Divorce stinks. Don’t get me wrong. The excruciating pain of leaving your child on Mom’s doorstep, of missing holidays and first steps, of having to schedule visitation are nothing to sign up for unless there is no other choice. My divorce involved the kind of pain that makes you think walking in front of a train would be a piece of cake if not for your responsibilities. But buried deep within that pain is a silver lining — a motivation, an aspiration, a hands-on learning — that “normal” dads don’t get.
My son was 6 months old and my daughter was 2 when I moved into a furnished rental with shag rugs, the permanent smell of Chinese food and a commanding view, through cracked Plexiglas, of Route 95 in Providence, R.I. My time with Kerry and Seamus was limited to trips to McDonald’s and a walk across the highway to Federal Hill for pizza a couple of times a week. But even that was progress. I had been an absent dad up until that point, working nonstop. And when I wasn’t working, I was drinking and getting into trouble. I was 31 going on about 14.
Six months into our divorce, the children’s mom moved back to Boston and I followed to be near my kids. I found a cocoon of an apartment, set way up high on the interior of a block away from noise and people, to transform myself. On the seventh floor, I looked through a bay window at the brownstones below and the gold dome of the Statehouse in the distance and tried to figure out what I had done to deserve so much suffering. In the morning I would meditate while the sun shined in my face. At night I would watch the orange sunset reflect off the Hancock tower.
It was in that apartment, on the corner of Massachusetts and Commonwealth Avenues, that I learned how to be a dad. Or I unlearned how not to be a dad. I believe that we all instinctively know how to love our children as fathers. But we just have to forget everything we have been told and allow intuition to take over.
The first time my kids spent the night with me was a pivotal moment in my life. I had bought bunk beds and a matching toy chest for them. But Seamus was still too small to sleep outside his crib, so I set up a Pack ‘n Play in my room. That night I rocked my boy to sleep feeding him a bottle. The smell of him stuck in my nostrils. His soft skin soothed my soul as he made his little gulps. Slowly his body went limp. I looked down and realized that everything I had ever wanted was right there in my arms.
For two years I didn’t have a job. I went from corporate titan to sitting on the floor with Seamus on my lap surrounded by mothers and toddlers singing silly songs. The S.A.H.D. (Stay at Home Dad) had yet to become commonplace, so the mothers on the playground initially looped at me with some skepticism. But when they saw how passionately I chased my kids around the play structures, they grudgingly accepted me as just another diaper-changing parent.
I pushed a big double stroller all over town. On some rainy days we would go to the top of the Prudential tower just to have something to do, even though we couldn’t see a darn thing. The kids would run laps and jump off the bright colored furniture while I kept clear of the windows, where my severe fear of heights would have kicked in. Gradually I learned to be a dad, and a good one at that.
For six years I was on my own with two little children for long stretches of time: wrestling, crying, laughing, cooking, cleaning, traveling to visit family, throwing up (a lot), and cuddling them into bed only to come back later and look in wonder at the angels who had transformed me.
Kerry is now a freshman in college and Seamus a junior in high school. I’ve been remarried for 10 years and have a 7-year-old, Cole, to fill out our brood. Divorce was the worst thing that ever happened to me. But it was also the best thing for me as a father.