In his new book, The 40 Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad, author Joel Schwartzberg talks about a taboo topic: having a great life – and becoming a better dad – after divorce. The former Nickelodeon Online producer/head writer and self-described “law school dropout and doomed Wheel of Fortune contestant” talks candidly about his own post baby depression, his divorce, and how it all made him a better dad.
What was the impetus for the book?
I had been writing humor pieces with a broad range for quite a while, and began to notice a theme of parenting emerging; in particular, parenting from the perspective of a divorced father. The book is a collection of personal essays that I wrote along that theme. Some are funny, some are deep, some are sad, but all are real.
Was it cathartic to write about your divorce?
Yes, it was definitely therapeutic. I was able to learn about myself and my genuine fatherhood role at a higher acceleration than I would have otherwise. I was also able to see the evolution of myself from someone who didn’t know where I fit in to defining my own dadhood. In fact, I think the book is owed a medical co-payment or two.
The book is very honest about your ups and downs as a divorced dad. What was the reaction to the book?
Overall, the reaction to the book has been fantastic. I’m honored and humbled by the reaction of people who understand and strongly relate to my journey.
In some circles, though, the book is considered controversial. I certainly don’t encourage divorce, but through my stories, I wanted to show how divorce presented me with an opportunity to establish a genuine reconnection with my kids. Still, I got a lot of criticism. People called me a coward and said that I was a terrible excuse for a father. They just wanted me to shut up, put up with my unhappiness, and deal with it. In other words, “man up.” I think now that many people reacted negatively because they, too, had similar issues with fatherhood but are uncomfortable admitting it, even to themselves.
There’s a great line in the book that reads: “In short it took divorce to make me a better father.” Let’s talk about that.
I am now a more genuine father to my children than I’ve ever been. Allowing myself to be honest with them has created a much deeper emotional connection. When you’re disconnected from your own emotions, or parenting by a set of standards and expectations other than your own, you’re not being the best parent you can be.
Your kids always know when you’re being phony. I’ve learned that not only from my kids, but from working at Nickelodeon, too. Kids don’t need to be condescended to. They are mature and not stereotypes; many of them like school and all kids want to be perceived as smart.
Have your kids read the book?
No, but I’m sure they’ll be able to understand the book at some later date. I’m trying to work these things out for my benefit and their benefit as well. I want to model that introspection and self-scrutiny and evolution that they themselves will have to go through as they grow up and mature, so I’m actually looking forward to dialogues about the book with them. I consider it a book filled with love, laughter, and dedication to my kids.
Are there plans for another book?
Right now, my book has been optioned for Hollywood consideration, but having worked in the industry, I know better than to plan any acceptance speeches or red carpet poses. I’m thinking about writing another book. I find it hard to write at home, though. I should really credit my book to the NJ Transit, because that’s where I wrote most of my book! I also have a full-time job as a PBS executive, teach courses in public speaking and book public relations, and blog about kids and media for iVilage, all of which I really enjoy. Occasionally — just for fun — I eat and sleep.
This book represents a milestone in my life and career, and I’m ready for the next one. I will always write, though. If I weren’t writing, I would be addressing envelopes because I just love it so much and it gives my brain such a high.