What to expect as a single father

free-internet-games-for-kids1I’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”.

Conversely, my ex’s greatest challenge as a parent has been to impose and hold the structure of a healthy household. To have rules and have — and enforce — consequences if they’re broken. That’s hard too, because it’s somewhere in the middle that happiness is found. Too strict and you’re the drill instructor and your children live in constant fear of doing something wrong and having Draconian consequences. Too lax and they become the proverbial inmates running the asylum, and I see single parent households (almost exclusive single moms) where that’s how things work and it’s chaos, with no set bedtimes, no rules about TV or video games, and children that are feral wildcats as often as they’re mellow and mature.

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.

boy buried in sand on the beach, california
beach time. always good!

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?

7 comments on “What to expect as a single father

  1. Great Article Dave…the hardest thing for me as a single father of a young daughter was having to prepare for the upcoming conversations and purchases of my little girl growing up into a young woman! This is a awkward stage for most pre-teens, but to have to go through most of this with your Dad was challenging for both of us.

    There were tons of books and guides for how Mom’s could have the conversation with their daughter, but none for Dads. Needless to say, we made it through just fine and I definitely have a new appreciation for what women go through.

  2. Hmmmm….where to begin. Firstly I do not label myself as a single parent. I have had, though now they are all in college, 50/50 custody as well as financial equality, therefore I am a divorced parent. A single parent, in my eyes, is a parent who is singly, on a daily basis, the majority of, or all of the time, caring physically and financially for their child/children. I believe both men and women who are divorced parents, often use this label incorrectly.

    Ask a single dad/ mom who shares parenting with another, and he will usually say he is a single parent…not so.
    Ask a single parent, one who works 2 jobs and has no assistance from the other parent in any way, if they are a single dad or mom and the answer will be a resounding, hell ya!

    I hear grown children of single parents praising the the work it took their parent to tow the line alone….that is not what I ever hear children of divorce, such as myself, who had two participatory parents assist in their upbringing, say.
    I believe it does a disservice to the other parent for your children to hear you say you are a single parent. I also believe children are better off never hearing their parent refer to their other parent as their “ex-( insert gender role)”. I always referred to my children’s dad to others in conversation as “my children’s father or the father of my children”.

    What did I have to learn to deal with that took me by surprise…mostly that I had so much to learn. I think, in hindsight, which is ever so easy with any introspection at all, I was surprised by how much more we expect of our children once in two households. We expect, at every developmental stage, more than we would had our families remained intact. We have taken the most difficult and most impact-full times in these humans lives, and piled upon them challenges that come with the loss of life as they know it. We have two of everything and ask that they remember more than we do in the shuffle between. We ask of them organization skills that we possessed at 25 or, perhaps, have yet too. We ask understanding when we fall short, lose our patience or slip up….from a 16 year old or a 9 year old….really?
    Remember that all of this was our choice, and though children most assuredly have an impact on marriage, and sometime factor in to it’s dissolution, they asked for none of this.

    Remain firm in your boundaries and the enforcement of the consequences of their actions, because it benefits THEM. Date night lost. oh well. Homework failed, oh well. Remembering to cut them a break, not always in response to their actions, but in our ( sometimes and somewhat) unrealistic expectation of them.

    No matter what our childhood experiences, one parent, two parent, or four, our experiences will never be theirs’ and how they process it all is all their own, unique to each of them.

    • Thanks for your note, Renee, but you make a pile of assumptions. For example, I never refer to my ex as “my ex” with my children, I just call her “Mom” or “your Mom”. But more importantly, sorry, you’re wrong about whether or not someone is a single parent if they don’t have 100% custody. They’re also a single parent if they’ve got one job rather than two. A single parent is a parent who is, well, parenting without someone else in the mix. Let’s just agree to disagree on these aspects of the discussion.

      • I never assumed, Dave, about what your refer to your ex as. What are my “pile” of assumptions, you list what you believe to be one.

        You are not parenting without someone else in the mix, their mother is their active, participatory parent in both time and finance, It does a disservice to the other participating parent and also, to all the real single parents who have no weekends off, monetary help or help from another parent of any kind. We do, indeed, disagree. You are a single man who is a co-parent and are part of a family. You both will always be your childrens family, even if you and she are no longer each others. Single is one. They have two AND you have her assistance in raising them.

        • As I said, let’s just agree to disagree, Renee. I’ll just say that when my kids are in my house and we’re having a tough time, it’s just me. There’s no other parent in the mix, there’s no-one to “take over” because it’s hard, exhausting or I’m sick. That’s all that counts to me, and that’s what makes me — and a lot of “co-parenting” parents into single parents in my eyes. We don’t have to agree.

  3. My ex was in the Navy and away for long periods of time so I was already used to running the household solo. However, the hardest part of becoming a single parent was my return the workforce and having to put my children into daycare. They were just babies at the time (oldest was 3, twins were 1). I have my children full time so am Mom & Dad – I was so overwhelmed with juggling a full time job, rushing out of the office at 5pm to get to daycare on time, taking care of the house, etc. I hated the thought of someone else taking care of my kids and missed a few ‘firsts’. I had to work through my frustration and learn how to be flexible in a lot of situations. I also had to learn that there just isn’t time for everything and had to decide what was more important: spending quality time with my kids or having a perfectly clean house. I’ve learned to live with dirt! Of course, now that my girls are older, they have taken on more of the chores and I don’t have to work as hard. Those first years are a blur but life is easier now and I wonder how I did it!

  4. I have to agree with Renee. My mom raised me as a single parent because after my parents got divorced, my dad never paid child support. She had full custody and was 100% responsible for me, financially and otherwise.

    All parenting is hard, don’t get me wrong, but divorced parents and single parents are different! I give you kudos for staying involved in your children’s lives, but you still have joint custody.

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