“It’s a sort of bereavement, when the life you used to know just goes,” says Andy, a father of three, of the time after his marriage ended. “Throughout, my main focus was the children. They really needed me and I needed to be there for them in any way I could.”
Modern fatherhood includes men like Andy, one of around 186,000 dads in the UK bringing up his children on his own . Around 8 per cent of the UK’s 2 million single parents are dads. Statistically, single dads are more likely to be widowed than single mums (12 per cent of single fathers are widowed, compared with five per cent of single mothers ), but many find themselves parenting alone after marriage and relationship breakdown. Regardless of their route into single parenthood, single dads surveyed by Gingerbread tell us they are very unlikely to know other dads in their situation, and can find parenting alone even more of a challenge as a result.
Indeed, although one in four families with dependent children is headed by a single parent, balancing working life with the demands of caring for children alone can still be an uphill struggle. Andy, who works part-time in a secondary school, describes the efficiency he needs to ensure life runs smoothly for the family. “You always have to think: what can I achieve at this moment in time? What is the most important thing for me to do right now?”
In a society still not used to seeing men as main carers, single dads often find it even more difficult to combine work and single parenthood. “I don’t think employers expect a man to be on his own with a child, let alone a baby,” says Eddie, a 50 year old father of one, who became a single dad following his wife’s death when his son was just five months old. “Nobody seemed interested in giving me a job so I had to try a different route.”
For Eddie, that route was self-employment, the only working option he could see that would give him the flexibility to be there for his son. Others, like Andy, take on fierce competition and lower pay to secure a part-time job. Some choose trying to balance higher salaries gained in full-time, yet usually inflexible, work with rocketing childcare costs. And there are those forced into a cycle of short-term jobs and out-of-work benefits to keep their families afloat.
But single dads also tell us of the huge pride they have in themselves and their children, and their real sense of achievement in bringing them up successfully. “You learn things you never imagined”, says Gareth, a widowed single parent to Max, nine, and Polly, five. “You find these immense resources of strength and character you never knew you had.”
At Gingerbread, the national charity for single parents, we’re campaigning to break down the barriers to finding, keeping and progressing in employment, and we’re challenging the government and employers to Make it work for single parents. And when it works for mums and dads raising their children alone, it will work for anyone who wants to combine work with family life.
This Father’s Day at Gingerbread we’re celebrating the brilliant job being done by the UK’s single dads in a special video shining a light on the skills they have to offer, gained from what can be an intensely difficult job.
“It’s probably been the biggest challenge of my life”, says Andy of his time so far as a single dad. “But I desperately love my children and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”