“I love you, daddy! You’re the best daddy in the world.”
Life doesn’t get much better than hearing those words. Whatever we could wish for in our lives, nothing means more than that.
As a single parent there is another side of the coin: “I miss you I Daddy.” It’s always hard to hear, and I have yet to find any suitable words of consolation beyond reassurance that, “You’ll see daddy again soon.”
As far as being a single parent goes I’m one of the lucky ones – lucky being a very relative term here – in that I have joint custody of my children and share in the everyday minutiae that are among the rewards of being a parent. I guess it is to the credit of each of us as parents that this arrangement was agreed upon between my ex-wife and me with no debate or argument. It was a given from the get-go (or rather, the get-gone).
While traversing the terrain of single life and single parenthood, I’ve heard from people other than my children that I’m a “great dad.” However, the impact of their words landing is a little rougher. I have to be honest, at times it can rankle. Not in a personal way – it’s intended as a compliment and is accepted as such and I wouldn’t be so graceless as to throw a compliment back in somebody’s face – but it kind of niggles nonetheless.
It seems to me that when it comes to parenting, the expectations that society carries are laden overwhelmingly on mothers. At every step, from pregnancy to birth and beyond, a mother’s choices are questioned and scrutinized far more than a father’s. Natural birth or C-section? To breastfeed or not to breastfeed? To work full-time, part-time or to be a full-time mom? To buy prepared baby food or to make your own?
The list goes on, and with the answer to each question comes the inevitable weight of judgement. Judgement that seems to evade fathers.
This becomes very apparent as a single father where the very fact that you actually want to spend as much time as you can with your children and share in their upbringing (you know, fulfilling your responsibilities) marks you out as a “great dad.” This prevailing social attitude of giving credit to fathers for something so basic is unfair both to men and to women.
Within such a culture, women are laden with unfair, “Superwoman” levels of expectation, while men are expected to be well-meaning, bumbling incompetents who deserve a round of applause for managing to wipe the right end (presuming of course that they would actually dare to attempt to change a diaper in the first place).
As a single dad who shares custody of his children I don’t feel I’m doing anything special. On the contrary, I can’t conceive of any reason why I would accept any less than that. But maybe I’m in a minority; if my conversations with single mothers are anything to go by then I definitely am, as I am staggered by the amount of men who choose to spend as little as two evenings per week with their children. Some see their children even less than that.
Surely, surely the least that our children can expect of us is that we are there for them, a constant physical presence in their lives. I don’t doubt that the majority of parents love their children but love isn’t enough. Loving our kids is easy, it’s hardwired into us; but love is more than a feeling, it’s an action repeated in the small things we do each and every day.
Love is a good feeling, but many of the actions that love requires of us don’t feel good, at least not while we’re doing them. Love requires sacrifice; it can be unpleasant, tedious, repetitive, and, frankly, a pain. There’s a name for this: parental responsibility. And this applies to fathers every bit as much as it does to mothers. Our social expectations ought to reflect that.
I said that we owe our children our physical presence but that isn’t enough. In today’s technologically connected world there is a danger that children are at increasing risk of losing out on the one thing they want more than anything else from their parents: their attention.
Young children in particular are attention junkies with a need for an audience that could humble a Kardashian. There are few scenes as indicative of increasingly normalized contemporary parental neglect as the one that played itself out next to me while eating a pub meal this week: a two- or three-year-old boy’s futile attempts to pry his daddy’s attention from the screen of a mobile phone. For an hour this child climbed, kicked, and craved recognition; he succeeded in getting the attention of everybody but the one person that mattered to him.
I’m not perfect and my parenting routine (routine, ha!) is far from a well-oiled machine. I can be snappy, and I overuse questions such as, “How many pairs of hands does Daddy have?” and, “How many things can Daddy do at once?” I’ve been asked on more than one occasion why there is no clean underwear in the drawers.
But still, I’m a great dad, you know.
Actually (my daughter’s current word of choice), it doesn’t matter if you know. What matters is that my kids know. They don’t think I’m great because I see them once a week and tell the world how much I love them on Facebook, but because I am a stable, constant, and loving presence in their lives.
They can, and should, expect nothing less. Neither should we.