I’ve heard it time and again:
While they they were married, he worked a bazillion hours, rarely helped around the house, barely made time for the kids and spent any free time or money doing whatever the eff he wanted.
She was overwhelmed, angry, felt abandoned and worried – and the kids felt abandoned by him, too.
That is the mom’s version of the story.
Every story has at least two sides.
Here is the man’s version:
While they were married they both assumed gender-typical roles:
He worked and earned most of the money. She took on most of the house and child duties.
Even if she worked and earned — even a lot — she still was the lead when it came to parenting.
In fact, he says she was the boss at home — and research finds time and again that despite all the successes in achieving gender equality in the public sphere, women do more work at home. She insisted that she knew best when it came to raising kids, and he just followed her lead. After all, parenting is hard, it is overwhelming and it is hard to know what to do most of the time.
He got that she did most of the work at home, but she insisted on doing a lot of parenting, all the time, and had to have things her way. She yelled and criticized, so he just naturally became smaller as a parent. He didn’t even realize it, he just stepped back.
So, as his effort to contribute to the family, the dad worked a lot more. He didn’t feel helpful or useful or appreciated at home, but at work or with his friends he felt more comfortable.
Here is where these stories converge:
When they split up, he changed. Now, thanks to a court- or separation-agreement order, he spends fixed times with the kids. She gets a break. He gets a break. The kids see their dad regularly and often.
These trends are new, and changing quickly.
A recent study by Kathleen Gerson, professor of sociology at New York University and author of The Unfinished Revolution: How a New Generation is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in America, found that the percentage of non-residential fathers being involved with their children more than tripled from 8 percent in the 1970’s to 26 percent in 2000’s.
One mom told me:
“I almost can’t believe what a better dad he is now, after the divorce,” one mom told me. She is happier about the arrangement on all fronts, even if it cost her the marriage. “I don’t want to be married to him any more, and if it took divorce to snap him into being a good father, then it was worth it.”
Why are men better dads after they divorce or break up from the moms?
Studies find that divorced dads with shared custody can spend more time, and more quality time with their children than married fathers. But, why?
It’s easier to be an involved, confident dad if you’re not constantly criticized
Fact: Women are groomed since birth to be mothers, given dolls to play with, urged to prioritize family over career, and typically men are not.
While parenting skills and the ability to bond with a child are gender-neutral, our culture tells women they are the better parent, and tells men they are the inferior parent. Golden uterus complexes develop, and men can follow along.
This dad told the Huffington Post:
“In my marriage, I was always walking on eggshells and getting criticized. Recently after I made dinner, my son shook his chocolate milk and it went flying everywhere. I could say, just relax it’s nothing a paper towel won’t pick up. It’s okay to make a mistake and fix it.”
Men are better dads after divorce out of appreciation of the kids
It is often the horrible shock of facing that his family is falling apart to make him realize how much he took his kids for granted. Moms in shared parenting arrangements feel the same.
When family life is constantly buzzing in the background, it can feel like it is an all-consuming presence, even if in reality you spend little actual — not to mention quality — time with those you love most. When you’re sitting at the edge of a naked mattress, staring at your flatscreen TV with bunk beds barely assembled in the next room and leftover Seamless containers in the fridge, the pain of loneliness can be very real.
This dad of three wrote about his new take on parenting in Fatherly:
“I only have limited time with kids, so I make the most of it. No sitting around the house being bored. No kids in one room and me in the living room. We eat together. We play together. We dance, wrestle, play board games, and hug. I don’t miss things because of work. The little things became more important. My two oldest and I text and I call them on days I don’t see them. I have a different but closer relationship with them now than before. And I don’t take the daily stuff for granted.”
Single dads are better dads out of basic necessity
If you don’t have to do the boring, annoying part of parenting, you don’t. But when you do, it can be fulfilling — if not just part of adulthood. This dad shared:
“After my marriage ended, I realized that just doing whatever your wife tells you is leaving responsibilities to her. Becoming a single parent made me a better father as it forced me to step forward and take responsibility for dealing with situations that in the past I probably would have just left for my wife to handle or to tell me what to do.”
Social pressure and modeling inspire men step up to be more involved fathers
Shame is a powerful motivator. So is organic modeling of involved fathers. While risking scrutiny of family court judges, highly paid lawyers, and friends and neighbors peering over the proverbial fence to see if he will be a negligent, deadbeat dad, peer pressure inspires him to step up.
From the moms’ perspective, there is often another emotion at play: A sense of triumph. “I admit that I sometimes gloat when we discuss the hours he will spend with the kids,” one mom confessed. “For so many years he insisted that he was doing enough, but the divorce lawyers, the couples therapist and his family all made him feel bad for not spending enough time with them. I hate to say it, but I get off on the fact that he knows I was right, and he was wrong.”
This mom shared that her ex’s transformation means that divorce was a true gift to her kids:
“Although I will always feel bad for my kids because they are children of divorce, I am pleased for them that they finally have a father who is more attentive to their needs, involved in their lives, and carrying his share of our family’s load. They deserved more than just a lump on the couch who was more interested in the fictional characters inside an electric box than the people right in the same room sharing his life! My ex’s transformation is just one more way that my children have ultimately benefited from our divorce. They may not have the two of us in one home, but they have two parents who are stronger and in a better position to focus on their needs.”
Smugness aside, there is something to be said about the value of divorce in these cases. While we all want the divorce rate to be lower than it is, see clear evidence of the financial, physical and emotional benefits to marriage, sometimes a marital split is better for the whole family. After all, if divorce means that one partner gets the parenting support she needs, the kids get more time with the previously negligent parent, and that negligent parent steps up to fulfill his potential as a father, isn’t the net sum of this equation positive?
Tips for how to be a good dad
To be a good dad, you have to recognize how important you are
Thankfully, there are scores of scientific studies that conclude that children fare better when they have both parents actively involved in their lives, and children without a present and active dad are at higher risk of drug abuse, incarceration, early sexual activity and STDs, lower academic performance and achievement, and unemployment as adults.
Perhaps you feel not up to parenting after the trauma of divorce or a breakup. Maybe you did not have a strong father figure as a child. Maybe emotional, financial or mental health issues left you unsure of yourself as a father.
You join many men in this challenge. Seek out a support group. Online communities can be helpful, as can therapy.
Being a good father means prioritizing co-parenting
Easier said than done. I get it.
First, a low-conflict, amicable divorce focused on equally shared, 50/50 custody and parenting responsibility.
Then, follow all the rules, including:
- Don’t talk smack about your ex in front of the kids
- Stay in communication about matters large and small
- Respect time with your kids’ other parent by not constantly calling during her parenting time
- Consider regular couples counseling or meetings with mediator to sort out interpersonal conflict.
Good parents create space for kids
Space may include a home and car big enough for your children, but space also includes time and emotional bandwidth. While both mothers and fathers spend far more hours with their children than generations past, it is important to show up to pick up the kids on time when you are supposed to, show up for sports and music events, and show up emotionally. While you don’t need to be at kids’ beck and call, devote an hour each day to really talking with them.
Good dads trust their instincts
Despite common assumptions, studies find that fathers have the same capacity to bond with their children. You already have most of the tools to be a good dad — but you have to learn to trust your instincts. This may mean rejecting previous criticisms from your kids’ mom, assumptions that fathers are inferior parents, and other, human self-doubting that plague the human species.
One mom helped her ex be a better dad after divorce
Here is an excellent example of a single mom who helped her ex be a better dad, and had remarkable results for the whole family. Excerpt from my #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin):
It took more than five years, but I am proud to say that today my ex and I can enjoy family dinners, discuss discipline challenges, and have even mentioned vacationing together in the future. A big part of this was our shift away from me seeing myself as the primary parent and both of us embracing equal roles in our kids’ lives.
There are many ways you can do this, but in Valerie’s case, she actively reached out to her ex and explicitly supported him in being a better father. It worked:
The best advice after my divorce was from a counselor. I was complaining about the burden of having my kids most of the time because my ex (going through a period of self-loathing, pity, and guilt) was not taking the time to be with them.
She told me that my kids needed me to be 100 percent of the mom I could be to them, but being 150 percent of the mom they needed would not compensate for their dad being anything less than 100 percent of the dad they needed. I would be better off investing that extra 50 percent helping him be a better dad.
Something clicked in me and really shifted my perspective. It began with a discussion I had with their dad: “Our kids need more time with you. Our kids need you more involved in the day-to-day of their lives. Our kids need you to be 100 percent of the dad you can be. How can I help you?”
And I kept asking. Finally, one day he asked me to help him move furniture into his apartment so he could make it more of a home for them. I packed up some toys and clothes (and even dishes and cups the kids liked using) and took them to his apartment. I encouraged him to coach our son’s baseball team and I helped with its administration. I encouraged him to take one of the kids to dinner to spend time one-on-one with them while I kept the other two. He became more confident as a parent.
Once I started to give, he started to give.
That was more than five years ago. Our co-parenting relationship is balanced and in a very good place. It has been for a long time now—sometimes I forget it wasn’t always.
If you are a single mom, here are three things you can do right now to encourage your kids’ dad to be an equal co-parent:
- Back the eff off. Assuming your kids’ dad has not been proven to be unfit in any way, you get no say about what happens at his house. Bedtime, meals, toys played with and adults in their company are up to the dad. This includes any of his romantic interests. If the situation does indeed sound scary, take it to court. Otherwise, he is free to parent as he sees fit. It may take him some time to find his groove, find a rhythm and routine that works for him. Give him space to be the dad he is capable of.
- Reach out to him in a genuine expression of collaboration. “I know you are a good dad, how can I support you?” Say that. Mean it. Recognize the wonderful benefits that the fruits of this gesture can have for your children, and you! After all, what if you no longer fought with him all the time, worried about whether he sees the kids, or stressed over micromanaging the visit? What if he were a more involved, collaborative partner who assumed taking kids when they are sick, and together you gang up on the kids when discipline problems arise. You could get more time to yourself, fewer stressful days of full-on parenting, and a calmer, warmer relationship with the only person who loves your kids as much as you do.
- Say three nice things about your kids’ dad to them every day. This is as much about letting your children know that you support their father, as it is healing of your own wounds around the relationship, and reframes him in a more positive light in your own mind. Tell them a funny story about when you were dating. Highlight a physical attribute, personality trait that you admire, or tell them that their dad shares your values around sharing, lying or chores (if it is true).
Thomas Matlack wrote on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog about how hitting rock bottom and losing his marriage made him stop drinking and be a better dad.
I’ve seen many times how divorce has made men better fathers – including in my own family. One of this blog’s commenters named Kirsten wrote that limiting the time her ex spends with their kids makes him appreciate them much more than when he lived with them full-time:
I saved my ex-husband’s relationship with his kids by getting his angry self out of here. He couldn’t handle being selfless everyday but he can do a decent job every other weekend. While I want nothing to do with him, my kids now have a dad who is happy to see them and he’s not yelling and screaming and scaring the crap out of them.
Again, a rather extreme example. Mine is also extreme – my husband and I separated while he was recovering from a brain injury, and he was in no state to be a co-parent. But gradually, thanks to the structure that a visitation schedule provided, he has become a more reliable presence in our kids’ lives.
But more than these tragedies, I’ve heard from everyday guys going through garden-variety divorces who thrive in their new, part-time parenting schedules. Several report that their ex-wives dominated domestic decisions and habits, and the men consciously or unconsciously acquiesced to her way of parenting while married. Now, left to their own devices, they’ve flourished in their new roles as independent parents. (Hear that ladies? Control freaks make men bad dads!)
Other stories are simply about men no longer taking for granted their time with their children and role as fathers. Some so cherish their visits that they find themselves more present and focused during those hours, when compared with when they lived full-time in the same home as their kids. Other dads struggle with guilt over not being around as much, worried their kids will one day have memories of the “weekend dad” — and do all they can to be involved and available.
I was recently chatting with a colleague contemplating divorce, and he said, “I owe it to my 3-year-old daughter to make it work.” That is certainly a noble and common notion, but I challenged him. A loveless marriage is no gift to any child. And there are so many examples of parents of both genders finding their groove after divorce — to the betterment of everyone involved.
More moms comment on “Does your ex spend MORE time with the kids post-divorce?”
Its interesting, this article is very true but slightly different for me. Yes my ex does spend more time with our kids post divorce but its the way that he spends his time with them that surprised me. See, I know that there are so many times where he would take them to the playground or the mall and just lets them run around without really spending time with them, which is what I totally expected from him. Getting in the hours but not the quality of getting to know our kids and being a part of their lives at all. But after three years apart I’m starting to see my ex become more “in to” our kids. He’s getting to know them as people, he listens to them as people (their 5 & 7 so little people), hears their stories about camp and games they play and learns what they want to do. My son has been asking to go on a zip line so he found a place to take him and do that. My daughter wants to only sing songs and dance and he comes over to do that with her only. I have to say that I’m so happy for both my kids and him. If we had stayed together (which would have been disastrous for all) he would never have branched out in this way with them. Sense he and I have an amicable divorce and get along, I feel with this new facet of connection with our kids we have created a new version of family where we are all happy. And yes, mommy gets to catch up on all her DVR’d shows during the down time!
This article rings true on so many levels ! My ex definitely spends more quality with the kids since the divorce than when we were married. The kids are benefitting and I am finally getting the break that I need when they are with him.
Sadly, my ex spends very little with my daughter post-divorce. It wasn’t a priority when we were married, and it’s a very low priority now. Also, he seems to need to plan an activity to do anything with her -movie, swimming, etc. Otherwise he doesn’t want to take her because “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” I’m thinking – hey, you’re her dad. Spend time with her!