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How I lost custody but stayed connected to my kids

Family_breakdown.jpgWhen TREVOR MACDONALD’S wife left with his three young daughters he thought his world had ended. But he avoided bitterness, stayed involved, and a generation later, offers hope and support to other non-resident dads. 

ALL of us enter into a marriage, or long term relationship, thinking, or hoping, it will last forever. This is particularly the case when children come along. All you want to do is cherish that wee bundle of joy and be there always to protect, teach and lead your pride and joy through life’s experiences. 

Sadly when the divorce statistics become a reality, as a man you are highly likely to be separated from your child as your wife or partner is granted custody. Many men lose touch with their children but it does not need to be that way. 

A FAMILIAR PATTERN

We are the product of our upbringing. When I was 5 years old my father walked out and I never saw him again in my childhood. I swore that would not happen to my children. My mother never had a positive word to say about him and throughout my childhood left me with a shadow over my heritage.

I vowed my children would be brought up in sunshine rather than under a cloud. My mother re-married and whilst I won’t say an unkind word about my stepdad he was not a communicator, a leader, a confidant. When I became a dad I aimed to be the rock that my daughters would want to turn to in times of need.

So it was with a heavy heart that I saw history repeat itself. As a wee boy I started my first year in one primary school and ended that year in another - and 20 years later my oldest daughter experienced the same. I went from reading bedtime stories and changing nappies in a noisy bustling family home to a cold empty house with nobody to talk to.

Some young men take on parenting lightly and still pine for the nightlife, the clubbing, the pints with the lads, the footy. I had no such distractions. I loved my family life and simply wanted to raise my children and be a big part in their life. It was not to be.

READY FOR THE LONG HAUL

What do you need to endure in such situations?

You will probably get loads of sympathy from friends, family and work mates as the “wronged party” and that is fine in the short term but do not get sucked down into the melancholy of feeling sorry for yourself.  It is not productive. 

You will face the financial hit of funding your children from a distance without the cuddles to make it worthwhile.  I went from a brand new semi-detached 3 bedroom house with the gleaming Ford Cortina in the driveway to - at my lowest point - sharing a bedroom with my best mate's children before moving ‘up’ to a one bedroom flat with a Honda C90 moped.

You will need to endure your children being brought up by ‘another man’ when your wife re-marries. It hurts oh so much that another man is there to pick your child up when they fall, sooth and apply the plaster, read the bedtime stories and tuck them up at night - because you are now a ‘part time dad’.

You will get upset when major decisions are taken about your children without reference to you but - and this is the big but - you must not over-react at each event. You are playing the long term strategy and if you play it well you will reap the rewards.

PRACTICAL STEPS 

What can you do to stay in your children’s lives?

Get your access arrangements formalised as part of the separation arrangements.  My wife moved back to her parents, a 2 hour car journey away so I agreed on every second weekend for the whole weekend.  This meant I had the girls overnight and could, once again, read the bedtime stories.  Three separate weeks holidays – Christmas, Easter and summer meant glorious times away camping and in holiday cottages.

Here’s the big one: Keep in touch with your children regularly, every week without fail. Thirty years ago that meant writing a letter every week telling my girls all that I had been up to. This meant I stayed alive in their memory as they grew up and there was not such a gap between the fortnightly access visits.

Today you are spoiled for choice with social media but I’m not convinced that’s an improvement. Let me explain: a letter needs thinking about and creating. But if you are texting every day, and on WhatsApp and Facebook and Instagram etc, you run the risk of a) writing something too quickly without thinking it through and b) reacting to an event you cannot control from a distance and landing up in an argument with someone. Unfortunately your children will expect you to use social media.  You will need to exercise self control.

If you are really, really lucky, like I was, you might find a new partner/ wife who will help you with your relationship with your children. Someone who can apply a steady hand to the tiller and calm you down when you want to go "off on one". Someone who understands the long game and will help you keep an eye on the future.

RICH REWARDSTrevor walking his daughter down the aisle

I have received so, so much. Over thirty years later and I have a great relationship with my girls. I am in regular contact even though two are living outside Scotland - indeed my youngest is half way around the world in South Korea and has just given birth to our first grandchild. The wonders of Skype mean I can not only speak with but see my daughter and her child over such a vast distance. The days of my handwritten letters are truly a thing of the past.

In May I walked my middle daughter down the aisle in Ireland. Last month my oldest daughter told me I am going to be a granddad again. Wonders! My newly married daughter has made the same announcement. Busy times ahead.

All my girls have lived in my home at some time in their life when their own life journey has hit a troubled spot. They know I am here for them, always. That is the outcome of maintaining a relationship over all those many years. Sure it has been tough, but it has been so, so worth it.

So, if it happens to you, stick in there. Your children need you. As they get older they will gradually come to value your constant presence. You will have a much richer life by keeping in contact with your children.

Families Need Fathers Scotland offer free support and confidential advice around custody issues, by phone and in regular meetings. See www.fnfscotland.org.uk for more details or call the national helpline on 0300 0300 363 Monday to Friday between 6pm and 10pm.