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About to become a single dad? Here’s the first thing you should do

Becoming a single parent can be scary and confusing. Ben Tafau shares his lessons from his journey as a solo dad in the hopes that it might help other fathers going through the same thing.

Becoming a single dad was by far the biggest challenge I’ve faced to date. Separation can be a devastating event during which it’s easy to be overwhelmed by emotions – heartache, pain, confusion, panic, fear, feeling like a failure, and more. But it’s important to stay focused on what’s important, and for me that’s confirming parenting arrangements for your child(ren) with your former partner as soon as possible.

If you can work out the parenting arrangements outside of court it will be best for everyone involved, saving a lot of time, stress and money. If the timing isn’t right to have that discussion straightaway, think about how you want to approach sharing care of your children and start working towards that immediately, while waiting for the right moment to discuss it with your former partner.

Ben and his daughter as a baby

Ben and his daughter as a baby

Shared parenting: my primary objective from day one

I always knew that in the event that my relationship with my daughter’s mother ended I would want 50/50 shared care of my daughter, and I made my intentions clear from the beginning of the separation process. I was fortunate that I did not have to go through the court system to confirm this, so for those dads who are about to go through separation it is important to state clearly what you want from the beginning.

Hint: Find the secret support ‘power ups’

Find out what services and support you are eligible for when going through a separation process, and take advantage of these where appropriate. When I went through the separation process at the start of 2013, the Family Court provided separating couples with a number of free sessions with a counsellor for final reconciliation attempts, or to help them come to an agreement on final terms of separation and care/co-parenting arrangements. At the time of publication of this article, the Family Court provides a Family Disputes Resolution mediation service which provides an impartial mediator to help you reach an agreement regarding ongoing parent arrangements (this service may be free if you qualify for funding), and free Parenting through Separation courses to help you plan for caring for your child(ren) after separation.

You might also be eligible for free and confidential counselling sessions or other forms of support through your employer via programmes such as EAP or Vitae, so talk to your manager or human resources department to see what you are entitled to (or check out your company’s website/intranet for direct contact details if you don’t feel comfortable discussing this with your colleagues).

Even if you aren’t entitled to any support, you may want to pay for or share the costs of a professional who can act as a mediator to help determine final agreements which are fair and agreeable for both parents. It would be wise to find out as much as you can about what support you can access and make full use of it where possible.

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A word of warning about counsellors Make sure that you find a counsellor that you’re both happy with, otherwise you run the risk of a less than satisfactory outcome for one or both parents. I’ve had experiences with both good and bad counsellors, and the ones that aren’t working can actually make things worse rather than better.

You won’t always have the luxury of time to shop around for counsellors (as was true in my case), but this is such a crucial part of the separation process that it’s important that the right person is involved.

If it’s possible to do some research on potential counsellors beforehand I’d highly recommend it, because the wrong person can add significant layers of stress to an already stressful process, and can have a significant impact in your life moving forward. Some things you might want to look at:

  • If they have experience working with separating couples involving children
  • If they use any particular counselling techniques or methods, and if you think these will be appropriate in your situation
  • How they structure their counselling sessions, and what their plan may be for your sessions.

Why Shared Parenting?

For me, a shared parenting arrangement was a no-brainer but a lot of people were (and still are) surprised when I tell them that I have shared care of my daughter – especially those who believe the stereotype of men avoiding responsibility for their kids. In situations where there are no safety concerns or ongoing conflict between the parents, children can benefit from having significant contact with both of their parents. I wanted to make sure that I was always there for my daughter as she grows up.

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Dad up’ now to prevent future heartache

I’ll be honest: working full-time and having shared care of your child(ren) is no walk in the park! The easier option might be having less contact time with your kids so that you can get back on your feet. However, keep in mind that the choices you make at the beginning of your separation may affect your future access rights. It may seem like a good idea to have less access to your child(ren) initially so you can get through that tough transition phase, especially if you have other responsibilities such as a full-time job or finding a new place to live. However if you end up having to go to court to decide the care arrangement for your child, any initial care arrangements (even if intended to be temporary), may affect the final decisions by family courts/authorities.

A friend of mine, one of the first people I turned to for advice during my separation process, went through the court system to decide the care arrangement for his daughter. Unfortunately, his lawyer told him (incorrectly) that he could forego custody of his child initially (as he was living and working in a different city from the child’s mother) and change the care arrangement at a later date. When he tried to make changes to the care arrangement later on, he found out that he had in fact given up custody of his child permanently, and it was entirely up to the mother’s discretion whether the care arrangement could be amended.

So when it comes to care arrangements, it’s best to start an arrangement you intend to carry on in the future, even though it might be tough in the outset while you’re going through the transition into ‘1 Player parenting mode’ and taking care of your other responsibilities.

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Can you do it? As Parappa the Rappa says, ‘You gotta believe!’

One of the barriers to men assuming shared responsibility for raising their child is that men are generally seen as not being as ‘natural’ parents compared to women. Sure, there are differences in the way men and women do things, and men don’t usually spend time talking to other men about becoming parents and choosing baby names, but I believe that this is a limiting perspective that disempowers fathers from their roles as parents, and short-changes children from benefitting from their father’s love and guidance.

When my daughter was on the way, to be honest I was pretty much clueless. My friends laughed that I didn’t even know how to hold a baby properly, and I looked ridiculously awkward trying to hold other people’s babies! But the funny thing is that I found I adapted to my new role as a dad very quickly, basically because I had to. There was no time to muck about – right from day one you have to get stuck in and just do it. Yes, you’ll make mistakes and many things will be awkward initially, but you learn and adapt, and things get easier.

So don’t underestimate your ability to be a great dad on your own. Yes, it’s tough, it takes a lot of time and effort, and you’re constantly learning as your child grows. You may have to sacrifice time spent on other things like sports and socialising, at least in the short term. But I found that the rewards far outweighed the costs, and that when I eventually got the hang of parenting in ‘1 Player Mode’, I was able to work out ways to work those other things back into my life.

My advice is: Talk to your parents, talk to other parents, read books, go online and do the research, but most of all, believe in your ability to become a great dad.

Here are a few online resources to help you in your parenting journey:

  • Solo Parents NZ Trust – A non-profit organisation with the aim to support, educate and connect solo parents in New Zealand
  • Life of Dad – celebrating the adventures of fatherhood with entertainment, humour and discussion on the world of fatherhood
  • The Dad Network – UK based website looking at parenting from the dad’s perspective
  • 1 Player Dad – and of course a little plug for my blog, where I share my journey playing the two-player parenting game in ‘1 Player Mode’ and practical advice for other dads going through similar experiences.

The best power up you can have in 1 Player Mode

Finally, I found that one of the most significant benefits of sharing parenting is that it’s your child(ren) that will help you get through this time the most. At the end of the day, all of your efforts are for them, and no matter what I went through in those early stages of my separation and transition into 1 Player mode, my daughter’s smiles, hugs and kisses made everything worthwhile. And even though it was a mission and a half working full-time, travelling for work, and looking after my daughter four nights a week, I treasured the time with my daughter then and now, and wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s possibly one of the toughest things you’ll ever do, especially if you are still learning to be a parent yourself, but it’s definitely worth it in my book.

Ben Tafau is a single dad with shared care of his daughter, playing the ‘two player parenting game’ in 1 Player Mode. You can read more about his experiences at his blog 1 Player Dad and on Facebook. This post is based on an excerpt from his free ebook The 1 Player Dad Strategy Guide


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