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Divorced couple stay close for their kids

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s one of those awesome family vacation photos that capture the joy between parents and their children, smiling, tanned, arms slung around one another, knee deep in the turquoise waters off some faraway beach.

I’m envious.

Even more awesome is how they got to this joyful Kodak moment, how these parents came to understand that even when a marriage dies the family lives on, how becoming an ex doesn’t have to mean becoming excluded.

The exes in this case are Greg Payne and Selia Cervantes Payne, divorced for 11 years. The photo was taken this week on their joint vacation in the Abacos, a chain of islands in the Bahamas, a place that has special meaning for them.

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Greg Payne, taking a few moments from the family’s beach-y pursuits, explains their story:

“Selia and I met. We were very attracted to each other. We became friends, and then we fell in love. Then we got pregnant. We were married out here in 2002. We had Gregory. And then we had Madison. Both our kids took their first steps in the Abacos. Then, for a variety of reasons, we got mad at each other. We got divorced. We got even more mad at each other. And then we got over ourselves. And we decided we needed to put our kids first. Slowly, we became friends again. And over time, we became very good friends, confidants and, I’d like to think, fairly decent co-parents.”

Which explains, in part, why even as teenagers the Payne kids – Madison, 13, and Gregory, 14 – look so happy hanging with their mom and dad.

That happens all too rarely in these days of divide and conquer, family style. Couples who once united in love to build a family seem far more likely to tear each other down in hate – and with them the children.

“When you tell a kid something is wrong, something is bad with their mom or their dad, when you trash-talk each other, you’re telling that kid that one-half of them is defective, and they will internalize that,” said Payne, who after years as an Albuquerque city councilor, transit director and occasional headline-grabbing bad boy has settled down as a divorced dad and an attorney specializing in family law and personal injury. “Divorce is like thermonuclear war, but the casualties are the kids.”

Father’s Day, he knows, can be a painful, lonely time for dads whose marriages end in bitter custody battles and a few allotted weekends with their children.

“We talk a lot about deadbeat dads, but there are a lot of dads who are really trying hard to get the chance to be good dads,” he said. “A lot would love to be as blessed as I am to be in this situation.”

I know that. Many of you have told me your stories of lives torn asunder by divorce. As I wrote this, I received an email from a desperate father embroiled in a custody battle with his ex that has raged on since 2012 – half their 10-year-old son’s life.

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“I am a good, loving, dedicated father,” he wrote. “I am trying to protect my son and I am blocked by an archaic court system in our state. I want the story of my struggle known so that changes can be made.”

I don’t disagree that the system needs change, but so, too, do the enemy combatant attitudes between former spouses.

That’s not always possible, obviously, and that’s not usually easy.

“I’m the first to say it’s hard to do,” Payne said. “We’re divorced for a reason, and I don’t want to sugar-coat that. We had a mediated divorce, and that first year was rough. But our children were always the most important thing to us, so we had to get over ourselves. We still have to get over ourselves a couple times a week.”

Both he and Selia are dating other people. Payne also has a younger son, Jameson, with a former partner.

Payne said part of what has guided him both in his personal life and with his clients is his parents’ own divorce. He said it damaged his relationship with both of them and hurt him emotionally, which he said likely contributed to his earlier brushes with the law, including a well-publicized charge of disorderly conduct in 2001 and a DWI in 2012.

“I am so far from perfect,” he said. “But there are a lot of things I was able to fix over the years that wounded me when I was my kids’ age.”

He credits his ex-wife for her support when he was at his lowest and for her unwavering dedication to doing what is right for their children.

“For better or worse, Selia and I will always be a part of the same family,” he said. “I love that I have this kind of relationship with her. It’s made all the difference for Gregory and Madison. Having experienced the exact opposite, it’s just a hell of a lot easier to get over each other and get along. It’s also the approach I strongly suggest to my clients – put the kids first.”

Maybe then they, too, will have more awesome family vacation photos to share.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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