Single parenting: for bluemilk
Posted by Dave Bath on 2007-11-27
Bluemilk, in a comment thread on her post about single mums and the way they are looked down on by "smug married guys", asked me to comment on my experience as a single dad. I’ll address this in two parts: single dad versus single mum issues (the attitudes of others, including general comments about workplace conditions for single parents), and the special case of being a single dad of a daughter versus single mum of a son. I’ll finish with a couple of idiot-proof recipes that are useful for "kitchen-impaired" single dads.
A single dad has a significant advantage over a single mum: more sympathy and no social stigma. I can see why this happens: you can’t become a single dad without making a choice to do so, or by suffering grievous loss.
Now, we must admit that there are a few "black sheep" among single mothers, but that does not change the fact that any single parent, male or female, by choice, carelessness or tragedy, has a huge responsibility, and that everyone should respect that huge workload.
At the same time, those who advocate better treatment of single mums should use language that forces listeners to think about the propositions rather than stick in prejudiced ruts. If advocates used "single mums and dads" rather than "single mothers", the arguments would get much more traction. (The phrase "single parents" won’t work – it just creates in most the mental picture of "single mother".)
Those that have a "holier than thou" attitude and disparage single parents should instead realise "there but for the grace of g*d go I". As for smug people who want to keep it tough for single parents, they have no idea unless for a significant period of time (not just for a week, but a few rent periods) they are sole parents and breadwinners.
My daughter, a stay at home wrangler of a wannabe crawler, with a partner, admits she can’t couldn’t cope with my load of full-time work while looking after an infant (my then partner was in hospital most of the time).
Although getting the flexible work conditions necessary was very "career limiting", I was very lucky, and wish that all single parents had my options. When very young, my daughter, who was very difficult to settle, would doze in a sling on my chest at work (not great ergonomically, reaching around her to the three keyboards on my desk). I was able to arrive at work late and leave early so I could get her to and from school (public transport – I’m epileptic and can’t drive, and I did more work at home late at night). When she was older, I was even able to have her sit at a spare desk at some client sites on curriculum days.
While I’d been lucky with a good boss (thanks Gerry) I must admit that I was probably only able to get the working conditions I needed because I was a single dad, rather than a single mum. Have any single mums out there wangled the latitude I was blessed with?
And yet, at least one of the perks I had should be available to all parents of infants, single or not. Given that all the great apes, including humans in less artificial societies (agrarian or nomadic), go about their daily activities with babies in a sling or holding on to fur, why shouldn’t that be normal in urban societies where OH&S considerations allow? Why shouldn’t bank tellers, for example, be able to follow a practice as natural as breastfeeding: having infants in a sling all day? Think about the impact on labor supply too: there are months when an infant feeds, sh*ts and dozes in a sling with minimal impact on productivity. Again, I was luckier than most: I could burp or give a bottle with one hand while the other debugged code or monitored systems.
Afterwards, when they want to get mobile, its another matter. Perhaps parental leave should come in two tranches: one when they are new, then another as they start crawling when you need eyes in the back of your head and the multiple arms of an indian goddess. My ex had custody during the hellish toddler stage, so I was sad, but lucky when thinking about the practicalities.
Note that I’m only talking of a single dad rather than the issue of the primary care-giver being a stay-at-home husband with a career wife. One of my best friends has been in this situation, loved it, and was darn good at it. The urge to be what is called "maternal" can be strong in males too, even those without an uxorious bent.
A single dad with a daughter faces a few special hurdles. I’d hope things have changed by now, because I had no role models, and no discussion of the situation in the media. There was some discussion of the issues single mums have raising boys and the lack of a male role model, but this was 90% irrelevant.
Luckily, I had a lot to do with her brother, 5 years younger, who is my godson (I’m atheist, so demanded a civil celebrant), and I could show her my idea of how infants need lots of cuddles, and that males can change hundreds of noxious nappies.
Buying clothes sucks, because of the dad’s lack of fashion sense, and the male preference for in-and-out shopping. You wait forever outside changing rooms, or cop flak for buying easy-fit unisex from the boy’s section too often. If you forget your copy of New Scientist, you stare intently at the ceiling or floor when buying bras for the first time. At least the staff are happy to hurry the girl up so they can get out of their shop the male that is probably dissuading other customers from coming in.
But I did learn one trick, which was very useful once the disgusting tweens started (boys don’t go very tweeny) and I could trust her to go alone to the local shopping strip (it starts next door, includes a Target, and Malvern is a very safe area). When a daughter needs a few socks, knickers, and maybe a jumper or shirt, you can avoid heaps of frustration by just handing over between $20 and $50 and say "see how much you can buy, but bring back the receipt". The longer she takes, the better the bargain, and the happier she is with her choice. Win-win!
Menarche is stressful. No matter how much anatomy and physiology you’ve studied, all you can say is "I can teach you all about your body, but I’ve no idea on what it feels like, especially the first time when you’ll need to rush to the toilet".
Buying "feminine hygeine products" is tricky, and you’ll have to go to the (more expensive) chemist, wait for someone matronly to serve you, and get advice on what pads are suitable at first, and later, when tampons might be appropriate.
Girls are more clingy than boys, yet want another female about the house, which causes a dilemma for both dad and daughter. She wanted me to settle down again, yet was very insecure about losing our close physical relationship. As with all single parents, the extra pair of hands of a partner would be extremely handy and provide better care, but the possibility of necessarily divided loyalties threatens the emotional support a child feels. Luckily, not wanting to be burnt again made the decision easier.
My daughter still can’t decide. She has the "yuk factor" of someone pushing fifty getting "squishy" with a partner, but wants me to have some support and my confirmed bachelor habits tamed, a non-issue for single mums. Still, when she comes to Melbourne to stay for a few days, she appreciates I’m not nagged to do things, and can spend lots of time curled up with my grandson.
Meals are problematic for a dad who can’t stand the smell of red meat cooking but can’t deny the iron in red meat a daughter needs. I was lucky again. Between my hate of red meat, my epilepsy that makes knives and stoves tricky, and lots of choice in eateries nearby, I had the excuse to eat out so we could order separate dishes and use the time saved to talk about her day.
Nevertheless, I’m chuffed that my daughter now cooks my "specialty" once a week, and my weaning grandson can’t get enough of it. So, as a service to other single dads, here’s a tasty recipe that is a no-brainer to cook: Dad’s "Persian" Chicken.
- Soften and slightly caramelize diced onions and garlic in a little butter or oil: remove from pan – leaving some of molten butter.
- In the same pan, brown diced chicken breast, preferably with some Worcestershire sauce and herbs to taste.
- Put back the onions and garlic, drown the lot in at least a half-pint of thickened cream, perhaps with a few diced carrots, green beans and capsicum.
- Simmer very gently with the lid on, stirring occasionally until the cream is thoroughly gluggy and brown (it shouldn’t drain through a fork), and any vegies are completely soft.
- Serve over rice.
- If you want to be more authentically Persian, when the rice is nearly done, take the water out of the saucepan, turn up the heat, so there is a layer of browned crispy rice stuck together, a couple of grains thick, at the bottom. Scrape this out (it will break up a bit) and put the pieces on top of the sauce or to the side.
- Reheating the next day (rarely needed) is tricky as the oils separate without constant vigourous whisking in the pan.
Here’s a no-brainer dessert: Thai Sweet Roti.
- Heat up some roti bread in a pan, browning it slightly both sides (or, if shrink-wrapped roti, about 30 secs just to heat it), using barely enough butter or oil so it doesn’t stick.
- Put roti on a plate (preferably the plate should be warm).
- With a tube of condensed milk (preferably slightly chilled and with only a tiny hole in the tube), make a spiral or "spider web" on the roti. (Don’t drown the roti in the milk. It’s not like maple syrup and pancakes!)
- Dust with a little icing sugar.
- Optionally add something else sweet, including raspberry-flavored sultanas, or more traditionally, mushy warm banana
- Serve immediately (the bread should be hot, the condensed milk should not have gone too runny) with a knife and fork or roll up like a souv.
- The trick is to get the milk and icing sugar on the hot roti in only a few seconds, and then straight to the table.
- "Will maternal leave disadvantage women?" (2008-01-31) which discusses Rudd’s proposals for government-subsidized leave and wage gender equality