We all know someone who has been through a divorce. We've all heard war stories about how people behaved erratically or did something crazy. Divorce is a trauma to the whole family, and it changes each person in ways they can't predict.
Cruz Santana saw it firsthand in her own divorce and knows how traumatic it can be for the kids. And she knows how hard it is to keep kids at the forefront when parents aren't even sure how to navigate their own pain through divorce.
Based on what she and her husband both learned in the process, she wrote a book for men titled Phenomenal Dad: Ten Lessons on Single Fatherhood From a Tougher-Than-Nails Single Mom.
She describes "the fog of divorce" as a parent and how easy it is to lose the forest for the trees:
"When our hearts are broken, we bleed out emotions. So intense is the flow that it blinds us. It was like being at Niagara Falls when it happened to me. With all the steam and mist everywhere, I couldn't see much of what was in front of me."
Kids tend to shift to the peripheral when their parents are in survival mode. And in the pain and difficulties of moving out, court proceedings, visitation schedules, a new relationship, and "stuff", her husband retreated and pulled away from the kids.
It's common for that to happen, but his absence was even more traumatizing.
"Children live a pure existence. There are no shades of gray in their world. All things fit into one of two boxes: Things I want less of, and Things I want more of."
Even teenagers can have difficulty naming all of their emotions with words, so in children of any age, you will see behavior issues as a way of getting those mixed emotions out.
"If they act out in defiance, they aren't needlessly rebellious. They're pushing back on what they feel is the source of their discomfort. Don't act out your own version of karmic retribution by staying away. However bad it feels, even if it stings, take it. Even if it stings, take it. It'll give your little ones the validation they need... you have to stick around and wade through the muck with them."
When he forgot their daughter's birthday, Santana knew they had to find a way to work together and keep him at the forefront their children's lives. So they all entered family counseling together to learn how to create a peaceful environment.
She offers advice and action steps for men trying to keep their heads above water with their kids during a divorce. There are real-life scenarios from her experience, and thumbs up and thumbs down situations from other men that have been through it.
This is a book for dads on how to maintain their relationships with their kids, written from the perspective of a loving single mother of seven. Yes, seven. And yes, loving.
There are suggestions on how to ease the many transitions in a divorce. The shifting of responsibilities, getting kids peacefully from one place to the next, how not to behave during court proceedings, and the importance of securing a network of support, to name a few.
I was really impressed with Lesson 5: Helping Your Kids Adjust. She explains the words and phrases dads should look for in conversations with their kids for clues on how they're doing, and cues for what questions to ask them.
"All the Phenomenal Dads I know have one thing in common: They stay tuned into their kids' lives. They know their children's friends' names and where they all live, and they keep close tabs on the playground gossip."
When you are really in tune with your kids, you will know their usual words and behaviors and know when something is off.
"You're responsible for half the conversational volume in any given chat. It's especially true when talking to your children. Their answers tell you everything you need to know-if you know what you should listen to."
"Does your child say something like "My friend, Wallace said..?" If so, you know Wallace is a friend. Your son or daughter trusts this kid. Wallace has done something good and worth mentioning. It helps your child to talk to you about what Wallace thought on that particular day. Wallace is likely an important part of your child's support system."
Following this is a list of questions you can ask them about their friend Wallace.
Doing what's right isn't always what's easy. There are heavy emotions surrounding every facet of divorce and an ex-spouse might be making life hell-on-Earth.
But the important thing to remember is effort. Because in the end:
"In every case in which a father retreats from his offspring, the fault, the responsibility, rests at the feet of the one who took the easy way out of an uncomfortable situation and pulled away from his offspring."
Even a parent that travels can still be close with their kids through Skype, Facetime, etc. Don't discount the quality time you can spend with your kids, even if you don't live with them all the time.
"Time passes with or without you... Being present, being around is everything. You, as your children's father, cannot be replaced. You're it."
Over time and with the help of family counseling, Cruz and her ex-husband were able to work together peacefully, and dad successfully re-entered the picture.
"Once we could see our children's perspectives, deal with their grief (as well as our own), talk about our roles, tune into their scholastic progress, and answer their questions honestly, we could begin to rebuild their relationship."
There are also suggestions in the book for introducing children to a new friend, easy man-friendly recipes, and suggestions for online group support.