During my final year of college, I became a father of a precious, but unplanned, little boy. Shortly after graduation and my 23rd birthday, I became his primary caregiver and a full-time single dad. Instead of enjoying a casual, post-college lead up to real life, I spent my first few years afterwards navigating the professional world and learning about fatherhood. It was a shock and a challenge, one that threw me into a lot of trying situations. But it was also one that I met head on. The experience changed my life in the best way possible.
It’s been four years since I became a single parent. Now, I’m staring down my late-twenties and chasing my 5-year-old every day. He’s a smart, kind kid whom I love with every fiber of my being. I’ve grown a lot and learned so much along with him. Now, as I gear up for many more years of parenting, I wanted to look back at some things I’ve learned as a young, single parent. Here are some of the biggest.
Growing Up Is Easier Than I Thought
Some might say that 22 is when you should start growing up anyway. But I’ll admit fully that I hadn’t been planning on it. Having a child changes your maturity plans fairly significantly. When I became a single dad, my initial worries of “I’m not grown up enough to do this” were put to bed quickly, simply because, well, that’s what I had to do when it comes to parenting.
College-aged me was the king of the overflowing laundry basket. I had a messy room and gorged on pizza or Hot Pockets every night. I played too many video games and stayed up too late. I also had a penchant for coasting through responsibility.
When I became a dad, however, I cleaned up my act pretty quickly. Both small changes (I made sure that when it came to my son’s clothes, there would always be plenty of clean, folded options; I mastered the grocery store) and big (I learned how to go to sleep earlier and be my best self when he woke up at 6:30; I learned how to clothe, feed, comfort, nourish, and teach my son). The process happened slowly at first, and then all at once.
Were there times when I wished I could be out with my friends being a 22 year old? Sure. I definitely experienced some FOMO when I saw photos of my childless buddies drinking beer on the back nine, especially when I was home watching Paw Patrol for the nineteenth million time. But those little moments, I soon realized, were everything. Without even thinking about it, my priorities shifted. I wasn’t a father and then I was.
No Matter Their Age, All Parents Share Things in Common.
Early on in my son’s life, I was one of the few parents I knew. A couple of my older friends had kids, but other than that I was in my own world of diaper changes and midnight feedings. When my son started preschool, however, I came into contact with more parents. At this time, one thing became very clear: I was younger — much younger — than all of them. Often I found myself thinking: What am I supposed to talk to them about?
At first, it was a bit intimidating to be at school events or soccer games with so many older parents. I felt like an intern, or a TA in a room full of tenured professors. This feeling took some time to get over. But what helped the most was realizing that we were all just parents dealing with the same things.
It didn’t matter if it was couple in their 40’s or a single dad in his late twenties, the parents I met all shared common bonds. Yes, they might have graduated from college eight years before I graduated high school, but a bunch of us spent last week trying consoling our kids from a nightmare or teaching them how to wipe their ass on their own. Everyone’s kids are trying to learn their letters or struggle to remember which direction they need to kick the soccer ball. That commonality binds us together. Once I realized that, the confidence to open up came easy.
Single Dads Get a Lot of Lopsided Compliments
During my time as a single dad, I’ve received a ton of compliments. I receive the generic “You’re doing a great job!” and, when people catch my son on good days, the “Oh your child is so sweet/polite/well-behaved.” All of them are appreciated and, honestly, more meaningful than anyone could know.
But I also receive a lot of single-dad specific compliments. People will tell me “Way to step up” or “Not a lot of dads would do that.” These are nice compliments to receive, but they’re also verbal participation trophies.
Listen, it’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment, because I do. But such compliments all are laced with the idea that a dad raising his child is a rarity. Single moms I encounter will often get a “You’re doing great” without the additional acknowledgement of how special it is for them to make all the sacrifices it takes to be a single parent. The scale isn’t balanced.
To quote Chris Rock, when it comes to dads stepping up to taking care of their kids, “You’re supposed to, you dumb mother f—ker!” I’ll take every compliment I can get when it comes to the parenting. If my kid shows good manners and someone wants to toss me some confidence, I’ll take it. It means a lot. Really. But, being there for my son is literally the least I could do. Furthermore, it shouldn’t seem weird to see a dad doing his job alone. At the same point, there are so many single moms out doing the same thing who deserve equal — or far more — credit.
It’s Not Bad to Accept Help
“It takes a village to raise a child” is as true a cliché as they come. But that doesn’t make it untrue.
During my first few years of single parenthood, I always struggled to pass off parental duties when given the chance to live my own life or just take a nap. I put my head down and barreled on. Maybe it was stubbornness, but kicking that sense of duty that comes with being a single parent, feeling as though I needed to be with my son as much as I could, wasn’t something I could do.
Slowly but surely I learned to take some help. A sleepover offered by the grandparents? Girlfriend offers to take my son on a few errands with her? Before I would say no. Now? Absolutely. I realized, finally, that accepting help is the opposite of weakness, and that help is a gift. When I receive it, I take that time to get things in order or just wind down a bit, both of which help me be a better, more present, father.
Fatherhood Is All About Effort
Corny as it might be, one of the only things I’ve truly learned about parenting is that anyone who gets the opportunity to be there for a child is the luckiest person on the planet, and that the most important thing about being a good dad is putting in the effort to be one every single day.
I absolutely won’t be perfect. I’ll forget to pack a sandwich in my son’s lunchbox one day, or say the wrong thing to him at the wrong time. Every day offers me a chance to step on a rake.
But for every “Oh no, I can’t believe I did that,” moment, there’s a million more “God, being a dad is the absolute best,” moments that replace them. My goal every day is to just be a bit better than I was yesterday. I think that’s growing up.