father daughter and divorce

A single dad imagines telling his 16-year-old daughter what really happened during the divorce when she was six years old.

[Preface: This lovely girl above looks just like a male version of me. And this would’ve been the summer before all hell broke loose between me and her mother. I would have done almost anything not to upset the trajectory I had imagined for all of us. Now, ten years later, this wonderful woman is about to finish her sophomore year in high school. I’ve lost huge chunks of life with her. I lament her absence often. It’s as if I was forced to experience empty nest syndrome when she was six years old.

If I have one regret, it is that I did not fight her mother for a 50/50 custody deal. We did not fight we negotiated. The law of Texas automatically sides with the mother for custody, child support and something called the Standard Possession Order (SPO). I lost 70% of my kids lives, I still make a second mortgage payment to her mom every month, and life has not been easy on my side of the equation. The good news: we all made it.]

Dear daughter, it was so great to spend a few hours with you last night.


I think hanging out is what I miss the most about being divorced and away from you for 80% of your life. But, I’m not going to make this about sadness and regret. This is about my love and pride in who you have become. In our family, we’ve all weathered the divorce in different ways. I got sad, over and over. Your brother got mad, over and over. Your mom, well, let’s leave my opinions of her out of this. (I wish her only the best with her new husband, your stepdad.)

[Note: Let me be clear, I am not actually sending this letter to my teenaged daughter. And she does not read my blog. She knows that I write about the divorce and my own personal trials and tribulations. She will read/find this in her own time. I AM, however, committed to continuing reaching out to her and improving our communication and setting up activities to get together.]

I wanted to share a bit of my sadness about the divorce and missing you even in the present days and weeks. But, let me start at the beginning. You see, you were a tough soul to make it down to the planet in a human form. Your birth was about a 20% chance with the blood issues you shared with your mother. We went to the neonatal surgeon every Monday morning, to see if you were going to survive, if we were going to have to do an emergency c-section to try and save your life, or some other more dramatic and devastating news.

my daughter summer before the divorce

As you know, you survived. And actually, you came out of the womb healthy and vigorous. The doctors anticipated a few days in the NICU (natal intensive care unit) for you, but all your systems checked out, your blood was red and healthy. You got to stay in my arms. And from that moment onward, you’ve never really left my arms. I am still holding you. I am holding you from a distance now, a distance I didn’t ask for and never imagined as we grew our little family, by adding you, into four of us. Your big brother was delighted by you as well. He liked to entertain you, sing to you, give you toys, and, of course, make you cry. Maybe that still sums up your relationship to your brother, I don’t know.

And that’s the rub. I don’t know because I’m not there. I have not lost most of my time with you and your brother, I have lost the simple, yet essential, daily contact and check-ins that come from living in the same house together. You were six years old when your mom asked for a divorce. I was shocked, then saddened, then compliant. You see, in the state of Texas, the mom usually gets exactly what she wants in the divorce unless the father takes her to court and sues her for 50/50 custody, or some other arrangement.

Your mom and I agreed to do a collaborative divorce. That doesn’t mean I agreed with getting a divorce. In fact, I fought for about three months to keep our family together. (The real reason was I didn’t want your lives to crack up in the last two months of elementary school.) So I stayed in the house and slept on the couch and pretended for you and your brother that everything was okay.

Everything was not okay. And here’s the truth. Everything had not been okay for a long time. While I was 100% committed to the marriage and keeping the family together, the relationship between your mom and I had gotten strained and stressed by money issues, job issues (for both of us), and more importantly relationship/communication issues. But this isn’t about your mom and me, this is about my feelings and connections with you. And the loss of those connections the minute I left the family house for the last time.

Dads Are Asked to Leave the Family Home 90% of the Time

I walked out of that house, never too return. It was the house your mom and I selected and paid for so we could have two kids. That was our plan. The house was designed from the beginning to provide comfort and shelter for us to have children. And those months before Jason was born, with just the two of us in the house, it was magical. I’m certain your mom and I had never been in as much love as we were waiting for you and for your brother to be born. It’s a gift from God, this miracle called life, and children, and you. You are a miracle of God, but also of the science that allowed you to survive such a difficult medical condition.

And for the next eight years we, the whole family, puttered along as best we could, knowing in all our hearts that we were doing the best we could. We celebrated every morning when we woke you up and every night we said our prayers with you before bed. It was easy to express love for each other at that time.

Things Changed – The Marriage Got Challenged

Money and work would probably be the biggest challenge your mom and I faced as we aspired to provide a safe and enriching environment for you to grow up in. We wanted a great school and a great neighborhood. And we wanted to be flexible enough in our work to spend as much time with each of you as possible. Of course, corporate America is not so focused on family values and flexibility to be with your kids. Both your mom and I struggled in our careers. We stayed in the nice house, nice school district, and for the first 6 years of your life, your mom was able to meet the bus after school. That was our agreement. That was our plan.

But you see, that left me holding a large percentage of the bag for making enough money to pay for the house, the insurance, the things/clothes/cars we needed to run a modern family. And the big corporate experience was hard on my body and my soul. Sitting in a cube 8-hours a day and working to sell something to someone through the internet, does not afford much work/life balance. So, as we had planned, your mom was elected and gifted with the primary parenting role while you were both pre-school and elementary school kids. It was a good life for all of us. I suffered a bit from the daily commute and corporate grind, but when I returned home each night, I was proud. I was loved. I was in love. At that moment I had everything.

When the Economy Broke in 2009

And then the 2009 economic crisis hit and my big corporate job came to an end. Fortunately, it was a soft landing with what they call a golden parachute. I was given 8-months at full pay, with health insurance, to find my next job. But as I mentioned, the economy was in a tailspin. And jobs for your mom and I became really challenging to find and acquire. We floundered from January through November of 2010. And when my salary/parachute ended, neither your mom nor I had a job. The harsh realities of mortgage payments on the house, COBRA insurance payments, became a stress that began to unravel your mother and me in ways we didn’t fully understand.

In November, I got an even better job, and within a week was in San Francisco celebrating our financial salvation and getting introduced to my California team. But it wasn’t only the money that had been stressed. My relationship and communication styles with your mom had become more like a business and less like a loving partnership. We were so focused on the bills we were behind on the bills ahead, that we lost each other in some deep corner of an excel spreadsheet. But at least I had the “big job” again that could afford the necessities of all families, again.

my son summer before the divorce

Then Everything Fell Apart

The killing blow came about 4 months later when my “big job” was eliminated for some political and inner power issues between the California and Texas office. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. In one weekend the livelihood that had revived our dream of maintaining our lifestyle and our family together had been crushed out by another no-fault employment termination. They admitted their problem and paid me a severance, but it was 2 months, not 8 months. The relationship between your mother and I crashed and burned in March as we both struggled with our own panic, our own demons, and our own inescapable anxiety about how we were going to survive.

The good news is we did survive. In fact, I’d say we thrived. The marriage, however, did not survive. And this is the tricky bit I want to slow down and explain to you for the first time.

  • Things were dire, stressful, and unkind between your mom and me
  • Bills were growing and our combined income had just gone back to zero
  • In the crisis, your mom decided it would be better to seek security and love elsewhere
  • I did not want or ask for the divorce
  • I fought against the divorce
  • In the end, I was asked to comply with your mom’s request for a divorce.

But Wait, We Parented 50/50, Why Won’t We Still Do That?

As I agreed to your mom’s request for the divorce, I began to ask for how we were going to do things collaboratively. The biggest request I had was 50/50 custody. I was losing a huge portion of your presence in my life. I wanted it to be a fair split. The same split we used to share parenting duties, chores, and financial contributions. My priority was you kids, I didn’t really care much about the house, the cars, or the whisps of money in the bank.

I also agreed to something called a collaborative divorce. That means that your mom and I agreed to negotiate without lawyers and not sue each other for what we wanted in the divorce. Collaborative divorce was really not what happened. We met with a divorce accountant to understand the money, and we went to a divorce therapist to help us create a healthy parenting plan and ground rules for how our lives as a family would be shared after the divorce.

I remember the day I went into the divorce therapist’s office to negotiate with your mom, I can still smell and see the office we were sitting in when I enthusiastically presented a parenting plan and a schedule base on 50/50 custody. Neither the woman therapist or your mom looked happy. I didn’t know what was about to happen, but in that moment I felt the world falling out from under me. I was not going to get 50/50 custody. No, by the looks on their faces, they had a different outline for how this was going to go down. I knew I was going down for the count, I could feel the depression seeping into my veins, even as I was still living in the house with the kids. I was already feeling what I had lost: a huge part of my children’s lives.

like father like son

Becoming a Fraction of a Dad

In the final settlement, I got something called the Standard Possession Order, which amounts to a split of time that works out to 30% for the dad, 70% for the mom. I was losing 2/3 of my time with you and your brother. My biggest fear was coming true. I really was going to lose most of my time with my kids. And as you know, your mom also got to keep the house and has gotten a sizable paycheck from me every month to help for the expenses of raising you and your brother. That’s pretty much how it goes for 95% of the dads in Texas. And, again, we agreed not to sue each other and give a lot of money to the lawyers, but… At this moment I wish I would’ve fought for 50/50 time with all of my energy and heart. I did not. I complied. I gave up 2/3 of my time to be in your life.

Now That You’re a Driving Teenager, Things are Different

It’s fine that you and your brother no longer live in my house. I get the hassle of moving every other weekend. But today, I don’t even get my 1/3 of assumed time/connection with you. Your mom has won. She gets you 100% of the time. My time is relegated to my ability to offer enticing entertainment for use to do together. And you’re a 16-year-old girl with a great social life. I get why dinner or a movie with me is not first on your priority list. I understand why a text from my, saying “I love you, I’m thinking about you.” gets lost in the flurry of texts from your friends and even your mom, who is negotiating logistics and enforcing rules. I get it. Getting back to you is a challenge.

But I’m never giving up on you. It is my job to reach out. It is my job to offer, invite, and set up any connective time we can have together. And with all of this, I want you to remember a couple of things.

  • I did not want or ask for the divorce.
  • The divorce was the biggest fear in life, and it came true no matter what I did to prevent it.
  • I fought for 50/50 custody so I could see you as much as possible.
  • I lost 70% of my time with you and your brother because of the law, not because I wanted time away from you.
  • I am still trying to show up in your life as best I can.
  • I will never give up on you.
  • I am proud of you.

How I Love You Still When We Are Apart & Busy

When I text you on Wednesday to say, “How’s it going? I love you. Hope you are having a great day.” I am doing all I can to reach out and connect with you in an unintrusive way. And I get it, you’re busy, you’ve got HUGE amounts of homework, and a big circle of friends, and a mother and step-dad who are with you all the time. I am not with you most of the time. So, a little “ping” as we call them is so important for me, just to say, “I’m here. I’m thinking about you. I love you.”

And that’s the message I want to end with.

  • I love you.
  • I’m here doing my best to reach out and support you, offer ways for us to talk or see each other.
  • I will never give up reaching out.
  • I am proud of you and your strength and resilience.

My request: And when I text you, just ping me back with a heart emoji. It gives me a lot of joy. That simple contact. To you it’s a text among thousands you will receive in any given day. For me, it is the one text I am longing to hear a response from.

You are awesome. We made it. And here comes the summer of your 16th year on the planet.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin, texas

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image: john mcelhenney and family, 2018