I didn’t see my kids for 7 months.
Bar a few days in the middle of that. I visited them in Arizona to keep up a tradition of seeing them on my birthday (and pretending it was theirs). And also to see if Arizona in summer really does feel like you’ve been set on fire whilst Satan spunks his fiery evil man-tapioca all over you. And yes - the Dark One did indeed chuck his horrible muck all over me. Those seven months felt like a much longer stretch of time. The summer of last year was an agony. I lived two thousand miles from my own children. And while there were some reasons for that - it still wasn't my decision. I struggled with not having much of any say in that choice. And despite doing some simple things to keep in contact – goofy emails with my daughter, Skype whenever we could, mailing a turtle back and forth, calling and hoping their mother would just hand over the phone – there was a disconnect. One I wasn't in control of. Amplified by every day that I didn’t see them. That disconnect is obviously understandable. Imagine not seeing your kids when you ached to see them. Some of you may not need to imagine not seeing those you need to hold to feel complete.
But In a tortured sense it has helped me a great deal. I became a better father. And I believe I've become a much better person. I went through a very strange self-analysis during the last year of my marriage. My ex and I had very different reasons for divorcing. Admittedly during and afterwards some of those reasons became more well known. And we knew a very long time before it ended that we were going our separate ways. I’m not really a big advocate for airing dirty laundry in public (and I’m aware that for some who have read this for a few years that there are a lot of, “I wonder what the hell happened with that?” moments). So there's a delicate balance when you want to talk about changing as a person and a dad without publicly flogging a dead horse.
I’m also a very strong believer in the principle of Don’t Lie. That’s Rule Number One. To anyone who knew me as a young teenager that's the complete opposite. I was a total bullshitter then. Then I became something else. A guarded man. Now I genuinely feel uncomfortable if I think I've been misleading. That came from figuring out if I was a failed dad as well as a failed husband. And it demands a great transparency of yourself. I’ve had people tell me – not many to be fair – that the openness with which I talk about a few things means I might be vulnerable. But that’s just not possible. I own me. I decide if I’m happy. I decide how I feel about my life. Not out of deciding to do so. But because that’s innate and organic. Of course it was a journey to get to a point where the instinctive reaction is to be open and honest. And frankly getting divorced massively helped me get there. So many people hold convictions, beliefs and ideals but forget how they actually came to them. That's how I was. Realizing years before I actually did get divorced that there was an inevitable end meant I had to figure out who I was. It meant addressing so many of things about myself that I frankly didn't like very much.
I used to tell small lies. Nothing big. Just small, “just leave me be” lies. When I came to terms with the fact I did this it made me realize these lies are infinitely worse than bigger ones. Because there’s no need for them. But they’re said anyway. For no gain - but just because you want to be left alone. More than anything they're an intentional method of building a divide. To deliberately create a distance. And in hindsight I realized that all of those little lies were buried underneath an enormous, all-encompassing lie. The nuance of a life conducted to protect the status quo. And in my marriage only the pretend, everything-is-fine life my ex and I stumbled through for years and years was carried out because we thought we were doing the right thing. I hold a lot of shame for that. Anyone who has come out the other end of a dead marriage knows precisely what I mean. After our divorce both my ex and I marveled at how the hell we let it go on that long. All that time.
Nowadays - I will not lie. That’s not to say I’m abrasive and stark with the truth. That’s to say that I’m comfortable in who I am – what I’ve been – and where I truly feel I’m going.To know that I can be honest about my flaws, failings and mistakes. Free to just be honest. I say a lot that I love my flaws. And for those that I adore - I genuinely love theirs. There are moments when I catch myself though, of course. But my word can I see them so clearly and the implications they would have. If I can’t give the people I love and care about my own honesty - then I can’t have their trust. And that's the most valuable thing you can have. And I'm certainly not some heroic, virtuous exemplar of the truth. It just means I'm me as much as I can be. The stark dichotomy between a forced, pretend-me from years ago that I built to protect my kids, and what I am now is enormous.
I used to pretty much keep to myself. Yes I had a blog that seemingly had me spilling all sorts of details all over it. And while it was honest and open it was still selective. But in my real, tangible life I was still quite private. I'd take Oboe to library groups and playgrounds. And through him I'd have friendships that were very much channeled through him. But none of my own. I saw no real value in it. And I didn't see that as a parent without worthwhile, adult friendships that I was setting a bad example. After the kids left this changed a lot. That head-down method of walking around just lifted. I started meeting people's eyes. Smiling a lot. Not as an effort. But because I thought about it and had that epiphany that I was alone in the crowd. One day I was walking through my office and realized there were hundreds of people that I encountered every single day. All doing this unspoken, agreed ritual of nodding instead of communicating. Slightly smiling. But never actually connecting. I had that epiphany and realized what every single person really wants is to make a connection with other people. Everyone craves intimacy. Different levels of it of course. But those shared connections are what make you feel wholly, truly human. Happy. I spent months after that talking to everyone. And meaning it. To be fair I did get a few, “what the fuck does this lunatic want?” reactions. Or the weird assumption that single men who drive a minivan without seemingly having children, and who talk to random people are either looking for people to keep in a well or crafting an alibi for the true, despicable evil they must be planning. Luckily I was starkly different in upstate NY to everyone else. I was the English guy. So quite a lot of the time it got passed off as, “oh he’s foreign – he doesn't know any better.” I still remember being told by someone I chatted with, "....you actually listened to me." With remarked surprise. That says a huge amount about how people go about their days.
I used to avoid things. Not out of keeping the peace or cowardice. Partly, of course. But because I told myself that I was impulsive. Which quite often is code for, “if you don’t deal with the emotional aspect of a situation except for in that tiny, controlled, fleeting moment then you can’t get hurt.” You can’t burn your hands if you don’t actually pick the thing up. Almost everyone I know has a painful, burning issue they don’t want to deal with. And it’s entirely their prerogative not to deal with it. The why is their own business. It’s usually always a valid one. And it’s not like I heroically decided done day to deal with my own issues. That’s not how life works. That’s not how a failing marriage works. It just isn’t. But that example I was setting for my kids seemed like such a protective way to not hurt them from things. And it did entirely the opposite. One day my daughter came to me and told me that her mother and I don't talk to each other very nicely. We didn't yell. We barely talked for 18 months. But when we did it was robotic and artificial. Crafted with this idea that doing that would prolong whatever it was we were doing. Not hurt the kids. Not provoke each other. And it didn't work. We didn't work. And all those little moments of coldness that we thought hid that from our kids seemed like the right thing at the time. But Evelyn noticed. Nobody could have convinced us otherwise. When we sat in silence over dinner - and my daughter would ask if we were fighting. And we'd both say no. Because the lie seemed right. All those weekends when we'd patently avoid each other with Dad Saturday. Or them going off with their mother for the day. And my son blankly asking why the other parent didn't come too. And we'd smile and think telling him it was better was true. Knowing that together we just weren't very good parents. A bad team. Teaching my kids that too. Thinking that showing our kids we loved them but not each other was okay. Avoiding the issue. All that time.
I used to have opinions that actually affected my behavior. All as I thought of myself as tolerant, liberal and open-minded. A dad without stresses or struggles. And in many ways I was. But in hindsight I held values on some things that required no need for that at all. I sometimes see posts from here and can't relate to the person that wrote impassioned, judgmental tracts about the most asinine wank. Blathering on about drinking as if I was a fucking puritan. Or couching parents who both worked as "making a choice" and then making backhanded criticisms of it. Opinions about everything without any seeming reason. I mean for fuck sake - I didn’t even have a phone for so long because I held tight to a negative, emotional feeling toward them which stemmed from…..
And that’s really the point. I don’t even know. I held principles and values to support a way of living that essentially shrouded the actual problem. Which was my ex and I were very unhappy. We adored our children. I adored staying home to raise them. And I adored everything I provided for my family. A house that I built. A home that was paid for. A future. Except it was a Big Lie. And holding fast to a lie was essential in that time. And suffocating my own sense of who I was for fear that if I actually breathed the world in I’d admit the Big Lie was hurting all four of us. We were woefully unhappy and always had been. Constantly building up a life. Hoping that at some point something would happen and it wouldn't be miserable. And held up by that massive, painful thought – if this ends my kids will suffer for it.
Then it ended. And we both wanted it to. For entirely different reasons. But after some painful approaches we both really did want it to. We were both okay with entering the unknown. The day before we weren't. Then we woke up. And we spent a lot of time figuring out how to do it. Changing how we interacted. Released from the burden of pretending. And then - that ended. And my ex wife moved two thousand miles with my kids. And those seven months spread out like what seemed an insurmountable desert that couldn't be crossed. All that time. Too much time.
And then something really bizarre happened. I knew I'd changed. Grown is such a cliched, shitty word. And I don't want to paint this picture of a man entirely the opposite of what he was a year before. It's not like I was a deadbeat dad. I was never ragingly angry or distant. I'd like to think I was always a pretty good dad. I wasn't trying to repair a relationship damaged by something odd, like betrayal or drunkenness. There was nothing like that. They just moved away. And during that time I figured out who I really was. And that day I arrived on Halloween everything just clicked right back into place. It was so obviously right that I was there. Their dad. As I'd always been.
But it was certainly interesting to see my ex wife double take when she expected a reaction or behavior that likely would have come spilling out three years before And it just didn't come. Or puzzled that I didn't seem in any way frustrated by those opinionated things I had been for years. Surprised that I was so sincerely personable with parents bringing their kids trick or treating. Talking and wanting too. And more important - surprised that I seemed genuinely happy. There was only one area where I completely stumbled after I arrived. I knew I'd changed. All that time. But for some idiotic reason it just didn't compute that seven months in the life of two kids aged seven and four (at the time) is a gargantuan period of time.
I didn't get that they had also changed. Wandered down that same path of figuring themselves out that I had. It took a talk from another parent - one who'd been through the changes in kids - to get it to click in my brain that I shouldn't be trying to reestablish the old days. The laughs and the respect. How I learned from them and they learned from me. But to embrace the new, wonderful age that they are. Because a three year old and a four year old aren't the same person. Let alone one who was in a borken held-together family and one now who has two parents happier than he'd ever actually known them. I was bizarrely unaware that all that time maintaining the status quo had been punctured - and rightly - to allow their mum and dad to be better parents apart. And that we'd changed. Figured ourselves out. Blossomed really. But then I'd expected them to not really have changed either.
I'm a strangely happy man. I don't feel like Iv'e got it together. I know I have. Not ego. Not arrogance. Just comfort. Knowing that going through plenty of shit - and happy in a weird way to have done so - and still being happy is a good thing. I love my kids. I love what we have now. I love how I can be myself - feel genuine and honest for them. With anyone. I And weirdly - despite everything - I hope their mum is happy and that she also feels like she's a better parent too. Because we spent too much time holding up a bad example. And yes - nobody could have shown us that was the case until we were strong enough to see otherwise. And yes - now I understand that each moment holds so much more meaning. Not to be passed over. Not to just get through until something different happens. That whatever is occurring in that time holds a value that should be cherished too. That spills over into other parts of my life too. Not looking too far ahead to a time when things will be different. But appreciating what is good about that moment.
I still wish they'd not drop fucking crumbs all down the back of the couch though....