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Being a good father is hard enough when you live with your kids and see them every day. Take away that physical proximity, and many men feel afloat, untethered from their children and unsure how to maintain an emotional connection with them – especially in the wake of a messy divorce.
Jeffrey M. Leving is a Chicago-based attorney who specializes in father’s rights. He wrote the book “How to Be a Good Divorced Dad” because some of the men seeking his services weren’t fulfilling their family responsibilities. Divorced families come in all shapes and sizes, but Leving’s book addresses fathers whose kids are living with their mother – still the most typical arrangement. Here are his top tips for how to be great father after a separation.
Find a good attorney (Not a tough one)
“If a lawyer wants to immediately go to war, walk away,” Leving tells Yahoo Parenting. That’s because a hard-nosed attorney can turn a simple, if painful, divorce into a fight that evokes bitterness on both sides for years to come. That’s not good for your kids. Leving recommends asking lawyers if they’d ever embarrass an ex-wife by having divorce papers served at her workplace or try to humiliate her on the witness stand. If the answer is yes, find a different attorney.
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“Consistency is probably more important than anything else, because it communicates love and support,” says Leving. “If a father isn’t regularly there for his children they’ll feel rejected and it can impair their self-esteem.”
What does consistency look like? Show up when you say you will and be emotionally present when you’re with your kids (don’t spend the weekend answering work emails on your laptop, for example). Also, make an effort to attend parent-teacher conferences, extracurricular performances, and any other events that are important to your children.
Treat time with your kids as a special event. Don’t waste it lying on the couch watching hours of television. Instead, Leving recommends planning a meal out, going to a museum, or throwing a board game night.
And know that providing your kids with memories through experiences is usually better than buying gifts. “There are fathers who think they need to buy their children’s love,” says Leving. “They’re constantly giving their children presents and money, but unfortunately, not bonding with them.”
Respect your ex
Never fight with your kids’ mother or badmouth her in front of them. Even if your ex is making snide comments (toward your job or your new girlfriend for example) Leving says to let it slide. “Kids get caught right in the middle, and they will always blame themselves for the conflict,” he says. “They’ll think they’re the reason mommy and daddy got divorced.”
Communicate with your kids
Fathers should listen more than they talk. Instead of telling your kids stories about your glory days playing football, ask them about what’s important to them – even if you find comic books or model cars boring.
“There are fathers who focus on their own needs. When they do that, they can lose sight of their children’s needs,” Leving says. “You have to listen, you have to communicate, you have to know what your children’s needs are – what they want, not what you want.”
Pay your child support
This should be obvious, but don’t reduce or withhold support because you’re mad at your ex-wife. Leving stresses that fathers should remember the money is for the benefit of their children.
If you’re strapped, don’t run and hide. “If a father can’t contribute financially because he lost his job, he needs to file a petition to abate support or reduce it,” Leving says. “If he doesn’t, he could end up in jail, and in that case, he’s not going to be able to parent very well.”