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Good Is Good: Divorced Dads Make Better Fathers

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Tom Matlack is the former CFO of the Providence Journal and is the founder of The Good Men Project, a non-profit charitable corporation based in Rhode Island and dedicated to helping organizations that provide educational, social, financial, and legal support to men and boys at risk.

Divorce stinks. Don’t get me wrong. The excruciating pain of leaving your kid 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 six months old and my daughter was two 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, Rhode Island. My time with Kerry and Seamus was limited to trips to McDonalds and a walk across the highway to Federal Hill for pizza a couple times a week. But even that was progress. I had an absent dad up until that point, working non-stop. 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 kids’ 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 brown stones below and the gold dome of the state house in the distance and tried to figure out what I had done to deserve so much suffering. In the morning I’d meditate while the sun shined in my face. At night I’d 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 kids 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 Cole on my lap surrounded by moms and toddlers singing silly songs. The SAHD (“Stay-At-Home-Dad”) had yet to become commonplace so the moms 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’d 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 keep clear of the windows where my severe fear of heights would have kicked in. Gradually I learned to be a dad, and a damn good one at that.

For six years I was on my own with two little kids for long stretches of time: wrestling, crying, laughing, cooking, cleaning, travelling to visit family, puking (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 ten 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.

For more of Tom's works, as well as other pieces on related topics, go to The Good Men Project Magazine online, here.

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