Being a single parent has roughly the appeal of syphilis. A lifetime of bitterness, anger, and guilt isn’t a top contender when the genie asks for three wishes; and little boys and girls don’t dream of futures with child support, separation agreements, and visitation rights.
At a fundamental level, we understand that children do better when they are in one home – and that home includes a mother and father. Because of this, single and divorced parents often experience extreme guilt – because we know deep down this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. When at its best, nothing is more wholesome or advantageous than the traditional family.
At the time of our divorce my children were three years and nine months, a well-trained baboon can take care of kids that young. My single parent skill set quickly became honed in the areas of taxi, cook, circus performer, and logistics engineer. Without a co-pilot, I singlehandedly learned to systematize errands, lunch, gym and still be home for naptime. But it was this notion of time that quickly proved as a major source of friction in my relationship with the ex. After our divorce, time with my kids was dispensed in hours instead of days, courtesy of the family court system and my naivety. The disparity was demoralizing; it conveyed a lack of importance as their father and reduced me to the status of beggar.
There is nothing more humiliating – or infuriating – than asking permission to see your children. Every time I was forced to seek her approval to be their father it drove that knife deeper and reinforced a belief that having a part time dad was causing my children irreversible harm. Like vampires clinging to the soul, was this doubt that my kids and I were paying the true penance for another’s crime. I was panhandling for time, she was getting mini vacations. All of this served as gasoline on an already white-hot contempt for everything that had been taken away from me, chiefly my fatherhood.
My basic fear centered on this one issue, can a part time dad still be a good dad? Looking at my children through the lens of my own childhood, which included one home with a mother and father, I couldn’t shake the conviction that regardless of how noble the intent I was never going to influence my children as a part-time dad the way I could were I full-time. All I could think was, what can I really do with only every other weekend and a couple hours on Tuesday and Thursday?
As this thought continued to ferment, I stayed focused on what I was missing. For me the glass remained half-empty, which I was reminded of every day I wasn’t with my children and their new stepfather back filled the role.
There comes a point when we all must decide, instead of wishing for a better hand, to play the cards we’re given. Childhood is a small window and parents have limited space to make an impact. It seems we put them down for an afternoon nap and they wake up teenagers and if we aren’t mindful of that we discover any chance we might have is gone. Coming to this realization brought me to a proverbial fork in the road; I could continue wallowing in what should have been or march boldly forward into what is. It was for me to decide if I was going to allow another’s selfishness to hold me back from what I was meant for and was my responsibility alone – being my kid’s dad.
That wake-up call was five years ago. Much has happened since, lessons have been learned and mistakes made but in that time I’ve created a bond with my children most married fathers could only hope for. With limited margin I’ve had to do much with very little. I’ve never enjoyed the luxury of saying to my children “maybe tomorrow”, for me that might be four days away. Being a single father has meant always staying in the moment, fully attentive, present emotionally and physically. I can’t think of one time where I’ve taken my children for granted. How many married full time fathers can say that?
Single parenthood can and often is an unpleasant experience and something I wouldn’t wish on another, yet as bizarre as this will sound, I’m thankful to be a single dad. By this turn of fate I’ve been given an opportunity to put my unique fingerprint on my children in a way I never could have being married to their mother. It’s given me the freedom – and the obligation – to be a better father, the type of father I would have wanted as a child. It forced me to use my ingenuity and stretch the limits of what I thought I could do, both of which I’m now grateful for.
Single fatherhood is a formidable undertaking. The deck is stacked and society is betting against us. When faced with the same prospects, many men wonder if it’s not better to simply give up and walk away. Others are fearful they don’t have what it takes. But through my experience, I believe that single fatherhood is a precious opportunity, a chance to be someone far better than before. The road is perilous but the man who takes a leap of faith finds his children waiting for him half way and together they can strike off into an entirely new direction – one of their own choosing. And when the days fall short and that father looks back over the journey he’ll be thankful for the chance and wonder how he ever considered taking the other path.