In this episode of The Universal Man podcast, Grego and Pricey welcome a couple of special guests – Justin McNamara and Damien Jones – to chat about the topic of being a father after separation or divorce.
In this episode we talk about:
Why it’s important to keep the kids at the forefront of your thinking at all times
What were the surprises in the process of the breakdown, both good and bad, and some new rituals and traditions that were established
A long list of do’s and don’ts that our guests have gained through lived experience
Actively seeking out support from friends and your network.
“You need a marathon mindset. This is quite a journey, so just focus on what’s in your control and take the small wins.”
On keeping the kids at the forefront
One of the key roles of every parent is to be a parent, to raise their kids for the best of their ability. I think throughout my experience and today my kids remain the most important aspect of my life.
It was certainly a time to not forget my kids’ perspective, to try and understand very deeply how their minds are working at that young age, but just focus on creating the best environment for them, physically and emotionally.
It’s a very delicate balancing act, of trying to think about your kids and trying to self-manage. It’s just really bloody hard and I think one of the real surprises for me was how non-linear the whole thing was. I sort of went into this delusion that each day it might get a little bit easier, or you’d reach a certain chapter and things would sort of change, but it’s really not like that.
It’s almost like a computer game. I feel like I reach a certain level and then I have to go through this big battle just to reach the next thing. Then it all just starts again. So much of this is self-management, because I can’t really give to my boys, if I can’t manage myself.
On what surprised them from the process
My eldest is very receptive and can be quite insightful and hurtful with the language he might choose to bring forth. So there are certain times when you’ve actually got to disconnect from the moment so you don’t get hooked into some of the words or language that they’re saying. It’s deliberately there to provoke or to try and upset you. On some occasions you need to naturally reach through that and try to meet them at that emotional level and share some love. Other times I find structure and routine actually helps all of us. We get that structure and routine around morning schedules.
I just worked enormous hours for a long time professionally. So whilst that transition over a few years was very difficult to manage a different way of working, the upside of the separation was absolutely, being able to spend more time with the kids. And I knew that was going to provide the bedrock for the relationship with my kids for the years to come.
By definition you’re only going to get 50% or less time to listen, to be present, to learn about them and laugh at them, explore whatever hurdles they might be going through, or discuss the future. I found that it’s just so important to just be present and just be there in the moment with them and observe and be ready to share with them.
I had a realisation of having my head up my ass around work. You really didn’t have the wider priorities clear and didn’t appreciate some of the luxury I had. So I think there is that benefit of self-calibrating the type of person you want to be and the type of role model that you want to aspire to be for your kids, but also there’s that opportunity to sort of reset some of those parenting patterns to approach different parenting motifs in a way that’s a stronger fit to your own values.
On some do’s and don’ts
Life can sometimes become a bit transactional and for kids, getting them from A to B and back again, who’s doing what and when, life can become a bit about scheduling instead of living. So just trying to be conscious of that. I mean, I just try and find things to work into those schedules where I can, to make things a bit interesting or a little bit different.
Certainly make time for their friends as well. Making sure the kids were comfortable to invite their friends around if they wanted to and just showing an interest in their friendship networks as well.
Sometimes I find that he is getting caught up ferrying messages between the two adults. That’s a situation I try to avoid, but yes, I think there’s something powerful there around still letting kids be kids but to still allow that resilience for kids to come through. But to let them still just be silly and fun and playful, and all the joyful things that you’re meant to be as a kid, rather than them getting sucked into difficult adult situations, that they just don’t have the coping skills for.
It’s definitely not a time for the kids to be delivering messages between the partners and they shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip, but it can get pretty complicated. Kids are hardwired to find the best path that they can. Part of that is often, even when you’re together as parents, probing for weaknesses or differences in approaches. So trying to find that consistency and to provide them with stability is really important and that becomes really challenging.
Whilst our communication was not healthy at that time, that was a real priority, to make sure that the communication between the adults stayed between the adults. If the kids were probing for weaknesses, or starting to talk about some of their frustrations of time with their mum, don’t get drawn into that; it’s not a time to pile on. So really resisting that and just playing it with a straight bat.
If we get this short-term Schadenfreude of taking pleasure in our ex’s misfortune or weak moments, the kids are suffering.
Don’t project or take the emotion out on the kids. An example is on handover day, the kids have run inside, something’s been said between the parents outside and you’re in a bad space. So, take 30 seconds or a minute before you go inside the house to then be with the kids. Try to create that emotional separation between what’s going on between you and the other adults, and then what you want to bring into the space, and the opportunity you have with the kids.
It takes a couple years to get through the breakdown period and there can be some really low points with your partner, where there is a lot of angst, and frustration, and a lot of stress.
If the kids are ultimately living in two different places, it pays to sit down and take the time to talk to them about the design of their room and what they want as a space.
Being patient and conscious of some of those logistical things and not getting frustrated with that, because it’s just part of being a kid, being a bit forgetful from time to time.
On getting support from friends
Towards the beginning of the breakdown I proactively sought support. I think that was very important for my own mental health. I think typically in the past, I wouldn’t necessarily proactively do it, whereas when the separation happened, I deliberately started to speak to maybe four or five different people and rotate around, just to get through some of the very darker chapters.
I’d also occasionally share the good stuff, so that you weren’t just reaching out to these people to say, “Now this thing is happening with lawyers.” Instead, it could be, “Wow. I had this small win today.”
The friendship groups change, often in very tectonic ways; one partner may have brought them into the relationship, like from high school or whatever. But because of the way relationships evolve when you go through separation, once you come out the other side, you might not have some of those friends anymore. Not because it’s deliberate, it’s just that people can become uncomfortable spending time with one parent. They don’t know how to relate, or they’re used to relating with you as a couple.
On some new rituals and traditions
Little things can become a nice tradition. For example, with all the bad weather that we had up here on the Sunshine Coast recently, I would take my boys to the movies on a Sunday and that has become a nice little tradition. Little rituals can have more meaning if you let them.
Finding what that is on a weekly basis or a monthly basis. We don’t have to wait for the birthdays and the traditional family times of celebration. One of the silver linings for kids is they end up with two birthdays, two Christmases, and two Easters and two holidays. They often laugh and reflect on that in a positive sense.
Make sure that the kids know that you are there for the long haul, as I think that’s where their security will come from.