If you’re a single or divorced dad I feel your pain. I’ve been one for seven years and have experienced every emotion you are going or will go through. I know what it’s like to have a piece of your soul ripped away every Sunday evening, I’ve had the desire to take out a professional hit on my ex-wife, and I understand feeling like you just can’t win.
Being a single father means we may never have a traditional relationship with our children, we may not always be there to tuck them in or be able to band-aide every scrape but that doesn’t mean we can’t be any less than an extraordinary influence in their lives. Regardless of what media or culture says fathers are important and your kids need you whether you’re with their mother or not.
When I got divorced the judge didn’t hand out a how-to manual or assign a resource for help and since my family was hours away it meant I was on my own. As such, I made almost every conceivable mistake a single dad can from introducing the girlfriend too early to horrendous potty training mistakes that required hours to clean up, but I also learned a lot from all those rings of fire. I often get asked about my experiences from new single dads and while there is no ‘one right way’ below are what I believe to be 5 crucial steps every dad must take if they are going to have a lasting impact in their children’s lives.
- Accountability – And yes, among other things I mean paying child support. I don’t care how irresponsible she is with money or how painful writing that check seems every month. It’s less unpleasant than jail and makes co-parenting way easier. And if you’re unable to pay then man-up, explain the situation to her, and work something out. There is no excuse to disregard paying child support when you are able.
- Consistency – Children from broken homes have plenty to deal with already, they don’t need a father who doesn’t do what he says on top of it. That means being there for the football games, ballet recitals, and daddy/daughter dances when you say you’re going to. If you can’t make it say so but don’t respond with ‘maybe’, kids take that to mean ‘yes’. Once there is an established visitation schedule stick to it, make that as much of a priority as going to work and if you must change call their mom and the kids to explain why. And above all don’t let your job or social life take time away from being a dad.
- Boundaries – while ‘Disney-Land dad’ seems more the grumblings of a jealous mom, many single dads are prone to let their kids get away with too much often allowing them eat, do, and watch what they want simply because it’s easier. Kids need healthy boundaries from parents and single parents are no exception. We should establish rules when the kids are with us and though it helps tremendously if those boundaries are the same at mom’s house it isn’t necessary. My ex and I don’t always approach parenting the same but unless it’s a central issue the best I can do is worry on what happens at my house.
- Family – you’re a family whether there’s a mom is in the picture or not and every family needs a home. It starts with something so basic as the kids having their own bedroom. Your kids shouldn’t feel like they’re going to a hotel the weekends they’re at dad’s house. You should do the best you can to to make your home feel like their home. If you can’t provide their own room, try to create a place in your home that is their little spot. That also means keeping your house clean (not guy clean), well stocked with snacks and food, plus having books and games they enjoy. Additionally, it should mean performing activities as a family like eating dinners together regularly at a table, watching appropiate movies as a group, going on vacation, or just spending electronic-free time talking. I created set times for my kids to watch TV and play with electronics, otherwise we go unplugged.
- Respect – Your ex-wife probably isn’t your best friend. Divorces are hell and emotions get scarred in the aftermath but it is vital that we NEVER speak negatively about our ex’s in front of the children which includes snide remarks, off-color comments, or innuendos about her, her behavior, or her partner. Even if she doesn’t return the favor, you should take the high road. Anything less is pure selfishness with the underlying purpose of persuading our kids to choose sides. They need to see mom and dad as a united front regardless of how they may actually feel about each other. Anything else is completely unacceptable.
Parenting in the modern family has its fair share of trials and challenges and sometimes is as fun as hernia surgery making us want to give up. But as fathers we will be influential in our children’s lives, we just have to decide whether it will be good or bad.