When Tom was 4, his mom and I split up, and I unexpectedly found myself a single dad. I had a middle management job in a large retail bank, and quite suddenly, in addition to my job, I had to learn to cope with caring for Tom, keeping a home and being single.
What did I know about the needs of a 4 year old?
The biggest realisation in becoming a single parent is that “the buck stops here”. There is no one else to share chores. No-one else to make Tom’s lunch while I dress him. No-one else to supervise homework while I cooked dinner. No-one else to get up in the night when Tom was sick and I had a big presentation the next morning. No-one else to play the “good-cop” when Tom needed a scolding from me.
I was very fortunate to have the support and guidance of my mom and gran who lived a few miles away and were always willing to help as baby sitters for Tom whenever I needed them, and in providing the necessary regular female input into Tom’s life. But Tom lived with me full time, and most of the time, I was it.
Early on, I was worried about how Tom was coping emotionally from having lived with both parents to suddenly living only with his dad and seeing his mom on alternate weekends (when she bothered to arrive). I took Tom to a child psychologist who gave me two great pieces of advice:
- As the single parent, you should never take responsibility for the actions or words of the other parent. When he asks why his mom didn’t take him for the weekend like she said she would, say “I don’t know my son – why don’t you ask her next time you see her.” When he asks when he’ll see her again, respond honestly that you don’t know. As soon as you start offering excuses for the absent parent, or making promises for her, you start taking responsibility, and the child can start to see you as the unreliable one (‘cos “you said that mommy would come for me today, and she didn’t”). Because she was so unreliable, Tom’s visits from his mom were always surprises to him (I would never tell him she was coming, so he wouldn’t need to suffer the let-downs if she didn’t arrive).
- As a single parent, you need to be aware that you must simultaneously be the giver of love and the disciplinarian. If a scolding was necessary for Tom, it was important that he immediately also got a hug from me, so he would always understand that although he may have done something wrong, that he was still loved.
As a single parent, you learn the importance of multi-tasking. I learnt to supervise homework while cooking dinner. I learnt to supervise Tom’s breakfast eating and dressing for school while I showered and dressed myself. I listened to Tom’s reading while I drove him home from school, or while we did the shopping.
I also learnt to cope with puke and poop that I would never have been able to cope with before. Not that I ever dealt with it without some serious gagging every single time (even though I held my breath!) – but I coped – out of necessity – because there was no-one else to do it.
But single parenting had its benefits too. I became far closer to Tom than I would probably ever have been if his mother and I had not split up. Previously, I had been the parent who was more focussed on bringing home the bacon than on whether Tom was eating his breakfast or doing his homework. I was not completely uninvolved, but nor was I nearly as involved as I should have been. Being a single dad, meant that I had no choice, but to be involved. And out of this grew a beautiful father son bond that I will always treasure. We had a string of dad-son rituals. Favourite breakfast places, favourite grocery stores (and favourite treats to buy from each of the favourite stores). Favourite take-out, favourite meals, favourite story books. Lazy weekends when Tom would crawl into my bed, and we would read together, or snuggling under a blanket watching Discovery channel (which we both loved and still love). Favourite chocolate bars, and favourite music.
Happily, I met Wendy 5 years later when Tom was about 9, and we were married 2 years later.
But my 5 years as a single parent made me a better dad to Tom, and will make me a better parent to my unborn child Zee, expected in May next year.