Most single fathers I know struggle to know where to start in the beginning. What should be first on my list, and how do I even begin to get my arms around the rest? Having talked to a number of single fathers who have successfully negotiated this transition with their children, let me offer the following recommendations…
As adults, we have at least learned some coping mechanisms in our life to deal with change. Often, our children are totally unprepared for having a single father as their primary caregiver. So as you help your children adjust, consider the following suggestions:
• Accept help. Often, as others you love see you struggle, they will ask if they can help. Learn to be a gracious receiver of their offers. Swallow your pride, recognize that you can't do it all, and express gratitude for the help of others.
• Consider early mornings. Once the children are up and around, it’s harder to make time for you. And at night, there are lots of temptations like TV and the computer to distract you. Get up an hour earlier than the children and make time for exercise, reading, getting organized and maybe even some meditation. Investing one early morning hour in yourself can make a marked difference. One of the biggest challenges newly single fathers tell me about is the need to establish new routines when the other adult at home is not there anymore.
• Focus on health. Some fathers deal with the stress of this situation by holing up or binge eating. Make sure you don't go there. Make time for exercise, even if you have to do it with one or more of the children. Walk, run, hit the gym—just stay active. And make sure that you eat right. Resist the temptation to subsist on junk food. Keep lots of vegetables in your life.
• Get the children involved. A lot of routine chores are within the capability of the children. Chores like cleaning, sweeping, vacuuming and more are not beyond their skill level if you teach them what you expect. A chore chart can really help with reminding them and keeping them accountable.
• Have laundry days. Trying to get ahead of and keep up with the laundry can be a big task. One new single father I know tossed all of the children' socks and bought 12 matching pairs for each youngster so mating socks became easy. Consider setting aside a couple of days a week for laundry. If your children are a little older, they can do their own with a little training. And if you are not used to separating clothes for washing, ask an experienced laundry-doer for some help. There are not many things more discouraging than having a nice white shirt being suddenly pink because it was washed in the wrong temperature water with the wrong colors.
• Have your own chore chart. One father I know got one of those little binders that hold punched 3 x 5 index cards with dividers for different days of the week. Under the Monday and Thursday tabs, he put cards for vacuuming; under the Saturday tab was a card for cleaning the bathroom. Every day he opened the binder to the right tab and knew what he had to get done that day. Find a simple system and stick to it. It will take a lot of the stress out of these routine duties.
• Make and keep promises. For whatever reason their mom is no longer at home, your kid's trust is likely shaken. Whether mom betrayed them by leaving or whether she died, they will not be very trusting, and, in their mind, for good reason. The best way to build trust with the children is to make and keep promises. Do what you say you will do, and don't make a promise you are not committed to keep. Consistency and honesty will help them find the courage to trust again. Losing a spouse for whatever reason can create all kinds of feelings in a man. And while you now in a very real sense have to be the principle support for the children, you can't be all they need without a little self care.
• Make time for introspection. You will find a need to take a deep look inside and be ready for this new challenge. Get a grip on your feelings. Writing them down in a journal or in a password-protected computer file can really be a good way of looking objectively. Consider your strengths and weaknesses and find ways to compensate for the things you have a hard time with. Get comfortable with yourself and it will go a long way to your healing efforts for yourself and your family.
• Show confidence. Children need to see that their father is confident and optimistic about the future. Let them know that you are OK and that with time your family will reach a new level of comfort and routine. Your attitude will make a huge difference in how they feel and cope now and later.
• Talk a lot. Many children will open up and want to talk to father or others about what has happened. Others will clam up or get busy being supportive to suppress their feelings. Your job is to keep them talking and to be a good listener. Encourage them to talk with you—if not with you, create a situation where they can talk to a trusted adult. Sometimes relatives, clergy, adult friends or therapists can help if they won't talk with you. But it is important to help them deal with their feelings and frustrations. Of particular importance is helping them see that the loss of their mother is not their fault.
More single-father tips…
As a new single father, the most important things for you to do are:
1. Get on with your life. Do not spend time trying to figure it out, look forward.
2. If you are in therapy, after you get through the initial panic stage, try to spend some time thinking about what attracted you to someone with personality defects similar to what your wife has, so that you don't make the same mistake again. Another friend said, "If new potential girlfriends don't attend church regularly and say a prayer before meals, you don't want to get involved."
3. Reassure the children that this was not their fault, and that there is nothing they can do to fix it (to get you back with mom).
4. Talk about what has happened, with the children and with your friends. Once you become open and comfortable talking about it, you become more approachable by others, and options to resolve your problems begin to present themselves more readily.
Mornings were real tough in the beginning; "Where's this?", "Where's that?", "This doesn't fit."
Here's what I did to make our clothes issues easier:
1. All the socks went into storage. We went to WalMart and bought twelve pairs of identical socks for each youngster, twelve pairs for the boy and twelve for the girl so no matter what they find, they will match.
2. Be sure to take stuff that wrinkles out of the dryer right AWAY and put it on a hanger. If you do this, you can get away without ironing pants, shirts, etc.
3. Clothes are washed every day. This keeps wash from becoming overwhelming, and reduces frustration when things they want to wear are not available. After a while, it becomes easy to fit it into the evening/morning schedule.
4. We pulled all the clothes out of their drawers and spent a few hours sorting them. "What will you wear?" "What won't you wear?" "Why?" Stuff they won't or can't wear goes out. Things they like to wear stays. I did the same thing as for socks for a few shorts, shirts, etc. that were favorites. I went out and bought three of each, so they will always find something that they perceive to be okay to wear. Then I work on variety as they seem open to it.
5. I discovered that the major issue with washing clothes is that they come out of the dryer. Putting them in the washer, then transferring to the dryer is no problem, but when they come out, you have to do something with them. Here is what I do:
o Everything on a hanger goes in a closet where it is easily spotted, not buried in a drawer somewhere.
o My wife used to fold the clothes. I stopped this because it was a lot of work and makes the clothes difficult to find. I put a bar up over the washer dryer, so now anything that comes out of the dryer that can be hung on a hanger gets put on a hanger, including my casual t-shirts, girls outfits bottoms and tops together on a hanger, etc. (I had to buy about 60 plastic hangers).
o The stuff that cannot be hung up (underwear, socks, etc.) goes into a plastic "sorter" box (WalMart again), and the children can put these away in the correct drawers. I labeled the drawers with masking tape so there is a bit of structure there too.
My children are old enough to understand and follow a few basic rules. A few that we have that relate to housework are:
- Don't do anything that creates more work for other people.
- Don't put your hands on the walls.
- No dirty dishes in the sink, they always go in the dishwasher.
- No food or drink allowed in carpeted areas of the house.
The last one has been really successful for me, because you can analyze many actions and have the children think, "Does this create work for Father or someone else?"
I may be in better shape than some here, because I have always liked to cook and consider myself good at it, but my children are at a picky stage where they will not eat many things.
1. Go out when you just can't do anything else. I started to make a schedule and plan meals, but I found that for us, it was better just to come home and have multiple choices. Tuna Fish, Pizza, burgers on the grill, salad, all are easy, good and quick to make.
2. On days when there is just not enough time to make a full meal, we have frozen pizza or some such other quick food that they picked out.
3. Similar to what happened with the clothes, we sat down and made a list together of things that the children like to eat and will eat. Then, we go to the store and buy those things. When dinners are made, it is stuff they picked out and have already agreed to eat. We made sure to cover the major food groups, talked about the importance of balanced meals and agreed that they would each take a multi-vitamin every day.
When do you find time to do these things? Well, I keep the children involved in scouting, church, etc. and use opportunities when they are on trips, visiting with friends, etc. to do major things like mowing the lawn, vacuuming, etc.
I now go to bed about 9-9:30PM, not long after the children go because I am so tired.
I have also started getting up at 5AM instead of 6:30 when the children get up. This gives me almost two hours of personal time when I am rested that I use to do personal things (read the paper, smoke a cigar, listen to music, etc.) and sometimes work (bills, cleaning, etc.) I find that the loss of sleep is compensated for by my feeling that things are done, and not hanging over my head. I am a much happier person all day having had some extra relaxation or work time in the morning.
Some of the themes so far that have helped make me more comfortable were:
- Accept help from others when offered.
- Forget about the wife, she is gone.
- I rule the house, it does not rule me. I feel better and less stressed when things are under control and relatively clean. To me, this is worth losing sleep for.
- Children like and need structure.
- Simplify things that are difficult.
- Take some time off to develop your new family "structure" for getting things done. It's unreasonable for anyone to expect you to continue working at the same performance level through an event like this.
- Talk about what happened with your children and friends. Children, particularly need the emotional outlet and talking about it helps heal the hurt.
- The children can pitch in.
- You have to give up some sleep to get things done.
Finally, therapists, counselors, and others have told me that while it is unusual for a wife to leave her children, almost all of these cases are due to depression, alcoholism, or some other severe emotional disorder. In my case it was depression which led to alcohol abuse.
I was encouraged by many people to go to Al-Anon, which is a spin-off of Alcoholics Anonymous and is for people whose lives are affected by someone else's alcohol problem. Their big theme is to stop focusing on the person who is causing you the trouble and start improving your own situation.
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