Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Storm and The Calm: A Lesson for Divorced Parents

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a gentleman who attended one of our Upbeat Dad Community Forums. He has been going through a challenging time in his marriage and most recently, he and his wife separated. They have two young children, both under 5 years old. He wanted to get my perspective on his situation and to know of any insight that I could share.

As we sat and spoke, it became increasingly clear to me that he was living the life that I lived 10 years ago at this point. The situations are somewhat different but the similarities were striking. He invested his all into a relationship and now he’s seeing it crumble in front of his eyes. And in the midst of it all are his young children. I can certainly relate to that feeling  – wanting a relationship to work out but knowing quite well that it is likely over.

He is currently separated and based on what he shared with me, I really doubt that there’s any hope of saving that marriage. I wish that I could talk to his wife to see if there’s any hope of salvaging that relationship. I’m always for reconciliation, especially when there are kids involved – young kids, in particular. But this one, I think, is likely over. I told him that if they should go to the next step and file for divorce, things could get worse before they get better. There’s no telling just what might occur, especially if there are unreasonable demands made by either party. It can be an emotionally – and financially - draining experience for sure.

After about 2 hours of sitting and speaking with him, I realized something quite significant. As we started out the conversation, his perspective was that there was doom and gloom ahead. By the time we finished speaking, he had developed a different perspective – one of hope and optimism. I believe that, based on my own experience, I was able to let him know that, though he’s walking through a storm presently, if he maintains the right perspective, then inevitably, the calm will come.

I have shared my story on this blog in various posts, including The Story Behind The Upbeat Dad and The Awful Night 10 Years Ago That Led Me to Start The Upbeat Dad. Please read those posts to get a perspective on the journey I’ve taken. As you read, I hope that you understand the source of the passion that I have developed for seeing fathers engaged in the lives of their children.

Here’s the most important point I can make with this post: regardless of the difficulties that arise in a divorce, when there are kids involved, if we adopt the right mindset, things will ultimately turn out for our good and the good of our children. After the storm comes the calm, and life goes on.
I have seen couples fight for the assets acquired in their marriages – the house, the cars, the investments, the 401K, etc. I have also seen them fight for custody of their children and in the process, stoop to low depths to get their way. And I can tell you that in just about all of the cases, the persons who made decisions in the best interest of the children ultimately found themselves in a better position.

As I told the gentleman, I’m not an attorney so I can’t give legal advice. I can only give advice based on my own experience and the principles that I believe will put him in the most favorable position. So I told him to have the right focus. He and his wife have accumulated some assets – house, cars, and other material things. I believe that he should seek to divide these assets evenly. That’s the ideal, I believe. But sometimes in family court, things don’t quite work out that way.

I then told him, that when it comes to the kids, he should not compromise on the one factor that matters most – time with them. His wife wants him to have them every other weekend. The whole thing about “every other weekend,” I think is just wrong. Young kids cannot develop a close bond with a parent when they see him/her on what amounts to every 2 weeks. In my view, kids share the DNA of their parents 50/50 so when marriages end, the time shared between parents should also be 50/50.

I also advised him that, at no point, should he say anything negative regarding their mother in their presence. Some parents think that by saying the worst things about the other parent, that will give them an advantage in the eyes of the children. That might work in the short-run but, in time, it generally backfires. Children are smarter than we think. No matter how young they are, they know when the love of a parent is genuine. You may have heard the saying “love conquers all.” I have found that to be true, especially as it relates to the affection towards one’s children during divorce.  

One thing that stood out to me when I spoke with him was that he was going through inner turmoil. I recall that feeling but guess what? I was far removed from those emotions. It was a distant memory. Ten years ago this month my divorce was finalized and, believe me, at that time, I thought the world was coming to an end. I was living through a nightmare that seemed to get worst by the minute. The storm was raging then and even got worse in the next couple years after that.

But here we are today. Those emotions are all gone. Life has moved on. It doesn’t matter that I lost the house and just about all the material things we acquired. My focus was on my then-3 year old daughter. Today, I’m happily married to a wonderful woman and we have a gorgeous little almost 2 year old son. And my daughter is now 13 and she lives with us. The calm has come and I appreciate it so much more because I have the relative experience of the storm to put it all in perspective.

If you’re currently experiencing divorce and its effects, be encouraged. As the saying goes, “tough times don’t last – tough people do.” Keep focused on your kids and somehow things will all get aligned in your favor and theirs.

As I wrote this post, I was listening to Jimmy Cliff’s Greatest Hits. I think that a fitting way to conclude these words of encouragement come from the chorus of his song Better Days are. Check out these lyrics:

Better days are coming by and by
Don’t you get downhearted, don’t you cry
Troubles will be over, all our joys come over
Better days are coming by and by.

Encouraging huh? Indeed better days are coming. Better days are here for me and for so many others who have walked the road you’re walking now. And they will be for you too. Just hang in there because after the storms of life, comes the calm. We cannot always control the storms but if we keep focused despite the raging winds, we’ll come through on the other side just fine. Keep your head up and stay encouraged.

I hope that this was just that “picker upper” that you needed to make it through today. Now go out and make it a wonderful day!

The Upbeat Dad

Monday, July 16, 2012

Teaching Your Kids the Importance of Community Service

Over the past several years, I have engaged in different forms of community service. Most recently - just under a year ago, to be precise – I started doing some weekly volunteer work with my church. Each Monday evening, we go to a homeless shelter and share some encouragement with people who many in our society seem to have forgotten about.

When I’m there, I’m amazed at the different stories I hear. Some of the individuals have had it rough for years. Many deal with substance abuse issues; others deal with alcoholism; yet others are just there because they hit a rough patch – bad economy, loss of income and before they knew it, they ended up on the streets.

Each week as I arrive at the shelter, I am heartbroken when I see the number of families that are affected by the epidemic of homelessness. And it’s particularly troubling when I see single mothers who have the responsibility of raising kids without the help of the men who helped to bring them into the world. That’s particularly troubling to witness.

As you may know from the different posts I write on this blog, the family is the primary focus of the work that I do. So when I see displaced families at the shelter, it really does break my heart. Still, it gives me renewed vigor to fight for those affected by the circumstances that led them there. I have a certain sense of responsibility to work relentlessly to alleviate the pain that so many in our society deal with on a daily basis. It helps me to fulfill my purpose as I seek to share words of encouragement with them.

When I am there, I cannot help but reflect on my plight 10 years ago. I was newly divorced and newly broke - bad credit, sky high legal bills and really hurting. I lost the house in the divorce and I had no money to even rent an apartment. You can read more about this in The Story Behind the Upbeat Dad.

I’m a professional – a Certified Public Accountant – but my reality was that I was one step away from being homeless. Had I not had loving family members to take me in while I tried to sort myself out, I really would have been homeless and if only for a while, I could have been in that very same shelter.

I recall once, during that dark period, going to feed the homeless – this time, it was under a bridge where they slept. I stopped to get some food for them and my then-4 year old daughter asked if she could have some of the food. I told her she couldn’t because “we’re taking it to give to people who don’t have a home.” She responded, “Then why can’t we eat it – we don’t have a home.” That was a harsh dose of reality because it was very true; we had no place of our own! But like I said, fortunately we had family members who allowed us to live with them while we got back on our feet.

Rodrick and daughter at the homeless shelter
Today my daughter is a well adjusted 13 year old – or as she tells me, almost 14 (she’ll be 14 this coming September). She knows how important serving at the shelter each week is for me. I generally make the trip alone, driving directly from the office. But several months ago she asked if she could come along one evening. I had never really thought of inviting her along. I guess it’s because it’s somewhat out of the way for me to stop home, pick her up and then get to the shelter on time. Plus I figured, as a student, she was occupied enough with homework and wouldn’t really have time to get involved with something like volunteer work. But she really wanted to come along to share in the work that we do.

I obliged and took her along with me. And, to my surprise and delight, she absolutely loved it. The sense of joy she had in serving and just being a part of the team providing hope and encouragement to those individuals was just a blessing to witness. I didn’t have to instruct her about anything. She came along and just fit right in, serving the people as if they were the most important people on the planet. As a dad, I just beamed with pride seeing her so involved in the process.

Since then, each week she cannot wait to go again. I’ve managed to take her along much of the time but there have been occasions on which it wasn’t feasible. But she loves coming along and getting involved. It’s not something I have taught her; I guess she has watched me and has developed a passion for doing her part to make the burdens of life easier for others to bear.

As you read this, you’re likely in a comfortable situation. You’re probably on your own computer. Or perhaps you’re on an iPad or an iPhone. Maybe you’re at work and just came across this while surfing the internet during lunch. Or maybe you’re in the comfort of your home. You probably don’t have to worry about what you and your kids are going to eat today – or tomorrow or the next day. Whatever the case, things are probably a bit better for you than they are for those who we meet and serve at the shelter each week.

I feel that we owe it to our kids and ourselves to ensure that we become involved in community service. It doesn’t have to be at a homeless shelter. It could be anywhere really – just serving others and sharing a heart of compassion with them. Maybe it’s going to a retirement home and helping to brighten the day of some senior citizens. Maybe it’s helping to paint homes in a not-so-glamorous part of town. The possibilities are endless.

We have a huge responsibility as parents to shape and to mold the lives of our young ones. During childhood I was taught the saying, “The boys and girls of today will become the men and women of tomorrow.” Before we know it, our kids will be off to college or on to chart their own courses in life. The lives that they live will be due, in large part, to the lessons that we teach them while they are young.

When we teach them the value of serving in their communities, such lessons add great meaning to their lives. The quality of their existence is greatly enhanced when they learn the responsibility that comes with being good citizens of this world that we share. And part of that process is giving of themselves for the benefit of others.

In my home state of Florida, I love the fact that, in order to graduate from high school, kids need to have a certain number of community hours of service. These hours can be gotten by working at the shelter where I serve. Or they can be done by some other means of community service. I applaud the efforts by our state legislature to help to instill in our young people the importance of such volunteer work.

For adults, however, there’s hardly a requirement. It’s something that, for the most part, we choose to do. And unfortunately, many don’t see the need to make that choice. Sometimes we hear of some who get into trouble with the law and are sentenced to community service. How sad that some only engage in such valuable service as punishment for breaking the law. To me, community service is a requirement to live a successful life. As the old proverb says, “In giving, we receive.” I have found that to be true. I’m tremendously blessed when I know that through some service I render to someone less fortunate, I help to brighten their day. These are the lessons that I seek to convey to my children.

Life is a wonderful, precious gift. When we can teach our kids the value in serving their communities then we can help them to live the fulfilling lives that they deserve. If you’re a parent, please reflect on the words I’ve shared here and if you need to get started in teaching these lessons to your kids, please do so. And it’s not so much about what we say – it’s more about what we do. Let them learn by watching us serve.

It’s never too late to teach them such valuable life lessons so I strongly encourage you to get started today.  Remember, our kids live what they learn from us. Get started and they’ll be well on their way. This is what parenting is all about – leading by example!

Do enjoy your day!

Rodrick and daughter at homeless shelter

The Upbeat Dad