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Home > Child Custody & Divorce > Article

Custody and Divorce: Don't walk away from responsibility

One man's journey through the murky waters of divorce and single parenthood
by Mike Malinchok

single dad with laundry
dad with laundry © Monkey Business - Fotolia.com All rights reserved.

The possibility of just 'walking away' from my life is something that has never been far from my thoughts almost every waking moment for the past couple of years. It has been an option I have entertained when I wake up to face the overwhelming tasks ahead of me before 5am...and it crawled into bed with me when I finally put my head on the pillow in exhaustion and despair at 11:30pm. I sometimes fantasized about what it would be like, how I would do it, and how I would feel about it. Of course, it never amounted to more than that:just a thought. The closest I came to walking away was running out into the front yard to escape the gut wrenching sounds of my three beautiful children (ages 12, 10, 8) crying out simultaneously in anguish and confusion over the disintegration of their family. Within seconds of running outside, I ran back into the house, and sat on the stairs with my 3 children as we all cried together over their mother's decision to leave our home.

Just a few months prior to that , I was in the full stride of my life with a beautiful wife who also happened to be my best friend for 25 years, a successful career that was taking off with new fervor, three great children whom I adored, and a couple of completed running marathon medals hanging on my bedroom wall. To complete the picture I was able to move my family into my version of the American 'dream house'.......an older 'fixer-upper' with lots of character, an in ground swimming pool, and plenty of room in which to raise my brood and grow old with my wife.

But my picture of a successful life was painfully dismantled when my wife's private life was uncovered while I was reviewing the cell phone bill. In what turns out to be a not-so-uncommon turn of events, I found myself in a situation I naively thought I would never, ever be in. The life I had worked toward and cultivated was a dream that was not shared by wife. She had other plans for her life that didn't include me or a family structure that I simply assumed she wanted as much as I did. She left. I stayed.

Over the coming months, attempts to address marital issues through counseling, spiritual intervention, and numerous 'dates' trying to re-create romance brought us both to the decision that the marriage had run its course and it was time to move on. And, so, she left--and I stayed. Having been raised in a family where divorce was never considered an acceptable option, I struggled deeply (and still do today) with acceptance of the reality of the breakdown of the relationship and I felt contempt for my ex wife at her decision to leave the marriage (emotionally) and the home.

Our society and culture have created a general sentiment that divorce is commonplace. It does not carry with it the social stigma it used to. Look at any of the television stations that are geared to children's programming. The vast majority of families portrayed in sitcoms are single parent households or blended families. Admittedly, before my own divorce I thought nothing of this situation because I never thought it would touch my own family. When it did, the explosion of emotions hit me like a ton of bricks. Seeing how society downplays and accepts divorce as a natural part of life often makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on edge. We live in a culture that chooses to minimize the family trauma of divorce. We seem to want to brush the pain and torment under the rug and encourage everyone to just 'move on,' 'get on with your life' and 'accept what is'.

Motivated partly by anger toward my ex wife and fear that my children would grow up with no respect for marital commitment, I was diligent about driving home the point that walking away from a problem or an uncomfortable situation was never the right answer. For obvious reasons, it was a hot button for me and I never missed the opportunity to stay on message with my kids about this. Being the verbose children they are, whenever I implored that my kids 'don't walk away' (either from an argument, a scolding, or an awkward conversation), they began to ask me 'why not?'. I can see now where that response could well have been nothing more than a child's way of pushing back on a parental command. But, in the newness of my situation, that response sent red flags up to me that my children are already becoming 'damaged' kids of divorce who will grow up with no sense of commitment to anything.

In trying to determine the best way to respond to the 'why not' question, I tried the usual range of typical parental responses: 'because I said so', 'don't question me, just listen', and 'because if you do walk away, you're grounded'. Short term success of those answers bought me some time, but didn't really have the staying power I had hoped for. And given our family situation, I knew that my children deserved to hear a logical answer to the question of why 'walking away' was not the right option when faced with something difficult. I struggled for months to try to come up with a better way to handle this when it finally came to me:

Of all the tasks that my life requires me to do on a daily basis, the one that evokes the darkest, ugliest, and most vile emotions within my head is doing the laundry. I recognize that the task is a relatively sedate one since the advent of the washing machine and dryer--nowhere close to the physically daunting task my immigrant grandmother who raised 7 children had to undertake. But, in my mind, the very thought of approaching that chore has the ability to suck the life out of me. One day, in the heat of an emotional conversation which escalated to the usual peak of me shouting 'don't walk away'.and one of my kids asking 'why not,' the family mantra was borne: As we were standing knee deep in two weeks worth of laundry generated by a family of four, I found the most compelling answer to the 'why not' question: 'Because there's laundry to do!'

There's a simple, yet powerful two-part brilliance to that answer: First, the element of humor softens the moment, it allows a space between the raw emotion and the subsequent action. Sometimes, all it takes is that comical jolt to completely diffuse the situation and bring a fresh, calm perspective. Second, and perhaps even more compelling, is the very fact that in a household run by a single father with three small children there's an automatic safeguard built into that answer that most parents of young children who might be reading this already know: there will always be laundry to do and it's never really 'done.' Hence, walking away is never right.

The first time I used that answer, we all broke out into laughter,.looked around at the huge piles of dirty clothes surrounding us, then looked at each other and could feel that the energy had shifted. The 'storm' had passed. We sat down, talked through the issue, and then got to work on the laundry.

And, so, as a single dad trying to run a household, raise three spirited young children, and manage a career, I find it to be a striking conundrum that the one task in my life that I loathe more than anything else has evolved into one of the keys to keeping my family together. Don't walk away...there's laundry to do.

About the author: Mike is a Certified Professional Coach and Business Consultant. His 'On Purpose' seminars have been widely recognized for their practical and direct approaches on such topics as: Public Speaking Training, Business Discipline Boot Camp, Parenting on Purpose, and Transition-to-Transformation 101. Mike is the proud father of a son (Stephen) and two daughters (Karlie, Kirsti) for whom the company is purposely named. For more information: www.s2konpurpose.com

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