There is no sweeter sound in the world than the word Daddy from the mouths of your children. Of course there are also times when its sound is rather less than sweet – ‘Daddy, that’s not fair!’, ‘Daddy, I’m finished can you come and wipe, I think it’s a messy one…’ – but for my purposes here let’s stick with the sweetness.
And from sweetness to the bitterest pill that you are forced to swallow when your marriage collapses – you will no longer be spending every day with your children. You will wake up and they won’t be there. You will arrive home from work without them to greet you. You will go to bed at night without being able to check in on them and kiss their foreheads.
These realisations are sudden and devastating. They are accompanied by fear over how their lives will be affected and a crushing sense of failure that your children, the most precious people in your world, will no longer have a stable, loving home with their Mummy and Daddy.
And then comes the heart-wrenching, inevitable realisation of a new truth: that sooner or later another man will become a significant person in the lives of your children. Nothing can prepare you for this hurt, pain and sense of powerlessness.
And so you set about doing what you can to create a new life for them, new routines, always making sure that they know that you love them and are there for them even when you’re not there physically. Looking back from a distance of 16 months this period of adjustment seems like a blur, a foggy period of transition from everything that was stable and secure to a new world of doubts and just doing your best. A new world of visits to familiar places with a new and unfamiliar definition of family, akin to a body that is missing a limb and must learn to adapt and function in a new way.
One of the things that you realise – and is frequently pointed out to you – is that this situation isn’t unusual anymore. Of course that is scant consolation – everybody wants what is best for their own children and being a ‘broken’ family (or a ‘different’ family) never figured in my vision of the future. A source of real sadness for me was the realisation that, as my children were young at the time of my divorce, they will grow up with little or no memory of our complete family despite the fact that my ex-wife and I were together for 19 years. But then many children have to grow up with all-too vivid and painful memories of their parents’ divorce. There is always a silver-lining of sorts to be found I guess.
Without the counterbalance of a wife to raise your children alongside you, you become all too aware of your personal deficiencies. As a man with a daughter I am now acutely aware that I am pretty useless when it comes to doing her hair, and deficiencies in my organisational skills in the home, though improving, are frequently thrown into sharp focus: when getting everything ready for school in the morning; when trying to keep on top of homework (for under 5 year olds, don’t get me started on that subject…), for making sure there are enough clean school uniforms when every day a white polo shirt comes home covered in paint and ink…
Somehow though you manage, and as in everything you just do your best. And even though you know that is all that you can do, and even though you know that the most important things that you can give to your children are your time and attention, and even though I am one of the fortunate fathers that has shared custody of the children, there is a little part of you that questions yourself, that wonders whether your children prefer the life that they have with your ex. For the children, shared parenting in two different homes becomes the norm, and although any reasonable, mature consideration of the situation concludes that this is not a competition between parents, in the inevitable moments of doubt and loneliness the niggling question arises.
And the time comes when another man enters their lives. As hard as it is to face losing your wife and the thought that she will, sooner or later, love another, somewhere underneath it all is the awareness that so too will you. But nothing can really prepare you for another man entering the lives of your children. For the thought that no matter how good a father you can be, no matter how special and unique and wonderful your relationship with your children is, there is somebody else that will become a significant influence in their lives.
And if I’m honest there are times when I’m not sure I will ever really come to terms with this.
You get on with it – after all, what choice do you have – but it leaves its mark on you, on the dreams that you had for your future, and on the anticipation of the special family events that you looked forward to when you embarked on the wonderful and scary world of parenthood – birthdays, graduations, weddings, grandchildren – suddenly there is a new and unwanted presence in the storybook of their lives.
I’m working on greater acceptance; I strongly believe that if we are to truly make the most of the limited time that we have on this earth we need to accept the world as it is and not how we thought or wished it should be. There is a saying that it is not the strongest that survives but the most adaptable to change and I guess that is true of families; through adversity we can learn how fantastically adaptable people can be to their circumstances and there is no one certain way to raise a happy, secure, loving family.
Adapting to a new definition of family isn’t easy and it isn’t quick, and for me a sense of stability is something that I am still hoping to one day find. But when I’m with my children we still smile, we will still laugh, and together we are creating happy memories. Above all we know that we will love and be there for each other.
Soundtrack: Fears of a Father – Ed Harcourt