Friday, June 24, 2011

How I Could Have Become a Deadbeat Dad

“What a total deadbeat!”

Those words were said of me by my former wife’s attorney during a court hearing almost 10 years ago as I was going through my divorce. But why did he say that?

Well, in the midst of the most turbulent chapter of my life, I was sinking deep and quickly. I didn’t plan for the nightmare that I was experiencing – the divorce and all the emotional and financial turmoil that comes with a very ugly court case. Sleepless nights after being served with divorce papers, attorney fees, custody evaluations and everything else that came with the unpleasant process had me perpetually behind the 8-ball, as the expression goes.

Her attorney just felt that I should have just been content to pay child support and maintain all the bills of the former marital home while seeing my daughter every other weekend for visits. When I wasn’t complying with his ideal, that’s when the dreaded “d” word was said of me: deadbeat! In a sense, he was implying that I should just focus on the financial aspect of the case and forget about maintaining a strong presence in my daughter’s life.

I had long been familiar with the term deadbeat dad. My image had always been of a rough guy who's impregnated a woman and disappeared - then years later he’s found and is dragged kicking and screaming into court to pay child support. Then when he doesn't pay, he's jailed for being a deadbeat who doesn't support his child. That's the image I've always had. Perhaps that’s the image you have. Well, let me share with you how I could easily have become one.

Here I was - a professional, a Certified Public Accountant. I got married and 2 years later our daughter was born. I never missed a doctor’s appointment while she was in the womb. I was fully engaged in everything concerning her - at home, at her daycare and so on. She was Daddy’s little girl – my world and the sunshine of my life.

Then came the demise of the marriage. It just didn't work out, much to my dismay. The thought of divorce and seeing my daughter going from house to house spending time with each parent just wasn't something I envisioned. I grew up with two happily married parents. In my view, divorce was something others did - but not me. "Till death do us part" was my vow. The challenges and obstacles could always be worked out, in my view.

Yet divorce hit our home. And it hit it hard. The emotional part was just awful. I couldn’t eat. I lost 30 lbs in the first month of this new chapter of my life. The only time I was at peace was when I slept. Every waking moment was like torture. 

The pain I felt wasn't just for me. I was an adult - I knew what was happening. But my daughter was a little three year old child. She was confused by all that was going on. She cried. She blamed herself for the fact that Daddy wasn't living at home anymore. The first time I saw her after the separation she said, "Daddy, I'm sorry I yelled at you - can you come home now?" That really broke my heart. It was like something out of a movie. But it was very real. 

The family law system was so one-sided that it was hard to believe. My attorney was great. She really was. It wasn't her fault. It's just that the system itself was broken and I just had to grit my teeth and bear it. She and I have kept in touch over the years and we have a very good friendship to this day. The thing that concerned me most about my experience was that people who have never met my daughter were making these life-altering decisions that impacted her life in a significant way. And despite my best efforts, I could do very little about it.

The financial aspect of all this was like nothing I encountered before. I couldn’t afford to live anywhere – literally. If not for my sister and her family, I'm not sure what I would have done. They housed me for 18 months - throughout the divorce and the immediate aftermath.

In addition, the legal fees and other divorce-related costs were sky high. My other bills were still there - with less money to pay them. And the concept of paying child support was new to me. In the past, our daughter was just a part of the household so by default she was supported. Whatever she needed was provided – from diapers and formula as a baby to costs like clothes and daycare fees as a three year old. Now I had to come up with a child support check. That was a very new concept. And considering that the check was almost as much as the mortgage of the marital home, it's little wonder I had no money to even consider renting an apartment.

With the financial woes, I seriously contemplated filing bankruptcy – it was that bad. I was working as an auditor with a large corporation but with my expenses tripled and my discretionary spending money so much lower, I just couldn't manage. Loans and gifts from family members and friends were the only thing that helped me to stay afloat.

Do you notice that when you hear advertisements by companies that help people with bad credit issues, they include divorce along with things such as foreclosures, repossessions and late payments? I was experiencing the reality of why this was the case. Divorce can destroy your life - emotionally and financially. If you really believe in the institution of marriage, it’s just not something you plan and budget for. But somehow divorce happened and I just really had to pick up the pieces.

Through all the turmoil, I made it. Yes, I made it. Now that whole chapter is a distant memory. The marriage ended. The house is gone. The attorneys have been paid. The only remaining connection to that relationship is the most important one - our daughter. She doesn't know - and likely never will know - just how much was endured on her behalf.

I learned firsthand why so many dads walk away from the family law system discouraged. I know men personally who got so tired of the one-sided nature of the court process and how it can negatively impact them that they just opted to leave the country with no intent to ever return. They cut off support to the kids and all communication with them. In other words, they allowed the judicial process to get the better of them and make them become deadbeat dads.

Believe me when I tell you that not every father who is a deadbeat has always had that mindset. I don’t like the fact that many of them adopt the philosophy of becoming uninvolved in the lives of their children. They refuse to support them financially and otherwise as a means of getting back at their exes and the judicial system. I don’t agree with their approach but I can totally relate to the circumstances that lead them in that direction.  I have said on many occasions that I think the court helps to create deadbeat dads. The obstacles to maintaining one’s rights as a father are so great that some can't be bothered to try to endure it.

If you're a dad dealing with family law issues, my encouragement to you is to keep focused on your kids. Focusing elsewhere - on the house, cars, investments, etc - might give you temporary relief but in the end, it's your kids that really matter. I lost everything from that marriage - home, savings, 401K and more. But still I won the heart of my daughter and she’s so much better for it – and I’m so much better as well. 

Today, we’re as close as we have always been. She's a happy, well-adjusted 12 year old who lives with my wonderful new wife and me. And now she has a little 10 month old brother who she just adores. We’ve got a happy blended family of four and things are just fine. You can read about how it all came together in The Story of My Blended Family by The Upbeat Dad. Believe me when I tell you that life gets better in time.

I share this post to really become transparent and share my personal experience on this matter. In one of my poems I wrote, “Don’t be fooled by the smile that I wear; because each smile you see has cost me a tear.” It hasn’t been an easy road but for my daughter’s sake, I’d do it all over again. If the family law system is broken, that should never cause a dad to walk away from his kids. That’s not something that one should even contemplate. But many do, and it’s the kids who suffer.

Your kids need you to be Daddy – their provider and protector. No court or any ex should change your mindset towards your innocent little ones. Let’s commit to standing up and doing our best for them. They're worth it in every way.
Enjoy your day.

The Upbeat Dad


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fathers’ Day Reflections

Fathers’ Day was this weekend and I do hope that each of you had a wonderful time with your families. In the perfect world, families are together with moms and dads happily raising their kids. But in reality, this utopia doesn’t really exist, does it? In today’s world, over 50% of first marriages fail. Many of these marriages produced kids who have to adjust to the breakup of their happy home. Also, many kids are born to single moms with the dads rarely, if at all.

So as I reflect on these issues, I consider myself quite fortunate – blessed, if you will. Nine years ago at this point, I was in the middle of the most difficult period of my life – my divorce. My little 3 year old daughter was caught in the middle of the very unpleasant process. Fathers’ Day that year had special meaning to me – because for the first time, I had a significant challenge to my rights as a father.

My firsthand experience with the family law system really opened my eyes to what so many families face. And as a dad, I learned why so many say that the system is against men. You can learn of my experience through various posts on this blog such as: The Story Behind the Upbeat Dad and The Great Oxymoron: Family Law.

Yet today I can look back and only smile. That which I saw as a nightmare was really my training to become a better dad and to encourage others to do likewise. As difficult as the process was, it wasn’t meant to kill me – but rather, to make me stronger.

A phrase I have coined since then is: That which I thought was the death of me became the key to my victory. I’m happily remarried to a wonderful woman – a true partner for life. My daughter is a happy, well-adjusted 12 year old who lives with us. And we have a little 10 month old son who just brightens our lives. Things aren’t perfect with us but I can honestly say that this is as good as I’ve ever had it.

I share different aspects of my journey and experience on this blog for a particular reason. I strongly believe that if we become transparent – and show our trophies as well as our scars – others will be encouraged as they deal with their own challenges. If I were to present my story only as a happily married father of 2, the impact of my message would be minimized. When I can tell of the stress and the heartache that I’ve experienced through the demise of a marriage, I can reach some who I couldn’t otherwise reach. The highs and the lows of life are really meant for us to share our stories with others. That way we can make a stronger connection and increase our effectiveness.

As I thought about writing this post, the song Lucky Man by the country duo of Montgomery Gentry came to mind. I have learned to really appreciate different forms of music and one that’s just special to me is country. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the country in Jamaica. Perhaps it’s because the simplicity as well as the complexity of life are echoed in those songs. I share Lucky Man here because I believe that it helps us to appreciate that which we have even more:

Lucky Man
By Montgomery Gentry

I have days where I hate my job,
This little town and the whole world too
And last Sunday when the Bengals lost
Lord it put me in a bad mood

I have moments when I curse the rain
Then complain when the sun's too hot
I look around at what everyone has
And I forget about all I've got

But I know I'm a lucky man
God's given me a pretty fair hand
Got a house and piece of land
A few dollars in a coffee can
My old truck's still runnin' good
My ticker's tickin' like they say it should
I've got supper in the oven
A good woman's lovin 
And one more day to be my little kids dad
Lord knows I'm a lucky man

Got some friends that would be here fast
I could call 'em any time of day
Got a brother who's got my back
Got a momma who I swear's a saint
Got a brand new rod and reel
Got a full week off this year
Dad had a close call last spring
It's a miracle he's still here


But I know I'm a lucky man
God's given me a pretty fair hand
Got a house and piece of land
A few dollars in a coffee can
My old trucks still runnin' good
My ticker's tickin' like they say it should
I've got supper in the oven
A good woman's lovin'
And even my bad days aint that bad
Yeah I'm a lucky man
I'm a lucky, lucky man

Get the message? However bad things may ever get, we have much to be thankful for.

If you’re a dad, I hope that you had a wonderful Fathers’ Day weekend with your kids. But even if you didn’t, just know that bright days lie ahead if you continue to lovingly care for them as you should. Things just seem to work out fine for those who do. As a dad, you’re a lucky man – you’re alive and you have a chance to impact the world for good as you raise your kids.

Enjoy your day today. And in every way, keep focused on being the best dad you can be. Your kids deserve nothing less.

The Upbeat Dad

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fathers’ Day Special with Award-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Doug Block of HBO's The Kids Grow Up

Doug Block and his daughter Lucy
 At the Upbeat Dad, we’re all about sharing the positive message that fathers everywhere have a special role to play in the lives of their children. So on this Fathers’ Day, let me first say Happy Fathers Day to dads everywhere. Fatherhood is an honor and a privilege and on this day, I applaud all those who’ve accepted the responsibility and are making a meaningful impact on their children’s lives.

I’m thrilled to share the story of a dad who’s so embraced his role, that he has captured a lifetime of memories with his child and is now sharing them with the world. It is with great pleasure that I share the story of award-winning documentary film maker, Doug Block, and his film, The Kids Grow Up, which debuts on Fathers’ Day, June 19, 2011 on HBO2. The film chronicles his journey as the father of an only child – a daughter named Lucy. The story captures the evolution of a young, innocent child on roller skates to a responsible young lady going off to college to chart her own path in life.

Doug is no ordinary film maker. He has won numerous awards including: Emmy, Peabody, Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Independent Spirit. His film, 51 Birch Street, about his parents’ 54 year marriage, was named one of the Ten Best Films of 2006 by the New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times and the Ebert & Roeper Show.

Doug's daughter Lucy
I had the privilege of interviewing Doug in preparation for this post. I also had the privilege of screening The Kids Grow Up and I must say the story is quite fascinating. And the more I watched the film, the more apparent it became to me that his experience as a father is not all that out of the ordinary. It’s a story about a loving dad who absolutely adores his child. Still, somehow, these stories do not often make it to the big screen. But he presents their journey together in such a compelling way that it endears the audience to embrace his approach.

Here’s what some critics have had to say about it:
“Remarkable” – A.O. Scott, NEW YORK TIMES (Critics’ Pick)

“Intimate, funny, deeply affecting” - Ann Hornaday, WASHINGTON POST

“Powerful…funny… irresistible” – Andrew O’Hehir, SALON.COM

“One of the best non-fiction films of the year.” - BOX OFFICE MAGAZINE

Having watched it, I tend to agree with these critics. Here are my thoughts:

The Kids Grow Up tells a powerful story. Quite often, parents who feel they were denied something during their childhood tend to overcompensate when they have their own kids to ensure that their kids don’t grow up with the same regrets they had. Such is the case of Doug. He grew up in a loving home with his parents and two sisters. Yet, he never developed the close bond with his dad and that bothered him quite a bit. He decided that when he grew up, if he should have kids of his own, he’d ensure that he’s actively involved in their upbringing in every way possible, including developing a strong bond.

Doug with Lucy and wife Marjorie
He met and married Marjorie, a single mother of a son. Their blended family came together in a relatively smooth way. Still he longed for a biological child of his own. His dream came true in the early 90s when Lucy was born to them. Like many parents of his generation, Doug believed in capturing family memories on video-camera. But he’s no ordinary dad making home movies – he’s a documentary film maker, so his perspective is different from that of many others. For instance, he interviewed her at least once a year to get a sense of who she was and who she was becoming.

Still, for him, it was more about capturing the story of her life than making a film that others around the world would see. When I spoke with him, he said that when she was almost 10 years old, he initially had the idea of making a film about her. But then, it was just a thought. Still, as she got older, he began thinking about her “leaving the nest” for college and then on to her own endeavors. He told me, “As she entered her senior year (of high school), I realized that she would soon be gone. Nothing really prepares you for her leaving.”

It was at this moment that he decided to produce a film about their journey together. He said, “Families are at the core of films made in Hollywood. I wanted to do a film that shows dads in a positive light. I wanted to present a different image of fathers than what you generally see.”

The film begins with a carefree four year-old Lucy talking and playing. Then as the feature progresses, her development is captured through each stage of life – from the grade school age to her traveling to  France to study for a year and then to her going off to school on the West Coast – miles away from her home in New York.

Young Lucy playing
Doug captures an interesting cross-generational family dynamic. His father is shown as an aging man reflecting on his life in its entirety. He raised and cared for his middle-class family, which for many dads is as good as it gets. Yet, as he reflects, he acknowledges that his single biggest regret is that he didn’t develop a closer relationship with his kids. Then there was Doug capturing and cherishing every moment with his child – pouring out his love to her. 

That’s quite a contrast between father and son. Still, as the film progresses, one sees that Doug and his dad have made peace with that issue. And although his father passed away before the release of the film, he did get to view the completed project before it hit the big screen. So, in a sense, his reward is that, by sharing his regret, he is sharing with others the importance of establishing a bond with your kids.

Another interesting dynamic in the film is that Doug’s stepson, Josh, who was a boy when Marjorie and Doug married, grew up and became a loving husband and father – so much so that he and his wife took turns taking a year off after the birth of their child to bond with him. The cross generational dynamic regarding the role of fatherhood makes the film quite intriguing in my view.

The highlight of the film is the range of emotions that Doug, Marjorie and Lucy experience as Lucy prepares to head off to college. At least for a moment, Lucy seems frustrated by the fact that she’s going away to school and her dad appears to be more fixated on making a film about her than being her dad while she’s getting ready to “leave the nest.” She says, “Instead of experiencing me going away to college, you’re just trying to film it.” By the end of the film as the family travels to the West Coast to see Lucy off to her studies, the emotions have subsided and each of them reflect in a positive way, on this transition – from a child living at home to an independent college student away from home.

Lucy on her way to college
When asked about the making of the film, Doug says, “My daughter Lucy has always had a natural camera presence and I couldn’t help but think there was a funny and fascinating documentary to be made about parenting over the long haul from a father’s perspective. Yet, lurking underneath the footage was a more bittersweet story about a baby boomer parent struggling with aging and loss and learning how to let go and a look at three generations of fathers.”

I encourage you to tune in and watch The Kids Grow Up. It debuts on HBO2 on Fathers’ Day, Sunday, June 19, 2011 at 5:15 PM EST. It also airs on the same channel the following dates and times:
-          Wednesday, June 22 at 9:30 PM EST
-          Saturday, June 25 at 6:20 AM EST
-          Thursday, June 30 at 3:30 PM EST

It also goes on sale on July 19. Click Here for more information. Do make the effort to watch it. I think you’ll find it entertaining, while sharing a powerful message. Doug’s advice to others dads is, “Appreciate the time you have with your kids. One minute they’re the size of a peanut, the next minute they’re off to college. And nothing prepares you for letting go.”

On this day when we celebrate the joy of fatherhood, I applaud Doug Block for being an Upbeat Dad – one who recognizes the very influential role that he plays in the life of his child. The film ended with Lucy going off to college. When I interviewed him, she already graduated. I believe that her success in her studies so far away from home, is due, in large part, to the loving environment established at home. Without that compass to guide them, many kids leave for college and don’t graduate because the foundation of love and support were not sufficiently established. So when they stumbled, they didn’t have the proper foundation to land on their feet.

Isn’t this what parenthood is all about – lovingly preparing the next generation to make a positive contribution to the world? On this Fathers’ Day, let the story of Doug Block and his family inspire you. I often say that you display your love for your kids with a 4-letter word : T-I-M-E. He grew up with something missing in the connection between his dad and him. And he endeavored to make every moment count in his relationship with his daughter. He has sown positive seeds of love and support. And because of that, today he’s a proud dad reaping dividends that will last a lifetime. That’s love at work – being passed from one generation to the next.

Theatrical poster of The Kids Grow Up
Enjoy your day. And if you’re a dad, have a wonderful and happy Fathers’ Day!

The Upbeat Dad