"Summertime Blues" - Taking a Summer Break in Divorce
It is unofficially here - Summer. The temperatures are rising and so are the emotions of many moms and dads of divorce. Camps (stay away and local) are nearing. Vacations are on the horizon. And uncomfortable interactions with the ex are in the offing. My own inbox at work is starting to see the onset of the "summertime blues."
Summer is a peculiar time in divorce. The kids are not in school and the certainty of the "every other weekend and midweek overnight," the "5-2-2-5" or the "week-on-week-off" is now being thrown into chaos by a 3 month period without the anchor of academics to sustain it. Squabbles are brewing, pitched battles are being planned for, and people are getting their dander up.
It never ceases to amaze me what people in divorce fight about. It also never ceases to amaze me that there are people like me (no doubt dropped on our heads as children) who agree to help people fight about those things with a straight face. Summer is supposed to be a relaxing respite from the tedium of the school year. Our son, now 8 and entering 3rd Grade in the Fall, is elated. With his own school year ending this Friday - he is looking forward to several months that will be marked by trips to Texas to see his maternal grandparents and extended family, hockey camp, swim camp, and other assorted camps that we cobbled together to fill the time.
Here is a simple and summer-related thought for other thoughtful parents of good will (whose relevance will become clearer at the end of this post): "what does your child want to do?"
Does he or she want to go to that NASA camp? Do they want to drive all the way to South Dakota and Wyoming (like our son did last year)? Does he want to spend a month with grandma? When it comes to summer, consider letting go and letting the child drive the bus a little more than you might feel comfortable with doing normally. I know it is hard - we are both lawyers and are congenitally Type A people.
I might want to see our son go here or do that. I have my commitments, interests and hobbies. But they are mine. Not his. Our son's mom has her own commitments, interests and hobbies. But they too are her own particularities and not our son's. My kind of summer is one that involves tennis, sunbathing, swimming and reading outside. That's fine for me. I am 42. But our son is 8. He has his own interests. And I think we, as parents, should try and encourage and foster those interests as best we can.
Too many parents devolve into dispute because the summer "things" become parental things instead of kid things. Mom opposes this particular camp because hockey is a "dad" motivated thing. Dad opposes that soccer camp because it was started at the behest of mom. People start agreeing to and opposing camps and activities based on their parental heritage. The really angry people even drill down into where the camp is in proximity to themselves and their exes. We hear: "Hell no! That camp is 40 minutes away and SHE is only 10 minutes from there... Let HER do it. Let HER pay for it.." Ok, pal, you're right. Your son who loves chemistry should NOT go to the one chemistry camp in the state and should sit instead at the park district and draw doodles with grubby crayons - because it puts you out a bit.
Or we see the mortal combat over costs. Receipts and invoices and bills are procured. Calculations that the Office of Management and Budget could not conduct are nonetheless conducted with laser-like precision by divorcees across the land. "He owes me EXACTLY $1,437.19" Seriously? You wasted how many hours of your very brief time on this planet combing through records and documents to parse out that exact 66.666% responsibility for camps, gear and other miscellany? This is who you are?
In our divorce, we generally approach financial matters with a smell test. I cover this and Vanessa covers that. We take a moment every so often and make adjustments either way. I could be a real dick about certain things and she could be hell on wheels. But we aren't. Because this is not good. For either of us individually or for our son most importantly. Sure, it means I "overpay" some times. Other times it means she gets "shorted." But the constant computation and calculation of monies owed between parents is a habit that - when indulged too often or too stringently - becomes an addiction that feeds a lot of already negative material in divorce.
Now, you may say - that is all well and good. You guys get along. My ex is a real jerk. He won't do anything! I want to do it like that, but we can't even talk. Ok. Granted. We all have to deal with people as they are and where they are. So, I would ask you - what is your approach right now? Where can you help to move things in a better trajectory? How can you begin to dial down the heat on summertime squabbles?
Maybe you can take the lead. This is applicable for either a mom or a dad. You can actually suck it up and give rather than ask. You can offer instead of demanding. You can defuse instead of igniting. Start by saying, you know what - that camp IS a little bit of a hassle for you. You work downtown and have to leave early to get there. But Little Jimmy really loves chemistry. How about I cover a little more of the cost? Or how about I agree to handle pick ups and we tweak the schedule?
Maybe you say, you know what - I know cash flow is tight right now for you. It is for me too. Summer is expensive. But if I cover this camp and that one, and you handle the gear for the sports, maybe you can cover more of the things in Fall and Winter when your bonuses come.
I don't know you or your finances. And it obviously isn't this simple. But I do know how to solve problems. And there are few problems in divorce that cannot be solved. We make them impossible and impractical when we insist on taking positions and when we insist on living by the Judgment, the Decree, the Agreement. Honestly, Vanessa and I have an Agreement and I don't know what it says. We have never followed it on finances or on parenting.
My suggestion for divorced parents is to try and behave, to the maximum extent possible, like you were still married. I know that's a mind bender - but hear me out. I am not suggesting what you think I might be suggesting here. I am suggesting that in marriage, you navigated issues very differently than you do now. In many ways, the manner in which you did that probably wasn't good (hell - you're divorced now). In other ways, it was at least better than what you're doing now.
If the ability to compromise is a key to a good marriage - the ability to compromise is THE key to a good divorce. It is in a lot of ways more important to compromise now than it was before. So, why aren't you? When did you wake up and become who you are now? Is it because you're now free from the constraints of marriage? Is it because the ex is the bad actor and you're "just" refusing to "take it" anymore? Are you "just" doing what is "fair"? Come on - let's get real for a second here.
I have never met a divorced person who is 100% right (absent domestic violence, etc). Yes, your ex-spouse is a lying narcissist who acts badly. Yes, your former spouse is a controlling nut who is a menace most of the time. And yet, you married them. You had children together. You reared those children together for some time. And - truth be told, some of the ways in which that person acts now are a result of ways you acted throughout the marriage. And vice versa. We act in marriage on each other. We impact each other. Show me that crazy ex-wife with conspiracy theories who will burn down the barn in litigation. I will show you with 90% accuracy who her husband is. Show me that narcissistic husband who refuses to pay a dime. I bet I can tell you who his ex-wife is. We tend to play out very consistent and reliable scripts in life.
What I would like us to think about it is our ability to change those scripts - not just about summer and parenting but year round too. To fight against playing to the role. The thing about being divorced is that there are no right answers. There are, however, many wrong ones. And the wrong answers we know deep down. You know them and I know them. But it is hard. We humans generally like things to be "fair." We take it at work all day. We take it from "The Man." We take it on the train. Our politicians give it to us good and hard and we take it from them too. We spend so much time in life just taking it. And now that we are divorced, we sure as shit are not gonna take it from the ex. Right?
But this is silliness. Of course we are. And we will. And it will be mutual. And it is ok. Life is not fair. We all take it in myriad ways from the pillar of birth to the post of death. So get over it. Snap out of it. Your child is watching, listening and absorbing everything you do and say. You are modeling what he or she thinks divorce is and how relationships operate. A lot of people stop here and make it just about the kids. And sure, that's number one in terms of importance. They are innocents in this all.
But think about yourself too. What does this all do to you? Do you like feeling the way you do? Does your seething, internal 24/7 anger toward your ex have ANY real impact on them most of the time? Probably not, but it surely does on you. Give yourself a break from it. Forgive yourself first. Then your ex. Exhale. Forgive yourself first, because a lot of that anger isn't really just about the ex but is also a lot about you. About your role in the demise of the marriage. About your not maintaining what you thought would be forever. About your guilt and your shame.
And you probably are walking around with a fair bit of that all. Even if you don't realize it. We make divorced people feel like failures. And a lot of divorced people walk around wearing the sackcloth and ashes that our culture implicitly and explicitly expects them to wear. Some believe that divorce is now so pervasive that there is no sanction associated with it any longer. Those people don't deal with many divorced people. Surely, divorced people aren't subject to the kind of 1950's castigation they once were. But there are subtle ways in which being divorced still works that way. We see happy families on Instagram and Facebook on a 24/7 basis every day of the year. The TV, movies and music we consume still perpetuate myths of love and relationships and marriage. And divorce... Social media for all of its positives, also can have a negative impact on mental health. Trust me - its put my own in the shitter from time to time.
As I wrote about at the time, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle held the world's rapt attention for a weekend of wedding bliss earlier this month. That lovely ceremony however also shows us all that the fairytales we imbibed in childhood are still alive in adulthood. I don't begrudge people their parties. But let us be mindful of how all of this saturation we exist in effects us. I began this post asking you to think about what your child wants to do this summer.
I now want to ask you to think about what YOU want to do this summer. Do you want to have angry text and email exchanges with your ex? Do you want to feel angry, bitter, depressed? Do you want to continue to wear the burden of your divorce? Or do you want to start to work through and out of that space? Do you want to begin to take your own summer break? A break from buying into fairytales and myths that leaves you feeling blue because life is not a Lifetime TV show. A break from resentment and blaming - both yourself and others. I encourage you to think about it. To be conscious of what you really feel and why.
There ain't no cure for the summertime blues, the song tells us. Maybe so, but there is a lot we can do for ourselves and our kids when we simply take a "summer break." Literally and figuratively. Mentally, emotionally and spiritually. You've got three months to get going on it. Your divorce "vacation" starts now. You pick the destination. I wish you luck on the journey. And safe travels.