There comes a time in life when the umbilical cord must finally be severed, when it is time to take those first faltering steps into a new world. Inevitably there will be stumbles and falls, but the only thing that can be done is to dust oneself off and try again, learning to cope without the safety net of a mother by your side.
No, I’m not talking about the kids. I’m talking about me – and my recent sampler of life as a single parent.
I’ve had a couple of days to reflect since Heather and Kara returned from a nine-day trip to Australia to attend a family funeral. For nine days it was a boys-only household: me, Isaac (5½) and Toby (nearly 3½), punctuated by a brief stay from their grandparents. I’d never done more than about 16 hours on my own with any of the kids before, and I will admit the initial prospect of jumping straight to doing more than a week was one that filled me with more than a little trepidation. To be honest, I think it gave the boys a case of the screaming heebie-jeebies too.
But by Thursday morning, as the boys tramped excitedly into Heathrow waving their hand-drawn ‘welcome home’ signs, we had all survived the experience with all limbs accounted for and relationships still intact. In fact, I’d even say the bonds between the three of us have been strengthened.
So what do I take out of the experience?
Firstly, it underlined for me just how difficult it is to be a single working parent, let alone a stay-at-home one. I already knew that, but there’s nothing like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes to make you fully appreciate it. Heroes, the lot of them – what I did for nine days others have to do for years on end. All I’ve had to do is shepherd them through both ends of weekdays and see them through a weekend – easy-peasy. (Heather, if you’re reading this: it was really hard. Honest. Nearly killed me.)
The biggest change is that it has given me a huge shot of confidence in my own ability as a father. It’s not like I have been an absentee parent for the past 5½ years but I’ve always operated within a comfort zone of knowing that Heather has always been, at worst, a phone call and a couple of hours away.
It’s a different proposition when you’re in different hemispheres and one of your sons can’t sleep because they’re running a temperature (as happened on Saturday night). Or dealing with the inevitable “I don’t want you, I want my mummy” tantrums at bedtime. And breakfast-time. And drop-off time. And most other times when Toby was conscious. Handing him rapidly off to his mother was no longer an option – both he and I had to find our own way to work through it, and we did.
As pathetic as I know it sounds, in the past I haven’t created my own parenting techniques – not because I didn’t want to but because I didn’t have to – instead relying on small variations on Heather’s tried and trusted methods. I’d never had the time and space – or the need – to try out new ideas. But a period of several days has given me the opportunity to do things my way, to learn from both my successes and the inevitable mistakes, and for the boys to realise that they don’t always have to do things mummy’s way. Shock horror, I think I’ve even improved on a couple of things which I’m going to continue to do going forward.
It has also improved my relationship with the boys – in particular Toby, who has always been a real mummy’s boy and guarded with his emotions. In the past, given the choice between Heather and I, say, reading his bedtime stories, he has always shown a strong preference for his mum and in many cases only accepted me grudgingly (if at all). But over nine mum-less days, that dependency seems to have been broken. The last two nights, even with Heather there, he has been quite happy to let me read to him at bedtime in a way he never would have before, and in several other respects it feels like we’ve formed new bonds. He may gradually revert, but the point is that I now have the confidence to know that I’ve made those connections once and can do so again.
It hasn’t all been perfect, of course. I’ve made mistakes, done a few silly things and at times let myself become needlessly annoyed with them. But the good far outweighs the bad and I now feel so much better equipped to manage my boys. Where in the past I might have shied away from certain things and defaulted to Heather, now I feel more confident to take them on myself and do things my way.
The prospect of taking care of them no longer fills me with dread. In fact, I’d quite like to do it again. Maybe not nine days, but the thought of, say, turning our boys’ days into boys’ weekends sounds like fun rather than an ordeal.
In short, I think I’m a better dad now than I was two weeks ago. This makes me happy. Now I’m going to do something about the bags under my eyes.