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facts & arguments

A few years ago, I became a statistic. My wife and I decided to separate, and I was suddenly just one of a growing number of people in his late 30s setting forth on his own. My child, as is most common, remained with her mother.

Upon hearing the details of my separation agreement, few individuals - my parents, my friends, even my lawyer - didn't visibly raise their eyebrows and question the custody arrangements to which I had agreed.

I gave full custody of my only child - then 7 - to my ex-wife. My parents worried they would have far less access to their granddaughter. My friends worried I was being a doormat. My lawyer told me this simply wasn't done in this day and age.

I tried to explain to everyone that it would be okay. But their questions forced me to reflect on why I made the choice I did. I have tortured myself over my decision during countless bouts of sleeplessness. It has taken me three years post-divorce to feel I have finally accepted the answer.

When my daughter was born, unlike many parents I didn't take any time off work. I was there, I revelled in the moment of birth and I fell in love with her instantly and permanently. But the next day, I was at work.

Over the next few months, when she would wake up in the night hungry, my wife would breastfeed her and I would go on sleeping. A bond was forming between mother and daughter and I was, to some degree, excluding myself.

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Don't get the wrong impression. I participated in my child's life. I played with her, sang to her, read to her, pushed her stroller, changed her diaper, fed her, loved her. I think I was a pretty good dad. But I was aware that she and her mother had something just a little bit different from what she and I had.

As the years went on, their bond manifested itself in frustrating ways. When my wife went back to work and was forced to be away from home on short business trips, my daughter's waterworks would begin as we dropped her mother off at the airport and would continue for hours or even days.

By the end of the marriage, even though my little girl was mature, she still descended (in my opinion) to great theatrics in the absence of her mother. I chalked it up to a form of separation anxiety, and my tolerance of her bouts of tears decreased. I lost patience with this behaviour, and ultimately with many of her imperfections.

I became more and more of an ogre. I would snap at her. Tell her "no" sometimes for no other reason than to distinguish myself from her mother. If she got an A on a report card, I'd ask why it wasn't an A-plus. Unconsciously, I would intimidate her. Once - I can't even remember what she had done - all I had to do was look at her and my expression sent her running to her room, afraid of me. I never hit her, and have never contemplated any form of physical response toward her or anyone else, but what mattered was that I made her afraid of me.

And so, when my wife and I finally separated, I knew exactly what would happen if we were to share custody: My daughter and I would spend our time being frustrated and upset. So I took the easy way out and agreed to let her stay with her mother full-time.

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I live only a block away and see my not-so-little-any-more girl often; our visitation arrangements are informal and open to spontaneity. But I don't live with her, and so I battle the guilt over what I have sometimes seen as an abandonment of my parental responsibilities. I'm missing out on many of the small things that parents enjoy: the moments of discovery, a tender bedtime, the daily interactions.

What tempers these feelings is knowing that my relationship with my daughter is better now than it was when I lived with her. Because I don't see her every day, I have much more tolerance for the behaviours that used to frustrate me. I offer comfort instead of scorn if she misses her mother when she's away on a business trip. I celebrate the time we spend together, be it an hour or two after school or a weeklong camping trip in the summer.

I'm happier and more secure in my role as a parent than I ever was before. It's not what our society deems the ideal role for a father, but I've learned there is no single right way to be a divorced parent.

My daughter, though she didn't know it, shaped the most important terms of the divorce. I think I've shown my parents, my friends and my lawyer that I was right - it is okay. Not only has my girl not suffered, I am willing to predict that when she looks back years from now, she'll be able to see her relationship with her father in a positive light, which might not have been the case had the separation not happened.

That is something I can certainly live with.

Richard Seeley lives in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Illustration by Paddy Molloy.