Every third Sunday of June, I receive a text message from my son. It reads: “Happy Father’s Day, Mum.”

What gives? My son, now age 33, appreciates that when his father kept cutting in and out of his life, mostly out, and I stepped up my parenting, I became both parents.
Happy Father’s Day, Mum.

That message makes me smile, but it also breaks my heart a little. Knowing that a beautiful, thoughtful, talented and smart little boy, then teenager, then young adult, didn’t have either his biological father, or a step-dad (I married later,) be involved in his life is heartbreaking. The reasons for the father/step-father’s lack of interest isn’t important. It was their choice to be unavailable geographically or emotionally or both. What is important is that this phenomenon is probably much more frequent in the lives of custodial single moms than not. We have the kids more often, unless couples are co-parenting with equal time allotted in visitation.

For the purposes of this article, I chose to focus on my situation and how I navigated this path, the successes, the downright “fails” and how it all turned out. And offer some tips for others on the same journey.

DIVORCE: When I told my two kids’ pediatrician in 1986 that my husband and I were about to divorce and asked what I could expect, he said, “They will act out at every stage of their development.” I thought it would take a couple of years for them to get over our split. But no, I was being told that I had a long, long way to go with repercussions, bumps and messy emotions for years to come.
He turned out to be right. What behavior was “just a stage?” And what was buried anger toward me burbling up to the surface? I decided early on to get both kids into a counselor to work out what they could the best they could express it. My daughter was six, my son was two.

REMARRIAGE: In 1989 I married again, feeling certain that this was the right man, situation, move (to Maine), all of it. We had a daughter together, and even though the older two were “half” brother and sister to my new daughter, I insisted that “there are no ‘halves’ in our family – “you are brother and sisters, and that’s final.” That put to rest what to tell people who felt the need to inform my older two about the legal relationship between them and their new sister.
Nine years in, the situation wasn’t the perfect marriage I had hoped for. Far from it. My youngest daughter had a great dad. But he remained distant to my older two kids. And it was worsening as they went into their teen years. The end was near and inevitable.
It was during those nine years that I was so desperate to have a male role model for my son that I called some of his friends’ dads and asked if they would take him fishing or anything. It happened a few times and for that I was grateful. My son did have the praise and love of his friends’ parents, coaches (soccer, basketball, lacrosse) and his teachers. He was, like all my kids, a stellar student.

TEEN YEARS: My second divorce became final in 1999, a year after it was filed with the court. It went to trial, a two-day affair where we contested just about everything, including who got the camping equipment and who got the beer-brewing equipment. It’s so difficult to see clearly when you are in the middle of a divorce, and I was no different. It was a mess and by the time it was decided by the judge, I needed to move from my rental house. I quickly bought a house I never really loved, but it was big enough for the kids, now 18, 15 and 9, to have their own bedrooms and a family room. It turned out to be a great home for their high school years.

FINANCES: That brings me to finances. Although the court decided what I would receive for child support of my youngest child, it seemed never to be enough and it was never increased between the years after it was awarded (she was age nine) and the time it ended (when she graduated from high school). I had gone back to work, and at times made a decent income, but and every time I received a chunk of money, it seemed to fly out the window. New cleats every season because a teen’s feet grow that fast, groceries, gas, college tuition, bills, bills, bills. All the things couples pay for, but with half the income.

MENTAL HEALTH: How I survived the teen years? Lots of help. My friends and co-workers listened and gave advice. I consulted doctors and therapists. When my sixteen-year-old son was up to some shenanigans, a male colleague said, “Boys’ brains don’t mature until they are 26.” I said, “I’m not going to live that long.” But we got through it. He was finally diagnosed at age sixteen with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and severe depression. I had been pleading with doctors for years to help what I knew was depression to no avail. We finally found a doctor who got to the truth, and there was a huge turn-around. His grades improved, and a doubtful high school graduation became a successful one.

There is much more: my daughters turned out great, too. Both are now married and working in challenging careers, balancing those with toddlers in tow. Things are calm and drama-free. My son is now a college soccer coach, which was his dream since childhood, and is engaged to be married to a lovely young woman.

Did I make mistakes? Too many to mention. Did I learn a lot? Oh, yes. Here are some things I highly stress to the parents going it alone:
Use the Mister Rogers approach to tell your kids that you are divorcing their dad: “Sometimes two people marry and then after some time, they don’t love each other anymore.” That’s it.

Never, ever criticize your ex to your kids. Just don’t.

Get the best legal representation you can afford. Don’t be “nice,” in the sense that you give up what you need financially.
Get the best mental health support for both you and your kids. It will make a huge difference and get a lot of the anger and sadness to the surface
Don’t jump back into the dating scene right away. Tell yourself, “I’m beautiful, smart, funny and talented.” You don’t need to have that reflected from someone else, just yet.
If you do choose to date, don’t bring that person into your family life right away.
Assure your kids that no matter how much or little money you have, you’ll be together and get through the split and the aftermath just fine.
Know that you can’t force your ex to be a good parent. That was the hardest lesson for me.
If you must be both mom and dad, you’ll be the best, most loving, multi-talented parent ever and much loved.

“Happy Father’s Day, Mum.”

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