Making breakfast. Dropping off the kids at school or daycare. Doing homework. Deciding what’s for dinner. Baths. Bedtime. Juggling all these tasks can be difficult, even with two parents in a household working together. Subtract one from the equation, though, and this daily balancing act becomes even more challenging for a single parent.
Mention that term “single parent” to most people, and it may conjure an image of a single mom. With good reason: In the United States, when a couple splits, it’s traditionally been the mother who retained main custody of the children. A study released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2009 showed that the balance is still tipped; even now about 83 percent of single custodial parents are moms, with about 17 percent of dads raising their children alone. Yet, the fact that single fathers are a smaller percentage of the equation is immaterial. Nearly all of these dads are engaged in their children’s lives in a big way.
The situations that result in fathers raising children on their own are varied, and often as unique as each family. For many fathers, single parenthood comes as the result of the end of a marriage or relationship, and the roles shift, sometimes dramatically.
Jason, a Kenosha father of one, experienced this with his daughter. “I guess like most separated parents, I had the role of ‘fun parent,’” he says. “I was not responsible for any discipline whatsoever. I was the fun dad: movies, parks, zoo and fast food on a Saturday afternoon.” When circumstances changed and his daughter’s mother could no longer care for her, Jason says, “Getting custody of her saved my life. Maybe not saved me from death, but saved my quality of life.” He made changes in both his work and personal life in order to raise his daughter full-time. He’s since gone on to earn an associate’s degree, and is working toward a bachelor’s degree.
Some of the challenges single fathers face are more or less universal parenting issues, even in households with two parents: effective discipline, dealing with a picky eater or striking a balance between work and spending time with your children. However, the latter can be especially important for single parents with more than one child.
“I have to remember to give each child that special attention they need,” says Jack, a Racine father of three. “I think the challenge is to remember that they all need something different from me. That would be true of any parent, but when raising children on your own, there is one less parent to share that.”
Not having the other parent there to partner with can also be trying when it comes to the awkward moments of raising older children, as Jason encountered. On caring for his daughter by himself during her teenage years, he shares that “tackling issues like menstruation, safe sex, birth control and other subjects were quite difficult for me.”
In situations like this, having some sort of support system can be invaluable for single fathers. For Chris Andreoli, a Kenosha father of two, co-parenting works best. “I feel very fortunate that … custody ... has not been a battle,” he says. Chris and his ex-wife have a 50/50 custody agreement, and share “the same outlook for the kids, which really makes things a lot less complicated.”
Jason’s support has come in both traditional and unconventional forms. He credits his mother and stepfather for being very helpful but also says he could not have succeeded without the help of his two roommates—his best friend and his wife. When Jason’s daughter was younger, the group of them created a family dynamic of their own. They’d have dinner together every night; afterward, Jason went to work a night shift and his friends stayed home with his daughter.
Does having a family life that doesn’t fit the expectations of some people’s idea of “normal” ever create issues? Chris and Jack say that it can. Even as more fathers become the main custodial parent in their children‘s lives, they’ve found themselves coming up against stereotypes of what role a father should play.
“I’m surprised by the increasing number of fathers who are awarded physical custody,” Jack says. “It makes me feel like society has changed, and women no longer have to be the sole nurturers and caretakers of the family. Fathers can perform the duties of raising children without a mom.”
Chris echoes the sentiment. “I find it surprising how people stereotype the single father role. Sometimes it seems that people think a man can’t handle dealing with two children by himself. Not true. I very politely remind them that I’ve got things under control and appreciate the help, but it’s not needed. I’m very involved and active with every aspect of my children’s lives.”
As dedicated as these dads are, the fact remains that they have lives of their own too. Some have found they’re ready to venture into the realm of dating again. Not unlike some of their single mom counterparts, single dads may find there is a unique set of considerations as a single parent.
“Being back out in the (dating) world as a single parent has been challenging,” Chris says. “You have to make sure that when you meet someone with whom you want to see where things could go, they have to understand that if things do wind up getting serious, the kids will be involved. I have some concern with introducing women I’m dating to my kids. The last thing I want to do is make the kids any more confused about what’s going on in their lives. I guess I’ll have to see how that goes when the time comes. Anyone else will have to understand that I love my kids more than anything and they will always be number one.”
That commitment of making their children their first priority resurfaces again and again. When Jason assumed sole responsibility for his daughter, he rearranged his house, and essentially, his entire life: “I focused more on raising my daughter and attending school.”
Chris is dedicated to being present for his children. “Listen to your kids,” he advises. “Listen to what they are trying to say. They are very smart and understand much more than we give them credit for.” And for single fathers who may be struggling, or are simply looking for ways to be the best parent they can be, he says, “Dads don’t have to live that stereotypical role of not being involved with their kids. Love them, listen to them and always be there.”
Jack feels that the careful attention a single father gives his children fosters an opportunity for a closer relationship. “I hear about their day first. I get to be the one to help them figure stuff out, hug them when they’ve had a bad day and support them in whatever they need.”
“I’m not an expert dad,” Jack adds. “I think very few of us are. I make mistakes. I have good days and bad days. But with all the stress and work, I still relish the opportunity to be the parent they need.” •
Lisa Adamowicz Kless is a freelance writer, preschool teacher and mom, as well as the co-founder and writer for the arts-related web site, www.2ndFirstLook.com.
This story originally appeared in the June 2011 edition of metroparent magazine.