Ben Dillon-Smith and his wife split up when his son, Jethro, was five years old.
They sold their family home in Sydney and agreed on equal joint-custody of their son. And so began Ben’s new parenting life (he writes about his experiences on his blog: thesingledadjourney.com).
Solo parenting hasn’t always proved easy, he admits: “You’ll make lots of mistakes. But you’re still their dad and that can never be taken away from you.”
Four years on, he’s gleaned some valuable lessons about fatherhood, the dating scene and how to stay sane while glueing the pieces of your life back together.
Drop off day is hard. Really hard
“In the beginning I fucking hated Wednesdays. I hated them because that’s the day my son leaves to go back to his mum. Nothing against his mum, she is a great mum. However …
“When you become a dad, you just take for granted that you wake up and your children are going to be there. Forget the finances or the property. Coming to terms with the realisation that there are now restrictions around when you can and can’t see your children – that was the single hardest thing to deal with. It hurts.
“I always noticed a definite dip in my mood on Wednesdays. In fact, I could feel it building up the day before, knowing that the next morning, I’m going to have to give Jethro back. Sometimes I’ve even noticed that I was getting a little bit short with him on the Wednesday morning as we were getting ready to leave for school. I suppose it’s the pressure of knowing what was going to happen.
“How did I learn to manage Wednesdays? Partly, they just get easier with time, but you also have to be aware of the problem and be ready for it.
“Now I make sure I have a change of scenery that day – the apartment feels really quiet without the noise and energy of a nine-year-old. I’m a freelancer so I work a lot from home, but I might go into the city and work out of a café or catch up with a friend. You have to do something to break the habit of falling into a slump because it can be a difficult day.”
Read more about single parents:
- Single dad’s inspirational message offers strength to parents doing it on their own
- She’s better at it: The common myth that dads believe about mums
- Hey single parents, I don’t know how you do it (and I’m in awe of you)
Your ex will always be in your life (so deal with it)
“When there are no kids involved and you have a break-up, essentially you just go your separate ways. You need space from that person to purge or get pissed off or do whatever you need to do. But if you’ve had a kid with someone, you realise: I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life dealing with this person. And I also have to show my son the right way to behave.
“Because there’s constant contact. Every day there’s a text coming through: ‘You forgot sports uniform’ or ‘We need to arrange swap over times on the weekend.’
“It took me a while to get to that point of how do we become friends again. How do we maintain some form of relationship? My ex was the one that initiated the break-up and I assumed there was another guy involved because she got together with someone pretty quickly. So all that was playing on my mind. For a while, I was in that passive-aggressive state of, ‘I’m just going to text or email, but I want to avoid having to talk with you.’
“Letting go was hard. It takes time. But it’s so refreshing when you finally do – it’s like a big sigh of relief. And otherwise, it just eats away at you.
“Maybe the last six months I’ve been in a really good spot with my ex and I’m happy to talk to her and freely share moments about Jethro.
“Recently, she even suggested the three of us going skiing together in Japan. As Jethro said, ‘It’s a little weird.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s a little weird for me too buddy. For all of us’.”
You find out who your real friends are
“You quickly learn that there are different friends in your friendship groups. There are the genuine ones who’re actually happy to listen, and are actively there for you. Then there are the others that just feel the need to push their views and advice on you or just want to know who’ve you met on Tinder – it’s like they want to live vicariously through your failed dating experiences.
“And it’ll surprise you which people are truly there for you and which aren’t. I have two old friends that I’ve known since primary school. After the break-up, one of them immediately said: ‘If you and Jethro ever need to stay at our place, there’s always somewhere here for you.’ The other one? He just kept making suggestions on who he thought I should be fucking.
“But you need to find people to talk to. It might just be one person, it might a family member – whoever you feel comfortable with. Because you can’t do it on your own. You’re going to need some help and support.
“I actually spoke to a psychologist, too. It was scary and weird and foreign when you’re doing that for the first time. It’s a big conversation. But it’ll help you get through stuff. And sometimes it’s better to talk to someone who doesn’t know you and won’t just go: “Nah, it’s okay – you’re alright. She’s a bitch …’ Sometimes it’s better to speak to someone who goes: ‘Maybe you need to think about how you handled that. And it’s ok that it hurts’.”
You really appreciate your dad time
“When you become a single dad, you possibly think about fatherhood more. Because you’re not with your child all the time, it suddenly becomes about making the most of your time together.
“I think a lot about creating ‘moments’ with Jethro. So a moment might just be taking a bushwalk together and trying to spot whales off the coast. It might be going snorkelling in Vanuatu. Or it might be cooking his favourite meal followed by watching David Attenborough on TV. It’s just about going, ‘Well I’m with you, let’s just create something that’s memorable and fun together’.”
“You appreciate little things too. When we separated and I moved into my new place, my son started wanting to sleep in my bed again for a while. Yes, it could be annoying to be punched in the head through the night by a five-year-old who also does karate and loves WWE. But I’d wake up in the morning with him lying there and go: ‘This won’t last forever, and this is an amazing moment’.”
Dating again is weird
“I was with my ex for about 12 years. Dating again after that is strange. When you first download Tinder, you’re like, ‘Okay, so this is how it works.’ Now I have to take a photo of myself on a jet-ski with my shirt off. And next to a sedated tiger apparently.
“And then you might get to a point where you become a bit too obsessed with Tinder and so you delete it. And then you try it again. Then someone suggests Bumble is better, so you get that and then you delete both of them and then get back on them. And then delete them again and just end up with Pornhub.
“One of the big questions is whether or not you mention you’re a single dad in your profile. You see a lot of women on there openly saying; ‘I’m a single mum.’ Do you do the same? At first I didn’t. Then I thought this is who I am, this is a huge part of my life and will be for anyone who is interested in me too.
“These days I actually tend to find myself more aligned with or attracted to other single parents. There’s that level of understanding of: ‘Yeah, I know, your kid is going to come first and you understand balancing life and single parenting is a bit crazy’.”
Take it easy on yourself
“You can get into dark spots. But no matter how bad your situation, no matter how much of a failure you might think you are, your kids still see you as their dad. That is a starting point. It’s a chance to turn your life around and be the best dad you can be.
“It might take time. And you might not be able to see your kids as much as other dads because of your circumstances. But you can work on that over time.
“When it comes to parenting, let alone single parenting you’re not perfect. So just when you think you know everything, when you think you’ve got it under control, you realise that no, you don’t. You learn that a lot as a single dad.
“Every week there’ll be something that you forget. His homework might be at his mum’s place. Or his drumsticks. Or soccer gear. Sometimes you can fix it and sometimes you can’t. That sort of thing can feed into a sense of failure.
“You have to learn not to beat yourself up. Pat yourself on the back and say, ‘You know what, I got through today. I did okay. My kid still loves me, I love them. There are a shit-load of worse off places in the world right now’.”
You can read more from Ben at his blog: www.thesingledadjourney.com.