Adventures In (Single Male) Parenting
Let’s hope you don’t navigate the critical passages of your life according to stereotypes and generalizations, but most people do. There — I just engaged in a whopper myself. But I think you know what I mean.
For instance, say “single mom” and many of us flash on the cultural stereotype of a noble, attractive, impoverished, underemployed and harried young woman left in the lurch with three adorable little kids after some no-good oaf (a) went to prison, (b) ran off with a floozy, or (c) died early from drink, drugs or crime after years of beating her.
Why this perception? Without doubt — tragically — the stereotype is the fact for thousands of women in these very situations. But are they truly “typical?” Perhaps the stereotype is so hearty because so many book, magazine, blog and newspaper writers (as well as their TV-talker counterparts) wallow in this stuff. It sells.
Now say “single dad” and it’s likely you’ll conjure some lummox in an apron spooning scorched macaroni-and-cheese into a soup bowl for an ill-dressed tot with a bad haircut while the school bus beeps at the curb. Why is that? Well, you could ask the producers of “Mr. Mom” and “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
What sells and what’s real are rarely so conflated as the facts about single parenthood. For instance, I had the challenge — and the absolute gift and privilege — of being a real-deal single dad. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, food and clothes shopping, applying Band-Aids, helping with homework, teacher relations and all the dozens of things erstwhile parents do for their children. Fortunately, my son survived and is thriving.
But in the early days I felt like a freak — shuffling to the back of the room on parents’ night at his school, shying away from the gaggle of young mothers when I took my boy to the playground, feeling myself an object of curiosity and pity for the moms who were fully engaged and seemingly very skilled and collaborative in their role. That’s because I didn’t have a peer group. In my world, men didn’t raise their children by themselves.
But wait, the facts tell a much different story. You wouldn’t know this from the popular media, but — you heard it here first — there are 2.3 million American fathers raising their children solo. The U.S. Census Bureau says that among single parents living with their children, 18 percent are men. Among these fathers, 11 percent are raising three or more of their own children under 18 years of age.
According to Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2007, issued by the census bureau last November, there are about 13.7 million single parents in the United States today, and those parents are responsible for raising 21.8 million children. About 84 percent of custodial parents are mothers and 16 percent are fathers. In other words, more than one in six single parents is a man.
The government report isn’t complicated by social and political issues concerning parents’ circumstances. Irrelevant considerations like “teen mother” and “children out of wedlock” don’t enter into it. Neither do distinctions about the expanding varieties of parenthood — adoption and surrogacy are treated no differently than straight old hetero conception and birth.
Nor does the analysis address the quality of these child-parent arrangements. That’s beyond the scope of the census and not something you can count or easily quantify anyway. And there’s not much in it about extortionate child support, “visitation blackmail,” remarriage and step-parents and so many other dark interparent issues that complicate and uglify some custody situations.
This focus on the here-and-now is important, in my opinion, because our concern should be the welfare and success of the children, however they were called into existence and however (and by whomever) they are being raised.
Indulge me in another two stereotypes. Many men believe that when something breaks in the home, a guy is likely to grab a tool box. A woman is likely to grab the Yellow Pages. When a man wants to get in shape, he’s likely to dig out his big brother’s weight bench from of the basement. A woman is likely to take something called “a class” in yoga, Pilates, boot camp or some other strengthening discipline with several other women not-too-very-unlike herself. In my experience, such gender-defined tendencies hold for parenting styles, too.
Eventually — very eventually — I muddled into an informal single-father peer group just by noticing the same guys hanging around the same playgrounds with the same little kids. After a few exploratory nods, the inevitable “how about those Steelers?” queries, and other preliminaries, we began to talk about our situations and experiences. We all had different explanations of what “had happened” to our children’s mothers, but found that we were mostly in the same boat — differences in employment, housing and income notwithstanding.
What amused me was that we fathers sort of grunted cordially at one another in the early phases of acquaintance while — right under our noses, but unnoticed — our children were happily learning one another’s names and sibling connections and creating silly nicknames for their new playground pals.
But we fathers generally agreed that we and our little ones were doing O.K. We felt we didn’t need or welcome gratuitous and pitying advice from meddlesome mommies who presumed to instruct us, as if from some divinely appointed pinnacle of wisdom. We weren’t looking to be mothers, after all. We were fathers. We understood the difference.
We found that women had entire industries and cultural phenomena devoted to inculcating and nourishing expertise in motherhood and its subset, single motherhood. If you could conjure any single mother’s circumstances, any circumstances whatever, you could find a dozen books offering her advice and guidance.
For single fathers, not so much — and for good reason. I don’t know even one man who would consider buying a book about parenting and I don’t know a single father who would take a parenting class. But I absolutely would seek informal advice from my mother and my two sisters who each had three children, as well as from a few other women with children I knew from work and from those playgrounds.
Why? I carefully chose the word “muddled” a few sentences above because that’s what I did. Took expert advice on medical and legal matters, but otherwise trusted my instincts and energy and ad-libbed the whole thing. Tried to figure out what was good for my boy and set about making it happen for him as well as I could. I wanted results, not elegance. I wanted to know how I was doing, not how I felt about how I was doing.
Are men and women different? You betcha. But so what? When these discussions arise, they should never, ever be about the parents. They must always be about the little ones who give us their trust that we’ll behave like adults, and so, bring grace into our lives.