Divorce is a messy affair, and even more so when there is a child involved. Travis Clemens shares his story.
WORDS CHRISTEL GERALYN GOMES
Navigating the new landscape of co-parenthood with an ex-partner is tricky, to say the least, and every couple will experience their own unique combination of hostility and cooperation. Even in the most cordial of separations, redefining your parental relationship with your child is inevitable. For Travis Clemens, newly single dad to a three-and-a-half-year-old girl, divorce made being a dad a whole lot harder.
For Travis, the divorce was a long time coming. “My daughter was born in 2014 in Johor. My wife and daughter moved back to Singapore in 2016 but I also felt like I had to fix the marriage. For a long time, I didn’t say anything to friends or family. I was embarrassed and thought I was protecting the privacy of my marriage…I just didn’t have the courage to admit how unhappy I was. Hindsight is 20/20: I should have asked my wife for marriage counselling years before or gone by myself,” he says.
“The estrangement from my wife meant that my daughter became my closest other relationship,” he adds. It was when the marriage grew rocky that Travis started up various traditions with his daughter, which he continues to enjoy today: “We would get up early and make pancakes, go to the library together and read at night. I made her baths fun with different toys, and I would read a book while she played as long as she wanted. I would also take her out to the park, the science centre, and other fun places for kids.”
Access Arrangements and Concessions
Divorced fatherhood brings its own set of challenges. For example, access to his daughter is inflexible and inconvenient. “Pre-agreed access times mean that every day I'm watching the clock, not just for when I have to be at work, but when I have to get to bed so I’m rested on the days I take my daughter out. It's hard living alone, being ruled by the clock, and having so little free time.” Naturally, this means that nights out with friends and personal time is affected. Travis adds, “Some fathers have time for telephone calls or Skype calls written into the terms of their settlements, and I wish I had done this because sometimes I don't see my daughter for three days straight.”
Travis has chosen to live in the far north of
Singapore, to be closer to his daughter.
“If I were to move away from my ex’s neighbourhood, I would probably have to accept a smaller quantum of access, so I accept a commute of 80 plus minutes to work. When I pick my daughter up, because we live in the north, travel time adds up. Some days, I spend four hours on public transport.”
Travis’s little girl never sleeps over, for cultural reasons. “It would be much easier if my daughter could stay overnight, but I do not acquire this kind of access until she is five – my ex fought hard for this limitation. As a Westerner, I discovered after marriage that Chinese families may co-sleep until the child is in elementary school. My ex refused to consider the Western way, so that concession was given in court. I think that this is something men should know to talk to their wives about before agreeing to marry.”
Living Apart from Your Child
For many dads, living apart from their children brings its own unique set of challenges. This includes missing some important milestones and the resulting jealousy that is its natural consequence. He says, “Sometimes I feel like my daughter is more like one of my students than my own child, because she can change so much over a few days, or suddenly surprise me with new and different behaviour. Sometimes I really am bumfuzzled when she uses new words. Recently, after months of me reading her books about emotions, she finally started observing distinctions between happy people and sad people. I felt a little jealous that it might not have been the first time. However, a person can get bitter thinking they are entitled to someone else's life or love. I try to be happy with what I have and keep positive expectations of the future.”
Sometimes, it's the little things that can grate. For Travis, something as simple as realising Mum bought a toy he liked for his little one before he did, can be pretty painful. “I am very picky about which toys I will buy for my daughter. I like to collect the toymaker's catalogues and circle the ones I intend to get for her, which offer the most opportunities for constructive play. When Mums buys it first or a second one of the same thing I probably get more annoyed than I should.”
Travis also realises that father-daughter bonding
can become more difficult purely because less
interaction means less time to get used
to how your child communicates.
He says, “From what I’ve seen, many fathers are inclined to understand what a child says the same way they might understand an adult. For instance, the difficulties in our family mean that sometimes my daughter tells me she wants to go home early, and she may seem like she is about to throw a tantrum out of frustration. I am a teacher, so I understand how toddlers’ minds work better than most people. I know better than to take this seriously.
“I know other fathers, however, who are tortured when their kids have these immature outbursts. When you are living away from your child, you have less opportunity to learn how they think. Honestly, sometimes my daughter says stuff about her life at home that I just can't understand because I don't live there anymore, and that closes me off from a big part of her emotional life. I think the general opinion of divorced fathers who give up on their relationship with their children is that these fathers don't love their children as much. But, much more often, it’s fathers who are in a position to get hurt more easily.”
Travis knows that as a result of the divorce, his daughter will face her share of challenges as she grows. He says, “I know she may have trouble in school and life because her parents don’t have a consistent set of values or rules for her. I know that she’s likely to envy other children who have stable families. I know I could be drawn into conflict with my ex again if my daughter wants to change the carefully negotiated arrangements we have. I hope that I can find the humility to accept the tough stuff patiently.”
Despite it all, when asked what he pictures life would look like 10 years down the road, Travis sees beauty and hope: “I will sit with her and do homework. I will help her succeed. I want to meet all her boyfriends and help her make better decisions about relationships than I did. I hope she has grandchildren, and that she raises them here because I love living here and want to share it.”