When You’re a Single Dad (or Used to Be)

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I don’t hear much about single dads.

Single moms – yes, lots of press. If they can hold down a job and still get the kids to school in the morning and fed dinner at night, it’s seen as a saintworthy thing. And hey, it IS. This isn’t knocking single moms. It’s super tough to be a single mom.

But the fact is there just aren’t a lot of people talking about what it’s like to be a single dad … or a dad with a partner who’s not the biological or legal parent of his kids … or a dad who’s married to a stepmom.

I’ve experienced all three of these realities:

Single dad. Completely alone. Kids six nights a week. Whole new reality.

Dad with a special friend. Add the joy. Add the complexity.

Dad remarried. Whole new reality for everyone involved. Not doing it alone, but parts of parenting (legal matters, medical issues, etc) are still left entirely to me.

So this post is for you, dads who have been divorced.

You’ve made sacrifices (investments!) that the world will never see. If you’re a single dad, you’ve been taken out of any kind of social “norm” that the world, whether we like it or not, has placed upon dads.

You’ve passed up opportunities to climb the corporate/educational ladder because it will take too much of your time away from your kids.

You’ve slaved away day after day, maybe taking temp jobs, doing whatever it takes to put food on the table and pay the rent with the little money you have left after attorney’s fees and child support (no matter the fact that your ex and her new partner net more income than you – the system isn’t set up for the way the world is today.). You’re not sure how you’ll pay the bills tomorrow, but you keep looking up and moving forward, because your kids need you.

Your job doesn’t meet your needs in one way or another, but you can’t look for a job in another state or across the country, because you have to stay in town in order to keep your kids. If you move, it could mean a costly custody battle that you could lose.

You’ve made sacrifices (investments!) that the world will never see. If you’re a single dad, you’ve been taken out of any kind of social “norm” that the world, whether we like it or not, has placed upon dads.

You can’t go fishing with your buddies on the weekend, because it’s a kid weekend and you can’t ask your girlfriend to watch the kids while you’re gone. That never flies, and for good reasons. Besides, you don’t want to miss out on spending time with the kids anyway.

You work a long day and fight traffic to get home in time to pick up kids from daycare, but you still have to make dinner, throw around a baseball, check on homework, round kids up for bed, and tuck them back in after they come out of their room for the eighty-third time. Now it’s midnight, and you have to be up at 5:00 to start the morning routine. You make your coffee, sneak in some pushups and jumping jacks, and then wake up your amazing, wonderful kids, handle their sleepy complaints, make sure they put on clean underwear, braid their hair, pack their lunches, force some food down their throats, and chase them to the bus stop so they can get to school on time.

Important Note: I know that there are a number of you divorced dads who long to experience these challenges, but you haven’t been able to get custody of your kids in any meaningful way. My heart goes out to you. I obviously don’t know your circumstances, but you’re still a dad, and there may come a day soon where you’ll be able to spend more time with your kids. So, keep your head up and be ready for when that time comes.

When the kids are at your house, whether that’s 25, 50, 75 or 100% of the time, you are the one doing everything. At least at first, the tasks aren’t split up with a new partner… which doesn’t necessarily make things easier right away, anyway. And yes, there will be nights when the kids are at their other household, but you’ll probably be too exhausted on those nights to enjoy much, at least when this routine is brand new. You’ll spend “kid free” nights working the extra hours you couldn’t put in on your days with the kids, sleeping, or meal prepping.

It would only be appropriate here to add a little extra note about dads with daughters. Let’s just say, it can get super complicated.

I grew up with brothers. I don’t have any sisters. So, I didn’t know the first thing about how to do a little girl’s hair or pick out a cute outfit for a third grader. But I did learn how to do both. Then there are hormones and emotions and foreign bodily functions that I didn’t know anything about. I’m so grateful I met Melinda before my daughters reached these preteen years, because I don’t know how to instruct a girl about that. I don’t actually know how to use a tampon. I could figure it out, but it would be awkward. Probably more awkward than the conversations I’ve brought up with my daughters about what to do if a boy asks her to give him a you-know-what. Some of you dads are way more badass than me, because you’ve had to tackle the topics of puberty on your own. You’re pure awesomeness.

And then there’s the legal stuff, doctor visits, physical exams for sports, monitoring grades, interacting with teachers, organizing birthday parties. In a lot of families, the moms take those responsibilities. They just do. But not when you’re the dad and your wife/partner/girlfriend doesn’t really want to take on those responsibilities. Or she can’t, because of legal issues or the drama it creates.

You might be single for a long time, and therefore doing everything alone by default. Still.

This might not sit well with some, but here is something I’ve come to learn: Even if you do remarry, you’re always kind of a single dad in some ways. When at your house, your kids might naturally gravitate toward you as their caregiver. You might be the one tending to their wounds, or holding them when they cry (and during the days of separation and divorce, might be every night for some kids.) You have to sign the permission slips, your wife can’t (what if the kid DOES break their arm on the school trip to the zoo???) Some responsibilities might be shared and your new partner might take on a lot. But at the end of the day, you are still the only biological parent in the house. These kids are your responsibility.

Don’t get bitter about that. Man up. Embrace it. This is your reality. You get to be the primary caregiver for your kids when they’re at your house. So, wear that “dad” label proudly and do an ass-kicking job of parenting your kids. They need you to step up, and so does your wife, if you’ve remarried.

You get to be the primary caregiver for your kids when they’re at your house. So, wear that “dad” label proudly and do an ass-kicking job of parenting your kids.”

And here’s a bonus: we get to change the social norms of fatherhood. We’re braiding the hair, soothing the tears, and sometimes, forming special bonds with our children that we might not have taken the time to form if we were just “regular dads” who could zone out a little bit more when the kids are around. We are ON at pretty much all times, and that’s more blessing than it is curse. We get to step up. And our kids will remember that.

Happy Father’s Day. Celebrate you today by doing something awesome for your kids. Or maybe just let them paint your nails. Your son might even get into it and do your toes. It’s more fun than it looks.


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