Every divorced father I meet wants to be the best dad possible for his kids. He also, usually, already believes he’s the best father possible and he often misses the mark by a wide margin. That’s not to say that he’s wrong, he is the best father possible for his kids (when he is) but he’s usually got a long learning curve ahead with being a divorced dad and that’s the mark he keeps missing.
The best advice on being a single father has to do with this: understanding the new rules and guidelines intellectually is one thing but embodying what it takes to be a single dad are totally different. You’ve got to get the experience, be agile, figure it out, and commit in order to successfully adjust to being a single dad.
Let’s get to it!
The stories that come my way go like this: dad is a great dad when mom has the kids. He telephones, texts, says, “I love you” to his children, and shows up when possible to school or extra-curricular events. He knows he has to check in and he does as often as possible. He hates it when his kids don’t spend time catching up on the phone in the evenings. The loneliness eats away at him when the kids are with their mom. And of course, he’s torn between dating and healing, with healing looking like dating, having sex, and remarrying.
When the kids come to his home, he’s torn between defending himself from true or untrue accusations that his kids bring with them. He doesn’t necessarily understand their routines, he doesn’t really know how to manage his new home with them in it; he doesn’t really want to discipline his kids out of fear of more rejection, and he worries about doing something wrong throughout their entire visit.
If he has partnered up with a new lover or remarried, he uses any new children to entertain his kids and he uses his partner to feed, manage, and run the household for all of them hoping to create a bonding and happy family vibe for all.
As a result, dads think they’re showing up for their children without really getting it. They think they understand what they’re supposed to do without getting into the meat of how to do it or what to do to re-bond and keep the bonds with their children.
I get it.
It’s not that dads aren’t trying, it’s that the rules are different and understanding what you might be reading and then embodying the new guidelines are two entirely different things.
Kids want their parents. They want their parents’ undivided attention, not sharing their dad when he’s playing house with a new lover or spouse. They’ll never grasp that the love you have for others does not diminish the love you have for them. Most kids, especially girls who are very territorial, will fight for extra attention, energy, and as a result, the love of their fathers. Dads who miss this, miss all of it!
Kids know their dads do not need more help. They know how dads operate – perhaps they cook perhaps not – cool, ordering in a pizza works! Kids know that dads might do things that are different – go camping, hike, play sports or be able to afford that trip to Disney. Kids welcome these differences more than you might realize even though they may complain, compare, and comment.
(News flash: do not take everything your child says about you so personally!)
Your kids will test to see if you’re going to abandon them too even when you weren’t the one who wanted the divorce. They will cause trouble with any new children in your life, they will compete for your attention wondering if you’ll bond with them as much as you bond with a new lover. They will look to impress you by boasting and bragging, and they’ll compare themselves with everything you’re doing to see if they still measure up.
You’ve got to get this. No one said this was going to be easy. But understanding it and being able to roll with the onslaught of seemingly, testy energy is another.
I find dads who understand and do not get hooked or triggered by their children’s assaults do the best. Those who reassure, who give their undivided attention (yep, those household chores are a distraction even if both of you are doing it together unless you’re also talking and listening to one another… ) and those who feel secure in themselves (ahem, have done some healing work… ) do the best with the single parenting job of being a steady presence in their kids’ lives.
So what does that look like?
Loving a child comes in different forms. Not every child is the same. Some children need to talk to you, some need material items and trips to believe you love them. Others will want to spend time together whereas others will want to sit on your lap and have you hold their hand.* Don’t bunch your children all together and then think that car ride to the county fair makes you a good dad!
More than when you were married and co-parenting together, your children will do their best to outsmart you. They are testing to see if you still see them. They may be super angry and the father who can handle and dispel that anger without taking it personally and becoming defensive wins.
Your kids may play you. They may know (or have been told) that you have more money, so they’ll ask for things above and beyond just to get your attention. The dad who manages these requests with healthy and practical boundaries shows his kids that he can’t be bought and that his love for them doesn’t come with a price tag.
Tell me you love me. The dad who reassures and communicates his feelings for his child who needs that reassurance will continually bond with that kid and have their confidence for years to come.
You may want to read another book or add more knowledge to your arsenal of parenting tricks but your child is the one who holds the secret and the best advice overall. The single dad who remains focused on what his child needs, to feel loved, is the dad who succeeds. This means putting those children first. Paying attention and being agile if the thing you read or understood no longer works to keep you close.
I find that children of divorced parents (at any age) resent sharing their parents no matter how hard their new lifestyle may be. The time they have with their dads is usually half what they once had and they are desperate, and hungry for what their fathers have to teach them. Use that time wisely. (Even when you’d rather have a woman in your life alongside them.) Your children will demand you pay attention to them. And if your lucky, and wise, you will.
Laura Bonarrigo is a Certified Life Coach and a Certified Divorce Coach at laurabonarrigo.com. Laura’s a writer, public speaker and the founder of doingDivorce™ School an online coaching program for those ready to shed the pain of divorce. For empowering and practical ways to lose the identity of your past, visit www.doingDivorceSchool.com and laurabonarrigo.com.
*The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman might help!