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The unique challenges of fathering alone

Father and daughter
Credit: iStock.com/PeopleImages

Parenting can be a challenging experience, but for a single dad those challenges can be amplified. Experts say the key is to find and accept help as your family adapts to having dad as their primary caregiver.

There are several circumstances in which men find themselves fathering solo; from divorce, to being widowed, a mother not playing an active role in the child’s life temporarily or permanently, or even those that might be married to a ‘fly-in-fly-out’ worker.

Psychologist and author Dr Justin Coulson says solo fathers often have their own unique issues but they generally need the same sort of support single mothers need.

“The main thing most single dads need is people around them who are very supportive,” Dr Coulson says.

“There’s something unique about dads and the support they need, especially fathers of sons. The way we raise boys to men and our expectations of men and fathers means that single dads need additional support for a variety of reasons.

“There’s a stereotype expectation around men and fathering, that they need people to be encouraging and welcoming.  I speak to men who say they’ll go to the playground and people avoid them or, when they show up at day care people stay away from them. 

“It doesn’t seem very fair but some people look at a single dad and think there’s something wrong with them. Why is he here and not the mother?”

“So those fathers really need additional encouragement, and they need friends to encourage and support them in the work that they’re doing.”

It’s also important for solo dads to realise that most people are very happy to help and that they shouldn’t feel like they are being a burden on others or making people feel uncomfortable when they’re asking for a hand. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help and once they start looking, they’ll realise there is a lot of help available.
Dr Justin Coulson

Dr Coulson believes much of the stigma around solo parenting has vanished but there is still residual stigma.

“For single dads, there’s often an uncertainty from others about how to respond to them, which might leave some men feeling like they’re a square peg in a round hole.  Research has shown that single dads are made to feel that they’re a little bit odd and people don’t know how to approach them or what to talk to them about,” Dr Coulson says.

“Some people still think it’s strange that a male would have sole custody or primary custody of his children and be involved in the care giving and child rearing. 

“The other issue that’s so important in terms of support in raising boys into men is simply that many men haven’t been provided with the example of nurture that women have been provided with.

“They’re not encouraged to be nurturers, they’re encouraged to go out and ‘slay the woolly mammoth’ and feed the family. So, when we draw on that stereotype, which is unfortunately the norm, what we see is men who may struggle to be warm and nurturing towards their children.”

While Dr Coulson maintains he’s speaking in very general terms, he is also referring to an average.

“By average, I mean that there are many men who are extraordinary nurturers, there are many men who perhaps even outshine the mothers. But, as a general rule, we know that men quite often won’t have that emphasis on nurture, nor will they have the necessary ‘parenting skills’ that most women have.  

“For example, when it comes to dealing with a young child who has reflux or colic, or dealing with a child who’s upset or scared in her sleep, men may often benefit from the support.

“It’s also important for single dads to realise that reaching out for much needed support doesn’t mean they’re not doing a great job or that they’re not coping.

“They just need to realise that, unlike fathers that live with their child’s mother, they are doing it tougher than most dads and there’s nothing wrong with asking for help when they need it.”

There’s a lot of online help for fathers, whether they’re single or living with their child’s mother. 

New fathers can download SMS4dads, an app that provides fathers with information and connections to online services through their mobile phones.

The app sends fathers regular text messages with tips, information and links to other services that help dads understand and connect with their child. 

“It’s also important for solo dads to realise that most people are very happy to help and that they shouldn’t feel like they are being a burden on others or making people feel uncomfortable when they’re asking for a hand. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help and once they start looking, they’ll realise there is a lot of help available,” Dr Coulson says.

Other ideas for solo dads needing extra support:

  • Friends and neighbours – ask the people closest to you for help and support. Asking friends might be less difficult for some people than asking family to help out.
  • Local help –  solo dads can ask for help at the local early learning centre, day care or a local parenting support group.
  • Counsellors – some people find it helpful to ask for advice from professionals, so they don’t have to worry about any emotional involvement.
  • Online support – this can include online counselling as well as phone hotlines.  This can be especially valuable for men that might just need someone to listen to them.

Solo dads can also think about getting back in touch with friends they might have lost touch with during divorce or whatever circumstances led to them single parenting their child.

“It’s also a good idea for solo dads to reach out to other parents, particularly other single dads. Just being able to talk about whatever they might have been struggling with or make new friends in similar circumstances," Dr Coulson says.

“There are several online support groups that would be very helpful and there’s also the Beyond Blue online video series, Dadvice, as well as apps that help support dads (such as SMS4dads.)  The important thing is that dads reach out for help and support instead of trying to be ‘brave’ and battle through tough times on their own."