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January 11, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Here’s a sometimes sweet, sometimes profound, sometimes under-informed look at shared parenting up close (Washington Post, 1/9/15). It’s the personal story of Jim Sollisch, written by him. It’s heartfelt and readers can see his progression as a parent from married to divorced dad.

Sollisch’s unexpected bottom line: until he got divorced, he could never realize his true parenting abilities. Of course, he’s not advocating divorce; his was far too hard on him and his kids for him to ever do that. But unexpectedly, he discovered an upside to his divorce. Good for him. And thanks to him for letting us know. It’s an aspect of shared parenting I’d never fully appreciated before. Thanks to Sollisch, now I do.

Since his is a story about his adventures with parenting post-divorce, that means he and his ex worked out a custody arrangement that allowed him substantial time with his children. That of course means that many, many fathers won’t benefit much from Sollisch’s wisdom. With the standard visitation order in many states giving non-custodial parents, 83% of whom are fathers, only 14% - 20% of the parenting time, most dads have no way to experience the liberation Sollisch was fortunate enough to. Sadly, his tale is not for them.

Sollisch starts by hitting a bump or two.

I come from a long line of divorced fathers. My father divorced my mother when I was 12. I use “divorce” not as a noun but as a transitive verb because, as I watched my mother in the months that followed, the divorce felt like something my father did to her. A generation earlier my father’s father divorced his wife, my grandmother.

And so statistically, I was a likely candidate for divorce. But I was determined to avoid the sins of my fathers. I didn’t realize that unlike a marriage, which requires two willing parties, a divorce requires only one. My first wife asked me for a divorce after 14 years of marriage. Our kids were 10, 7 and 4.

He didn’t realize divorce requires only one person? Where’s he been all this time? Does he have no friends or acquaintances whose spouse up and left one day? He’s never heard of no-fault divorce, never seen any of the countless movies or television programs that depict one person divorcing another? I’ll give the guy a break and assume that what he’s really trying to get across is that his divorce took him completely by surprise. Sure, he knew in a vague way that she could leave at any time, as could he, but he was so deeply involved in his marriage and his children that it seemed to come out of the blue. Much of what he describes corroborates that take on his story.

But no Jim, your wife didn’t “ask you for a divorce.” She told you she was going to divorce you. The days in which spouses had to agree to divorce are long, long past. I know it’s common parlance among some people to express the matter that archaic way, but please, let’s tell it like it is. Anyone can divorce their spouse for any or no reason. Period.

However it came about, divorce was traumatic for Sollisch, but something else unexpected occurred.

I was devastated. In the wreckage, I clung to my children as if they were life rafts. I quickly learned that the trick was to appear to be their raft, buoyant enough to get them to solid ground and tricked-out enough to make the journey fun…

I moved in with a friend who lived in the neighborhood, a divorced guy with no kids. I moved in for a few weeks and stayed 15 months. My kids took over every square foot of Paul’s house. Paul looms large in our family story. It’s not often you meet a saint, let alone live with one. My kids remember that year with Paul as one of the best times of their childhood.  

Wow, that’s a surprise. “One of the best times of their childhood.” Paul must truly be a saint, just as Sollisch claims. Maybe the two men were able to make the experience kind of like a camp-out, a fun departure from the usual family tedium. Whatever they did, making the immediate aftermath of divorce “one of the best times” of your kids’ childhoods is an accomplishment verging on the miraculous.

But then it got even better. Sollisch soon figured out that, apart from everything else about his divorce, he was free to be the father he could be. When it came to parenting, he was at last free to do it the way he saw fit.

I found that the only way to get through the anxiety of being separated was to be fully present when my kids and I were together. That became my goal, and I often fell short. But that’s the great gift divorce can offer fathers: the freedom to parent without distraction. Suddenly, you’re not negotiating bedtime or how many cookies is the right amount of cookies. Now you’re in charge, freed from the constraints of Mommy Culture. And Mommy Culture is like air; you can’t escape it, and you don’t even know you’re struggling to breathe in that thin air until you experience a sudden change in altitude. At least that’s how it felt to me…

So shared parenting gave me a chance to adjust the default and to develop more fully as a father. I learned to negotiate play dates, schedule carpools and braid hair (sort of). I taught my kids to play poker, which cost me all my spare change, but taught them about chance and human nature. We turned almost everything into a game. Going to the art museum became a competition to see who could give the untitled pieces the best names. Buying fruit at the outdoor market became a math game: Who could get the most peaches for $2? The playground turned into an obstacle course. Things were counted. Scores were kept.

My daughter, Zoey, the youngest, became the house champion cribbage player. By 6, she was pretty tough to beat in poker, too. My kids learned to compete. Sometimes we played games to decide who had to do extra chores. Occasionally a later bedtime went to the victor.

Without the safety net of Mom, we learned to fly. Sometimes we landed hard. And occasionally we soared.

What a fabulous testimony, not only to one of the undiscovered wonders of shared parenting, but also of the differences in paternal vs. maternal parenting styles! It’s news to no one that fathers and mothers tend to parent differently and that’s obviously the case with Sollisch and his ex. My guess is that his introduction of competition among the kids and between himself and them would never have gotten the maternal stamp of approval during his marriage. Freed from that restriction, Sollisch obviously had a lot of fun bringing up his kids his own way. It sounds like they did too.

And Sollisch doesn’t let us forget that freedom is exactly what he’s talking about. The simple truth is that he, like virtually every other father on the planet, took a back seat to his wife when it came to parenting his children.

In my experience, all [mothers’] anxiety leads to a lot of rules, some sensible, some arbitrary. And those rules are usually not democratically arrived at. There is still, even among couples who attempt to parent equally, a bias toward Mom’s approach. In even the most balanced parenting equations, which my wife and I enjoyed, Mom is still the commander-in-chief, and Dad, a high-ranking general.

Mom’s parenting style almost always sets the default. And defaults are hard to adjust. The negotiating that goes on over those settings can often suck the focus away from actual parenting.

That’s an arrangement plenty of dads know all too well. Sollisch has his take on just why fathers so often find themselves relegated to second-in-command.

I think mothers have a much tougher job than fathers because the expectations of them are so unrealistic. They’re expected to know everything about being a mother the instant their child is born.

And society scrutinizes their every move. Which leads to anxiety, a burden most fathers don’t have. Each decision a mother makes becomes monumental, from which breast pump to buy to how to put baby down at night — side or tummy? Moms feel judged by the binkies and sippy cups they choose.

Hmm. That’s what we’re told ad infinitum, but every time I see someone repeating the mantra, a number of questions come up. For example, who is it who’s making all these demands of mothers? Sollisch says it’s “society,” but never lets on about how “society” does that. Certainly mothers themselves have been known to scrutinize each others’ behavior and not always kindly. And popular culture depicts ideal mothers happily choosing the right products and activities for their little ones, but almost never are those mothers criticized.

When it comes to “society,” my observation is that it’s far easier on mothers than fathers. After all, isn’t that why mothers routinely get custody when spouses split up? Not only are mothers the default authority during marriage, they’re the same in the event of divorce. Routinely, they get the kids, not because Dad can’t do the job or doesn’t want to, but because they’re mothers. That’s scarcely what you’d call society’s holding them to a higher standard. Just the opposite, in fact.

Child Protective Services? Those agencies have a tragic history of keeping too many children with mothers who’ve proven their unfitness, brutality, incompetence, drug addiction, etc. And even when children are taken from their mothers for abuse or neglect, CPS caseworkers rarely bother to contact the fathers. An Urban Institute study back in 2006 found that fathers were contacted in fewer than half those cases. That’s true despite the fact that, while states have to pay foster parents, fathers come free of charge.

No, there’s a better explanation for why mothers are the default parenting system in so many households. Both mothers and fathers give them the job. As many studies on maternal gatekeeping demonstrate, mothers tend to doggedly claim the job Sollisch calls commander in chief. Indeed, they wouldn’t have it any other way. And fathers step back into the role of second-class parent. Sometimes maternal gatekeeping is as benign as Sollisch makes it sound. But other times it extends as far as child abduction and even murder.

That’s why, painful and destructive as divorce can be, Sollisch gives us a valuable take on it. Given that his ex was willing to accede to shared parenting, he was able to be his kind of father, not hers. And from the sound of it, he and the kids reaped the benefits.

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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