I wanted to get away, and never mow another lawn. Seven miles didn’t seem too bad for a kid who grew up 15 minutes from the nearest stop light. This was going to be easy, or so I thought. Besides, the distance was short enough to ward off traffic induced hysteria, but just far enough to deter surprise visits from certain unwanted guests. The house was everything I thought I needed. It was new construction, representative of the life I was beginning, and the landscapers came every Thursday like clockwork.
On paper, it seemed the perfect situation for any newly divorced father of two children both under the age of three – gated community, lush play areas, and an 11 mph speed limit. But I quickly grew intoxicated by all the metrosexual potential its granite countertops and surround sound might have on my new single life. I never played the movie through to the end.
I didn’t consider how my toddlers, who got on with a box of toys and PBS, would grow into kids who trade their nap times for dance lessons, football, and friends who had sleepovers with a religious intensity. I didn’t think about how many times, over the course of the next decade, I would make that 14-mile round trip journey, picking up and dropping off for time with dad, playdates, or dentist appointments, birthday parties and girl scout cookie sales. I didn’t realize that ‘home’ for a child isn’t about shaker kitchen cabinets, whole house audio, or spectacular curb appeal. Nor could I have imagined while signing the real estate contract, that just a few years later the house I’d convinced myself was destiny with 3 bedrooms and 3.5 baths would turn into a prison locking me away from parts of my children.
Re-Life is an ongoing series of essays about the lessons learned in the wake of divorce, and what I would change if I had to do over again. Of the countless failures, and few successes, this series will touch on, perhaps the one mistake most common sense now, but was completely lost to me then, is choosing where to live after my divorce.
As I have previously written, I went through my marriage break-up entirely alone. Due to pride or ignorance, in the weeks and months after the papers were filed, I chose to make every critical decision about my future without seeking others’ counsel. It was an unwise decision that spread chaos to nearly every facet of my post-divorce life.
Had I chosen better, I would likely have been told that where I start my new life is just as important as how I start. They might have said that while I want to get as far from that new ex-wife as I could, those feelings of hurt, rage, and resentment will wane; and, eventually, we’d be capable of sitting in the same room without homicidal thoughts running through my head. They’d tell me that one day I’d even invite her and her new husband to Christmas brunch. They’d say that though young, my children will grow out of diapers and Barney and, like every other kid throughout history, make their friendships more important than anything. In other words, they’d ask me to look through the fog bank of the moment, something most men going through divorce rarely accomplish, towards the clearing on the other side.
I’m convinced that location influences the kind of divorced father a man will be. And by location, I’m talking specifically about where and how far he lives from his ex-wife. The reality is the closer that distance, the stronger the relationship can be with his children.
It’s generally accepted, and history shows, that most children live with the mother after a divorce. Her address becomes the foundation from where they’ll build friendships, start school, and join activities. And in my experience and as I previously written, home, especially for younger kids, is where the mom is. Understanding this means that where she lives should play a key factor for a newly divorced father and his long-term decisions.
In most cities, seven miles doesn’t seem like much, but in a sprawling metropolis like Atlanta this distance meant living two elementary schools away from where my children attended. It required me to drive, a lot, to their after-school activities, practices, and school events. Living where I did was also frustrating in another strange way, sleepovers at my house were exceptions. Most of their friends’ parents didn’t want to be inconvenienced with dropping off or picking so far outside their own ‘bubbles’. Usually, the response was ‘wait until next weekend when you’re at your mom’s house’, or I had to become the chauffeur.
Even more profound was that living so ‘far away’ made me feel the outsider. When they were with me, my children’s lives always seemed to be ‘there’, pool parties, neighborhood gatherings, whiffle ball tournaments. There was always this underlying thought they were missing out on something. For me, it made ‘visitation’ even more tangible, and no matter how I tried to make my house feel like their home, I couldn’t obscure the reality that their real home was over there because that’s where those other parts of their life were. Unsurprisingly, friendships with any children in my neighborhood were ultimately doomed. Relationships for kids can be hard to nurture when you see the person every other weekend – it’s a problem that remains to this day.
If I could change one thing in all this, I would have saved myself endless frustration and thousands of miles if I had chosen to live in their same school district. Doing so would have allowed something so basic as my kids riding the bus to either home, instead of me driving back and forth to pick them up. They could have built better relationships in both neighborhoods because they’d see those same friends every day at school. But as important, I would have felt more a part of their lives, more plugged into their activities and friendships and wouldn’t have spent, what now feels like, a quarter of my fatherly life behind the wheel.
The relationship with my children has been built over years of concentrated moments – weekends, vacations, bursts of time when they were ‘with dad’. We’ve made it work, but it could have worked better if I’d known that when it comes to being a divorced dad, location matters.
This is part of an open-ended series entitled: Re-Life. Click the link to read other essays.