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Listening

A follow up to my post on Facing the Music (from May 17, 2017, re-posted below), describing my invitation to have an authentic conversation with my young adult daughter Rebecca to hear her perspective on growing up in a family of divorce and the mistakes or oversights I may have made during those crucial years of development:

Time was running short, but I didn’t want to be a typical “all talk, no do” phony dad. I made my overture for an honest conversation just before I went to the beach for three months to teach tennis. Now I had less than two weeks back home until Rebecca traveled to France for a school year to teach English, and she was busy preparing and doing things with friends and family.

There seems never a good time to have difficult, uncomfortable and potentially distressing conversations. They’re easily avoided, and that’s what many people do, DiscussionTimeburying the hurt, anger, disappointment, sadness or other negative emotions until one day they boil over and surface in a torrent, providing release for the emotional-baggage carrier and a knockdown punch for the recipient of the pent-up emotions, unaware of the depth and intensity of feelings. I’ve been on both the unleashing and receiving ends of the bubbling emotional volcanos, and it’s never pretty.

A few days before Rebecca jetted off, we found ourselves together at home, and I broached the topic. Understandably, Rebecca was ambivalent about getting into an emotional conversation about past wounds and frustrations before embarking on an adventure of a lifetime. But she started talking, and I listened and asked questions.

I can’t reveal the content of what we discussed about our relationship and family life, and the complications and challenges Rebecca faced as a child, along with her younger brother, whose parents separated 12 years ago when she was 9 and ultimately divorced. It’s too private.

But I can say that at certain times I could have handled things better, that I was caught up in myself, that I made some mistakes, and that I was sometimes unaware of – or didn’t want to acknowledge – how much the kids observed, heard, knew or perceived, even at relatively young ages. Listening to Rebecca’s perspective and looking back, I can say how challenging it was for me to balance the needs, feelings, happiness, stability and security of my kids with my own needs, desires and emotions, and to try to lean toward selfless rather than selfish.

Divorce and eventual remarriage created some circumstances that ultimately were going to cause some distress for Rebecca individually and in our relationship, no matter what I did or said. The complexities of a marriage breakup and the constantly evolving aftermath can’t be fully grasped by a child, whose experience can be like that of a pinball ricocheting within a constrained environment. I experienced the pinball game as a child, and certainly didn’t understand everything that was going on with my divorced parents, and now so has Rebecca.

The beauty of our conversation was that Rebecca was able to tell me some things about what transpired from her perspective, what she experienced and how she felt honestly, and I was able to listen while squelching the default tendency to be defensive or critical.

We got through it with our relationship intact and expressions of love for each other. I’m hoping our conversation helps set a foundation for our future adult relationship, one in which we can be open and honest with each other without fear that we will be jeopardizing our relationship by revealing our feelings and with knowledge that we love each other unconditionally regardless of any conflicts, hurt feelings or differences that can be addressed and resolved.

So many relationships between fathers and adult children barely break the surface because of the dread of churning what lies beneath and what digging will uncover, or because of an inability, unwillingness or lack of desire to go deeper. Stoicism and emotional avoidance are drilled into males. I don’t want that type of relationship with my kids as they grow into adulthood. I want them to know and understand me, with all my attributes and faults, as I do them. I want us to be able to know and share our emotional selves. The only way to do that is to be emotionally available and vulnerable to them, and to show that I care about and want to know how they feel, and can handle it when they lay it on me.

One takeaway from our conversation is that whatever mistakes I made as Rebecca was growing up, I believe that she accepts my apologies, forgives my transgressions, acknowledges that I have tried to be a good and caring father and doesn’t expect me to be perfect. Our conversation was a good start toward setting the standard and expectation of our relationship for the future. I’m glad we each took the risk of having it instead of avoiding it.

Facing the Music (Midlife Dude Blog Post from May 17, 2017)

As my daughter Rebecca and I were discussing her sociology class on adolescence, she tangentially announced, “You and mom did a good job raising me.”

Surprised by an out-of-the-blue compliment, I asked, “What makes you say that?”

Rebecca explained that she does not view herself as materialistic, implying instead that she values experiences and relationships above things. We provided for her needs and many wants, but we didn’t overindulge, and didn’t replace our caring, attention and presence with materials, she was saying.

As a 21-year-old sociology major graduating from the University of Maryland in four days, she has learned about inequality, justice, race, poverty, privilege, human development and other similar topics, helping her become more insightful and introspective about her own life, and more astute about distinctions among individuals and communities.

I was happy to hear Rebecca praise our parenting, since her mom and I broke up when she was 9. My biggest fear about our divorce was that it would cause emotional and psychological problems for Rebecca and younger brother Daniel.

“So we did a lot of things right,” I said, fishing for more praise.

“Yeah, but not everything,” she said, adding the inevitable disclaimer.

“What didn’t we do so well?”

“There were things I haven’t talked to you about.”

We were headed to an Easter celebration, so there wasn’t time, and it wasn’t the right time, to get below the surface. But I kept the conversation in my memory, committed to return to it.

I did that last weekend, inviting Rebecca to have an open discussion with me as a young adult, reflecting on her experiences as a pre-teen and teenager, the positive and the negative, the gratifying and the disappointing, the supportive and the hurtful.

That conversation, I recognize, will require certain things of me, to be constructive rather than destructive or dismissive:  I’ll want to approach it as a listener, not a talker, and with an open-minded, non-judgmental, non-defensive attitude. Because I know my temptation, like any parent told in retrospect they weren’t as magnificent as they believed, will be to explain or justify or rationalize or correct the record, which would only serve to shut down Rebecca, diminish openness, trust and honesty and invalidate her experiences and feelings. My current training in counseling should help me control such urges.

I would like to give Rebecca the chance to have an open forum with me without fear of reprisal or disengagement. I believe it’s important to transition into our adult relationship with everything in the open, past issues revealed and understood, nothing left unsaid, as the foundation for our future interactions and communications.  It’s the key to an emotionally healthy, genuine father-daughter relationship.

I don’t know what she will say to me. I don’t know if I’ll be surprised. I don’t know what emotions it will trigger. But I want to hear it. I know I had good intentions throughout her childhood, and did my best as a father. But I also know I made mistakes. And I know the fact of divorce created situations and triggered emotions that were difficult, or perhaps impossible, to manage without having an impact on the kids. 

Facing the music about my role and impact as a divorced (and remarried) father in my daughter’s life will increase my awareness and, I hope, strengthen my ability to relate to Rebecca. It’s worth whatever discomfort or ego deflation it may cause me.

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Facing the Music

As my daughter Rebecca and I were discussing her sociology class on adolescence, she tangentially announced, “You and mom did a good job raising me.”

Surprised by an out-of-the-blue compliment, I asked, “What makes you say that?”

Rebecca explained that she does not view herself as materialistic, implying instead that she values experiences and relationships above things. We provided for her needs and many wants, but we didn’t overindulge, and didn’t replace our caring, attention and adam-reb_foyeweddingpresence with materials, she was saying.

As a 21-year-old sociology major graduating from the University of Maryland in four days, she has learned about inequality, justice, race, poverty, privilege, human development and other similar topics, helping her become more insightful and introspective about her own life, and more astute about distinctions among individuals and communities.

I was happy to hear Rebecca praise our parenting, since her mom and I broke up when she was 9. My biggest fear about our divorce was that it would cause emotional and psychological problems for Rebecca and younger brother Daniel.

“So we did a lot of things right,” I said, fishing for more praise.

“Yeah, but not everything,” she said, adding the inevitable disclaimer.

“What didn’t we do so well?”

“There were things I haven’t talked to you about.”

We were headed to an Easter celebration, so there wasn’t time, and it wasn’t the right time, to get below the surface. But I kept the conversation in my memory, committed to return to it.

I did that last weekend, inviting Rebecca to have an open discussion with me as a young adult, reflecting on her experiences as a pre-teen and teenager, the positive and the negative, the gratifying and the disappointing, the supportive and the hurtful.

That conversation, I recognize, will require certain things of me, to be constructive rather than destructive or dismissive: I’ll want to approach it as a listener, not a talker, and with an open-minded, non-judgmental, non-defensive attitude. Because I know my temptation, like any parent told in retrospect they weren’t as magnificent as they believed, will be to explain or justify or rationalize or correct the record, which would only serve to shut down Rebecca, diminish openness, trust and honesty and invalidate her experiences and feelings. My current training in counseling should help me control such urges.

I would like to give Rebecca the chance to have an open forum with me without fear of reprisal or disengagement. I believe it’s important to transition into our adult relationship with everything in the open, past issues revealed and understood, nothing left unsaid, as the foundation for our future interactions and communications. It’s the key to an emotionally healthy, genuine father-daughter relationship.

I don’t know what she will say to me. I don’t know if I’ll be surprised. I don’t know what emotions it will trigger. But I want to hear it. I know I had good intentions throughout her childhood, and did my best as a father. But I also know I made mistakes. And I know the fact of divorce created situations and triggered emotions that were difficult, or perhaps impossible, to manage without having an impact on the kids.

Facing the music about my role and impact as a divorced (and remarried) father in my daughter’s life will increase my awareness and, I hope, strengthen my ability to relate to Rebecca. It’s worth whatever discomfort or ego deflation it may cause me.

Overcoming Perils of Divorce

I’m a child of divorce who has wound up raising two children of divorce of my own.

Children of divorce face many more challenges in their development as kids and in adjustments to adult life and adult relationships than children from intact families, as found in Judith Wallerstein’s landmark 25-year study, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce.familyatthanksgiving2016

But so far, at least from what I can observe on the surface and by traditional markers of success, my kids Rebecca and Daniel are showing strong signs of overcoming the perils of divorce.

[Disclaimer: Father’s unabashed bragging on kids to follow.] Rebecca, 21, is set to graduate from the University of Maryland in May, with a 3.7 GPA and multiple honor roll appearances. She’s run marathons. She’s ventured into the world, spending a semester in France and traveling extensively throughout Europe. She has loads of friends, and has formed and maintained an intimate relationship, dating a solid young man for four years. She has an internship with the French Embassy and is planning to teach English in France after graduation.

Daniel, 18, earned straight As in his first semester at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), taking advanced courses in computer science, biology and math that would have pummeled me as a freshman. He earned multiple Advanced Placement (AP) college credits while in high school, setting him up to graduate college within three years. He has maintained and thrived in a job while attending college and just celebrated six months in a relationship with a lovely girlfriend.

Psychological, social or emotional problems connected to growing up in a divorced family could surface as they advance into young adulthood, progress deeper into their own relationships and reflect more on their childhood experiences. But to this point, I’m thrilled and grateful for their demonstrated resilience and ability to adapt, thrive and make good decisions.

I will also take some credit for their positive adjustments, and give a good deal to their mother Theresa (not the Mother Theresa), for making a commitment to positive, caring and mutually respectful and cooperative parenting, despite the challenges we each faced due to the dissolution of our marriage. Both step-parents, Amy and Bernard, also deserve credit for being consistent, stable and positive influences, in roles often fraught with conflict that can become destructive and divisive.

For half or more of their childhoods, the kids split their time – week on and week off – with each parent. There was unavoidable upheaval – my ex-wife and I each moved twice and sold the kids’ primary childhood home. But we never lived more than 10 minutes apart (until last year when Theresa moved to Texas), and the kids were able to continue attending school in their same district without disruption.

As parents, we cooperated in financial matters, and though we were weaker financially as separate entities, the kids weren’t deprived of things they wanted to do and didn’t suffer materially. We were each committed to continue saving for the kids’ college educations despite the split, and now that is paying off big-time.

I’m sure I said things I shouldn’t have and made mistakes, especially early in the breakup. Challenges arose throughout our co-parenting in relation to family gatherings, which became emotional and tense. We weathered them, though it may have left a mark on the kids. Overall, however, I strived to be respectful and positive about Theresa, and not pollute the kids’ minds or attempt to influence them negatively or turn them against their mother with whatever hard feelings I might have had. And for good reason, because I knew Theresa was a good mother, and the kids knew the same, and anything I did to tear her down would reflect badly upon me and prompt the kids to resent me. To my knowledge, Theresa behaved the same toward me, and I’m grateful for that.

I believe these efforts, which had to be conscious, thoughtful, consistent and enduring, have helped ameliorate the effects of divorce for Rebecca and Daniel. And those potential effects, according to Wallerstein’s 25-year study, are considerable and lasting:

  • A harder, unhappier and diminished childhood, including adjustments in contact with each parent, relocations, losses of friendships and activities, decreased influence of parenting, higher anxiety, and worry about one or both parents
  • More acting out and less protection during adolescence, a result largely of inconsistent and unenforced rules and standards, and assuming greater responsibilities for themselves
  • Higher chances of sexual promiscuity among female adolescents
  • A belief that personal relationships are unreliable, and even the closest family relationships can’t be expected to last
  • Observations of second parental marriages that typically proved less stable and enduring than the first
  • Feelings of loneliness, bewilderment and anger at parents
  • Scarring memories of witnessing violence during the breakup and aftermath, and repercussions of abandonment
  • Less planning for and lower chances of college enrollment, and inadequate financial support from parents once enrolled
  • Diminished capacity to love and to be loved within a lasting, committed relationship in adulthood, a fear of failure and feelings of pessimism based on their childhood experiences, and a desire to avoid the emotional pain

Though impacts are inevitable, I am hopeful that my kids will avoid or minimize these impacts through their own strengths and abilities to deal with their childhood divorce experience in healthy ways, and through the knowledge that their parents – all four of us now – care about them greatly and always will be there to support them. So far, it looks like that’s the track they are traveling, and I am confident that they have the tools and fortitude to stay that course. Hopefully, they will break the familial pattern both my ex-wife and I experienced as kids, and bestowed on our own.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Even though I’ve been divorced from my ex-wife for 11 years, we’ve never lived more than five miles from each other – until now.

Those five miles have become 1,500 miles, as Theresa moved to Texas this summer to be with her husband, who was transferred to Houston for his job.texas

For the first time in those 11 years, my house becomes the sole home base in the area for our two kids, who are both in college in their home state of Maryland.

I always thought I would be the more likely one to move, but things can change fast in life. Theresa surprised me and beat me to it. With the kids’ mom no longer in the area, I feel some extra sense of responsibility to stay close even as I’m developing a growing sense of wanderlust for a new environment and a fresh start as I transition to a new counseling career after 28 years in Maryland. The dynamic gives me conflicted feelings.

Theresa’s Texas move marks another type of transition. During the kids’ years in secondary school, I saw Theresa on a regular basis for school events, athletic activities, certain family gatherings and transitions of the kids from one house to another each week. Though we didn’t talk a lot, we were cordial and always had the chance to discuss situations concerning the kids when necessary.

Now our estrangement is much more complete, as the saying goes, “Outta sight, outta mind.” The combination of both kids’ entry into college, my summer away from home teaching tennis at a resort and Theresa’s move has resulted in minimal communications. Perhaps that’s just the way it is with divorced parents when the kids leave home, but I still believe as parents, we have the common bond of our kids forever and we shouldn’t lose touch. We know them best and care about them most. Ideally, I believe we should not be strangers. Perhaps that’s unrealistic.

I anticipate being virtually out of touch, now that my ex-wife is Deep in the Heart of Texas.

Divorced Parents with United Financial Goals

One of the toughest things about divorce is untangling and dividing finances, and planning and making financial agreements for the future that each party can live up to when kids are involved. Fortunately, my ex-wife and I have done a pretty good job at that, and it’s paying off now.

Money battles between divorced parents and short-sightedness not only cause intenseCollegeTuition acrimony between the former husband and wife, but almost unavoidably will spill over into relationships between the parents and the kids and cause more turmoil, stress and anxiety. Challenging enough that parents who once combined incomes to create more buying power and economies of scale have to double down on everything after divorce – housing, property taxes, furniture, electricity, cable, maintenance costs, health and car insurance and more – without negatively affecting relationships and kids’ attitudes, perceptions and sense of well-being and security.

My ex-wife and I are likely going through our greatest time of financial stress since our separation 11 years ago right now, yet we are weathering it well (I can’t be positive, but I think I can speak for both of us). This fall 2016, both our children will be in college at the same time. In addition, I am in a graduate school program for counseling, so I’ll be paying for three higher education degrees simultaneously.

But a few things have saved us from potentially extreme financial pressures and enormous debt.

First, we planned for the kids’ college education early in their lives, investing in Maryland’s prepaid college tuition program (for two years’ tuition) when they were 4 and 2. We also opened Education IRAs for each child around the same time. Second, when we divorced, we agreed to continue contributing to each fund on an arranged schedule, and each of us adhered to the agreement. Third, I opened Maryland 529 college investment accounts for me and both kids a few years before my oldest entered college to help fund my education and fill in inevitable gaps in theirs. Finally, each kid made wise choices to attend state universities, where tuition costs are half or less of private or out-of-state colleges.

My ex-wife and I each have had the discipline, cooperation and foresight to keep contributing to the kids’ college educations, even though we were no longer united or in agreement on other things. Sending both kids to college still will make a big dent in my monthly budget and annual cash flow. But as a result of our advanced planning and divorce agreements, I believe each kid will be able to graduate from college debt-free (and me from my graduate program without wiping out savings and investments). That will be a huge gift to each of them, and a big benefit in starting out their adult lives.

Working together with an ex-spouse after a divorce, as aggravating and imperfect as it may be at times, certainly pays off, both for the kids and the adults going their own ways.

It’s So Funny How We Don’t Talk Anymore (Ode to Cliff Richard)

My ex-wife got remarried two weeks ago. It hardly registered, good, bad or indifferent. Our past time together is so distant now.

We’ll be forever connected by our two kids, 19 and 16. Other than that, I can’t say I know her at all anymore. It’s strange how someone once so important can become so inconsequential – her to me and me to her – except for the perpetual link. That’s just the way it is.

I briefly sensed caring from my ex-wife when my mother died in October 2013 and she attended the memorial. That’s the last time. It’s strange to feel like you don’t matter much to someone when at one time you mattered a lot.

We met at college when we were 19, and dated senior year. She was editor of the college newspaper, the overachiever. I was a writer, not as driven or intense. It was kind of always like that. We went separate ways after college, and after a year, the relationship flamed out.

We rekindled a long-distance relationship at 29, and got married at 30, at our alma mater. It was a pretty cool, lost-and-found love story. It didn’t last.

We split up after 11 years in 2005, when the kids were still in elementary school. Eerily, the kids were about exactly the same age as my brother and I when my parents split up. The protracted end was awful. The final break up was a relief.

As the kids have gotten older, we’ve communicated less and less. I’ve barely talked to her the last several years. When I do try to discuss something concerning the kids, she usually has somewhere to go, something else to do, another call to make. I’m accustomed to squeezing any conversation into three minutes or less.

Over beers on a trip to Florida with my good friend, when we talk openly about jobs, marriage, kids, sex, and old girlfriends, the topic of my relationship with my ex-wife came up and how well we communicate for the sake of the kids. I told him we’ve done a really good job. The kids are well-adjusted – one is in college, and the other is on track. Neither has suffered any manifest big problems due to the divorce. We must be communicating well, I told him.

“No, you don’t. You don’t communicate at all,” he assessed. It hit me. He was right. We talk the bare minimum — the occasional money or scheduling issue. Maybe that’s all there should be between divorced parents. Maybe that’s more than a lot of divorced couples. Regardless, it still strikes me as sad that as the parents of two kids, forever joined by that bond, I know so little about how she parents and her thoughts about the kids’ futures, their current challenges, how they’ve changed and adjusted as teenagers, how they can develop their potentials, whether she has any concerns, and if so, how to address them.

I’ve grown weary of trying to engage. It’s easier not to, though it doesn’t strike me as the best approach.  But maybe this is the way divorce should be. Leave it to history. Everyone moves on. We don’t talk anymore.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1wdAoSulm8DivorceCake

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