The transition into single fatherhood was terrifying for me. I had lots of stereotypes in my head and very few experiences to provide more realistic expectations. In the last few years of our marriage I had focused on improving both my relationship with wife and improving my relationship with the kids. So when the marriage didn’t work out I was determined not to fail at my role as dad.
Fighting the image of the neglectful and distant father, an image I feared would grow in the boys. A sense of abandonment of both them and their mother due to the divorce as I was now living outside of the family home. I feared my role of father would be snagged up by some other guy as my ex moved on with her life. I feared I would slowly be lost from their lives … and that fear drove me to remain relevant. I kept being told that my role as dad could be taken away, only given away … but I was sure I could be forgotten too. So I decided to focus, almost entirely, on ensuring the time the boys and I would spend together would be maximized.
I vowed to be the best dad in the world.
I made sure that every weekend we were going out and doing something as a family, from just a simple walk exploring a new area or playing catch in the park. We would play endless boardgames, and snuggle while watching movies or reading a book. Any household tasks would either include them or they would wait until a day when they were with their mom. My goal was simple, to 10x those perfect fathers of the sitcom world. I was determined to build that perfect family even if it didn’t quite match the nuclear-family image any more.
Now, nothing in my actions or our activities was particularly wrong. In fact, I would argue that much of it is exactly what I should have been doing. Our time together did exactly what it was suppose to do: it maintained and strengthened my bond with the boys. We tackled new challenges and we conquered one of the scariest activities for a single parent … an international plane flight. I have always said that it was the boys that kept me going through this period, and it is undoubtedly true … but, over time I started to sense that something was not quite right.
I started to wonder if what I was doing was really what was best for them.
During this time I was obviously going through some depression and I had retreated from much of my previous world. Most of my active friendships were new as I hid from or reduced interactions with many of my long-term friends. And while I was dating, I had a very simple rule of not involving the kids … and so my world was split into two. I would save my work obligations, social activities, and majority of the household work for the days the boys were with their mother … leaving 100% dedicated father-son(s) time for the days they were with me. It left me very stressed out, I was left overloading half my week while stressing about not getting things done while I was with the kids – or at all. And I started to wonder if what I was doing was really what was best for them. On the surface it seemed like it, I was totally engaged in their lives … but what about them defining their own lives? As we were not spending time with their friends. Looking at things from their perspective, I also wondered how they thought I was doing? They were not seeing me with friends, they were not seeing me active, and they were not seeing me live much of the life they use to know. They were being sheltered, hidden from the struggles and the joys of daily life … of real life. As I became more relaxed and comfortable with my role as a single dad I sought to address some of these concerns with a more purposeful approach.
A more purposeful approach
Today, I schedule specific blocks of time each week where I dedicated dad-time to the boys. It is not the length of time that matters, but my dedicated attention on the boys. Some blocks are consistent from week to week and others are more flexible to events of life – but I work to ensure I fulfill these commitments. For us this includes the 5 minutes (or so) that I dedicate at bedtime to give them each a hug and kiss good night, but also includes a block of several hours on each day of the weekend as well as specific smaller blocks of time during the weekdays.
I also have started being more social around them. It became important to me that they see that I am out being active, that I am happy, and that I have many different friendships. Equally important is their ability to be social and have their own friend groups. So I no longer shy away from work or household chores while they are around, instead I send them outside to play or encourage them to find something to do together (or alone). They are growing their freedom and independence, and it is fun to see. And knowing other parents are not shying away from allowing their kids to come over and visit has been very reassuring.
Lastly, the necessary work of life is no longer hidden from the boys. They have their responsibilities and they see me tackling mine. They come along when we have parent-club meetings and there are times each week that I have dedicated to work or my personal growth. It is important they see that. I involve them in the household chores, especially ones that revolve around them. While I don’t always like saying “No” to the fun, it remains an important lesson.
None of this is to say I have this all figured out. There are days that I am tired or stressed out, days where I facilitate more than engage, and days the kids have worked their way onto my last nerve. Sometimes I just lose that harmony between life and fatherhood that I seek. The other day my youngest called me out on it and told me that he missed me playing with them, that I never played road hockey with them anymore. Initially I was defensive and started pointing out the recent times I was engaging with him but stopped … because he was right. Over the last couple weeks I had started facilitating more than engaging, instead of washing the car with them I played a more teacher role and instead of going swimming with them I had just taken them to the pool. But that in itself is encouraging, it means that the time we spend together is as important and meaningful to them as it is to me … it means I am doing my job.
Dedicated time together, being social with friends, and sharing the responsibilities of life. Just writing that out here helps me re-focus for this coming week.