Not all ‘solo parents’ are female—there are more than 20,000 dads in New Zealand who raise their children mostly on their own.
We know nothing about this family type. Father & Child has now made a start and released a study on fathers who raise young children entirely on their own.
By Harald Breiding-Buss
If there’s one family type that you well and truly never hear about, it’s single fathers. So convinced is Society of Dad’s somewhat peripheral provider role that we simply assume that every time parents break up the children will go with mum.
Yes, we’ve all heard that dads are more involved now, often even equally sharing care after the split. But singlehandedly raising a baby with mum nowhere in sight? That’s got to be very rare, isn’t it?
All we can say is that this family type exists. Census data tells us that about 17% of all single parent households are headed by a male. For households with children under five this figure is around 10%. But the Census definition of ‘single parent’ is notoriously flawed. It does not tell us anything about the child’s actual living arrangements at all, or how much time the child really spends with each parent.
At Father & Child we’ve seen fathers raising young children by themselves almost from day one. The absence of any information about this family type has always been a stumbling block for some of our work. We never really knew how we can serve these families best, how we reach them, how we get others to reach them, what they want and really need.
Now we have made a start. With the publication of our Dependent on Dad study New Zealand now has at least this one piece of research enquiring into this family type. Apart from a review of census data in 1999 it is the only one ever done.
We have by no means solved the mystery of solo fathers with this small exercise, comprising 13 solo fathers all with children eight or under (and six of them with children three or under). And while the results are quite consistent with what we are seeing in our daily practice, there were some surprises, some pleasant, some not so.
Somehow, we had caught a really young sample. The average age of becoming a father for the dads in our study was only 24, and a quarter were merely teenagers when their offspring was released from the motherly womb. This alone casts doubts on a stereotype I have encountered over the years, that solo dads are of the more mature type.
What’s more, for a very high percentage there has been little choice in the matter for the dads; Child Youth and Family had become involved and determined that the mother was unsuitable as a caregiver. About a third of these young men had been faced with the choice of stepping up to it or have their child put into permanent foster care. Their own background was usually anything but settled or ‘mature’: There was a high ratio of criminal convictions amongst these dads, low income, early school drop-out: you name it.
Not surprisingly, isolation was a rather common theme for the dads in our study. There was very little participation in their local communities. What do you do with a little child all day? Hit the library? Help out at kindy or school? Invite other children over? Our solo dads did almost none of these, contributing to their isolation but also going some way in explaining just why they are so invisible in our communities even though there must be a significant number of them.
Instead the dads were brooding over money. Most of the fathers in our study were not in fulltime or even part-time employment, but work and money was high on their priority list. A majority of fathers thought that their children were missing out because they were not ‘earning as much money as a father should’, and practically all of them agreed with the statement that a good income is important to provide their children with opportunities. Only statements relating to their performance (‘I’m doing a good job’ and ‘I’m doing as well as a solo mother’) achieved even higher agreement.
Given these kinds of doubts it was perhaps logical that about half the dads would not want to be sole carers for their children if there was another way. However, there was a marked difference between dads with very young children (up to three) and those with children a little older. Blame it on paternal hormones, but those dads with babies and toddlers didn’t actually mind being solo dads, felt better accepted by society and didn’t quite think so much that their children were affected by their dismal financial situation. They didn’t have as many problems finding parenting information and were often enrolled in some kind of support service such as Early Start or Parents as First Teachers, or had a sympathetic midwife hanging around.
Even so, they were also wanting more help the most – top of the list (not counting money or employment) was ‘someone to talk to’, which almost always scored a ‘10’ for potential helpfulness on a scale from one to ten. But just about anything would do: Parenting courses, drop-in centres, a newsletter, meeting other solo dads and even ‘support groups’ were all given the thumbs up. Advocacy and legal help, while still important, ranked below any help with coping with the day-to-day job of raising little ones.
Add some of these things together, and there might be cause for some worry. If solo dads had more people to talk to, what would they talk about? Our interviews indicated that at least some are fighting hard to keep their emotions under control. When asked what they did well as dads, some answers were along the lines of ‘not flying off the handle’ and ‘keeping emotions in check’. With the kind of isolation these dads find themselves in, and the ignorance government and their agencies display about this family type, we’ll all have to keep our fingers crossed that they continue to be successful. Sometimes, of course, they aren’t.
These dads then become public symbols of male child abuse as the media feeds on the public bloodlust for harsher penalties for those who hurt children.
Not that this necessarily applies to dads. Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is one who has related her own isolation as a young solo parent on a few occasions, most recently when announcing the government’s new welfare initiatives. But even she would find it hard to argue that this is a level playing field. Solo dads fly under the radar, and from their perspective, women have it all. When asked what kind of service they would want, one of them pointedly replied: “Like what the women have. Unlimited access to any service.”
This may be more perception than reality, and a lot of the isolation solo dads find themselves in is probably self-inflicted. But even for this, we shouldn’t judge these fathers too harshly, because so many of them have very good reason to be distrustful of those saying they want to ‘help’.
Many stories we heard included false accusations made by mothers eager to cover up their own serious neglect and abuse of their children, and fathers racking up convictions and Protection Orders for abuse they have never committed. Rarely do men get as much as an apology for the wrong done to them and the hurt caused to their children, and never are those convictions and records wiped. Having their children finally placed in safety, with their fathers, rarely felt like vindication and more like a ceasefire. Often enough the nightmare had started with a midwife, Plunket nurse, early childhood educator or other professional who, innocently and with the best intentions, had ears only for the mother’s story. This goes some way in explaining why many fathers behave somewhat inhibited in public and are suspicious towards those working with families.
Even so, there were a lot of positive stories as well. Midwives, for example, drew the most polarised responses. While some fathers had nothing good to say about them and blamed them for a lot of their troubles, others reported being well looked after by them, even beyond the line of duty. Where fathers were enrolled in some specialised services such as Parents as First Teachers they also rated them very helpful, women-run as they are. But, disappointingly, Plunket services were considered less helpful on average than any other we asked about. It is ironic that midwives, who openly promote themselves as a women’s service, seem to do a lot more for solo fathers than the ‘family’ agency Plunket.
How any of this impacts on the children is another issue we can only speculate about. The fathers themselves considered their children happy and popular with others, and few felt that there were issues with anger or destruction. They weren’t so sure about self-esteem, though, and many felt their children were ‘underachieving’. It would require a lot more in-depth research to find out how children in these situations fare emotionally, and how they cope in a societal environment that continues to deny mother absence.
The fathers certainly seemed to go out of their way to be good parents. Pretty much all of them read to their children frequently, used time together as a reward, fed them (mostly) healthy food and had meals together. This study, like almost every other one, finds no evidence for the popular myth that fathers are the tough disciplinarians. Smacking, for example, was very unpopular with the dads and from the interviews a picture emerged of somewhat average parenting practices as far as behaviour is concerned. Penalties or rewards rarely seemed to be applied consistently, and the fathers felt guilty when they think they went overboard in telling the kids off or even ‘losing it’. There is some evidence that solo fathers especially of the very young children would, in fact, appreciate some guidance. Having access to ‘Parenting Courses’ was rated secondary in value only to ‘Having someone to talk to’ (not counting money or job), a very unusual result for fathers who, in general, tend to tell us that they prefer learning ‘on the job’.
If anything our study shows that a father’s support needs are very much a result of his circumstances, and are probably not very different from those of mothers in equivalent situations. Making solo fathers more visible, an important intention of our study, would go a long way for society to understand that the father-as-provider model simply cannot be assumed anymore. There is a danger that support systems and organisations try to adjust to the challenge of better father inclusion by developing special ‘men-friendly’ services, when probably all that is needed is to treat fathers with the same openness, respect and attitude as mothers. It’s certainly an approach that hasn’t been tried yet.
Next: Engaging Dads Better