/50 parenting with no child support should be the norm. It’s not what I go, even though I asked for the 50/50 split regardless of the money. That’s not what my then-wife wanted and her lawyer had told her what she’d get if we went to court, so we started negotiations there. It sucked. It was unfair. And as the dad, I lost everything in a single stroke of the pen.

In Texas courts, seven years ago I was handed a divorce I didn’t want with a schedule that was unfair, and a financial burden that continues to make my life very difficult. It’s just the standard deal given to men when divorcing in this state. The mom gets the kids, the house, and the money. Period. You can fight it, and you might win, but that’s going to cost you more money and turn an amicable divorce into a contested divorce.

I took the idea of a collaborative divorce to heart. But in the end there was no collaboration. I lost all my issues. All that “collaborative” meant was that I wasn’t going to sue my soon-to-be-ex during the negotiations of our divorce. That was my mistake. I was trying to be the nice guy, the stand up dad, the conscious one. And I believe we were both trying to do what was best for the kids, in our own minds. But society has this idea that a mom’s love is more valuable than a father’s love. Maybe 25 years ago, when the man typically worked as the sole breadwinner and the wife was a stay at home mom. You can see how that family system might make sense after divorce as well. But that’s not the financial society we live in today.

If I want to rent a small apartment, one bedroom, no space for my kids to sleep over, I’m going to first have to pay the child support, $1,350 after taxes and their healthcare, $550 after taxes. THEN if I have money left over I can eat and pay for cellphones and gas. And then, if I have a really fucking great job, I have the money left over to think about rent. Whereas my ex-wife got a house with mortgage payments that are significantly lower than my child support payments. How is that balanced? It’s not. There’s nothing fair or balanced about divorce. Dad’s prepare to get screwed or fight for your right both to your kids and to the financial arrangement that is equitable.

It can get worse. Once I got a month behind on my child support, because I had lost a large client in my freelance business, my then-ex filed with the Attorney General’s office to begin proceedings to collect the child support she was owed. Less than 45 days in, she put me in a losing battle with the state’s attorneys who behave like collections agents. Their most fun technique is to freeze your bank account. All outstanding checks and charges bounce and you pay those fees. And you pay for the privilege of having a lien put on your account. The first time it happened I was eating dinner at a restaurant with my kids. My card was declined. I was surprised. I pulled up my phone app and saw that I was $43,645 overdrawn. Luckily my daughter had just been given some cash for an upcoming vacation. I had to borrow money from my 10 yo daughter to pay for dinner. That was pretty humiliating. Of course, I couldn’t tell the kids, “Your mom is the reason this happened.” I had to make up some excuse about a bank error.

And today, seven years later, she’s still got the AG’s jackbook on my throat.  Everyday, she wakes up and decides not to call off the AG and resolve the matter between us. Everyday she puts my credit and masculinity up on the wall as a “dead beat father.” And she has made this decision everyday now for over five and a half years. We get close to an agreement and she always backs out. We get close to meeting with the AG’s office to reduce my payment, and there’s always a problem with her schedule. For two years I’ve been trying to get her to meet with me so we can set a more reasonable child support payment based on what I make. And she’s stalled every time. “I’m so sorry, I can’t make it.” And I have to ask the AG’s office for another meeting and it goes back to being scheduled six months later.

Divorce is a bitch. There is not two ways about it. But it does not have to be a war. My ex-wife puts me on the losing end of the deal everyday. Not because she needs the money. Not because she thinks I won’t pay her. But because it gives her some satisfaction that the AG’s office is running my finances until both kids turn 18. Well, if you’re in this situation and just beginning your divorce journey, lawyer up and ask for 50/50 with no child support. You pay for them when you’ve got them and you split the bills. That’s the only fair way to go. I support you in getting time with your kids and a reasonable financial arrangement that doesn’t cripple your future.

Sincerely,

The Off Parent

@theoffparent

image: dad with kids, creative commons usage

Developing Low-Reactivity as a Divorced Parent

My ex-wife does stuff that pisses me off all the time. The trick for me, has been to ignore the affront and keep moving along with my own agenda. I think sometimes she does things to upset me. Maybe she’s still mad. Maybe she’s spiteful and vindictive. Maybe she’s unhappy with her current situation.

I’m not sure what causes her flare-ups, but they are getting further apart and that’s a good thing. My winning approach has been to stay low-key.

Today and everyday until my daughter is 18, my ex-wife will be suing me for child support. Now, there’s no need for her to involve the AG’s office in this way, but she does. And with a phone call she could turn them off. But she doesn’t. Something about having the lien against me gives her pleasure, confidence, assurance, something. But, by law, I have to pay her 100% of what we agreed to in our divorce decree. Not even bankruptcy or death gets you out of your obligation to your kids. And I’ve never tried to get out of it. Still she keeps making the decision to let it ride on my ass.

Even this situation is done. There is nothing I can do about it. I’ve asked. I’ve offered alternative collateral. I’ve reasoned with her. But there’s no change. It gives her some pleasure. But I will not give her the pleasure of watching me thrash against it. So I let it ride.

I remember when I did a personality test for a job a number of years ago. The hiring manager was looking over my results and mentioned that my “sense of urgency” was very low. “Everyone on my team has a high sense of urgency. I don’t think you’d fit in very well.” She was right. I’ve cultivated a low sense of urgency. Why? Because I like to avoid conflict and I usually get my work done without the whip being applied. So, she did me a favor by not putting me on a team, her team, where are the projects were in crisis mode. No thanks.

So, that’s the way I deal with my ex as well. No crisis. No drama. Sure, she tries to make craziness out of minor issues. She tries to escalate mundane issues. But I don’t jump. I don’t take the bait. I remain in my low sense of urgency and ask her what she needs from me. “How can I help?” Is actually a very effective response. Often there is nothing I can do. That’s the point of being out of urgency. Still, she likes to include me in the excitement. It is my choice how I want to respond.

And that’s really the point of divorce relationships. You can’t control the other parent. But you can choose your response. If you can diffuse the urgency and your need to be right, smart, witty, or even a jerk, you will go along way towards lessening the drama and making things easier for both you and your kids. And in many ways, a low sense of urgency lessens the stress and drama in my ex-wife’s life too. But I don’t think too much about her wellbeing. That’s no longer my role.

Sincerely,

The Off Parent

@theoffparent

image: urgency, creative commons usage