Fair warning: while I’m not a divorced dad, I am a child of divorce. And having grown up in a broken home, think I have something to say to divorced dads. That out of the way, here goes:
1) It’s not (all) your fault. Marriage takes two willing parties; that is, two people willing to work at making it work. Sometimes it’s the man who isn’t willing, other times it’s the woman.
2) Own the things that are your fault. Your kids don’t care who carries the blame, e.g. who did what to whom. They just know that one, or both, of their parents is (for whatever reason) no longer around. And they wonder, even if they’re old enough to know better rationally, did I do something wrong? Is this my fault? In the midst of your own pain, and confusion, you’ve got to find a way to be there for your kids. Let them know it’s not their fault.
3) Be honest. Talk to your kids. Talk to them–not at them. In my case, because my mom was more open, and more willing to talk, it was easier to gravitate towards her. My dad on the other hand chose to leave. This lack of communication made it far easier to resent him, make him the villain (even if he was just a hurting soul himself). To this day (I’m almost forty-six), I have no real relationship with him.
Because he chose not to be real with me. In essence, he became this distant figure who tried assert himself into my life (a life he’d walked away from just as I was entering high school) about twice a year. I felt like an obligation, a checkmark.
Not a beloved son.
Did my duty, abided by the terms of the decree, move along.
That is not a relationship.
I’m sure dad wonders now why “the cat’s in the cradle, and the silver spoon” as the late Harry Chapin sang.
4) Just because you’re the dad doesn’t mean you get to dictate all the terms. This is a relationship–not a “dadtatorship.” If you play the general, your kids will revolt. The harder you squeeze something (or someone) the more it slips through your fingers. You have to let them be their own people. Let me ask you this: do you like to feel controlled? Do you think your kids do?
5) Share their interests. Bond over something they like. This may mean doing something you don’t like. But it’s for a greater cause; namely, re/establishing a relationship. If the biblical account of the Prodigal Son teaches anything, it’s that the father goes to the son. He is actively scanning the horizon. He runs to the son (or daughter). We earthly dads are not the Heavenly Father, and as such must model humility and repentance. We set the tone, but we don’t set all the terms. And for myself, I tried for years to have a meaningful relationship with my dad, but because he wanted to set all the terms (the rules of engagement, if you will), it never worked. Believe me you don’t want to be in your seventies, filled with regret, wondering why your kids never call or come around.
6) Be their soft place. Let them know (and model) that there isn’t anything they can’t come to you with. Listen. It’s cliché, but true nonetheless, that people (especially our own families) don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.
7) Respect your ex-spouse. You can’t do anything about how they treat you, but you can control your attitude and comportment regarding them. Your kids are watching. Show them what it’s like, no matter how hard it may be, to live with honor. At the very least, if you can’t bring yourself to like your ex-spouse, honor their office–that being one of the parents of your children. Again it’s not easy, but it can be done.
8) Pray for your kids. The statistics concerning children of divorce are disheartening to say the least. More likely to have trouble in school, have substance abuse problems, get divorced themselves, and finally die younger.
They need you, dads, and the uniquely masculine love you bring into their lives. If you can help it don’t move away. Find a way to instead be close by. If they move, take the pay cut to be closer to them. Do your all, because ultimately how they view the Heavenly Father is filtered through the lens of your example.
They’re counting on you, dad.