THE BLOG
11/14/2013 12:40 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

All Available Light: Positive Parenting Energy Is Never Lost

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I was talking to my mom about this blog the other day and she said something I'd like to explore. As I was going on and on about how I've flipped any of the bad or angry narrative to the positive side, she said, "Yes, I see that. And your children see that. Your positive efforts are never lost. They are the things that people remember."

And a close friend also had some thoughts about my "positive" writing a few days earlier. "I just want to make sure you're not getting lost in all this positivism. That you aren't burying the anger, or something else."

I assured her that my anger work had a place and process for release. And I know that I imagined, but could not have written this positive side of divorce material at an earlier time. There was too much anger, sadness, resentment, and regret that I needed to process. And I still process the things that are hard, the misunderstandings, the disconnects.

But what I have found essential in my relationship to the kids and their mom, is to take that baggage elsewhere. My kids never need to hear me complain about their mom. Never.

My dad, after the divorce, became more and more sullen and angry. His drinking doubled. His bouts of melancholy frame a good two years of my life, as he moved from one apartment to another. I did not know him yet, I was in 4th and 5th grades, so my biographical knowledge of him or myself in relationship to him was very limited.

When there is still war in your blood, you need to take it outside, discharge your cannons elsewhere.
What I knew was the sadness and the pain. What I knew was how far his smiles had dropped into the bottle. (Sorry, for the melodrama.) What I saw, as an 8- and 9-year-old boy, was my father completely fall apart. I lived small glimpses of it with him. I visited his apartment like it was a dangerous and sacred church. But he taught me some hard lessons about grief, and coping, and anger, that I didn't fully comprehend at the time. I'm still unravelling some of the dark secrets that were really unhealthy coping mechanisms.

And during this time, my mom was struggling with her own depressive demons and fighting for her survival. My father took the aggressive and antagonistic approach to divorce. He wanted everything. He wanted me. He wanted her to be devastated and miserable.

I grew up in the storms of divorce. And after the dust settled I was left in a macabre replay of Oedipus. I won the mother and watched as my father destroyed himself. And as Freud revealed, it's not a happy or healthy victory for the young boy.

As the dawning of my divorce appeared in our discussions, I was terrified of repeating the same havoc on my delightful children. I had to find a way to keep the positive light on the transition, at least for them. I could fall apart when I was alone. But they needed to see my show of color, my resilience, my strength at being their available Dad, even while I was struggling to figure out just who that might be.

One phrase my mom used all the time, as she was beginning to marshal her resources and gather available light, was "I'm turning my X's into pluses."

She was even painting large canvases at that time, of massive crosses (X's) and repeating the mantra, "X's into pluses."

The amazing thing is, this mantra that held her together, began to resonate with me as a child. She instilled a vibrant spirit of hope, even as things were darkest in both our lives. In so many ways, she is responsible for my ability to survive hard moments, and to flip as many of them as possible into bright changes.

And so we move on, we fall down, we find the strength to get back up, we marry, we divorce, and we find the light necessary to continue. Some of us have learned how to generate that positive light. Some of us learned hope at an early age, and this belief, this spirituality of the positive, has served to keep us from becoming cynical or bitter.

My mom gave me the gift of this belief that we could turn the hard things into transformational events on the way to better things.
I am not angry about my divorce any more. The transformation has occurred. And while I can still get angry occasionally at things my co-parent does or does not do, for the most part those are minor complaints and not campaigns for war. When there is still war in your blood, you need to take it outside, discharge your cannons elsewhere. There is nothing to be gained from launching negative attacks on your ex. Nothing.

There may be cause for the anger. But the anger is yours alone to own, process, and release. If you don't, the anger could consume vast quantities of your time and energy. You've seen it before in others, and maybe you are still in the process of releasing it for yourself, but as Yoda might say, "Release it, you must."

Your kids deserve the best of you. Your ex deserves the respect and caring you once had as well, even if the love is no longer a driving force. The love of your children is all you need to know.

And Brené Brown articulated this concept so clearly. "We show our children who they can be by the way we live our lives." Parenting, and co-parenting, comes down to this.

Live your life as you would like to see your kids living theirs. Show them the adults they can be, by demonstrating the best that you can be. Anything less is a miss. Parenting and co-parenting resources come and go, theories of parenting and how do recover from divorce will change from season to season, but this truth never changes.

Your kids are watching you and all of your behaviors. They are looking to you to show them how to navigate this difficult time. Show them strength, and love, and happiness. And show them you can still love them and their mom even as things are so dramatically different in all of your lives.

Our strength and resilience in divorce and co-parenting sets the example for our children's coming storms, and how they will navigate them as they progress into adulthood and relationships of their own. Yes, I will stay 100 percent positive about their mom. I can disagree, get mad, and fight with her, but I will never share that anger, my anger, with my kids. That's for someone else to deal with. Me, and perhaps a therapist, and most likely my next relationship.

My mom gave me the gift of this belief that we could turn the hard things into transformational events on the way to better things. I believe that is true and I hope to continue to build on that faith for my kids.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@jmacofearth

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See The Whole Parent blog for more of this story. And I welcome your comments and suggestions here. And your participation via Facebook and Twitter.

Reference: Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

image: skeletons, john mcelhenney (cc)