When I was a child, my Dad was a stereotypical 1960’s man: he went to work, came home, put on the news, spent the weekends with his boat and his tools and kissed us goodnight. In order to get his attention, I would have to climb into his lap and settle in with Walter Cronkite, a cigarette, and a Scotch.
Not too long ago, Dads were elusive creatures: powerful, aloof and somewhat mysterious. They came and went to work, threw us up into the air when we needed a giggle and showed up when Mom was at her wit's end to maintain order at home.
After my parent’s divorce, my Dad remarried and became a Dad to my youngest sister. We would share the VW bus up and down Rte #128 each Sunday and watch him carve out time for us amidst his busy life. These were hurried visits, just a long afternoon, filled with six kids longing to know what it felt like to have his love. It was tough to be a divorced Dad in the 1970’s.
Today, things have changed mightily for single Dads. Keeping up with the new expectations can be a little confusing for the recently separated or about to be single dude who is supposed to step up and to participate in his children’s lives. My Dad would say that the difference between his first child born in 1960 and his last in 1976 was that initially, he wasn’t allowed in the maternity ward and by the end, he was not only required, he would be cutting the cord!
Oh, how parenting advice has changed for Dads in general, never mind single Dads!
I think one of the principle reasons why divorce rose during the latter half of the 20th century is because of the enormous changes parenting went through - including having Dads learn how to become more involved with the raising of children.
With a more involved Dad… one who went into the delivery room, one who pushed the stroller and washed and changed babies… came a change in how parenting for Dads started to be seen.
In the quest for equality, no longer, would single Dads be left to just Sunday afternoon visits with his kids. No longer would Moms be doing all the day-to-day raising of children and shouldering the bulk of the work. Today, both partners are expected to participate in childcare, funding college educations and cover living expenses. The world has attempted to become more fair and equitable.
Many men are even taking 50% physical custody and learning how to run a home. And Dads who don’t do these things, the ones who must work and travel or are uninterested in making these adjustments or participate in their kids’ lives, are now deemed the lesser parent even among his divorced peers. The bar has been set in a new direction and single dads must learn this new course.
This is a tall order for a guy recently separated and living on his own! Managing the responsibilities of being there for your kids and dating or creating a new home is a balancing act most men find difficult. Certainly at first.
I remind my male clients - you are the male role model for your child - who do you want your sons to be like and who do you want your daughters to marry?
The commitment is deepening among single Dads. Yes, the kids need you to have clothes at your home and a set of school books, and you have to keep their schedule top of mind. You’re also now required to be the male role model you’ve never had yourself. The parenting advice for divorced Dads is deepening because the stakes are getting higher.
As you step out as a single Dad taking on parenting by himself remember:
1) You can do it! You really can. You’ve been trained for years and most likely by your own father who came to age during the time men were hands on and knew how to cook… (something)! Don’t waste your energy comparing yourself to any other family or man out there. It’s a brain suck! Focus on healing and growing; do your work! The stronger you become, the better Dad you will be. Use your ability to zero in on things and make your well-being your priority. Your kids need you!
2) Your children don’t need perfection, they need your respect and your love. It really doesn’t matter if for the first few months you simply live on eggs and toast each evening. Make it fun and greet them with that big smile you’ve got especially for them. Show them how proud you are and help them establish new traditions with you. Give yourselves the time to get to know each other away from Mom.
3) You need to be the rock - strong, dependable, masculine. Your children are going through their first divorce. They need to feel safe. When your kids are with you, you have to be super aware. Most men find this a bit difficult at first (usually, Mom was the one with eyes in the back of her head).
However, children will test and test and test you.
Your daughter will be on an emotional roller coaster… needy, scared, wanting her Mom. You must be with her while she is flipping out. It will scare you. You will want to ‘shut it down’ and distract her the way you were able to when she was two years old. You will want to rationalize with her and get her to do what you want. You can’t. You can’t do anything but be with her while she is having a breakdown. This will happen a lot at first - her entire world has been flipped upside down.
By simply being there for her, you’re teaching your daughter that a man can be with her while she is being a girl - an emotional, mercurial female who needs her guy to support her.
Her emotionality doesn’t mean she is sick or needing therapy (unless it is 24/7); it simply means she needs you! You might think her behavior won’t help her future work environment, it might contradict your world view of men and women but for now, while your personal relationship has fallen apart, try simply being there for the youngest female in your life. This is way bigger than her finding employment. And you can handle it - in other words, she needs you to be able to handle her.
Your son will be on his own emotional journey… he may appear more stoic, together, organized and disciplined. He may revert to being unable or unwilling to make a commitment, a decision or be unable to get through his day without help. You will want to draw him out, force him to make a call, join a team or a club, get to like your new girlfriend; you may insist upon a hug, and force him to adjust to your new life. You can’t. You must give him time, create new memories, show him how to do it.
By putting yourself together again and dealing with the personal growth your divorce is forcing upon you (NEW FLASH: if you think you don’t have any personal growth work, check your level of denial) you are showing your son that real men can be tender, kind, compassionate and wise. You’re showing him what masculinity looks like when you make mistakes and take ownership of responsibilities. He is looking for a role model and you are his principal man!
When you trust yourself enough to be there for your son, you give him permission to feel his feelings without having to hide them. You’re teaching him that men are human too.
Divorce is a generational disease. It doesn’t occur in happily married families. When I was young, I knew that my parent’s fighting wasn’t healthy and I was always afraid. By my parents divorcing and learning to live differently, my world expanded. In order to be a single Dad in touch with his own needs with a strong, happy bond with his children, it’s important to understand how parenting has changed and what your new role is.
Your children need and want you to show up for them especially as a single father.
If you’re finding it difficult to adjust to being a single Dad, reach out. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I know you’re more than capable of taking on your new role, you may just need a little help. I’ll get you going in the right direction.