A talk I gave in Relief Society in my ward on Fathers Day 1997.
I’m glad to be here speaking with you today. I hope that what I have to share with you will be helpful to you in understanding what single fatherhood is like. I think that, perhaps, it might be better if this message was going out to the priesthood holders, since they are in a position to become single dads also, but you take what gigs you can.
First off, let me say that single fatherhood * is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until recently, the assumption from the right that women are the ones who care for children, which developed into the assumption from the left that dads aren’t necessary to a child beyond mere biology, forged a world where single fathers, for all intents and purposes, simply didn’t exist. We are fortunate to live in a world where left and right are both beginning to understand that children need two parents — the way Heavenly Father designed things — even in times of divorce.
Heavenly Father was right (surprise!) — every child needs two parents to love, nurture and teach him or her, and every parent needs a partner to share the load of parenting with. This means that, by definition, single parenthood is less than optimal for children and very difficult on the single parents.
I never set out to be a single dad. I never wanted to be divorced or separated. I wanted to be married and together forever. Just like all of you. The problem is, to get that, you have to make a whole bunch of choices correctly — choices that are difficult to make, especially under the fire of temptations. C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters describes that the task of leading a soul to Hell does not require creating a huge rift between the soul and the path to heaven — small changes of course, a fraction of a degree here and there, are cumulatively more than adequate.
Thus it was for me. I made a bunch of bad choices over a long period of time, that cumulatively had major consequences on my marriage. I chose to be the one who was in control, and who had all the power — we believe in patriarchal order, don’t we? I chose to withdraw from my wife when I was under stress — it’s okay to need a little space, right? I chose to not listen to her when she had things she wanted to talk about –I was busy and had other things to worry about, and she was big enough to take care of little problems like that, wasn’t she? Small choices like these, spread out over a ten year period, had the cumulative effect of destroying my marriage, meaning that my children will always have come from a broken home, and I have spent the past three years, and counting, as a single part-time dad.
I’ve learned a great deal out of this experience. I learned early on — Ben was 7, Emily was 5, and Amber was not quite 3. I had never been the one who got up with the kids overnight before. I had never been the one who got the kids ready for Church by myself — and I can tell you that things like slips, tights, and shoes that buckle were things I didn’t really have a handle on.
Oh, and dresses with bows that tie in the back! The first time I came on one of those was with Emily, and Faith was out of town for the weekend, my parents were out of town for the weekend, and I couldn’t get a bow that looked decent. I called Denver, where my parents were, and spoke to my cousin’s 22 year old daughter who walked me through the process of getting something approximating a bow tied in time to run out the door and get in the car. By the time we got out of the car, my poor pathetic little bow had died, so I took Emily up to Leslie Raper, who in seconds had a pretty little bow I to this day couldn’t duplicate.
Another major challenge in those days was public restrooms. Suffice it to say that I’m glad we only once had to shut down the lady’s room at Cost Cutter so I could go in and rescue my not-quite-3 year old from the crisis she was going through.
Fortunately, I responded to these challenges by decided to get off my backside and give these kids the best dad I could be — the one they deserved. I had gotten into the habit of pretty much ignoring them until there was a problem, and then using yelling, screaming, spanking and swatting to regain control. I sought other ways of handling discipline, and found Parents Anonymous, which gave me support and help that made a huge difference in how I handled things. I learned methods of discipline without yelling, screaming, spanking or swatting — and that work.
We began reading the Book of Mormon together and having family prayer together on a more-or-less daily basis when they are here. It’s come in fits and starts, from a point where I had to whisper the girls verses in their ears so they could repeat them to the point now where Amber can read entire lines sometimes without help. And I’ve attended virtually every Sunday for the past three years, bringing them every weekend they are here — a far cry from my old pattern of missing months and months at a time.
I learned how to listen, something that men don’t naturally know how to do, and through that and a little humility, I was able to put things in my life into better order. I’ve learned how to control myself better, and to give up my need to have power and control over others. And I learned how to handle those darn little bows — I tie them in double knots, so that my angelic little whirl-wind takes a little longer to untie them. They still don’t look like what Leslie did, but they work.
One of the more difficult things to handle has been the part-time part of being a single dad. One minute they aren’t there and I have no parenting responsibilities at all, and the next minute they are there and need my full attention — I call this being a light-switch parent. Turning that on and off is something I don’t do really well.
I’ve been fortunate. Faith and I get along quite well, and speak on the phone or in person an average of once or twice a day. We have agreed that the kids need both of us in their lives, and have been very flexible in scheduling where the kids are when. This has resulted in my having more time with them than I would get if we stuck to a strict every other weekend visiting basis. As you may have noticed, I had them all of last Summer and into October as Faith recovered from surgery and moved. I’ve also been home-schooling Ben, at his request, this past school year.
Being a single dad isn’t fun. I don’t recommend it to anybody. In my case, I’ve probably been a better dad single than I was when we all lived together — the separation was finally able to wake me up and get me to choose to do the things I should have been doing all along. I can’t go back in time and undo what I’ve done –repentance never allows us to make things as they would have been if we had chosen correctly. All I can do is to try to make better choices as I go along, and, in fits and starts, I’m doing it. There’s a difference between doing better, doing okay, and doing perfect — a world of difference. I can do the first two, and I will only be able to do the latter after a long time and through the Atonement of Jesus Christ — I would never be able to do it on my own.
I got where I am by choosing to be selfish, and by needing to have power and control. If my choices sounded familiar to you, I ask you to consider the consequences those choices brought to me and my family. Small choices can bring consequences that seem all out of proportion to the choices themselves. Like becoming a single, part-time dad.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ.
*This, talk was focused on single fathers who became single through divorce. Single fathers who became single through the death of their wives are in a notably different situation, and I in no way intend for these comments to be taken as criticism of them in any way. Being widowed is only in the most bizarre circumstances a matter of choice, where divorce is always a matter of choice, and that brings a huge difference in the situations.