Can a guy cheat on his wife and be involved in Internet porn and still be a good father? This question is being debated not only in the divorce trial between Christie Brinkley and Peter Cook but in kitchens and cafes and around water coolers across the country.
Some of my guy friends have argued that they know plenty of men who are great fathers but have cheated on their wives. And a few have also said that they have watched porn – though not $3,000-worth a month – as though the amount dissolves any sleaziness.
And do you know what I say to them? “How do you define a great father? Sure, a guy can be loving, generous, play baseball or Barbie doll games with their kids and even dote on them and do homework. But they are also the moral template of their children's behavior. If a kid sees that a parent can betray the family, what makes you think that deep down the child will not have trust issues with either men or relationships?”
This usually shuts them up.
Children of divorce are forced early on to compartmentalize their emotions. To manage the trauma of divorce, especially when it was a result of an affair, they have to attach themselves to what they like about the parent and accept that there will be qualities they do not. It is a painful juggling act.
Although Christie Brinkley is fighting for full custody of Sailor, the 10-year-old daughter she had with Peter Cook, and Jack Paris, her 13-year-old son whom Cook adopted, it is highly unlikely that Cook will not have some access to his children.
Many women I have counseled as a stepfamily coach have questioned how their kids could want to see their father after he caused the family so much agony. “Shouldn't he be punished?” they cry. “He shouldn't be allowed to be with our children.”
Naturally Cook's lawyer, Norman Sheresky, is arguing that Brinkley's court case is motivated by revenge and not by the best interest of the children.
It is no secret that contentious divorces have a negative impact on children ranging from low self-esteem, sleep problems, weight gain and depression to impaired performance at school. But it is also no secret that the primal desire to see a parent will trump any bad-mouthing from the other parent.
Kids want to forgive their parents and find ways to have a relationship with them. After all, that parent is 50 percent of their being. Over time, the parent who badmouths the other parent loses the child’s respect as well.
Taking the high road is never easy. If it was, more would do it. But it is an essential element to healing and maintaining your own self-respect.
Christie Brinkley understandably doesn't want her children to be with their father, a man who not only cheated on her but has confessed on the stand to some slimy habits. But in divorce, one of the lessons you also learn is that you have to give up some control over outcomes.
He will be with them in some capacity and she will have to make peace with it.
As far as Peter Cook, he has some explaining to do.
His lawyer repeatedly says how sorry he is and no doubt he is. His reputation is forever tarnished.
As one father who strayed told me, kids can eventually learn some valuable lessons from this horrible experience. “Being a good parent doesn't mean that you're perfect,” he said.
“It's how you act when you're not perfect. That can be good parenting. There's an opportunity to teach, to show that when we make mistakes we own up to them. I stepped up and admitted I handled the situation in a way I now regret and hopefully they won't make my mistake.”
He concluded, “Now my kids and I have a close relationship.”
While it is true that relationships are salvageable over time, regaining the full respect of your children rarely is.