Well, there’s much less information on divorced parenthood, much less for divorced gay parenthood. I certainly didn’t know what to expect or how to proceed eleven years ago.
I just knew I loved my kids and that I wasn’t scared of taking care of them alone.
Of course, I knew there were numerous guys like me out there, but I didn’t know a single one in person. There are online groups for every subset of any culture and I connected with as many as I could: gay fathers, gay Mormons, ex-Mormons and Utah gay fathers but each one seemed not to quite meet something unique about my situation. I didn’t live in Utah, or the gay fathers were the kind that adopted as a gay couple – they didn’t have to share custody with an ex-wife, etc.
Taking one giant leap into the abyss…I did my best. Here are some things I learned. Some are trivial and some are more profound. I’m sure they will not fit your situation exactly either but you can modify accordingly. At the time of my divorce I had four kids ages 1, 3, 6 and 8 so my comments are geared to those with younger children:
- Get a lawyer! Or at least have a lawyer look over your final agreement. I didn’t. We used a church acquaintance who was a paralegal and she was going to save us money because we had mostly agreed on everything already. She just wrote up the papers that we both signed. It was all fine for about a year, until my ex wanted to move out of state with the kids. Then, I got screwed and it all comes back to that initial divorce, custody and child support agreement. I don’t care how friendly things are now, get a lawyer to help preserve your rights as a father at this initial step.
- Fight for 50/50 legal and 50/50 physical custody. If you settle for anything less right now it will be very unlikely that you can get it back. A vagina gets the default advantage in even the most progressive courthouses. Don’t enable that by crippling yourself.
This small matter is the one mistake I made that later allowed her to fairly easily leave the state with my kids. I initially settled for a 70/30 physical arrangement because it made the most sense. I had a full-time job. She didn’t. I was earning all the money and, in spite of the high child support payments, she was cheaper than daycare. What I didn’t understand was that this gave her the almost exclusive right to coordinate their physical location. Laws vary by state, but this was in liberal California so I imagine it’s worse elsewhere.
- Put it in writing. Write into the divorce or child custody agreement that neither parent can move more than 50 miles from the other. The same thing goes for anything else that’s important to you. Put it in writing.
- Keep it away from the kids. Don’t let them see you arranging all of the divorce details with your ex. Don’t discuss it with them especially if they are young.
- Get all your things on the first try. When you move out, take ALL of your stuff even if it doesn’t seem important to you now. I’ve gone back to my ex-wife’s home and seen items of mine that I didn’t take initially and it was just weird that she was using them. At that point we were getting along and so I couldn’t just take stuff without talking about it and they weren’t important enough things to argue over at that point… so I just let it go. For example, almost all the church books on her religious sanctuary of a bookshelf were MY books that I read. She rarely reads and I doubt that she’s read them. Strangely enough I wish I’d taken stuff like that and my temple clothes and other miscellaneous things I didn’t think I cared about. You’ll calm down many years later and want your stuff even if it’s to just throw it out yourself.
- Be the bigger person. I unintentionally left with items I knew she’d probably want so I willingly returned her stuff – such as pictures with her family or friends in them. I never got the same courtesy, but it helps to know I’m not being petty. I also gave up having to have the last word and so I didn’t always respond to her irrational lashings.
- Never say no to a chance to be with your kids more. Oddly enough, from her perspective custody time with me is seen as her doing me a favor and yet she somehow believes that when she has the kids she’s still doing me a favor. She has asked me to take the kids at times when I knew she either just wanted a break or she wanted to travel or had some church thing to attend to. Of course it’s always presented as a favor to me. Early on I set aside caring. If it offered me more time with my kids I said yes, inconvenient or not. Now that my kids are older and I live close, they often call me for help or a ride during HER parenting time. I never make an issue of it. Some of the best conversations happen when I’m shuttling them about.
- Don’t badmouth the other parent to the kids.This is really hard not to do sometimes because it’s natural to want to argue your case. Just don’t. And don’t let them overhear you doing it either. As horrible and nasty as your ex seems right now, she’s still that child’s mother and an insult to her feels like an insult to the child.
- Don’t put the kids in the middle. At one point my ex tried to use the kids to relay information and gather information. I didn’t allow it. As much as you don’t want to talk to the ex, it’s worse if you use the kids as telegraphs. Now that texting is so prevalent, it’s a great alternative to having to call or meet while still being communicative. Don’t allow your ex to set things up as her and the kids against you. It’s her and the kids and it’s you and the kids too.
- Take new family pictures with just you and the kids and display them around your home. Once a year we take one of those old-time western photos where you dress up and get an 8 x 10 in sepia tones. It’s a small gesture but one that has helped all of us establish ourselves as a family unit. And they are fun to look back on as shared memories. Also, let them see that you have pictures of them on your desk, in your phone so that they know you are thinking about them when they’re not there.
- Give the kids personal space at your new home/apartment. Even the youngest of mine staked out her personal space in each of my new living spaces and I’ve tried to arrange as much of it as I could for them. Even if it’s just their own night stand, a bed or wall that they can decorate to their taste, it will feel much more like home if they’ve had a hand in decorating it.
- Allow the kids to benefit from the pluses of divorce if you can find them in your situation. I don’t mean that you should indulge them freely because you feel guilty, but there are obviously costs to divorce that they bear the brunt of more often than not. Allow them to have some bonuses in there too. For example, because my ex isn’t the kind that would ever share holidays, my kids get 2 sets of birthday gifts and cakes, and they enjoy 2 sets of holiday traditions. The kids learned early on that I didn’t know the last time they ate at McDonalds. I bought my kids cell phones earlier than their peers got one because I wanted to be within their reach at all times on a daily basis.
- Be consistent when you can. There are times when kids need and appreciate consistency. Try to honor bed-times and general house rules. Don’t forego being a Dad for the position of fun uncle. At least not all the time. If rules in your home are dramatically different it can just be frustrating. Now, that being said, I don’t allow my ex to dictate everything that happens in my home either. You must set boundaries, but you should talk about how at Dad’s house we follow Dad’s rules and at Mom’s house we follow Mom’s rules. But at least be consistent with your own house rules.
- Stay close to the kids. If it is in your control, don’t move too far away from the kids. If you can’t see them daily, call or Skype every day … Most of these calls are stilted and awkward especially with the younger ones but it’s the regularity that you want to establish whether it’s to say goodnight every night or a quick call when they get home from school.
- Have fun! Once my ex moved out of state and I only had the kids on weekends it erased any hesitation I had about being the fun one. Yes, she had to monitor the homework and daily discipline but that was her doing by virtue of her move. Take advantage of the hand you are dealt.
- Do nothing sometimes. Don’t feel like you always have to be the entertainer. Let them just be in your shared space sometimes. Just hang.
- Let them come out at their own pace. Once you come out to the kids, understand that they too will have their own coming out to their friends and family. Let them tell others about their gay Dad when/how they are comfortable. As my children have grown, I’ve seen how my laid-back approach to this has helped. I never forced conversations about my being gay, but I never shied away from them either. My teenagers now discuss it freely with their friends and it’s just a matter of everyday life. I was a little worried about this because for the most part I haven’t had boyfriends that they were exposed to. Very little of our time together has been about me being gay… and yet they’re comfortable with it as it comes up in conversation. They ask about dates and other gay topics more the older they get.
- Be prepared. If you have young kids like I did, make sure you have the following stored in your car: bottled water, baby wipes, baby powder, spare jackets, hats for everyone, and a blanket. Every single one of these items have saved me numerous times. You will have a crying child asking for water at some point. If you’ve ever had to take a toddler daughter into a public restroom by yourself you’ll understand the baby wipes. There are a gazillion more times you’ll thank me for suggesting them. Baby powder miraculously assists you in wiping off sand and dirt from kids’ feet before they get in the car. A blanket has provided us a place to sit in many a last-minute picnic situation…or when someone got cold.
- Stop when they need to pee. I never understood why my ex gets upset with my kids if she’s driving and one of them have to go to the bathroom. Yes, I’ve been there when we just pulled away from home and one of them announced that he/she needed to pee. It was my fault that I didn’t ask before I piled them in the car. Go back or stop at a fast food spot if they need to pee for crying out loud!
- Cook for them. Make sure they get good meals and eat decently when they are with you. I have an easily accessible repertoire of meals that I prepare. They’re not with me long enough to tire of them even if I repeat something. A slow cooker (a crockpot) is awesome on days you have to work and then pick up the kids for dinner. I’m no top chef but my kids compliment my cooking and appreciate our sit down dinners.
- Make dining out a treat. Taking them out has been my way of exposing them to new cultures and tastes. This works especially well the younger they are. Most restaurants have a kid friendly menu and it enables them to experience foreign tastes. My kids claim they’re the only ones in their school classes who have eaten sushi. Make trying new things a family adventure.
- Establish routines and traditions, however trivial. I make the same exact breakfast the first morning the kids are with me. We go camping in June for Father’s Day. All phone calls end with “I love you.”
- Resist the urge to compete with their Mom. Appreciate the love and the fun the kids have with their Mom. My kids honestly have a hard time remembering which parent took them to which movie, or who took them to Disneyland in which year, or who played at the beach with him. As much as you want to believe you are creating a special moment just with you and your child, all the kid really cares about is that she got to go to Disneyland. My kids’ Mom is taking them to Mexico this summer and I needed to go wait in line with them so she could get them passports. Early on I would have scoffed at doing this and felt jealous that I wasn’t the one taking them. Now, I’m glad they’ll have the experience and I’m certain in 10 years they’ll have to think hard to remember which parent took them.
- They cannot have too much love. Never prevent your ex-in-laws or new step-parents or anyone from having the chance to love your kids. Even if you can’t stand them and even if you believe they are dissing you to your kids. They cannot have too many adults who love them. Say yes when they want to see your kids or when there’s a special family dinner during YOUR time. It will help when you want some unscheduled time. That said, don’t hesitate to protect them from an individual causing them true harm.
- Arrange alone time with each child. I would say this even if you weren’t getting divorced, but kids need to feel that a parent wants to spend time with them alone away from the family group. This can be as simple as going to get an ice cream one afternoon, or as complex as a weekend trip away with just you. These days, my kids will call me and ask me for these alone times. I hope they continue throughout their lives.
- Don’t let pride get in the way of reason. There will be times when someone, probably your ex or her family, has treated you so unfairly and unjustly that you can’t stomach seeing them. Do it anyway. Go to kids school plays and sports games even if you are going to run into these people. Make THEM avoid YOU if they must. As the kids grow and mature they’ll notice the difference without you ever saying a word. I always try to get to these things early so that it’s them choosing not to sit near us, rather than vice versa. If I arrive late and my ex and kids are already there I go sit by my kids. In one instance I let my stubbornness and pride cost me 3 months of extra alimony. She had been trying to arrange her second wedding during MY holiday week with the kids, I was incensed and shortsightedly resisted. How could she steal MY time when she already had them 70% of the time?!!? As soon as we got off the phone arguing it dawned on me that a delay in her wedding was more money out of my pocket in alimony! That one foolish, impulsive argument cost me almost $1,000 in total alimony. Needless to say when the wedding did happen I bent over backwards to help. I even traveled to her home and spent a week in her house with the kids so that she could go on her honeymoon with husband #2.