Whether you split custody 50-50 with your ex, parent your kids solo full time, or have some other type of arrangement, being a single dad isn’t easy. But you do your best to juggle it all yourself. That might seem cute or funny in movies and sitcoms, but in real life, there’s real struggle, real guilt, and real challenges that don’t wrap up neatly in half an hour.
Four single dads who’ve been navigating the solo parenting world for a few years now share a few of their top tips for taking care of your kids and your own sanity.
Plan Ahead and Be Consistent
“I used to despise planning and routine and usually just went on a whim,” says Ryan Lambourn, a sales representative in Tempe, AZ, who has shared custody of his sons, 9 and 7, with his ex-wife since they divorced in 2017. “But when you’re a single dad, you’ll just end up digging yourself in a big hole that way. My older son is autistic, and kids with autism thrive with structure and a schedule. But in reality, those are things that really help all kids thrive.”
Lambourn makes the most of his time on days when his wife has the kids, focusing on housecleaning and basic home upkeep, grocery shopping, and meal planning and preparation. “I’ve really put my attention on making sure that things are consistent: We go to the park on the same day, we have dinner ready at the same time, instead of everything being haphazard.”
If your kids split time between households, do your best to work with their other parent to have similar rules and routines for them. “Especially when our kids were younger, we were really looking for continuity,” says San Francisco musician Michael Powell, who was divorced in 2012, when his son and daughter were toddlers.
“We did our best to enforce similar bedtimes, rules about TV and sweets, and a similar approach to discipline. That’s not always entirely possible because there are different things that happen in different houses, but we do our best.”
When association communications director Todd Bentsen and his ex-partner separated in 2011, their son was 7 and their daughter was 4. For the first four years, the couple did a “nesting” arrangement using the basement apartment in their Washington, DC, row house, which they had previously rented out.
“The kids didn’t have to go back and forth between two houses. We just switched off which one of us was living in the apartment,” Bentsen says. “I think we both would agree that the continuity was really beneficial to them at the ages they were when we separated.”
Trust Your Instincts
Pat Attenasio, a brand communications specialist who lives in northern California, lost his wife to a pulmonary embolism when their son Teddy was born in 2017.
“When we were expecting our son, my plan was kind of to draft off my wife and figure it out as we went along, but then I had to do it all,” he says. “In the beginning, people treated me like I didn’t know anything, which, to be fair, I didn’t. But at the end of the day, I am Teddy’s only parent, and after 4 years, I know him and his nuances better than any other human being. In the beginning, though, I didn’t trust my instincts and always deferred to other people’s opinions. I’ve realized I need to be confident enough in myself as a father, and that rubs off on my son too.”
When you’re talking with an ex-partner about your kids’ schedules, needs, or future plans, it’s important to be straightforward. “Say exactly what you want, no matter how tough the conversation is,” Lambourn says. “Don’t beat around the bush or try to imply or say something indirectly. For things you need to make sure are heard and understood accurately, send an email or a text, or use something like Facebook Messenger, where you have a notification that the person looked at it.”
Putting things in writing is key when there’s a change to the usual routine. “For example, usually my ex would pick up the kids at 5 p.m. on Sundays, but we’ve recently made a change so that she now picks them up at 2 p.m.,” Lambourn says. “So for the last couple of weeks, while it’s still a new schedule, I’ve been sending her a message on Saturday afternoon just to remind her what pickup time is well ahead of time, rather than noon on Sunday.”
“Co-parenting successfully is about the details,” Bentsen agrees. “You have to make sure that you get those details right, and that you communicate openly and regularly about what is going on that affects the kids’ lives.”
Build a Support Network
Trusting your own instincts doesn’t mean you can do it all on your own. When Attenasio’s wife died, his wife’s mother and twin sister suggested he and Teddy move from New York City to California. “My sister-in-law has two kids of her own and she helped teach me the ropes. She and my mother-in-law really became my village when I had no clue what I was doing,” he says. “And I became the king of outsourcing. I’ve learned that if there’s something I don’t know how to do, I’ll hire or ask someone to help me with whatever it is.”
Shortly after Powell and his wife divorced, a close friend of his had also split with his girlfriend and was looking for a place to live, so he became a temporary housemate. “He never really did the heavy lifting thing with the kids, but at least there was another person there if I needed to leave for a short time,” Powell says. “If I had an evening gig, I’d get them ready for bed before I left and then he’d watch cartoons with them and put them to bed. That was really helpful. He was like an uncle to the kids.”
In most relationships, there’s a more “social” partner who maintains the family network and makes plans. If you weren’t that person, you may have to stretch yourself to get the support you need. “In our partnership, that was me,” Bentsen says. “We had a tight-knit group of friends we called our ‘book club,’ and our kids are very close with their kids. They’ve been a real network for me to call on. My ex wasn’t really wired that way, so he’s had to learn a new skill. It’s really beneficial to you and the kids for support and continuity.”
If possible, that support network should include your ex. When a major life event, like the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, throws everything into disarray, it’s important to work together to keep things normal for your children.
Both Bentsen and Powell were diagnosed with the virus. Although he was never hospitalized, Powell was severely ill for 6 weeks, and the kids had to stay with their mother for the entire time. “It was scary for them, but she was good about reassuring them and setting things up so we could watch movies on Netflix Party just so I could be ‘with’ them,” he says.
Bentsen’s ex-partner also took over full-time parenting during the weeks he was sick. “I’m lucky that my kids have a parent who is flexible and willing to pitch in and have them for extra weeks,” he says.
Avoid the “Dad” Stereotype
“When you’re a single dad, you have to evolve into this sort of hybrid dad and mom. The key to that for me has been allowing myself to be truly vulnerable with my kid. I have to let my guard down and be this emotional support to my son,” Attenasio says.
“The dad stereotype is the one who does the nuts and bolts — the eating, the cleaning, the day-to-day stuff. You can do just nothing but that. But I’ve learned that on those days where I’m rushing to get him to day care and I’ve got a work call and I’m thinking about checking boxes, and I look at him and see there’s something troubling him, I have to stop and throw the schedule out and say, ‘What’s on your mind? What’s bothering you today?’ And he usually tells me. You can’t always be about checking boxes.”
Take Care of Yourself
Whether you’ve just divorced or separated, or you’ve lost a partner to death, your instinct as a single dad may be to just push through. But that’s not good for either you or your children.
“In our lives, my ex-wife and I have both struggled with addiction,” Lambourn says. “When we split, I was immediately all about the kids, making sure they were taken care of. But as the analogy goes, if you don’t put the oxygen mask on yourself first, you’re not going to be able to take care of anyone else. I wasn’t doing that, and it took its toll in the form of depression and other things. I had to really focus on my own mental, physical, and spiritual recovery if I was going to be a good father.”
After the death of his wife, Attenasio felt like he had to put his head down and barrel through everything. “But I realized quickly that that wasn’t working, and started going to therapy to process not only the loss of my wife but the loss of the future we were never going to have. No matter what you’re going through or how you became a single dad, there are professionals as well as free support groups that can help you get through that process. The inclination is to forget about yourself and be everything to your child, but if you’re going to be the best parent you can be, you have to get your head on straight and everyone needs help to do that.”