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

The Long Retelling of My Divorce

off-telling

What I thought marriage would be like.

I was getting married for the second time so I was certain I knew what I was looking for. I needed someone much more stable than my first wife. I needed someone who understood depression; heck if she suffered from it herself that would be okay too. I wanted her to be solid, serious, and able to express herself creatively. And sure, we had to have fun.

What really happened in my marriage.

There was some drama in our courtship. As we were just getting started “dating” my future wife cut off our relationship. She needed to get right with her current boyfriend (WHAT?) and give that some time to sort itself out. It was a classic dear John lunch. And we agreed to not see each other for the foreseeable future. What she didn’t tell me at the time was she was actually living with the guy. Kissing me and living with the guy. I never knew until later. So we embarked on what I called our “moment of silence.” But what it really should’ve been was a BIG RED FLAG to get the fuck out. I didn’t.

She called me several months later, saying, “It’s done.” I was excited and we jumped into the “relationship” part of our courtship rather quickly and easily. She moved in with me a several months after that. And I remember our first fight was over when we would start trying to have a baby. She was getting freaked out by her age, and really wanted children. I did too, but didn’t subscribe to the drama of how quickly we needed to start trying. She freaked out. I consoled. We agreed we would start trying soon after we got married.

We bought a house in the fancy part of town (great schools, expensive, both of us had gone to the same fancy high school and we wanted the best for our kids) and rented my condo. Very quickly we had a mortgage together and were constructing our nest for the kids. She suffered an early (first trimester – were we even into a trimester language yet, I don’t think so) miscarriage. This gave her some sense of urgency that we try real hard to get pregnant. She was very goal oriented.

With the first kid came the burden of the child care and the house upkeep weighing down on us, we began to show some stress. I was working freelance, but had a steady gig with an online magazine. Times were good. 9/11 swept my business right out the door. And she was working part-time for her big employer, mainly to keep the insurance that would provide the coverage for our second child. I was crushed. We were both freaked out by money. We continued down the path to have a second child, but we were both struggling personally.

I suffered a major depression after 9/11 and during the medically challenging birth of our second child. She and mom suffered from a rare medical condition known as Kell. Their blood was incompatible and the mom’s body was trying to kill the daughter’s body. We visited a neonatal specialist every Monday morning for a sonogram that determined if our daughter was would need to be delivered in an emergency C-section, or if we could make it another week. It was harrowing. And our relationship suffered rather than got stronger. Doubt began to creep into my mind for the first time.

Then the hard middle years. Me struggling with depression, trying to find work, and the two kids eating up time, energy, and budget. Of course we were also in the glow of being new parents. We did bask in the amazing joy of being parents. But it was more us and the kids rather than us as a couple.

Nothing ever seemed to be settled for her. There was always something wrong. There wasn’t enough money. There wasn’t enough housekeeping help. There wasn’t enough spontaneous super-dad repairman around the house. She was mad that she had to ask me a couple of times to change a light bulb in the hallway. I was asking, “But the bulbs are right there, you can change it.”

During this hard time she confided in a new male co-worker. They shared several lunches together (just how she and I had gotten started) and I stumbled on an email between them where he was consoling her for being married to a person with depression. In my mind they were having an emotional affair. She apologized when confronted, and though she never apologized for the actual dating, she said she understood how it could make me upset and she would stop immediately. She never said she was sorry for doing it. She was sure she had done nothing wrong. But she would stop because she saw how it was hurting me.

This issue drove a wedge between us that may have been the crack that broke the marriage. We took it into therapy. We struggled with our financial issues. We were both stressed and not really going to each other with the work that needed to be done. I was using the energy to stay up late and write poetry, stories, or go into my music studio and compose. She was going to bed with the kids and waking up groggy and late. I became the “kids to school” dad. I was up. I was energetic and enthusiastic. She was always still getting ready.

Somewhere in that hard period she must’ve thrown in the proverbial towel. I don’t think she suffered from the same eternal optimism I did. I was solid and sure that we could return to the good times. I’m not so sure she felt the same way. She began to tell me how much I was disappointing her. It was part of our therapy that you could and should complain when something was out of balance. So she complained a lot. I struggled to find the way back to the joyful life that I knew was just around the corner. She began saying she didn’t believe that therapy or any of this “working on it” was getting us there.

In the end she made a decision to leave the marriage. While I was still sunk in the business of rebuilding she began to imagine life without me, parenting without me, and perhaps finding a new love, finding happiness again, with someone else. That’s the only motivation I could figure. More happiness elsewhere.

The final straw was certainly on my back. I was let go from the job that had saved us financially. And for three days I struggled to keep it a secret as I was working a new contract gig and interviewing for new jobs. I wanted to tell her, but not from a defeated place, from a place of hope. I wanted to say, “I lost my job, but I’ve already found the way to replace the income, so don’t worry.” It didn’t go down that way.

I was let go on a Friday. She and the kids were out-of-town for the weekend. When she returned on Sunday, I should’ve told her. Maybe I should’ve told her on the phone, but I didn’t want to wreck her holiday. She needed a holiday, for sure. So Monday rolls around, we’ve hardly had a chance to talk and I roll out the door just like I was going to my job, but I was going to my contract job, and later that day going to an interview. I kept the devastating news inside for one more day. I mean, I did have work. I did have a plan. It was a shitty plan, and a shitty thing to do. I thought I was doing it to save our marriage. What I was really doing was giving her the perfect reason to ask for a divorce. My untrustworthiness.

On Wednesday, while I was out at my “job” a letter came in the mail about COBRA medical coverage options. The jig was up. She was rightfully freaked out, more than usual. I was the liar, the untrustworthy child who wouldn’t grow up and take responsibility for his life. And in that position the only thing I had to argue was, “I think this is a turning point for us to regroup, reconnect, and recommit to our relationship.” It was a weak case at a bad time and she didn’t buy it.

That snap took place in March of 2010. In order to keep our kids in school through the end of the year, I argued to stay in the house and keep things “as is,” so they would not have to deal with this until summer. She did not agree, but the school counselor convinced her to wait. “Give them the summer to process this. Don’t do it while they’re finishing up their 3rd grade and 5th grade years.”

We lived in stasis. One of us slept on the couch or in a bed with a kid. I still did the morning breakfast routine, but the “relationship” was gone. In June I left the house and moved in with my sister. In August the divorce was final.

What I brought to the divorce.

I am conflict adverse. I’d rather settle, negotiate, lie, suppress, than get in a fight. My dad the raging alcoholic didn’t give much room for conflict in my family of origin. This caused me, over time, to avoid raising issues with my then-wife as things got tough. When sex went south in the marriage, I simply took care of myself and hoped for better days. I should’ve stood up and demanded we figure it out together.

I also brought my depression to the marriage. As an artistic soul I fluctuate sometimes between inspired highs and hopeless lows. I believe it’s manageable, but to some people it’s too hard.

I also have had a strong desire to work for myself. The “day jobs” I had were often a struggle as I scrambled to find the hours late at night, or early in the morning, to do my craft. It strained the marriage when I was always looking to steal back a few hours for myself. In the last years of my marriage I was helping put the kids to bed at 9 and staying up until 1 or 2 in the morning. Then going to work. I was burning the candle at both ends, and somehow napping, to my then-wife, was a sign of weakness, not a strategy to get more time later at night.

What was good about the marriage.

We did share some tremendous love in the early years of our marriage. While the time with the young kids was stress provoking, we mostly managed to focus on the bliss of becoming new parents, and the amazing evening activity of observing and interacting with these little humans. We loved our kids more than each other, I think, and that was ultimately the decision she made. Towards them (with 70% custody) and away from me. But for a good portion of our marriage we were two artists in love with our children and each other.

We did a good job of focusing on the parenting rather than the issues in our relationship. In divorce, this has been the saving grace. Our kids are now 14 and 16 and are showing signs of being intelligent, well-adjusted teenagers. While the fires have raged over money and the AG’s office, we’ve kept our kids above the fray. I’m sure there are frustrations they are aware of, but for the most part, the story is, we still love each other, we were just not right for each other in the long-term.

I did learn to love full-on in this marriage. I learned to put my whole soul into the project and come back with the joy of being a parent, and being in love, and being married. This total commitment is part of what blindsided me in the divorce. I was okay with things being a bit out of whack, because I “knew” they were going to sort out. I knew we would be happy again. In fact, inside, I was still happy, though the relationship was quite hard for the last year. I still woke up with joy and hopefulness in my heart. I’m not sure my then-wife ever recovered that joy in herself as she seemed consumed by a deeper rage and a sadness that was deeper than our relationship.

Sincerely,

The Off Parent

 

@theoffparent

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