Great Escape Podcast episode 13 - Joel Hawbaker - blended parenting and fixing my own attitude first

Joel Hawbaker is a high school teacher and soccer coach in Alabama. He is also a blended/step-family coach, working with families to help them live more cooperatively and positively. He is a divorced and remarried father of two amazing daughters, and he and his family also have two rescue dogs, Butterscotch and Bruiser. Finally, he is the author of the Amazon #1 book called 'Inverted Leadership: Lead Others Better By Forgetting About Yourself.'

- On today's episode we have Joel Hawbaker whose website As usual we'll put all websites we reference in the show notes. And Joel's story of blended family life, step parenting, creating that whole new life, really has been something of an inspiration to me considering some of my story. Joel, welcome to the show.
- Hey, thank you very much for having me on. I'm excited about being here this morning.
- You're really, really welcome. Now for Joel, it's horrifically early in the morning over in Alabama. Whereas for me it's the middle of the day on a Friday, pouring with rain outside because it's England, and that's what it does in the summer in England. And so Joel, let's dive right in. You were in this situation where life was pretty tricky. Tell us a bit about that.
- Yeah, so about 10 years ago, I'd gone through a decent amount of difficulty within a pretty short period of time. My dad had passed away, actually 11 years ago earlier this month. And within about a year and a half of dad passing away, I went through a divorce, a separation for six months, then the divorce. Had a job change around the same time. And then within a year of that, went through bankruptcy and foreclosure on the house that I had bought as part of being married. Didn't have custody of my kids. My ex wife had primary placement. So I got to see my kids about every other weekend, and then anytime in between that she would let me come over and stop by and see them. And it was pretty dark. It was a pretty rough time. We had been married for eight and a half years. We had two little daughters together. At the time we split up, the girls were maybe I think five and two, or four and two, five and three, something like that. And so it was just a hard spot to be in. I was in my late 20s, mid to late 20s, and that was not at all where I had envisioned myself being by my mid to late 20s. I thought I had everything figured out. I had the wife, I had a job, I had kids, everything was going well, and then within about a two and a half year period everything kind of fell off a cliff. And so, that was, yeah, that was where life was about 11 years ago.
- Okay.
- 10-11 years ago.
- And you had to decide that life had to be different.
- Yeah, you wake up in the morning, and. So for me it was waking up in a house that I had bought for my wife and kids, and they didn't live there anymore. And I was only able to stay there for a couple months after we had split up because I couldn't afford it. So I ended up, again, I was 20, I guess 27/28, and I was living in my best friend's parent's basement for about a month while I tried to find a new place to live. And you wake up in a situation like that and you think, okay, what on earth did I do to get me here?
- Yeah.
- Because it's very easy to blame other people. It's very easy to blame a situation, circumstances outside our control. And sometimes that's valid. I've never talked with anyone who's divorced, who felt like everything was
100% only one person's fault. If you're honest with yourself, if you've been through a divorce, both parties have at least some responsibility. And it was the same way. There were certainly things that she did that I wasn't a fan of, but I can't change that. All I can do is control me. And that was something that I really had to deal with. And so, there were a lot of mornings just looking in the mirror and saying, okay, what did we do wrong? What can we do differently moving forward because this right here, this life, this is not where we wanna be? This is not who we wanna be. This is not how we want life to be. What can we change? And so, it took a lot of really hard looks in the mirror, and asking very difficult questions, and having to be honest with myself. What did you do to get yourself here? And the answer was, I'd become very, very self-centred.
- Okay.
- And that was the biggest. I hate to put it in these kinda terms
'cause it sounds vague or nebulous, but the truth is, the single biggest problem I had was just pride. It was ego. It was needing to prove myself right, or prove myself to bet he authority in every situation within my home. And that was with my kids, that was with my wife, that was at my job as a high school teacher, and none of those things, none of that was helpful. It made me feel good to prove that I was right in the short term, but when I looked at the consequences of that, that was the big, that was the big ah-ha moment is when I realized that the major culprit in my situation was ego.
- Yeah, okay. And that's a huge step especially for a man's take is to realize that it's your ego that's getting in the way of stuff.
- Yeah, and again, it wasn't something that was voluntary. Sometimes the fact that my ego was problem, sometimes that was pointed out to me by other people, and I didn't really wanna hear that. Sometimes it was pointed out less than gently, which also wasn't fun. But when you've been doing the same thing for eight or 10 years in a marriage, sometimes people have to do or say drastic things to get your attention.
- Absolutely.
- And that's kinda what it took. It was a--
- Okay, how did you, sorry, how did you come to understand that it was possible to change this?
- Well, it was actually really empowering to look in the mirror and ask myself the question, what did I do? Because once I've taken responsibility, that means I also have the power to change it.
- Yeah.
- As long as I'm blaming someone else for my problems, as long as I'm blaming my ex wife, or blaming my kids, or blaming the world, or blaming whatever else I wanna blame, as long as I'm blaming them, I'm still powerless. Once I took responsibility for my situation, now I can move forward. Once I realized the problem is me, or at least part of the problem is me, that's what I can deal with. I had a (laughs), I actually had a really good conversation with my ex wife's dad at one point. I was angry about something, and he and I still have a good relationship even now,
10-12 years, however long it's been since then. But I had a good conversation with him. I was at his house. I was angry about something. I'm venting about his daughter. And I'm saying, I just wish she would do this. And he looked at me very seriously. He said, Joel, if you couldn't get her to do what you wanted her to do when you were married, what on earth makes you think you could change her now? And it was almost like a cold bucket of water being dumped on my head. And I thought, that's kinda rude. But he's entirely right. So the problem isn't her, regardless of her actions or decisions, and I'm not here to badmouth my ex wife. That's not something we do. Regardless of her decisions, I can't change that. All I can change is me. And again, that became very empowering. That became the first step in changing things because once I realized I was the problem, now I can work on me to fix it. And if pride is the problem, then the answer to that or the solution to that is humility. Because to me those two things are opposites. And I actually wrote a book about this in terms of leadership that got published, or that I published last year. And so, the way that I defined humility in that book is I borrowed the definition of humility from C.S. Lewis, who in mere Christianity said that pride is. He actually has a whole chapter that's called, The Great Sin, right? Because pride is just a very self-centered state of mind. That's all it is is just, it's looking at me first, and wanting what I want, and the heck with the consequences and everybody else. Humility, I love his definition for it. He says, humility isn't pretending that you're bad at something when you're good at it. Humility is simply, it's not saying that you're less. It's not saying that you're bad. He says, humility isn't thinking less of yourself. Humility is thinking of yourself less often. It's simply a self-forgetfulness. And I thought, that is brilliant. Because if my problem is self-centeredness, then the solution is becoming others-centered. So now the question becomes, if I'm gonna move forward, how do I actually enact that in my life? How do I take better care of my kids? And even though my ex wife and I are now divorced, how do I make decisions that aren't about me. They're about us. Not about trying to get back together with her at that point, but how do I? Because I made a commitment to her. I was gonna take care of her and the kids. Even though we're not married anymore, they're still our kids. I need to take care of them. How do I do that well in a way that isn't self-centered? Well that means I've gotta be willing to go out of my way. I've gotta be willing to do things that are inconvenient for me. I've gotta be willing to do things that on the surface they might not feel fair. They might not be fair. That doesn't matter. The point is, take care of my kids, and take care of my kids much more gently than I did when they were younger because that's one of the big legitimate gripes that she had with me and our marriage is that I was just very harsh with our kids. I wasn't abusive. I don't want listeners to get the wrong idea, but I was very strict and very stern because that's the way I had been raised. Both my dad and my mom were military veterans. My dad was a 20 year U.S. Army veteran, and he had a very strict kind of obedience thing, and my mom was much the same way. And so that was just how I thought kids were raised. And the problem with that is, I had two little girls with very tender hearts, and I was being overly harsh with them in the way that I spoke to them. Again, I wasn't insulting. I didn't call them names, but I was very strict. And these girls were little toddly type kids.
- Yeah.
- And when I look back at that, it makes me cry sometimes to look back and think, man, I really did hurt their little baby feelings without trying to. And again, I was trying to do it well. I was trying to raise them to be good, obedient, respectful whatever. Man, but the way I went about it was all wrong. And it took losing them for me to realize how harsh I had been with them. Because when you're only getting to see your kids two or three days out of every 14, you want it to be as great as it can be not because you give them candy and let them stay up late, but because you wanna have a better relationship with them. Fortunately, that situation changed. After a couple years the custody situation changed. And so, I guess for the last six or seven years now the kids have been going back and forth. A week with me and a week with their mom. And I've got a much better relationship with both my daughters, and I'm really thankful for that because today they're not little. My older one is 15. She's driving. She's got a car, or she wants a car. She's working her first job. She's interested in dating. And if there's ever a time when I need to have a good relationship with my daughter, it is when she is a teenager. My other one's 12. She's about to be a teenager. Oh man, I need to have a good relationship with my daughters. And that started eight or 10 years ago when I realized that I had been really harsh with them. At this point, my ex wife has been remarried now for five and a half years. She and her new husband, I say new, five and a half years. She and her second husband have a son together. I've been remarried for five years. My wife and I, we don't have any kids. We've got two giant dogs. And so that means my girls now have a little brother at their mom's house. And we don't call him step brother. We don't call him half brother. Like we don't do it. He's just their little brother. And so now we have this situation where, and this is kinda what I do outside of being a high school teacher and a soccer coach. I talk about and I work with blended families because we've been very blessed. I feel like God's been really good to us. We have a wonderful situation to where all four parents can get together and have a great conversation, which is actually what we did with our 15 year old about a month ago. I mentioned she wanted, she's interested in starting to date. And so, we had a giant conference at a local restaurant where all four parents and our 15 year old sat down and talked for over two hours about what are our parameters for dating going to be. And then I was talking with someone else about that, and they said, you guys did what? And I said, we got together and we had a big conversation. Is that a big deal? We've been doing that for years. And they looked at me like, you realize that most divorced couples don't do that, right? I guess, I said, but I don't understand why not. Because they're your kids together, and now there are step parents involved. So they're also their kids. So, we all need to be on the same page. This isn't complicated. Like, we're all adults. Let's do this together. But apparently what we do is pretty unusual. And so that's something I'm really interested in helping other people figure out how to do better.
- How to do that. Quick story of my own though. My second marriage, I had a step daughter, and one day she was I think 17, and this kid comes walking up the garden, the driveway. I was actually sitting on the front porch of the house sharpening a chainsaw. You should of seen his face.
- That sounds like a story straight out Alabama. Normally it's a shotgun, but that is fantastic.
- It wasn't planned that way, but just--
- That's good, 'cause if it's planned that way, it doesn't go over that well I've heard. And the problem for me is you can't tell because we're recording, and I'm sitting down, or whatever. I'm not very big. I'm five foot three. I don't know how that translates in the UK, but it's not very many centimeters.
- Feet and inches work here, yeah.
- Okay, good, all right. Yeah, so I'm not a big dude. I'm not a scary guy, but we live in a very small town, and pretty much every guy that my daughter's interested in, I've known them for years. Or any guy that's interested in my daughter, I know their family or I know some of their family friends. And so, that helps a lot. But yeah, like the story of, you come up, and you come to meet the dad, and he's sitting there, and he's cleaning out his shotgun, and he's got a shovel sitting next to it. It's a pretty common trope over here. I don't think it would work for me. I think it would just come across as trying too hard because I'm kind of a small guy.
- Yeah, I'm six-two, and well over 200 pounds, yes.
- There you go. See, that works a lot better. My best friend is that way. He's about six-four, six-five, probably 250. He used to be a bouncer in a bar. So I'm just gonna have him come over with my daughter's boy, that kinda. This is her Uncle David. You should say hi.
- Yeah, feel free to leave now.
- That's right, we've got two giant 65 pound dogs that would love for you to come in and greet them, and.
- Yeah.
- But no, it's one of those situations where I'm really thankful because my daughter's stepdad and I both have very similar views about being very protective of our kids. And I'm very thankful for that. He and I have a good relationship. My wife and my ex wife and the two of us, we really do all try to get along really well, and we try to be on the same page. So when we had that meeting about our daughter, we sat down and we had a checklist of everything we wanted to make sure we talked about. And we had some disagreement about it, but it was very, it was respectful and amicable, and that was good. And then we also made sure to get our daughter's opinion, because at 15 years old, we either need to make sure we know how she feels, or she's just gonna ignore us anyway. If we don't take her opinion into account, then she's just gonna block out everything we had to say.
- She's gonna go off and do what she wants to do.
- Yeah, so we really tried to do that as well. And again, it wasn't easy to get here. It took, again, it took a lot of soul searching, took a lot of praying. It took a lot of grace from each side, and I'm really thankful because I do, I feel like what I had to do personally was I really had to apply the gospel in my life. I really had to ask how I needed to be a different person. And the answer that I got was, you need to stop making it all about you, and you need to realize how much your selfishness is harming the people around you. And once that message was hammered home, that really changed the way that I thought. Because once it's not about me, my reaction in every situation is going to be different. Because now when my daughter does something she's not supposed to, I don't take it as a personal insult. She wasn't trying to be rude. She wasn't trying to be disrespectful. She was just being a
13 or 14 year old kid. You know what I mean? So that means my reaction doesn't have to be loud, and explosive, and angry. My reaction can be calm, and quiet, and gentle. And that means I'm gonna have a better relationship with her moving forward too. And I wish it hadn't taken so much pain to figure that out. But better late than never I guess.
- Yeah, for so many of us, sometimes it has to be horrifically painful before we start listening to the message. You kind of answered the third question, what was it that got you to the point where you believed you could make this change? So you've thought about it. You've understood what needs to happen?
- Right.
- And somehow you gotta get to the point where you think, no, I can actually do this.
- Right, and for me that was a huge spiritual opening and awakening for me. I was raised in church. I've gone to church all my life. I went to a Presbyterian college. I'm a believer. I am a Christian, and I'm pretty outspoken about it. But especially in the states, there's a stigma within Christianity where when you go through divorce, you get looked at kinda funny. Because the belief is, if you get divorced, maybe you weren't as spiritual as you thought. Maybe you weren't, you know what I mean? And I understand that because divorce isn't how God designed it. Okay, well, I understand that too. But it happened, and now I've gotta deal with it moving forward. And what really helped me was having a great support system. I have a great pastor, and I have some very good close Christian friends who came along beside me and said, listen, you screwed up, and you screwed up big, but we still love you, and we wanna help you get your life back on track. We wanna help you learn how to make better decisions. And those people were immensely helpful to me because without that kind of support system, without that kind of encouragement, it becomes really hard to do anything on your own. That's another thing I wrote in my book is that, any great leader needs to acknowledge the people that helped get where you are. No great leader has ever done anything important
100% on your own. Nobody. We don't ever do anything great on our own. And again, if we think we have, that's just pride, and now we're right back where we started.
- Yeah, absolutely. I think it's interesting from a, especially from a non-Christian perspective. I've spent many years in the church. I grew up in the church house. My dad was a vicar.
- Okay.
- Led a church. And for most of my adult life, I had faith, I was involved in church leadership, and now I don't. I've lost my faith. That's a whole different discussion. We don't need to go there right now. But I think I still agree with you that actually it's one of the biggest things that can help somebody make change is community.
- Right.
- People around you who will speak truth gently.
- Yes, speak the truth in love.
- Yeah. Whether that's in a church context or not. And I know--
- Right.
- Just from the statistics that culturally the U.S.A is much more Christian than I think the UK and the rest of Europe are in many ways. And careful not to make any value judgment there
'cause there's good and bad in every community.
- Right.
- But I think your point about there being a need for community, for a need for being in a relationship with other people is absolutely--
- And yeah, and healthy community.
- Yeah.
- Because you can have community with people that aren't actually doing you any good. And it may be fun, but it's. So yeah, I think you're exactly right. You need some sort of positive, encouraging, inspiring, uplifting, however you wanna put it. You're exactly right. You need some sort of community. You need some sort of group that can help you, that can hold you accountable. Like you mentioned, they can speak truth to you gently but in a way that you will understand it, and that's extremely important as well, yeah.
- Yeah, and I think in modern life, we're very connected, and we're always on our phones sending messages to people, but we're not actually connecting in a heart-to-heart sense, and--
- Absolutely. Yeah, and that's a big. That's actually a huge problem with young people. I'm a high school teacher, so I teach 14 to 18 year olds. That's my day job. And there is so many reports, and studies, and statistics out now that show that this generation is more digitally connected than anybody's ever been, but they're also more prone to loneliness, and suicidal thoughts, or social anxiety because they don't know how to be around people.
- Yeah.
- Without interacting through a screen. And it makes me concerned for that whole generation because if they grow up not knowing how to be around people what happens when they need that community? What happens when there's a crisis, and the only place they know to go is to their Instagram? You know what I mean? That makes me sad for them.
- And that where we've seen those tragedies around these young people.
- Yeah.
- Should I take my own life?
- Yeah.
- 17 said they responded.
- Yeah, don't ever ask--
- Yeah, don't ever ask a stupid--
- Yeah, right, don't ever ask that question on social media because the people, a lot of the people there don't care about you as well as they should.
- Yeah.
- And that's a whole different discussion too that I have with my students all the time about the difference between real life and digital life. One of my major crusades as a teacher is put down the screen, pick up a book.
- Yeah.
- And that's something that, yeah.
- So coming back to your story. So we digressed. It's so easy to spending two hours building a podcast that doesn't say anything. You've spoken about, you knew what had to change, and a lot of it was around your own attitude and the way you thought about the way the world was. You'd got a group of people around you who were helping you to, to make that change. And obviously, making a change like that is not simple. You're unlearning huge amounts of habitual behavior and years of the way it's been done.
- Right.
- So please don't tell me this was a nice linear.
- I would love to tell you that. It'd be the biggest lie I've told so far today at 6:29 in the morning over here. No, it was not linear at all. In fact, there's still bumps in the road. Even just this past spring I realized that I had started to slip back into old habits in terms of being selfish toward my daughters. I had kind of a wake up call a couple months ago where my older daughter wrote me a letter in which she expressed a decent amount of displeasure with some of the choices that I was making in our relationship whether it was not listening to her, or making her feel unimportant, or making her feel like her opinion didn't matter. And I didn't realize I'd been doing those things, but she felt those things very, very strongly. And so, it's very easy to slip back into old habits especially when things get comfortable. We think, oh good, okay, it's fixed. I'm good. It's a never ending process. That's what I've learned. And so that, getting that letter was really hard. It wasn't fun to read. It was actually one of the more difficult things I've had to do in the past few years. But at the same time, it was really eye-opening, and it was very good for me to realize. Okay, the relationship I have with my daughter, it's not where it needs to be. What can I do differently to try to fix that? And the answer was the same as before. It was, stop talking about yourself so much. It was, stop disregarding your daughter's answers when you ask her questions. You ask her a question, she answers you, and you say, no, that's not how it's gonna be. Well, there's a better way to do that. There's a better way to approach that relationship. And part of it was just, she's 14-15 years old, and she's trying to spread her wings. Part of it was she was exactly right in terms of me not treating her as if she had as much value as I should have. And again, that's part of the process of learning how to parent a 15 year old. She's different now than when she was 12. And when she was 12 she's different than when she was when she was eight. And as they get older I have to change my approach, and I hadn't changed my approach to her in a couple years. I was still treating her a little bit like a little kid. And she didn't like that. And that's understandable. So, no, it certainly was not a linear progress from, Joel was terrible to Joel is the greatest. It was much more just slow incremental movements, continually hitting bumps, but maybe the bumps are getting a little smaller, or maybe the bumps change shape and so they're different bumps. But it's different than what it was, and it's always gonna be a process. And it's even more complicated because again, in our world there's four parents not just two.
- Yeah.
- And so, it's not a competition, but it is a different context. Obviously, like the four parents, if we're working together, we're not in competition. We're not trying to be the best parent. We're not trying to be the cool parent. We're working together as the parents. But it is different with four parents because the context is different because it's not just me. It's, my daughter has a father and she has a step father who in a lot of ways are very different people. And so that means that part of my approach needs to be shaped by that, or at least I need to take that into account. So, it is just, it's very complicated, and it's certainly not linear, but it is a never ending process of self-evaluation and, okay, how do I move forward with humility and grace and that kind of stuff?
- And you keep going around that kind of feedback loop, what worked, what didn't work.
- Yep, absolutely.
- Yeah. And always a challenge.
- Yes, it is. And I thought I'd be more prepared for it because I've been teaching teenagers for my daughter's whole life. I've been a high school. I just finished my 13th year teaching. I'm starting my 14th year in about a month. And I thought, okay, I've been working with teenagers for 14 years, 13 years. I know them pretty well. It's different when they're in your home.
- Mm-hm.
- That's what I found out. Teaching them for an hour and a half a day, coaching them on a soccer field, that's very different than having one in my house. It's very different than trying to raise one. So, that was a good lesson. Again, 'cause it was pride. It was ego. I thought, I know teenagers. I've worked with them for years. And the reality was, you don't know them, not the way you think you do. So that was a good kind of a humbling moment there. Okay, awesome, way to go.
- Yeah, my three sons are all over 21 now, and it's still new challenges. Yeah, at least I said, you know what guys? You're adults, you can do this yourself.
- That's right, I'm here to help, but this is really, this is your thing.
- You'll get there, yeah. And I get a phone call the other day. Dad? Yeah. Where are you? Why? My car's broken down.
- Right.
- I'm 200 miles away. There's nothing I can do right now.
- Yep. Yep, sorry.
- But hey, that's parenting for you. And then the other day I was talking with my dad who is an elderly gentleman. And we were having this conversation. Yeah, I realize, I still call you when I'm trying to work out how to fix something.
- Yeah.
- So it never ends.
- Yeah, and that's it. Yeah, that's exactly it. So, yeah, my dad passed away, like I mentioned, just over 11 years ago. But very rare is there a week where I don't think, I'd like to talk with Dad about that. It's been over a decade. Because that's kinda how we're hardwired. When we have problems we go to the person that used to answer, or that we at least thought had all the answers.
- Yeah, even if they didn't.
- Even if they didn't. And that's one of the hard, that's one of the really hard lessons about parenting that I've learned is, not only do I not have all the answers, that's okay.
- Yeah. So, this--
- It's okay that I don't have all the answers.
- This thought, to all those teenagers who listen to this podcast, or none of you. Appreciate your parents while they're around
'cause you will miss them when they're gone.
- You will, and they'll get smarter as you get older.
- Oh yeah.
- Once you hit about, once you get about 20 your parents will start to become intelligent again. Whatever happened between your age 13 and 18 that made 'em dumb, that goes away.
- Yeah.
- So, there it is.
- Joel, that's an amazing story. Really, really, really delightful to speak with you and to hear just a little bit about your journey, and if you're looking for more information on Joel, there's some great videos and resources on real, and it's real life leading. Sorry, I read it wrongly for a moment. We will get links to that and to his book in the show notes. It's been an absolute pleasure to have you, and a truly inspirational story there, Joel. Thank you so much.
- Thank you, it's been a pleasure. I had a great time, and I'd love to hear from any of you listeners who this story resonated with or just encouraged them. I'd love to answer questions. Shoot me an email. Find me on social media, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, whatever, and I'd love to chat. I'd love to continue this conversation. Thank you again for having me on.
- Joel, thank you so much for getting up so early to talk to us. As always, if this episode has touched you in some way, please do like it, share it with friends, with other people you know who you think will appreciate Joel's story. And if you'd like to get in touch, please do. Please let me know what you think of the podcast, if you know somebody who you think would be a great interviewee, if you've got a great story, please email me at [email protected] or Twitter @StuartLMorris, Instagram @StuartLMorris. And if you want to listen to older episodes, please do. You'll find them on iTunes, Stitcher, or Spotify, and at the website Looking forward to talking to you next time.

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