THE BLOG
08/12/2014 02:56 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2016

Note to Divorced Dads: You Didn't Divorce Your Kids

Having been through a divorce, I know the minute a divorced dad steps into his new life -- uncluttered by the toys, noise, and wall-to-wall responsibilities of the last one -- he can easily feel like he broke up with his kids as well as his wife.

At first there's a sense of giddy liberation: I can eat a cheeseburger right now! I can see a movie! I can leave my shoes wherever I want! But that glee gives way to feelings of failure and loss, as if his torch was snuffed and he was booted from Parenthood Island. I remember lying alone on a mattress in my new thin-walled apartment, listening to my upstairs neighbor's very loud television and thinking: "What am I doing here? Who am I now?"

Add to that the common presence of a stepdad who spends way more Ward Cleaver time with the kids than he does, and divorced dads can feel completely cut off from their children.

But here's the thing: They're not.

In many cases, divorce is actually an opportunity for dads to connect more authentically with their kids. (If you don't take my word for it, Louis C.K. said roughly the same thing in May on NPR. On second thought, stick with my word).

While dozens of factors can make divorced and remarried dads feel insecure, one fact puts them to rest: Kids are brought into this world by one and only one man.

If you're a divorced dad, here's a hint: IT'S YOU.

I say this with ample respect for stepfathers, adoptive fathers, grandfathers, coaches, uncles, Bill Cosby, Mr. Rogers, Andy Griffith, Gregory Peck, Michael Landon, Michael Gross, Conrad Bain, and all other father figures. (Mine is David Gergen).

True fatherhood is a matter of blood -- a permanent position. It can be ignored, even defiled, but it can't be shed. I tell other divorced dads: No matter what you do with your kids, if you commit to it regularly and responsibly, you're the dad. Period. No, exclamation point.

At first, it's a tough sell. Divorced dads tell me they feel robbed and marginalized. They've been de-legitimized and pushed, like Pluto, to the farthest corners of their kids' solar systems.

At a divorce-themed conference, a separated father once lamented to me that when he goes mountain biking with his son, they rarely say a word to each other.

"You go mountain biking with your son?" I asked.

"Yes."

"Every time you see him?"

"Just about."

I don't go mountain biking with my kids. I don't even go biking with my kids. My kids and I have scampered up icy hills in mall parking lots and tiptoed carefully across small streams behind playgrounds, but mountain biking? No sir.

I tell the man the truest thing in my head: that I envy him. I envy the muddy, rocky adventures he shares with his son - the rich scenery, the punishing uphill, the exhilarating downhill, the pumping adrenaline and backbreaking exhaustion that binds their experiences. What mere words between them could compare with all that happens outside and inside them?

I remind divorced dads that having limited contact with one's children is not a situation exclusive to them. There are full-time soldiers who don't see their kids for years, and yet their returns are greeted with explosions of happy tears. There are also business executives -- I see train cars full of them every day -- who leave the house too early and come home too late to see their children awake any more often than I see mine.

Do we question the fatherhood of these men? Do they question their own fatherhood?

True fatherhood is measured in moments and attention, not in hours or intention. But there's no need to shower your kids with gifts or take them on expensive adventures as if filling some gaping hole in their happiness.

When I spend time with my 15-year-old son and twin 12-year-old daughters, we hit the supermarket, eat cereal, match my work socks, kill days at the mall, go bowling, stroke the cats, and buy cheap carbonated beverages with the sole purpose of exploding them later -- all of which is much more fun than I ever had standing on playground sidelines checking my Blackberry.

In those moments, we don't "visit" each other; we live together.

We dads are smart like Cliff Huxtable and dumb like Ray Barone. We're mature like Atticus Finch and childish like Louis C.K. We're doting like President Obama and cold like Captain Von Trapp. We can be present like Mr. Moms or absent like deadbeats. We're at home every day, all the time - or we're not.

But we're all dads. We have a responsibility to protect and nurture our kids. We have the opportunity to shape them and have them shape us. We have Father's Day once a year, but days of fatherhood on all the others.

 
A nationally-published essayist, Joel Schwartzberg is the author of the award-winning "The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad" and the recently-released "Small Things Considered: Moments from Manliness to Manilow".

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