I became a single dad when my first daughter was two and a half years old and then I was widowed when she was five. Becoming a single dad led me to review my occupation as a graphic designer because finding flexible childcare was a major problem, resulting in a decision to work in the childcare field, the best career move I ever made. This article will reflect on both my experiences as a dad and as a practitioner as they are intertwined.
The Right to be Included
When I began to think of what I would write for this article about my experiences of being a single father and the impact this had upon my children I remembered Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says that every child has these rights (enshrined in the Convention) irrespective of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political opinion, disability or any other status, and must be protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment arising from the status of parents or legal guardians.
It is the reference to the “status of parents or legal guardians” (my second daughter being fostered by me) that stuck in my mind. This, linked to the many fine principles of childcare philosophers, has empowered me throughout the last 30+ years.
My daughters always wanted to be accepted and respected in the same way as all their peers, to be seen as whole children not as ‘those poor girls who did not have a mother’. They did not want pity and neither did I; they wanted, as we say today, to be included and valued as part of a diverse community.
Image and Self-Image
Our story begins in the mid 1970s at the beginning of the time of equal opportunities and multi-culturalism. As I have already mentioned, I was unable to find appropriate childcare despite looking hard for it.
I went to my local council and asked for a place in the local nursery, and was told that this was for high priority children and that I was not eligible – until, that is, when I mentioned I was on my own looking after my children. They then took pity on me and offered me a service. No way was I going to accept this offer and their pity; what would their attitude be to my daughters? They certainly had not read the fine words of Maria Montessori, “A child’s self-image is created by others”. What impact would these professionals have has upon my daughter’s self image? Needless to say, I ran a mile and decided then that I would become a childminder, avoiding the need for matronising childcare as well as providing a service for other families.
This quote by Montessori has stayed with me throughout the last 33 years and is at the heart of what I am writing about, the impact that adults have upon the self-image of my children in respect of being brought up without a mother. All children want to be counted in; to be one of the group irrespective of their parents’ status.
The indirect impact of the prejudice shown to me did and does still make its mark upon my children and now my grand-daughter. We have as yet, as a society, to make the stepped change to ‘see’ the child, its needs and aspirations over and above its social standing.
My life as a parent and as a professional in childcare has, though, in the main been a joyous experience. I remember with such happiness so much about their babyhood and pre-school years and the delight of watching them develop and flourish – not only my own children but those I cared for professionally.
I started my professional carer as a childminder and then moved to working in a play group, this was followed by working as a toy librarian, social worker and registration and inspection officer. I was fortunate that I worked mostly with family groupings with children at different stages of development, from all different backgrounds, each with their own unique story, all of them wanting to be accepted and respected.
It is with great happiness that I recall the cooking sessions, watching the joy that a baby gets from drifting their fingers through the flour, becoming mesmerised by the sensation; at the same time observing the older children struggle to roll out the dough, frustrated that it would recoil back to its former shape until they dealt it a blow with the rolling pin; and to have the odd crisis when the pastry cutter did not do as it was supposed to do, because of course the cutter was no good!
Little did I know that I would be reaping the benefits of their experiences 30 years later; they are now excellent cooks. I did not know what I was doing at the time; this was just playing? Including all the children in an activity takes a great deal of planning and dexterity respecting all the levels of ability and development; is this multi-tasking? This was but one of the exciting challenges that being a parent brought me.
Learning and Laughter
Being a parent is about supporting the challenges that one’s children face and understanding how to help them move on. I remember an occasion when one of my daughters was peeling an orange, she said, “Dad, why do they put the skins on so tight?” I realised that there was a huge gap in her education and so ensued many holidays to the country so that they could get in touch with the natural world, understand where and how fruit and vegetables were grown and where milk came from. We spent many a happy time together, building dams in streams and playing pooh sticks, running across the Welsh hills and having many an adventure.
Children have brought many a laugh into my life. I remember times when the older children would laugh at a baby blowing a raspberry, the baby being so elated that they had made the older children laugh that they would go on and on repeating the same noise to get the older children to laugh at them time and again – that is, until the older ones tired of this. The baby, not being put off by this, repeated the action, but this time with a mouthful of food, and boy, did that make them laugh as food flew through the air. To see babies and children interact and to discover that they are entertainers and leaders, wanting to realise their own power and self image in this way, is a wonderful and rewarding experience.
Yes, I did join in the laughter as it was truly funny, but I thought that I did have a responsibility to promote good table manners, but hey, on this occasion I let it pass, thinking that this child needed to be the centre of attention, supporting the development of its own self image.
As they grow and develop their imaginations I was privileged to get a wonderful insight into how they see their world. I realised how important it was to listen and watch, to see how they interpret the world through make-believe – the building of houses with building blocks and play people and the stories that they relate about their lives, the pretend schools they created with their soft toys and how they re-enacted the role of teacher; to watch their pride at their success as well as their frustrations when things did not go quite to plan and to help them through their challenges when a tower topples or when a baby comes crawling along to help and knocks a construction over; and to intervene at this point to pacify the ‘architect’. With each of them creating their own world, telling a story of their own or an imagined life, it is for us to reinforce the positive aspects of their self-image at these times.
Are these experiences so different from a mother’s? Would a mother have done things differently? I think not.
Single Parenthood and Prejudice
I brought my children up in the days when it was believed that children from single parent families would not succeed. This was the view of government and educationalists, and my children would hear statements on the television news that affirmed this blanket misconception. Sad to say these blanket statements are still being promoted. I have to say that it was a fight to counter these messages and to ensure that professionals within the education system did not influence my children’s self image and damage their opportunities to develop and succeed simply because of their circumstances. It was a fight well worth taking on; they both went on to be graduates.
I want now to tell you a few stories about the prejudice we experienced and how it was played out in our lives. It is a sad fact that this came in the main from professionals who had preconceptions, or who were thoughtless, and not from my peers at the school gate; indeed I was elected parent governor.
For example, I was told that I would not be successful as a childminder because I was a man – mistake; I had a waiting list.
When I started work at playgroup one day I noticed a little girl leaning over her balcony looking longingly at the children playing down below. Her mother came out and I asked her if she wanted to put her daughter on the waiting list, but she refused the offer. A few weeks later she asked me if the offer still stood. I said yes, and asked her why she had changed her mind. She said that since I had started working at the playgroup there was more discipline. I was surprised, as I am a big old softy. I don’t believe that there was more discipline; I believe it was because there were more activities for the children, and so they were absorbed and apparently better behaved, and not much to do with my gender at all – perceptions or reality; who really knows?
When I was a toy librarian I used to do puppet making workshops and would take my sewing machine along to groups of childminders so that I could run up glove puppets for them to decorate with the children and make up stories to tell. I have to say that I am as good with a sewing machine as I am a with an electric drill, expert at neither, but competent at both. I have run up many a Halloween or fairy costume. At the end of the session a childminder said to me, when she had heard that I was a single dad, “If you bring me the fabric I will run up some dresses for your girls”. I was surprised; hadn’t I just been using a sewing machine? I guess I hadn’t done any French seams!
When my first daughter’s mother died I notified the school of this so that, if at any time she ‘acted out’, the staff would perhaps be understanding and not punishing. A few days later she came home with a duplicated letter about the Christmas play addressed to “Dear Mum” which she had to sign. How thoughtless and insensitive, not only to my daughter but also to all those other children who were looked after by their grand parents, older siblings, aunts and uncles.
In addition, it was so dismissive of me and my role as a parent. It was if I was invisible, and this is the experience of many fathers. I was upset and angry and went to see the head teacher who was apologetic and asked me how I thought he should address such letters in future. I suggested ‘Dear Friend’ though I have to say I did not feel very friendly toward him at the time! He certainly was creating my children’s own self-image and not one that we wanted.
At about the same time, my eldest had an accident on a bicycle and had to have surgery. This was just three weeks after her mother had died. We were at the hospital, and to be fair and generous to the surgeon she did have short hair and was wearing a track suit, but had earrings in both ears. He said to her, “You can go home and tell your mum what a brave boy you are because you didn’t cry”. I did have to explain to him that she was a girl, and that her mother had just died and that I thought he should look at patient’s records to ascertain their gender and only deal with the adult who was present. His words were another example of further emphasising the deficit in her life and of negating my role.
Picture this the same daughter again in hospital when she had whooping cough. A nurse said to me in front of her, “What are you going to do, Mr Rice, when she gets to the ‘lipstick and high heel’ stage?” My response was, and I was defensive to say the least, “I suppose you mean when she reaches puberty? Well, I am never going to have a period, I am never going to grow breasts and I will never give birth, but what do you say to single mothers of sons about what they will do when their sons have their first nocturnal emissions?”
This just illustrates the prejudice there is against fathers as being able to care fully for their daughters, and at the same time shows how ill-equipped we are to deal with our sons during puberty. On the one hand she was saying dads can’t be caring and understanding as parents and on the other dismissing the opportunity to talk with our sons about changing from boyhood to manhood and deal with their emotional and physical development as fully as we do with our daughters – thus perhaps preventing an opportunity to enable men to be more sensitive and caring as parents.
Expectations and Individuality
These are just a few examples and I could go on with many more. Comments made by professionals will be picked up and absorbed by the youngest of children and will impact upon their self-image, social and emotional development. It is not just the spoken word but also the unspoken messages as well. It is the attitudes shown to the parent/carer who brings the children to the childminder, preschool, school or hospital that impact upon our children. Our children need to be valued and respected for their diversity, whatever their family backgrounds. My daughters have demonstrated extreme resilience – something that they can be proud of and something that other children and adults can learn from.
There is still an expectation that men cannot really look after children as well as women. This may or may not be the case; what I know is that I did the best that I could. No, I could not be a mother, but I did parent and tried to mother as best I could, not to replace their mother but to make up for the deficit, a deficit that was at times made larger by insensitivity and unprofessional practice.
What I have learned from my professional experience, having worked extensively with a diverse range of families is that there is no ‘proper’ family. There are families of all shapes and sizes made up of all different combinations. It is this richness that adds to the pleasure of looking after and nurturing children. Each child is an individual and each child brings with them their own story of their own world. Each of these worlds deserves respect in support of their well-being and development.
Learning About Life
Despite the difficulties that my children and I have experienced, we have had a really great time together growing up side-by-side, with them as children becoming wonderful young women and now one a mother. For me, developing as a parent, guessing which path to take next, it has been a fabulous experience.
Fatherhood has enhanced my life experiences. I have parascended, spent many hours at the swimming pool, learned how to face-paint Wonder Woman, and become an expert on Barbie and Ken and the Very Hungry Caterpillar. I have been a member of the PTA and gained a network of life-long friends. I have attended graduation ceremonies “for those two poor children who did not have a mother”.
If there is one thing I have learned on this journey, it is that we should not assume anything about a child and its world, but we should follow each child and listen to each child’s story, work with each child’s main carer whether parent or guardian, grand parent, aunt or uncle and work with this knowledge. We cannot assume that they have a pet cat or a dog, live with their dad or mum, both or neither, but count them in and value them for who they are and reinforce the positives, build positive self-images and value them for what they can achieve.
I know that I am not the same as a mother but I do want to be made to feel equal, to be given the same information, to be included in an equal way. I remember parents’ evenings at school, overhearing conversations between teachers and mothers where they would talk about a child’s social and emotional development, but when it came to my turn they would focus upon my child’s cognitive development and not talk to me about my children in the same holistic way; why? We dads need to have the same conversations if we are to support our children’s well being.
Parenting still remains well within the female domain, and yet we as fathers want to be involved, included and integrated. I do not think this is too much to ask, but to achieve this we need to make a cultural shift, and revisit the concepts of Kelmer-Pringle, “Both children and adults need to feel good about themselves, to receive recognition, attention and appreciation. When these needs are met, children and adults feel self-confident and valuable as a person in this world. When these needs are not met, people feel inferior, weak, helpless and worthless.”