Going solo: Single fathers reveal what it's like to be a lone parent

There are 200,000 single dads in the UK, but they remain largely invisible. As Father's Day approaches, we ask four men what it's like to be a lone parent

Shortly after Sam's first birthday, his mum went on holiday, leaving Sam with his dad, 27-year-old William McGranaghan. This was 20 years ago. She said she'd only be gone a week, but a week turned to two, and as the weeks became months, it became clear she wasn't coming back. Though he embraced his new role as a single parent, William was out of his depth: "I didn't know where to go; I lost my job and then my flat. It was just so difficult to be a full-time dad and to make ends meet," he recalls.

Further down the line, William managed to borrow enough money to start his own business – the only way for him to bring in an income and remain flexible enough to keep up with the school run, the doctor and dentist appointments, and whatever else needed doing at a moment's notice. Even so, things were tight. But worse than the financial struggle, he says, was not having male friends in the same situation to talk to.

With this in mind, in February last year William set up the charity Dad's House. As well as offering single fathers the practical advice and the emotional back-up he'd lacked, with free cookery classes, life-coaching and counselling, Dad's House aims to create a social network for fathers across the UK. And there has been no shortage of men signing up. Just a year since its launch, the organisation now has roughly 1,400 members. Some are full-time single fathers, while others have joint access or are facing a custody battle.

Dad's House is just one of a number of organisations – such as Families Need Fathers and Gingerbread – offering help to the 200,000 single fathers in Britain today. (Even when compared to the 1.8 million single mothers, this is still a significant figure.) But unlike its predecessors, William insists that Dad's House is breaking new ground by focusing on building emotional support networks as much as doling out practical advice.

One of the most common complaints about life as a single dad has been how isolating it can be. Nick Michaelides, who has been raising his two children alone since their mother, Bella, died three years ago, notes that mums tend to cluster together at the school gates to arrange get-togethers; as a man, he says it's easy to find yourself excluded from key social events. Fathers simply don't cultivate the same parental networks.

Part of the problem seems to be that dads in two-parent relationships don't understand the struggle faced by single fathers, as most don't have a clue about what's actually involved in raising a child. The single dads I spoke to say it's predominantly their friends' wives and girlfriends who handle the day-to-day things like washing, helping with homework and giving a hug when it's needed – and they are quick to admit that it was only in becoming a single parent themselves that they've realised quite how much work is involved.

Acknowledging the differences between being a single mum and being a single dad, William believes, is crucial. While it goes without saying that raising a child alone, whatever your circumstances, can be incredibly challenging, it should be understood that there are many unique differences. Jane Ahrends, who represents the Gingerbread charity, explains that while general attitudes to single mothers might have improved, many of the women she meets feel "got at": "If they go straight back to work, they're treated like bad parents; if they don't, they're called benefit scroungers."

By contrast, the men I've met have felt less blighted by social prejudice and more so by a general lack of representation. Many feel that unlike single mums, they are invisible. Extreme campaign groups like Fathers for Justice, meanwhile, are widely felt to have done more damage than good to the reputation of dads in situations where the relationship has broken down.

William believes that first and foremost, men need to work together if they are going to get their voices heard and make a positive impact. And that, he insists, begins with a dialogue. So, with Father's Day fast approaching, we asked four men to talk about their experiences of fatherhood. These accounts – which include miserable attempts at French-plaiting and the joys of hand-making a costume – go some way to describe the everyday challenges and rewards of life as a single dad.

Kevin Brazant, 29

Father of Amari, 6

Kevin and his girlfriend separated when their son, Amari, was a baby. Amari now spends weekends with his mum and weekdays with his dad.

"it is a widespread assumption that when a relationship breaks down, it's a man's instinct to run off and abandon his duties. But that's not the case. I work with a number of young dads as a mentor for Reach – an organisation introduced by the previous government to raise the aspirations of young black men in Britain – and the majority of them want to be more present in their children's lives, but, because of personal circumstances – often not having had any strong male figures in their own lives, and lacking confidence in themselves – they need guidance in learning how to achieve that.

Raising a child is the most rewarding thing you can do. The process of getting Amari's school bag together every morning, dressing him in his uniform, talking to him about his learning, it's brilliant. Yes it's a long day being a full-time parent, especially when you're working too, and it can be difficult finding a balance. But when you're walking down the street with your kid and you look down and see that your kid's watching you, trying to copy your movements, you realise that you're his role model.

Before Amari's mum and I agreed on joint custody, I only saw our son on weekends. I was working all the time, and being a part-time dad left me feeling out of the loop. It was difficult getting face-to-face interaction with Amari's teacher, and his mum would take him to nine out of 10 doctor's appointments, so I relied on her to find out what was going on in our son's life.

Now I feel properly involved. I have a say in Amari's education, take him to after-school activities and help him make costumes for school plays – things which are traditionally seen as motherly roles. At the moment, he's getting ready to sit his SATs so we're finding fun ways to address his learning. Instead of just using exercise books to explore shapes, for example, we're looking at different objects in the house and working out what they are.

When my relationship with Amari's mum first broke down, I went out to find support groups and came across a charity called Families Need Fathers, which has been around since the 1970s; they're great at providing legal information when you're going through a court process. But there was definitely a shortfall in organisations with a therapeutic aspect. When two people are dealing with the breakdown of a relationship, the needs of the child can become secondary, and that's something that needs to be looked at more by the Government.

There should be an independent mediator available who can facilitate a conversation to work out what will best serve the child's needs. It's so important that after a separation, parents have a place to offload and reflect on what's happened; if they don't have a place to vent their frustrations, resentment can grow and that leads to all sorts of problems for the child."

Victor Calver, 44

Father of Samuel, 15 and Joseph, 12

Victor Calver met Zoe, the mother of his two sons, at school. They married when Victor was 27 years old. Then, eight years ago, the marriage broke down. Today, he and his ex-wife share custody of their children.

"women are generally better at some things than men. They tend to be, dare I say it, more structured, better organised. Ironing for example: I iron on the basis of what is needed at that moment, whereas my ex-wife would always do the ironing in advance. Same with washing. I'll leave it until there are several full loads back-logged, whereas a mother would tend to do it as she went along. When the kids' mum, Zoe, and I were together, I'd make the money and she'd remember to pay the bills. Suddenly all that changed; now I have to manage the house, the children and the business. Sometimes I feel incredibly emotional under the pressure, but I don't feel I can talk to my mates about it. In all the years, I've only broken down in front of my best mate twice, and that's when things have been really bad.

As a man you're supposed to be strong and run on testosterone. My mates are mostly quite laddish, they still go out at night and spend money on drinks and having a laugh, whereas I'd prefer to have the cash to pay the rent. I don't feel like I can tell my mates when I'm in financial trouble, because of the embarrassment that comes with being broke. Maybe it's a male thing; it's really embarrassing when you want to give your children so much and you can't afford to. You want to do your best by them, but when you're doing everything for them yourself, you don't have the resources.

When our marriage first broke down, our kids were four and seven years old, and I was working obscene hours because I wanted the best for my family. Every night I would come home at six or seven o'clock, read them a bedtime story then go back to the office until midnight. Sam, our eldest, suffered emotionally from the split, but Joseph, who was only four at the time, was too young to understand what was going on. At the beginning, their mum and I were angry with each other, but we worked together for the sake of the kids. Now it's like I'm a single dad and she's a single mum, but we work things out as a team – we still have our arguments but we put the boys first. She's already phoned me twice this morning to talk about incidentals.

Legally, Joseph is assigned to me and Zoe has Samuel, but in practise we share custody half and half. Looking after the boys on my own is hard work, there's no doubt. When Zoe and I were together I'd go out with my mates some evenings, but between working, doing the chores and spending time with the boys, I don't get out much anymore. That said, within our limits we have quite a good life. Things would be a lot easier if there was more support, emotionally and financially, but none the less, I think that by working together from a distance, Zoe and I have done a fantastic job on our boys."

Nick Michaelides, 46

Father of Daphne, 7 and Theodore, 5

Nick Michaelides has been raising his two children alone from the time his wife, Bella, was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. She died 8 months later.

"the weekend my wife, Bella, started chemotherapy, I took the kids to the beach for a holiday. It took six hours to get there and once we arrived I had this dawning realisation: usually you'd have two eyes zone-marking your children, as they pull in different directions. Suddenly there were two children pulling in different directions and I had an overwhelming sense of being stretched; I knew then that things were going to be dramatically different from what had been before.

The amazing job mothers do in two-parent families often goes unrecognised by men. When I speak to fathers about the work involved, they often look at me as if to say: what does it involve? There doesn't seem to be a register of the decisions you have to make as a parent, and the incredible amount of time and headspace that involves.

For women, it's a very natural thing to be nurturing and to comfort a child when it falls over. For a man, it's a different dynamic. Fathers tend to be able to do that caring, all-consuming parental role for the weekend and then go back to focus on their job. It's a very different proposition when you're the sole carer and at any given time need to deal with any number of demands.

When my wife was with us, I found planning our weekend adventures exciting. When I became the sole carer, planning, cooking, navigating and packing became a much more daunting prospect. As a single father you feel spread very thinly with all the roles you have to perform. Planning all the decisions about your child's education, and which after-school activity would be best without a mother to consult with, makes these choices much more difficult. The dynamics of two parents means you back each other up – daddy takes over when mummy has had enough. That's simply not possible when you're on your own.

One of the biggest challenges is accepting that you cannot compete with two-parent families. I rely heavily on the support of incredibly kind friends and family. When you see your child making a huge leap forward – starting to read fluently, riding a bike around the park – you realise that everything you're putting into parenting reaps wonderful rewards."

Stephen Wilcocks, 43

Father of Adam, 15 and Emma, 13

Since his wife left home four years ago, Stephen has had full-time custody of his children. Their mother has them every other weekend, and visits once a week.

"i thought marriage was for life, but things don't always work out that way. My wife decided to leave home four years ago for her own reasons. When you're hurting yourself, it can be hard to comfort your kids. But when she left – choosing to leave me in charge of the kids – somehow I didn't feel daunted, even though she'd always been the more hands-on parent. I never thought twice about what I needed to do.

To begin with, it was tough, particularly for our daughter, Emma, who was only eight and a half when her mum left. But I've always told our kids that they can bring anything to me or their mum, so they don't bottle their emotions. Because we're open with each other, I can talk to Emma about girl things like menstrual cycles – I just explained to her in advance what she'd need to do when it happened. It was a proud moment when she came to tell me she'd had her first period.

Single fathers don't get the same recognition or support as single mothers. Because being a single dad is not the norm, you can feel embarrassed to ask for help, from the authorities and from our friends. I once tried to ask about benefits for fathers raising their kids alone, but the woman at the council office looked at me like I was mad and gave me no help. I also looked up online what I might be eligible for, but couldn't find anything. Since then I've given up; now I just plod along on basic benefits and try to do my best.

The most difficult thing about being a dad on your own is the silly stuff, like not being able to do your daughter's hair in a French plait, or going shopping for her and struggling to figure out the kind of things she'd want at different stages in her life. It's also tough being the only one setting the boundaries and giving the kids stability on a daily basis.

Because their mum doesn't have the same financial burdens as I do – having to pay for the kids' food and bills – she can afford to do the fun stuff, like taking them away on holiday. Sometimes I think: 'Hold on, I'm the one doing all the hard work here'. It's only when you become a single parent that you realise what hard work is involved."

To contact Dad's House, visit dadshouse.co.uk

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