The danger for nuclear family dads
With the release of The Single Dad’s Guide to the Galaxy, I’ve been propelled at least a little into the spotlight, and I’ve found myself answering in-depth questions about all manner of parenting subjects. This was unexpected, and the questions - which are often insightful - have forced me to reflect quite deeply in order to sound vaguely intelligent.
A broad theme that naturally emerges in these interviews is around the difficulties of being a single dad. What I didn’t realise at the time I became separated was that I was faced with a question – how involved did I want to be in my children’s lives? I could become an absent dad, a weekend dad or I could carry on being (or even improve on) the dad I was. It is only with the benefit of reflection that I realised that actually all dads are confronted with this question.
A key point that emerged while reflecting and writing the book was that I learned to be a better dad, parent, father and person because I was a single dad. I simply had to be engaged with my children in the most minute detail otherwise life for us would have quickly turned pear-shaped. When the children were with me, there wasn’t anyone else and if things had to be done, it was up to me to do them.
If we consider the traditional nuclear family dad for a minute, regardless of whether the family is intact or blended, they are in an interesting position. For many dads there isn’t the pressing need to become intimately involved in their children’s lives, so it becomes a matter of choice. And with the pressure to earn money, and then earn even more money, dads in particular (but also mums) can easily become fixated on their careers, leaving the bulk of the parenting to their significant other. From what I’ve seen, this remains the dominant model of family life.
Parents in this position are in a bind, as the rhetoric around “family friendly” and “work-life balance” is misleading at best and more likely a work of fiction. There will be organisations where it isn’t, probably smaller and managed by enlightened souls, but in the majority of our organisations the truth is that it’s work OR life. One of the major reasons I was able to spend the amount of time I have with my children, and get to know them as well as I have, is because I was self-employed. The down side is that, from a career perspective, I’m in exactly the same place I was a decade ago when I became a single dad.
I’m a great believer in the concept that once you know something you can’t easily unknow it. Every parent who reads this (or who reads my book) may ask themselves the question – how engaged am I in my children’s life? What am I really trying to achieve as a parent?
I’ve found it interesting that in the majority of interviews or discussions I’ve had about parenting, the other person starts reflecting on the relationship they had with their dad. At this point in the conversation what we have always known is confirmed: our dads have been a huge influence in our upbringing whether through their presence or absence. And I’ll bet that of us wish we knew our dads far better than we do or did.
Ultimately, I don’t believe it’s your marital status that determines whether you’re fully engaged in your children’s lives. In many regards, this is a red herring. It is to some extent a choice - and choices have consequences and, in this case, likely sacrifices. Is your big house on the hill and socially dubious car really worth it? Maybe a smaller house and more economic car would be perfect if they echoed with your adult children’s conversation and grandchildren’s laughter.