(This post is based on an excerpt from my free ebook The 1 Player Dad Strategy Guide).
Becoming a single dad was by far the biggest challenge I’ve faced to date, and it was a devastating event that changed my life. So many emotions at this time can overwhelm you – heartache, pain, confusion, panic, fear, feeling like a failure, and more – but in my mind, the most important thing that you need to do is to confirm the parenting arrangements for your child(ren) with your former partner as soon as possible. If the timing isn’t right to have that discussion straight away, at least decide for yourself what you want in terms of how often you want to see your child(ren) and start working towards that end straight away, whether you signal that from the outset, or wait for the right moment to discuss it with your former partner.
Shared Parenting – My primary objective from day one
I always knew that in the event of my relationship ending with my daughter’s mother, I wanted 50/50 shared care of my daughter, and I made my intentions clear to my former partner from the beginning of the separation process. I was fortunate that I did not have to go through the court system to confirm this, and I realise that for many dads this may not be the case. I can’t make many suggestions for those dads who are about to go through that process, except that it is important to state clearly what you want from the beginning and then try your hardest to achieve that outcome.
Hint: Find the secret support power ups
One suggestion I would make is to find out what services and support you are eligible for when going through a separation process, and take advantage of these where appropriate. For example, when I went through my separation process at the start of 2013, the Family Court in New Zealand provided separating couples with a number of free sessions with a counsellor for final reconciliation attempts, or to help them come to an agreement on final terms of separation and care/co-parenting arrangements. The services and support available will obviously vary depending on where you are in the world, but it would be wise to find out as much as you can about what support you can access and make full use of it where possible.
You might also be eligible for free and confidential counselling sessions or other forms of support through your employer, so talk to your manager or human resources department to see what you are entitled to (or check out your company’s website/intranet for direct contact details if you don’t feel comfortable letting anyone at work know). Even if you are not entitled to any support, you may want to pay for or share the costs of a professional who can act as a mediator to help determine final agreements which are fair and agreeable for both parents.
A word of warning about counsellors – make sure that you find a counsellor that you’re both happy with, otherwise you run the risk of a less-than-satisfactory outcome for one or both parents. I’ve had experiences with both good and bad counsellors, and the ones that aren’t working can actually make things worse rather than better.
I realise you won’t always have the luxury of time to shop around for counsellors (as was true in my case), but this is such a crucial part of the separation process that it’s important that the right person is involved.
If it’s possible to do some research on potential counsellors beforehand I’d highly recommend it, because the wrong person can add significant layers of stress to an already stressful process, and can have a significant impact in your life moving forward. Some things you might want to look at include:
- If they have experience working with separating couples involving children
- If they use any particular counselling techniques or methods, and if you think these will be appropriate in your situation
- How they structure their counselling sessions, and what their plan may be for your sessions.
Why Shared Parenting?
For me, a shared parenting arrangement was a no-brainer, but a lot of people were (and still are) surprised when I tell them that I have shared care of my daughter (especially to those who think that the male stereotype of one who avoids responsibility of their kids is the rule). Working full-time and having shared care of your child(ren) is no walk in the park, and the easier option appears to be having less contact time with your kids so that you can get back on your feet, find time to relax and be yourself etc., especially if you’re working a full-time job.
One of the reasons why you might want to go for shared parenting is that in situations where there are no safety concerns or ongoing conflict between the parents, children can benefit from having significant contact with both of their parents. I wanted to make sure that I was always there for my daughter as she grows up.
‘Dad up’ now to prevent future heartache
Keep in mind that the choices you make at the beginning of your separation may affect your future access rights. It may seem like a good idea to have less access to your child(ren) initially so you can get through that tough transition phase, especially if you have other responsibilities such as a full-time job, or have to find a new place to live. However, if you end up having to go to court to decide the care arrangement for your child, any initial care arrangements (even if intended to be temporary), may affect the final decisions by family courts/authorities.
A friend of mine, who was one of the first people I turned to for advice during my separation process, went through the court system to decide the care arrangement for his daughter. Unfortunately, his lawyer provided him with inaccurate advice that he could forego custody of his child initially (as he was living and working in a different city from the mother) and change the care arrangement at a later date. When he tried to make changes to the care arrangement later on, he found out that he had in fact given up custody of his child permanently, and it was entirely up to the mother’s discretion whether the care arrangement could be amended (which she decided she didn’t want to). So now he is stuck in a situation where he has limited access to his daughter, and he has to pay a significant amount of child support to the mother, even though he would prefer to have his daughter more often than he does.
So when it comes to care arrangements, it’s best to start an arrangement you intend to carry on with in the future, even though it might be tough in the outset while you’re going through the transition into 1 Player mode and taking care of your other responsibilities.
Can you do it? Yes you can…“You gotta believe!”
One of the barriers to men assuming significant responsibility for raising their child is that men are generally seen as not being as ‘natural’ parents compared to women. Sure, there are differences in the way men and women do things, and men don’t usually spend time talking to other men about becoming parents, choosing baby names etc., but I believe that this is a limiting perspective that disempowers fathers from their roles as parents, and short-changes children from benefitting from their father’s love and guidance.
One of my friends (who separated from the mother of his child before birth and was trying to negotiate more time with their baby) was told that one of the reasons he couldn’t spend more time with the baby was because he couldn’t breastfeed. This was hugely disempowering for him as it’s biologically impossible for him to do so, yet there are options that could have been explored to help him spend more time with his baby at such a crucial time in her development (such as the mother expressing breast milk for when the baby was with the dad, or using baby formula instead of breast milk).
When my daughter was on the way, to be honest I was pretty much clueless…my friends laughed that I didn’t even know how to hold a baby properly (and I looked ridiculously awkward trying to hold other people’s babies)! But the funny thing is that I found I adapted to my new role as a dad very quickly, basically because I had to! There was no time to muck about. Right from day one you have to get stuck in and just do it. Yes, you’ll make mistakes and many things will be awkward initially, but you learn and adapt, and things get easier.
So don’t underestimate your ability to be a great dad on your own. Yes, it’s tough, and it takes a lot of time and effort, and you’re constantly learning as your child grows. You may have to sacrifice time spent on other things like sports, socialising etc., at least in the short-term. But I found that the rewards far outweighed the costs, and that when I eventually got the hang of parenting in 1 Player Mode, I was able to work out ways to work those things back into my life. Put in the time, talk to your parents, talk to other parents, read books, do the research, but most of all, believe in your ability to become a great dad.
The best power up you can have in 1 Player Mode
Finally, if you’re anything like me, one of the most significant benefits of sharing parenting is that it is your child(ren) that will help you get through this time the most. At the end of the day, all of your efforts are for them, and no matter what I went through in those early stages of my separation and transition into 1 Player mode, my daughter’s smiles, hugs and kisses made everything worthwhile. And even though it was a mission and a half working full-time, travelling for work, and looking after my daughter four nights a week, I treasured the time I had with my daughter then and now, and wouldn’t settle for anything less. It’s possibly one of the toughest things you’ll ever do, especially if you are still learning to be a parent yourself, but it’s definitely worth it in my book.
If you’ve just become a single dad, or want to read more about my journey, check out The 1 Player Dad Strategy Guide or enter your details below to download the ebook for free: