“Your children need your presence more than your presents.”
– Jesse Jackson, politician
“This was wreaking havoc with Raul’s work and his life!”
Raul was an experienced physiotherapist. He had been in practice for over 18 years. He loved his work, was good at it and devoted to his patients. He was a fit, friendly man of Jamaican extraction with a dry wit and ability to get people to relax quickly.
But, then he divorced Raven, his wife of 10 years over infidelity and started coparenting on a half time basis, his two children, Reese aged four and Reed, aged seven. Since Raven was still angry at him over the financial aspects of the divorce settlement, she was enforcing the letter of the law regarding the coparenting plan.
The kids were exchanged every Sunday and Wednesday at 4 PM…no exceptions or exemptions. This was wreaking havoc with Raul’s work and his life! It had been going on for over a year and he had already switched employers and reduced his hours.
What made it so interesting was Raul was not upset at Raven for her strict enforcement of the coparenting agreement. Rather, he was struggling with the dilemma he faced between his values for his children and his work. He seem to spend most of his time generating guilt that he was a lousy father…and especially to his daughter Reese, who had Down’s Syndrome, and so attended specialized programs to enhance her learning.
Reese’s special schedule threw all kinds of additional kinks into his parenting. All he had to do with Reed was make sure he caught the school bus each day. However, Reese needs to be dropped off and picked up at specific times which made it difficult for Raul to maintain a regular work schedule.
“Divorces and marriages are just human learning tools.”
As Raul outlined his situation and the guilt and confusion it was creating for him, I asked him what was his biggest challenge at this moment in time that had brought him to my office.
“Ken, I have just put my kids through a messy divorce and they seem to have come through it OK. But, coparenting is really demanding and I’m struggling with my priorities.”
“Half of all marriages will evolve to a divorce, either a legal one, an emotional one or both. It is natural and OK. Divorces and marriages are just human learning tools. And, the same applies to the kids involved.”
“I have lots of friends who have gone through it and I know some who are emotionally divorced but not legally…and the opposite as well…living common law but very married. So, I can see the first part. But, how does the same apply to the kids?”
“In my experience, Raul, children have fewer illusions about life and so adapt more quickly than their parents’ divorce. It is still challenging for them, but they adjust more readily, as long as, they know both parents will be OK.”
“Children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk.”
– Carl Jung, psychiatrist
“…Santa Claus is an illusion about giving…”
“Are you saying kids are more flexible than adults?”
“You have probably noticed in your work, they are more physically flexible. Have you ever asked an adult or a child, for example, to do a specific stretch to help their body’s recovery?”
“Sure, probably thousands of times over the years!”
“Have you noticed, with probably a few exceptions, kids are more open to the challenge, more open in their thinking than the adults to stretching their body. This applies mentally, as well.”
“What do you mean kids have fewer illusions? Aren’t they the ones who still believe in Santa Claus?” he said, smiling.
“Believing in Santa Claus is an illusion about giving, I’m referring to similar illusions about relationships and family! They are actually all connected.” I offered.
“Would you run that by me again Ken… with examples…I think I got lost somewhere?” he said.
“…there are no freebees in life…their parent(s) did the shopping!”
“Raul, I suspect one of the key principles in your work as a physiotherapist is helping your clients restore some form of balance to a muscle, a group of muscles or perhaps their entire body. Is that true?”
“Actually, Yes! One of the most important things we do is strive to restore biological homeostasis, kind of a physical balance needed for movement.” he replied.
“Raul, this is the same process going on mentally…no different…the same natural law of our body and indeed, our life. Getting back to Santa Claus for a second, kids learn about the give and take of life, and especially relationships, by learning, in their own way, there are no freebees in life…their parent(s) did the shopping!”
“And, this connects to divorce, how…?”
“Kids pick up pretty quickly how the divorce is beneficial to them, as well as, painful.” I said.
“Divorce is beneficial to kids? How could that be, Ken?”
“Raul, just ask your kids and they will tell you. But, you will need to listen carefully.”
“…even bad things have benefits…and even for children…”
“Can you give me one example that would make sense to me, Ken?”
“I can suggest several that might apply. It will ultimately depend on the individual child’s highest values.”
“Their highest values! What are we talking about here?” he asked.
“Values define what is most important. Here are some samples from my work. The child experiences less parental conflict; the child feels more valued by each parent; the child realizes each parent can be OK without the other; the child finds out it is a common childhood occurrence and OK; the child learns more independence; the child gets closer to siblings, grandparents, friends; and the list goes on.”
“Ken, as I hear your examples, I can see several of them in my own kids. But, that says even bad things have benefits… and even for children…am I getting this?”
“Go to the most upsetting time, most challenging time…”
“Raul, you are getting it! And, it applies to what is happening to you right now as you struggle to coparent. Let’s focus on that for a while.”
“You mean feeling caught all the time between being a father and being a physiotherapist has benefits for me? Wow! That’s a stretch in my mind!” he said, grimacing.
“Let’s take your biggest source of pain with the current situation you’re in, Raul. What is it?”
He paused briefly before replying, his frustration appearing over his entire being from head to toe,
“Reese’s needs to be picked up from her music program every Monday at 2:30 in the afternoon. Monday is usually my busiest day and the busiest time of the day. It throws off my whole week. I am continually playing ‘catch up’ for the rest of the week.”
“Raul, I would guess you have been doing Reese’s pick up for about a year now. Go to the most upsetting time, most challenging time, you have had, picking her up on Monday’s.”
“One of the most difficult challenges every parent faces is learning to love the other parent enough to protect themselves and the children.” – King Ayles, writer
“… how did you cope at that very moment…”
Another short pause, then,
“I had a one o’clock consult with a client which ran overtime due to the client needing some extra assistance with an injury. I got away at 2:20 and met a traffic accident and didn’t arrive to get Reese until 2:45! She was upset, crying and being comforted by her provider, an early childhood educator, Reese is really fond of.”
“Raul, go to the worst moment of that experience and go inside your mind to that moment.” I said to him.
Raul’s eyes dropped to the floor and he leaned back into his chair as he went back in time. Finally, he said,
“I was stuck in a traffic jam watching two police officers dealing with a three car collision, a firetruck, an ambulance and the wind blowing the snow around everything and everybody…it was organized chaos!”
“And, how did you cope at that very moment, Raul?”
“I just sat there ‘stewing’ and waiting until I could get by the accident scene. And, I called Reese’s program to tell them I would be late. And, I started thinking about what we should have for supper that day…because I hadn’t taken anything from the freezer that morning in advance, which I usually do.”
“The more upset you were, the more benefits you received…”
“So, since you’re sitting here telling me this, whatever you did to cope with that challenge served you well…you survived…got through it… and went on with your day…actually you life. True, Raul or not?” I asked him to encourage him to chunk higher in his thinking.
“Yes, I guess that’s true…I did get through it! But, was I ever pissed off, Ken!”
“The more upset you were, the more benefits you received, to ensure the natural law of equilibrium of each moment of life. So, let’s find them, Raul! In that moment in your mind, what was the most obvious benefits, looking back now?”
Then, I added for clarity,
“Remember there are at least several areas of life you can consider: spiritual, mental, vocational, financial, social, familial and physical. They are all just aspects of you, but every benefit and cost impacts all seven areas, we just notice some and not others!”
“OK! The first one was, I was thankful I wasn’t part of the pile up of cars, because I had been careful driving that day… but hurrying.” he said first.
“That protecting your physical health by driving safely. OK, what else?”
“Well, I called Reese’s program and they told me they understood and would wait with her for me which reminded me there are other people who can and do take care of her besides me…I forget that sometimes in my rush to be her Dad.”
“That sounds like it is a mental advantage by freeing you from all the responsibility of Reese! excellent, what else?”
“I waited patiently…I guess I could have told the police officers I had a family emergency and needed to get going right away to get Reese.” he added next.
“I can already see, and feel, the changes in me…”
“That could be the mental self-control you demonstrated by empowering yourself in a tense situation and also, socially, the respect you showed to and received from others who were involved in the collision who needed priority at that moment.”
“When I think about that event from those three perspectives I feel better about myself and how I handled that day, Ken.”
“So, you are starting to uncover some of the benefits that came with costs. That is the work we need to do Raul with, not just that event, but other moments that are sticking in your mind as being only painful, only losses or only costs. Are you prepared to go on that journey?”
“Yes, I am, Ken! I can already see, and feel, the changes in me and how I see, not just my job as a parent, but also, my job as a physiotherapist. Let’s do it!”
“When we’re done, you will be able to take any moment from your past and find the two sides, the duality and so appreciate it. It shifts how you see yourself, your children and your life…it is a game changer!”
“I’m starting to believe it, Ken! Let’s get at it!”
“Let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence.”
– Plato, philosopher