Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

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.

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8 Responses to “Single parenting: for bluemilk”

  1. bluemilk said

    Dave, this is such an interesting story. Now that I am a parent myself I find every single parent’s story a tale of almost miraculous proportions even though I came from a mostly single parent family myself. I don’t know how you did it, a tiny child, working, your own epilepsy sounds quite signficant (my own partner has been diagnosed with epilepsy this year but his doesn’t sound as difficult as yours), and then whatever grief you and your daughter were experiencing from the relationship break-up.

    I loved your tips for other single parents too – the shopping tip and the cooking tip.

    The flexible work conditions that you negotiated with your boss sound inspiringly terrific. What a difference family friendly work arrangements make to the life of a parent and their difference for a single parent must be the difference between head above water and head under.

    While I think family friendly arrangements are making significant progress I think the idea of being able to have your baby at work with you in its infancy is a long long way off and so far off that I’ve never before contemplated it as an idea. You’re right though that infants are pretty much designed to be carried all day and if you can put them in a sling you’re free to do something else most of the time.

    I’m in two minds about the trend in primary carers returning to work in the first couple of years of their babies’ lives. On the one hand I want us primary carers to have all the opportunities and advantages and personal fulfillment and security that everyone else has through their jobs … but on the other hand I worry that the specialised care and indeed the intensity of the work of looking after babies is to some degree denied when primary carers are expected to do both that and paid work and, generally that the work of nurturing an infant/toddler is dimminished in value when it is seen as something that can easily be substituted by an underpaid, over-worked external carer.

    I don’t know, I’m still thinking through my thoughts on this area. Obviously working for many parents is survival and they don’t have the luxury of contemplating whether it is taking away from them some of their potential satisfaction and value from their parenting work.

    Finally, I’m not sure why you gave time to the stereotypes about single mothers by agreeing that there are some errant mothers in the bunch. Surely there are some errant mothers in all household types, and why stop there – some errant fathers in all household types, and what about the people without children, aren’t they just as prone to character flaws?

    As a society we feel an entitlement to judge single mothers but really, as you noted, we’re mostly clueless about the reality of the lives of single parents. Single mothers are keenly aware of our hostility towards them. Our judgement and stereotyping adds to the stress already upon single mothers and I don’t see any just purpose in it. I imagine people feel some entitlement to judge because they see themselves as taxpayers contributing financial aid to single parent families. As taxpayers, let us assure ourselves that for every single mother ‘ripping off the system’ there is a married couple somewhere lying on their tax returns.

  2. bluemilk said

    Also, thank you for expanding on the comments you left on my post by writing your own post. Very thoughtful of you and a really interesting story you have.

  3. Dave Bath said


    Finally, I’m not sure why you gave time to the stereotypes about single mothers by agreeing that there are some errant mothers in the bunch

    The point was that it this has some explanatory power for the difference in attitude to single custodial dads v mums. Mind you, teenage males can’t get pregnant ;-)

  4. Dave Bath said

    Forgot to say about my “stereotype” comment: I’d hope that both my comments on your blog and this post indicate my profound respect for single parents, regardless of gender. I agree many smug folks have the “guilty until proven innocent” attitude, and, for any single parent, it should be “innocent until proven guilty, with lots of consideration to mitigating circumstances”.
    If the “smug” types castigate the single parent (as individuals or a class), they actually decrease self-esteem, which probably flows on and decreases the level of care of the child. So the “smuggies” are causing harm to children.

  5. bluemilk said

    Dave – yes, your respect for single parents, mothers and fathers alike, is very clear. Cheers.

  6. […] also need to address the flexibility of arrangements.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, when babies are able to rest quietly in slings, needing merely filling, emptying and close body […]

  7. […] friends who were honorary uncles and aunts to my daughter were essential: as a single dad, I relied on female friends to be there for my daughter’s questions at menarche.  I […]

  8. […] males for generations, deprived them of the joys of nurturing?  I reckon so, from my experience as a sole parent, and now a significant carer of my grandson two days a week (I’m the only grandparent who has […]

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