I’m working on an article for Parents.com about being a single father and have to admit, I’ve been doing this for so many years I kind of forget the initial panic and struggles of those first few months, realizing that I couldn’t tag-team someone else into play if I felt overwhelmed or exhausted or just had no energy. It’s a jarring transition for both parents, I think, though obviously the parent who spends less time with the children has a harder transition both because they simply don’t have the experience and because the kids also don’t have as much experience working with them.
When we were married I think my ex and I took on pretty typical parental roles, with her as the nurturing and forgiving one and me as the stricter parent. If someone got into trouble, I’d be the heavy while Mom would worry about their fragile ego and want to mitigate any consequences. The fact that we got into those debates in front of the children was a fail for our marriage, but that was one reason we’re now in separate parental ecosystems and our kids have to manage the transition back and forth.
Still, my greatest challenge once we separated and the kids would be with me was learning how to be more gentle, not more strict with them. Empathy. Not something I grew up with and so something I’ve had to learn and teach myself over the years. Empathy and structure are partners in parenting, however, so I believe strongly that all children need rules, regulations and boundaries to grow up happy, healthy and well-adjusted, but they also need parents to empathize, to understand that sometimes kids just make dumb decisions without realizing the consequences, that they mouth off in class because they’re tired or just had a fight with their bestie, not because they’re a “bad apple”.
So that’s an important part of being a single father: learning how to balance strict and empathetic. Sometimes kids just have a bad day, just like us adults, and a big hug and a cookie from the secret stash can deliver far better results than yet another punishment.
There are other aspects to single fatherhood too, though. Even mundane things like housework. I like having a clean, neat house, so that doesn’t bother me, but I hate laundry. I hate washing clothes, and I really hate folding and putting them away. If I could sign up for disposable paper clothes, I’d do so in a minute. I’ve tried for years to get my kids to do their own laundry, but they seem to find the consequence of zero clean clothes completely acceptable, so that’s what they have. Mountains of dirty laundry and a Dad who is no longer willing to wash it for them. They all do chores, vacuuming, mopping, cleaning up, emptying the dishwasher, but my anti-laundry gene seems to have been passed down to all three of ’em.
Vacations are another challenge, because we take all the same interpersonal energies and bring them with us to a smaller place that doesn’t even have friends nearby. Still, we all love traveling and they love pools and beaches, so what am I doing right now? Planning a week-long trip to Orange County in mid-spring to visit my Dad and get a warm weather break from Colorado’s late winter / gradual spring thaw. But we need space. Multiple rooms. I know, having us all jam into a single hotel room is not a recipe for anything other than chaos and madness, the classic holiday where you need a vacation once you get home again.
What else, though? If you’re a single parent, what were the one or two things you never realized you’d have to deal with and that struck you by surprise? And how’d you learn to deal?