My wife recently served for six months in the United Nations Support Mission to Libya while I stayed behind in New York City taking care of our two children, ages 11 and 5. Being a single dad was a challenge. I was sometimes lonely, regularly exhausted and often wished my wife was around to help. But even though it was not easy to be a single parent, I'm grateful for the experience.
My wife's extended absence would have been vastly more difficult to manage during my 14-year career at Intel Corporation. I traveled regularly and even when I was home, work calls and deadlines often disrupted my family life. But in the middle of 2011, I left the corporate world to become a writer and "family adventurer." Although the demands of publishing a book and a series of pieces for CNBC, the Huffington Post and the United Nations challenged me even more than my old corporate job, I had perhaps the most precious commodity of all: control over my time. My wife and I agreed that this offered the best window of opportunity for her to serve in a UN Mission. In her many years with the UN, she had opted out of several similar overseas assignments because of my job and the need to care for our children. She had even taken a leave of absence from the UN early in her career so that I could pursue my first position at Intel on the West Coast. It was only fair that I would return the favor and support her professional advancement.
Here's what I found hard about being a single dad:
- It's exhausting. I was responsible for all meals, the daily commute to and from school, managing after school activities, play-dates, taking care of my kids when they were sick, homework review, night time routine, laundry, cleaning, etc. As every parent knows, taking care of children is relentless. And managing it without my wife to share the load meant that I was just tired much of the time. I came up with an idea for a t-shirt. Front: "Best Dad Ever..." Back: "...As long as I am well-fed, have plenty of sleep, lots of money and no work stress."
You feel inadequate sometimes. Even though I poured love into my children, sometimes, I could tell that what they wanted most was a good dose of feminine nurturing. I suspect that both genders in the role of single parent feel some sense of inadequacy. Forget spontaneity. One afternoon, an old friend from high school came into town on a business trip and called me at the last minute to meet him out for a drink with some friends. I wasn't able to find a babysitter on such short notice, and my friends preferred going out to a bar instead of hanging out at my place, where they would have had to keep their voices down because of my sleeping kids. So I stayed home knowing I was missing a great time with friends I rarely got to see. You lose time for yourself. For years, I have run on trails every Sunday morning in a forest about forty-five minutes away from my home in New York City. It's a wonderful routine that gives me a chance to spend time in nature, stay in shape and socialize with my training buddies. But with my wife in Libya, this run suddenly became much more complicated to pull off. I couldn't find a babysitter to come over at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning for a few hours, so I gave up this particular habit and gained a few pounds and a new grudge against single parenthood. You go a little nuts. I started noticing parallels from Greek mythology in my life: Like a modern version of Sisyphus, I cleaned up the same messes my kids made over and over again. My 5-year-old daughter believed that I was all-powerful like Zeus ("Daddy, please make it stop raining"), and whined when I didn't alter the reality of the world to her liking. As if firing arrows guided by Apollo directly at my Achilles heel, my kids knew just how to make me lose my temper -- dilly-dallying in the morning when we were already late for school, for example. I discovered my gender bias. After eleven years as a father, I was comfortable with the responsibility of being a parent, but I struggled with the gender stereotypes I'd internalized from a young age: Men are expected to be the primary breadwinner in a household. In leaving my career at Intel, I had given up an enviable, well-paid position in a prestigious company. And although I maintained a professional identity as a writer, it felt strange and slightly embarrassing to be the spouse left behind to take care of kids instead of the one traveling around the world making money.
Here's what was great about being a single dad:
- You forge a closer bond. I read to my children each night, sang them to sleep, comforted them when they were hurt or sad, cooked meals with them and offered advice and guidance. We spent a lot of time together riding bikes, playing soccer, going to parks and playgrounds, museums and movies. Sometimes, we simply hung out at home doing nothing special. I was there when they needed me, and I liked the feeling of being needed. Recognizing how much they wanted to spend time together made me feel valued, gave me a greater sense of purpose than just working all the time to make money and brought us closer together.
You gain confidence as a parent. Despite the frustrations I mentioned above, I learned that I could handle the responsibility of caring for two children by myself. Recognizing that no one finds it easy to be a parent helped me relax and enjoy the good moments. My "Cats in the Cradle" moment. Spending so much time with my kids and observing their rapid physical and intellectual development reminded me how short childhood is. One night, while singing my daughter to sleep to Harry Chapin's "Cats in the Cradle" -- a song about a businessman who realized too late that he had missed his son's childhood -- I imagined myself as an old man being transported back in time to watch this scene. I realized immediately how much the older version of myself would have forgotten the frustrations of raising young children and how he would treasure these quiet moments.I developed respect and awe for single parents who manage on their own to raise children from birth to adulthood in our modern society full of dispersed or broken nuclear families. As the months went by, I began to newly understand the strains, struggles and relentless demands faced by a single parent. I had control over my time, no financial troubles and an end point only a few months out when my wife would return and the pressure would let up. And yet, I still struggled. As for the single mother desperately working two minimum-wage jobs so her kids have enough to eat, I have new admiration for her courage and new compassion for her situation. How does she manage?
I'm no longer a single dad, and I don't miss it. But I believe this experience made me a more resourceful parent. The morning that my daughter spilled orange juice on her dress as we were walking out the door was the same day we got a flat tire on the 20-minute bike ride to school. That night, my son told me as he went to bed that he had not finished his Ancient Egypt report on the Nile River that was due the next morning. I must have been annoyed and may even have lost my temper at the time, but I no longer remember my emotions. I just remember thinking that the older version of myself was probably nodding his head, knowing that parenthood is filled with mini-fiascos that give us all something to laugh about later.