1.7M Single Dads Coping at Holiday Time: 'I Can Only Do so Much'

PHOTO: Reynard Zweifel of Kansas City, Mo., with his daughters Amaya, 11, and Leigha, 8.
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Reynard Zweifel, a graphic designer from Kansas City, Mo., juggles work with organizing the busy lives of two young girls -- a role that is rewarding, but complicated, especially at holiday time.

He is a single father, splitting custody with his ex-wife and raising Amaya, 11, and Leigha, 8.

"For me the challenge is that I am raising girls, so sometimes it's difficult because I can't show them how to be girls," said Zweifel, 32, who has been divorced since 2009.

"I can't show them everything and I have to depend on my sister and mom coming in and my nieces helping me out with that," he said. "I can only do so much."

An estimated 1.7 million men are single fathers, according to 2009 U.S. Census figures, up from 400,000 in 1970. In fact, 15 percent of all single parents were men and 8 percent of them were raising three or more children younger than 18.

Like Zweifel, the majority of those men [65 percent] are divorced or separated; 29 percent were never married and about 5 percent were widowed. Together, they are raising an estimated 3.2 million children, according to the report Custodial Mothers and Father and Their Child Support: 2007.

"Now, say 'single dad' and it's likely you'll conjure some lummox in an apron spooning scorched macaroni-and-cheese into a soup bowl for an ill-dressed tot with a bad haircut while the school bus beeps at the curb," wrote William McClosky in the New York Times "Mother Lode" column last year."

"Why is that?" he asked. "Well, you could ask the producers of 'Mr. Mom' and 'Kramer vs. Kramer.' What sells and what's real are rarely so conflated as the facts about single parenthood."

McClosky writes he had the "absolute gift and privilege" of raising a son, who is now 36, and "survived" his parenting skills.

Zweifel said he feels the same, but the hectic holidays can present logistical and emotional hurdles. He and his ex-wife -- former high school sweethearts who just grew apart -- share child-raising "50-50," he said.

"I can't make an impact on their lives just having them on the weekends or seeing them every other weekend," he said. "And this is the same house they grew up in – the only home they know."

She takes the girls one week and he the next, handing off responsibilities on Fridays. But at Thanksgiving and Christmas, they divide time spent with the kids.

At Christmas, they will celebrate on Dec. 24 so the girls can spend Dec. 25 with their mother. At Thanksgiving, Zweifel cooked for his extended family – all 25 of them.

"We always do a turkey and the sides," he said. "Mom comes and helps out and makes the yams. From there, they stop by go to sister house and rest of the family."

But it's complicated and "frustrating for me at times," he said.

"I have to be really diligent planning out our activities on a day-to-day basis – simple stuff that you take for granted," said Zweifel. "You get up and get ready for work and are on your way, but as a single parent with kids, I have to make sure I am ready ahead of time so I can get them ready, eat breakfast and clean up."

Reynard said he now sympathizes with mothers who do "50 jobs at once … I can completely understand firsthand now."

Experts say that men in general are playing a larger role in their children's lives – a trend that is encouraging.

"Every child needs a father or a father figure in their lives," said Cary Casey, CEO of the National Center for Fathering, who served on a White House task force. Those who don't are "more likely to be poor, drop out of school and, if they are girls, get pregnant as teens."

"The dad just being there is important," he said. "There are no perfect dads."

"But a dad can do it," he said. "We have to bring the same energy, study and wisdom and understanding in our jobs into our homes as single dads," said Casey, himself the father of four children aged 33 down to 14.

"Children are not a burden, they are a gift," he said.

Single Fathers Can Inspire Their Kids

Casey's youngest, Chance, is often embarrassed when Casey stands in his bathrobe at the doorstep to stay goodbye when his son boards the school bus. But often, the 6-foot 2-inch teen will still implore before bedtime: "Daddy, are you going to tuck me in?"

"A single dad has a great opportunity not to sit around and complain and say, 'Poor me,'" said Casey. "He has a great opportunity Men step up and find a way to win. Men are creative. We inspire and equip our kids."

Reynard said his children are doing well under his watch. Both are good students and play soccer and dance. "They are great kids," he said.

His one worry is that his oldest daughter is now approaching puberty, and will need a woman to talk to.

"That part is kind of hard for me," he said. "I'll have my mom talk to her and she has her own mother. We have been providing her books to look through and the school is helpful, too."

Reynard said he is more than "lucky" to have responsibility for his daughters. "I call it blessed," he said.

"I don't want my kids to grow up and say, 'My dad wasn't around in my life.' Fathering is huge to me. They need their dad and if not, later on they'll pay for it."

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