If you’re anything like me, you were brought up to treat women as equals. Then, when you had kids, you did everything you could, short of breastfeeding, to help bring them up. And then your relationship goes pear-shaped and your assumptions, plans and dreams of being a family man blow up in your face. Sadly, this is a common occurrence – but, ironically, we’ve never been better prepared to cope.
To Do Lists help, I’ve found. When I got divorced, I wrote a list – and the very first point was that I was going to be a good dad to my kids. Here are nine other lessons I’ve learned in the eight years since, for all you brilliant single dads out there. (And in advance, happy Father’s Day to every one of you.)
- Be a Man
One of the bear-traps of becoming a single dad is that it happens when you’re least able to cope with it. You’ve just lost the partner who was supposed to be your biggest support and suddenly you’ve got to hold everything together yourself. The decisions you make at this point will affect everything, forever, with your children. So no pressure. You have to be strong and reliable and solid and present immediately. Your kids have got to deal with their own trauma without seeing you blubbing into your Rice Krispies every morning.
- Learn to love the vegetable
On the subject of breakfast, you’ll probably want to give in immediately to your kids’ request for some kind of chocolate nitroglycerine cereal just to show that you’re the nice parent. Don’t do that even if you’ve got a very strong craving for chocolate nitro-glycerine yourself. You’re going to be their dad for a very long time and you don’t want to spend quality time with the kids at the dentist/obesity clinic. Remember the baked bean is your friend and the fish finger virtually a soul mate.
- Never talk their mother down
Most single dads are single because they’ve divorced. And most divorces happen because you realize that the woman you married wasn’t as perfect as she appeared in the wedding photos, or the woman realizes that you weren’t as perfect as you appeared in the wedding photos, or a combination of the two. Remember that kids need a mum as much as they need a dad. Your kids love their mum and they don’t need to know all the insights you’ve gained into her flaws (or all the insights she’s gained into yours). Airbrush out the negative stuff, keep your mouth shut when you’re tempted to say something snide, and just make one simple change: ‘mum’ becomes ‘your mum’.
- Modify your love life
Maybe the reason you got divorced is because you found someone new. Obviously, you’ll want to explore this situation, often in a naked way. It’s best to do this when the kids are with their biological mother. Do not introduce your new flame as ‘the new family’. Your kids know what the family is – it’s what they’ve just lost and there’s every chance they’ll want your shiny new model to get lost too. The real danger is that your kids won’t feel at home in your home because there’s some stranger who has her bra in the tumble dryer.
- Brace yourself and go on holiday
Taking your kids on holiday by yourself is just about the most nerve-racking, exhausting and expensive thing you’re ever going to do as a single dad. Relaxation for you comes at the very bottom of the list after logistics, health, foreign food navigation, sunburn, volcanic diarrhea and basic physical survival. But you’d be amazed how happy your kids’ memories will be. There’s the added plus that business trips by yourself will suddenly feel more like spa breaks.
- Work on work
Work can be a Catch-22 for single dads. The harder you work to pay your maintenance, the less you see your kids. If you make the choice to have your kids more, especially if you can have them half the time, you’ll pay a lot less. Make sure you have flexibility at work so you can have flexibility at home. I’m sure your female boss will understand how important it is to spend time with the family.
- You can’t stroke a social media head
Being in a WhatsApp group with your kids doesn’t mean your parenting is done and dusted. Following your kids on face vine snap gram chat feed is not healthy for you or for them. Your influence on your kids’ lives is directly proportional to your presence in it. And that means physical presence. At the meal table. At the school gates. At bedtime. And everywhere else where it’s good to have a solid dad right there.
- Prepare to be a great granddad
Good dads are thinking about their kids future before they realize they’ve got one. You were probably planning for the future before your divorce and before your ideal of a family disappeared over the horizon with its arse on fire. But you’re still going to be a dad twenty years from now when your kids come out of college up to their neck in debt and with nowhere to live. That’s why good dads have opened ISAs for their kids between changing their nappies.
- Be a dad not a friend
Your kids (hopefully) have enough friends but they only have one dad. (Step-dads don’t really count unless you let him take over your job.) Be there at parent’s evening. Give them lifts. Take tea to their rooms (might be the only way you get to see your teenager). Go shopping with them. Teach them manners. Dance embarrassingly. Be endearingly hopeless but utterly reliable at the same time. Be there for them always. That’s what dads do. And we can do that on our own.