Divorced Dad Guilt

Over the years, I have spoken confidentially and intimately with hundreds of men, many of whom are divorced with young children.
Good and decent men wish their marriage had worked out and I have heard over and over again about the deep feelings of failure, both personally but also how they are viewed by the world at large.

Years ago, I heard musician, Sting, say in an interview that regardless of his current celebrity status and a very happy marriage that has lasted for decades, with grown children, he has never been able to shake the feelings of unimaginable failure related to his first marriage, calling it the worst and most depressing time of his life that has continued to leave a profound memory.

Divorced-dad guilt is real, so much so, that I am calling it Divorced Dad Syndrome. I know this goes against the common stereotypes we hear about Deadbeat Dads and "how men so easily walk out on their children." 
Reflect on how men and dads are relationally portrayed on evening sitcoms; either schlubbs and unaware dads like What About Raymond, zoned out and feeble-minded, e.g. Tim Allen. Or, they are sexual players, e.g. Two and Half Men (Scrutinize the commercials!).

I have also spoken to hundreds of women who end up dating these men. And, my warning to them is to stay away. 
Not because they are bad men, but because the guilt and shame over their broken home, with children that they are not able to love and care for daily, becomes a palpable problem in any ensuing relationship, rightfully so.

If you are a woman dating a nice man, who happens to have young kids, you would HOPE that he would pine for his children that he isn't waking up with on a daily basis, right? This is a respectable quality, until we start wanting more of their time, and begin to imagine sharing a real daily life, only to find that their kids come first. And the realization that a portion of his paycheck goes to another woman (who is often depicted as selfish and greedy; occasionally, she is).

Why am I not referring to Divorced Mom Syndrome? Well, I just don't hear it that way. Yes, women feel equally horrible about a failed marriage, (for years "Divorcee" was a judgmental label, akin to Scarlet letter on the forehead) along with the instability and hardship of being a single or divorced mom. In fact, the statistics indicate that women suffer financially and professionally much more severely than men post divorce, even when individual  income is equalized. There are lost of reasons for this that have been extensively studied so I won't go into that here.

So, why aren't women prone to "Divorced Mom Syndrome?" 

Here are some ideas:
  • Perhaps women have a deeper innate drive to pair up, seeking connection that outweighs their prior relationship failures, allowing for less guilt and shame.
  • Currently, women initiate 2/3rds of divorce in our country. Maybe they leave when they are really done, no stone unturned and confident in their decision.
  • Maybe a future partner for a woman is more understanding of their woman's desire to put her children first (more tolerance from her male counterpart than she might have for his loyalty to a prior set of off spring).
  • Maybe there are evolutionary reasons at play here that we cannot uncover with our conscious mind.
  • Women probably navigate and balance better than men. Let's face it, dating and finding a new mate involves a lot of time-management skills (work, kids, pets, family, friends, exercise).
  • I suspect that men do a better job of accepting an ex-husband, then women do of accepting an ex-wife. This is a visceral hunch on my part - and it could be as simple as women see other women with a sharp lens, often accurately.
  • Men are typically presented as sex-seeking and calloused - what a disservice. If we can embrace men as whole human beings, they may feel permission to express their thoughts and feelings about their world, in a full and healthy manner. Recent studies have begun to debunk "men as superficial and sex-crazed," in fact, they may be more tender-hearted than women!
  • Woman are typically wired with strong verbal articulation; maybe they can get their needs better because of this?

Take-aways from this, please:

Men almost want to be there for their children. They feel badly about the failed relationship with their kid's mom. Future relationships with new intimate partners will be dicey, as they struggle to meet the pressing and time-sensitive needs of young children, an ex-wife (yes, the ex-wife has needs and they matter!) and a new lover. Step and blended families can work. Never speak negatively about the ex. 
If you find a great new guy, and he brings along three kids, ask yourself if you can really be number four or five on his list of priorities. It will not change for a very long time. In my experience, divorced dads over-work, not under-work. It's hard to be thrown into the rotation, as a reasonable and healthy female, wanting time alone with your male partner, but it can begin to feel like another obligation for your man. He has a lot of marks to hit - the three words I hear most often are pressure, pressure, and pressure.
While my husband will never understand my experience as a woman, carrying our children inside of my belly, birthing them, nursing them, and being home alone with them for hours, days, years on end (the fatigue and loneliness!), I will likewise never understand what it is to be a man, and the moral imperative to provide for his family. 

My husband watched his father never miss a day of work in 40 years. For him, to be a husband and father, a man, is to never miss work, bring home all of your paycheck, and protect the home. Anything other than that means failure.
This is not everyone's position - just his. For us to make it work, we continue to reformulate the perfect algorithm, but it changes, right? I was raised by a true feminist (one of the first females to work for IBM, with no education and a young child too early) so I had to stretch to grasp his definition of parenting, husbandry and loving. 

REMEMBER: Men really want to please their woman.

(This writing is not referring to men that are mentally unstable: addictions, narcissism, sociopathy)


1) Adult daughter, age 21, gets a flat tire on the freeway, so she calls dad. He can help, but, it's his new girlfriend's 45th birthday party in an hour. How does that feel to everyone? Depending on your perspective....

2) Your new man (with two kids, age 10 and 13, from a prior marriage) has planned a first weekend away. It's not fancy because money is tight (he pays $2,000 in alimony and child support) but you are excited. The day before you are scheduled to take off, his ex-wife has asked that he take the kids that weekend because she has been offered a great catering job that could make her (and the kids) some much-needed money. How would this be received?
3) Both parties have kids, yet, there are clearly different rules operating in each household. Divorced dad allows his teenager to drive at night, boys in her room, and even some occasional smoking or drinking in the back yard. Divorced mom has strong opinions and rules about these three behaviors. They are not tolerated, whatsoever, and she feels that his parenting is harmful to her kids as well as his own daughter. How can a compromise be reached? I would argue, it cannot. This is not a compatible mate.

What Men Can Do:

Be honest about what you can offer. 
Refrain from physical intimacy unless you can back it up with emotional commitment (We spell that T.I.M.E and E.N.E.R.G.Y).
Check yourself for overcompensating behaviors. Children do not benefit from guilty parenting. At some point, it's reasonable to be an adult and let your kids know that "adults need adult time and activities; the nest is secure and you are loved."
Do not introduce your kids to a new female for the first three months.
Do not rescue your new love interest.

If more than one person has suggested that you are too involved with your adult child (enmeshment/codependency), or that you enable/indulge your little ones, take a good hard look at that. Any future partner will be turned off by that...and it's not healthy for your kid.

Never speak negatively about your ex. Or matter how crazy either may be.
Examine your head (not your heart) for compatibility. Some differences cannot be worked out. 
Love, attraction and affection are not enough to sustain a long-term relationship.
Children need you. You are important. 

Find a male role model. If you don't have one, earnestly set it as a goal for yourself to find one.
If you don't have anything (emotionally, spiritually) to bring to the table, don't date. Only unhealthy women will tolerate the leftovers. Better to tolerate being alone (or lonely)
Women are not naturally equipped to mother any more than men are naturally equipped to father. They are both arts...practice makes perfect.

Deadbeat or Dead Broke?

Doing the Best I Can