A chance to shine
Divorce need not destroy a father’s relationship with his children: in fact, says a new book, it can make it better. The author tells our correspondent how
It can’t be much fun being a divorced father these days. The media paints you either as a forlorn weekend dad sitting in McDonald’s watching his children push fries around a plastic tray or a lunatic dangling from a council building in a Batman suit.
Meanwhile you may have had your house and money snaffled by your ball-breaking ex-wife, had tortured fights over access and your relationship with your kids is being played out in a succession of dreary municipal swing parks.
This, at least, is the popular view. But what if it doesn’t have to be like that? What if, in many, many cases, it actually isn’tlike that and an unspoken truth is that sometimes divorced fathers have a richer, more engaged relationship with their children than they would if they were living with them? This might sound at best naively optimistic; at worst, heresy. Nobody, obviously, would recommend being separated from one’s children. But perhaps the bread-winner husband who is lucky if he gets home in time to read his kids a bedtime story could ask himself this. Does he know all of his children’s shoe sizes down to the last half fitting? Is he familiar with all their teachers’ names? Their best friends’ home phone numbers? How exactly they like their mashed potato? Or are these details that he tends to leave to his wife because he can?
Simon Baker, 39, is a divorced father of five-year-old twins who wants to accentuate the positives that can come from an undesirable situation. His mission is to help other separated fathers to make the most of an arrangement that is becoming increasingly commonplace as 170,000 decree absolutes pass through the courts each year. Divorce, he says, can be a devastating experience that leaves both parties emotionally and physically drained. But when it is over, if handled correctly, it is a chance for the father to bond with his children at a new and more positive level. It is, he says, their “time to shine”.
“When my children are with me the time I have with them is so precious that I focus totally on them. The phone is turned off and I’m not working,” he says. “I’m not loading the dishwasher while I’m talking to them. They are getting 100 per cent attention.” His arrangement is that the children stay with him every other weekend (Friday to Monday) and one or two nights during the week.
It hasn’t always been this straightforward. For several months his life was gruelling as he had to make 600-mile weekend round trips to see his son and daughter, Gabriel and Delphi, then aged 2, after his ex-wife decided to move from Fulham, West London, to Cornwall. He would have to stay in B&Bs with them and eventually became used to being “combat prepared” – with spare knickers and pants, endless felt tip pens and books and a microwave oven in the back of his car. The split was initially fraught, and since his ex-wife would not bring the twins to London, all the travelling was down to him. Added to this he had to hold down his full-time job as a quality and environmental auditor while coping with the separation from his children.
The hardest part was Sunday evenings at 7pm, says Baker, when he was facing a 300-mile drive back to London after suffering the misery of handing back the children. “Then I had to go in and function at work, not just stare at the computer screen. I had to compartmentalise my life.” Before long, Baker realised that if he was going to have any kind of quality relationship with his children he would have to move to Cornwall to be near them. When he handed in his notice at work in London, by a stroke of good fortune they agreed to let him work as a subcontractor, which he does. So now he lives in Cornwall with his new partner, Alley Einstein, a health journalist and life coach, who has co-authored a book with him entitled How to be a Great Divorced Dad.
It is a practical book, packed with bullet points and tips about making a suitable home for a child that might seem obvious to a woman but not necessarily to a man. Such as that a divorced father will definitely need a washing machine and dryer (eg, “wash daily when the children are with you as dirty clothes, especially during toilet training, will smell, and you need to get them clean fast”), that adult hairbrushes can be too harsh for kids and the need to make the rooms welcoming with comfy seats and bright colour schemes.
It also acknowledges that many divorced fathers may be in financial straits and live in homes with only one bedroom so it gives advice on how the purchase of fold-down beds and dedicated drawers can avoid the children ever feeling that they are getting in the way. There are recipes, tips on how to entertain the children without becoming a one-dimensional “fun-time” father and the absolute necessity of buying iron-on name tags for their school uniforms.
Any divorced father will know that time with the kids will throw up challenges that he never countenanced before. A child announcing at 9pm that he needs a certain item for school the next day; a difficult question about the break-up; an outbreak of nits. But these are the means by which he becomes involved in every aspect of the child’s life. The book provides guidance for bonding emotionally with your child, which can initially be awkward after a short period of separation. Abrupt and unsettling language must be avoided (“Mum and Dad are getting divorced because they don’t love each other any more”) as must any adverse impression that Mum and Dad might get back together (children, says Baker, will at first look for signs of possible reconciliation).
Baker recommends that however friendly or unfriendly your relationship with your ex-wife might be, always try to keep it businesslike. “Approach them as you would someone in business,” he says. “Deal with the subject and have an agenda.” But one of the key pieces of advice, says Baker, is that divorced men must also take care of their own health, resist the tempation to drink too much when they are lonely without the children, and eat well. “It is very easy to slip into TV dinners when you are on your own,” he says. “But whatever you might feel like, a Pot Noodle and a can of lager is not a nutritional meal.”
The keys to being a good divorced father are always planning ahead, being there for your children, being consistent and, most crucially, putting them first. The rewards, says Baker, can be huge. Some children of divorced dads, he says, can have a far more involved relationship with their fathers. “You take part in things you never would have before . . . more than if you were getting home from work, reading them a story and getting them to sleep.” The way that it has worked with the shared residency is that he tends to be the one in charge of cutting their nails and hair and getting their feet measured. He packs their school lunches, makes sure that their uniforms are ready and knows about all their teachers.
Baker’s love for his children is obvious. As a married man he was, already, a very hands-on dad but for fathers who don’t naturally fall into that role, being the sole carer can be an awakening. He is saddened by the statistic that 20 per cent of divorced fathers lose contact with their children but admits that the prospect of having his children “drip-fed to me” and constantly having to give them back seemed too painful to bear at one stage. “I wonder whether some of that 20 per cent have done it almost for the sake of their mental health,” he says.
But if you make an effort to throw yourself into the role it will become easier. “If you are going to be a great divorced dad you have to look on this next chapter of your life as the chance to create a new life, a new home, a positive, healthy relationship with your children . . .” It is important, he says, for men not to become embarrassed about things, like taking their daughter to the toilet (his book reminds fathers that girls wipe from front to back) and that in public they will have to take a very young girl into the men’s toilets. “You are going to have to stand in shops and get excited over which Little Pony is better than the other. It’s all completely natural.” Men must also not be embarrassed about asking questions, he says. In a difficult situation they might be unwilling to ask their ex-partner something to avoid looking silly or as if they are not in control. “But there is no such thing as a stupid question,” he says. “You need to ensure that you are on the right track.”
There are still obstacles. Persuading the education and health authorities to post letters to two homes, not just the mother’s, can be difficult. Parents do not always remember to pass messages on to each other. (“It’s really important to know, for instance, when it’s a nonschool uniform day. It’s awful when you turn up at school and [your kids] are the only ones in uniform”). But he has achieved his goal of being a permanent and loving presence in his children’s lives. “It has made my relationship with my children more intense – in a good way,” he says. Out of the black cloud of divorce, that is not a bad silver lining.