Being a great dad these days isn’t easy, whether you’re in a relationship or single, but you can do it if you’re an adult about it.
When I became a single dad, my first regret was that I hadn’t nailed the parents-as-partners thing while the kids’ mum was around.
I had my way, she had hers, and it was all a bit chaotic.
We had a 16-month old who reverse-engineered every device he could get his little fingers on and a three year old who lived in a Lady Gaga make-believe world of ten costume changes a day.
So they were pretty much regular kids with regular interests but now we each had to learn how to look after them without the other parent around as backup – while sorting our own stuff out too.
Even though we’d split and didn’t want to share a house, we had to accept (sometimes grudgingly) that we were in this parenting thing together, for a long time.
Here are some of the parenting lessons I learnt the hard way.
Lesson 1: Take care of the shits, not just the giggles
The first time I complained about being a dad was when the midwife directed me to change that post-birth nappy.
Remember meconium? That stuff is a sticky mess of expired vegemite and something like refried ectoplasm – it’s just rude.
So, while Mum was exhausted from a day’s labour and had only recently doubled up by birthing a giant blobby placental sack of amniotic fluid, plus the stuff periods are made of, Dad was whingeing about baby’s first poo.
She didn’t have the words at the time, but the look on her face said it all: ‘Don’t you want to be a parent?’
I just needed to fix that (frankly) tiny little mess of a nappy so that baby – and mother – could feel comfortable.
Later she told me that complaining about regular parenting things, like cleaning up after a baby, sort of says I just want the fun parts but none of the responsibility.
She was right in many ways.
Getting your hands dirty is not doing mum or baby a favour, it’s just being a dad. As your kids get older you don’t want them to feel like they’re a hassle. They should feel that they can rely on you and you will always have their backs.
Lesson 2: Be a man and own your mistakes
Good parents don’t get it right all of the time, but they do try to repair mistakes when they happen.
Again, it’s about putting the kids’ best interests first, not covering your arse or protecting your ego.
In my early days of being a single dad, I was working stupid hours in the office half the time and juggling day care and a shorter work day the other half.
Kind of normal. But I’m hopeless with schedules and deadlines.
One week I got the schedule really wrong. I thought the kids were with their mother on a Friday evening and I’d headed out with friends after work. Except I was meant to be collecting the kids from day care before 6pm; and their mother was flying interstate.
So when neither of us turned up, the day care workers hit the phones. Their mother was mid-air and I was mid-anecdote at a restaurant. I missed the calls.
Then the ‘emergency contacts’ were phoned – and all three of them answered the call, stepping in to collect and look after the kids until I turned up.
A few hours later I saw the string of anxious messages on my phone and began making up excuses… within seconds of spinning a story to one of the grandparents, I knew I wasn’t off the hook.
Every parent messes up sometimes. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t – but you have to be adult about it and admit when you’re in the wrong.
Lesson 3: Try to shield your kids from adult conflicts
Underneath it all, kids really want good relationships with their parents, step-parents, carers, teachers or other important adults in their lives.
I don’t know if we can really help getting into disagreements. I mean, we all have differences of opinion, so inevitably now and then, the shit hits the fan. We argue with other parents, relatives, workers in day care, teachers, doctors, trolls on Facebook and the clown making squeaky-as-hell balloon animals at a birthday party.
The thing is, our kids learn a lot from us about handling conflict: good and bad.
I’m still learning how to chill out and press pause on disagreements so my kids aren’t exposed to the gnarly parts of my ego.
About a year into being a single dad, I’d had about the millionth disagreement with my kids’ mother about which clothes were OK for them to wear. Our toddler daughter wanted to dress up for the day, though I was bugged by the pink nylon Disney princess dress she’d chosen for a bunch of political reasons.
And she heard me rave to her mother about at least 10 of them before running off crying.
I blamed my ex, then called my own mum. Mum plainly said:
“Couldn’t you have had that conversation out of earshot of your baby girl? Couldn’t you stop trying to win against the other adult when you feel let down by them – and instead be just a little bit diplomatic to the mum that your kids love? Because when you have a go about someone your kids care about, they take it personally.”
Lesson 4: Manage your time better
Time management is a constant challenge for me. When you’re a single parent, you might not have the back-up of another adult to help you out and, at home with your kids, you can’t slack off.
I’m not amazing, though I’ve become better at managing time by:
Leaving work on time to be with family.
I started by not accepting invitations to crazy early or stupidly late meetings; plus, I actively encouraged everyone else at work to do the same. No-one died wishing they’d worked way more hours.
Trying not to pack too much into their days.
Why does it seem that so many adults are militant about having their own down time (‘me time’ sounds so naff) but crack it when a kid expresses their own ‘over-it’-ness? I’m not about to go all new age, but I also reckon it’s worth us all having time to chill and meditate on, well, #gratitude … for all the awesome things in our lives.
Creating dedicated time for each of our kids to bond and grow with me.
Whether it’s enjoying nature, playing games or reading books together. Being present and interested in their lives is possibly the greatest way to show your kids that you love them.
Too many kids miss out on having good days with their parents and other people they care about, for too many sad reasons.
So the one big lesson so far is really simple: be there for your kids. Because people have died wishing they’d spent more time with their children as they grew up.