Single fathers: “You might be a lone parent, but nobody parents alone”
Four fathers who ended up going it alone share their very different experiences
Gary Spain at home with his daughters Hannah and Aisling. Gary’s wife Catherine Fallon-Spain died in 2005. Photograph: Alan Betson
Hollywood has always been upfront about its perception of single fathers. From Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle to George Clooney in One Fine Day, they are typically portrayed as either tragic figures or hopelessly incompetent ones, fumbling with nappies and forgetting to take their children to school, as they wait to be rescued by a warm-hearted, gorgeous, just-quirky-enough blonde.
Few of Ireland’s single fathers – many of them expertly juggling the demands of work and children, helping out with school projects, detangling hair and navigating the emotional fallout of teen dramas – would recognise themselves in these one dimensional on-screen depictions.
According to the 2016 Census, there are 218,817 families in Ireland headed by one parent. For 13.5 per cent of the total – 29,705 families – that one parent is the father. And there are many more fathers who share custody of their children, having them for weekends, or occasional weeknights.
I’ve been in a custody battle for my son since his birth and have missed a lot of his life so far. We have been in court 35 times in the last three years”
But though one-parent families headed by fathers make up a significant part of Ireland’s changing social landscape, formal recognition of the role of fathers – especially those who have never been married to the mother of their children – has been slow to come. One unmarried father who preferred not to be identified said he was advised when he went in 2010 to register the birth of his biological daughter – whose mother had previously been divorced in another country – that he should adopt her, or the child’s mother’s ex-partner could potentially have more rights. Reforms that came into effect in January 2016 granted more rights to unmarried fathers, including automatic guardianship to those who had been cohabiting for a period, but not retrospectively. It also allowed step-parents, civil parents and cohabiting partners to apply for guardianship, as well as establishing the “child’s best interests” as the paramount consideration in deciding access, custody or guardianship.
Stacked against them
But despite this progress, some lone parent fathers still feel the system is stacked against them. Those who have been involved in protracted legal disputes over custody or access are often not in a position to talk publicly about their situation, but some chose to share their experiences anonymously with The Irish Times.
As a white, middle-class male, the only time in my life I felt discriminated against was in court, and I do recognise that I’m coming from a place of privilege in saying that”
One separated father wrote about his long legal battle to establish a relationship with his son. “I’ve been in a custody battle for my son since his birth and have missed a lot of his life so far. We have been in court 35 times in the last three years. Words cannot describe how horrendous the court system is on fathers. I could never understand the much-stereotyped ‘deadbeat dad’, and although I do not identify with that role in any way, I can understand now how some men run geographically, or into a bottle, or just end their lives, because of the awfulness of what we go through in situations like mine,” he wrote.
He finished his letter: “My time with [my children] is the light in my life.”
Another who has just come out of a seven-year legal battle for access described how a judge refused him permission to take his child in his own home “because what would happen if the baby needed his nappy changed?”
“The whole thing – the family law courts system – is broken. It’s not working for children. My son is six years old and he told me he talks to himself about killing himself,” the father said.
Others spoke of the risk that safety orders and barring orders – a necessary protection for people in domestic violence situations – can be abused. “Once the allegation is made, the instinct is to grant the order first and ask questions later. And that’s important for the protection of women and children. On the other hand, it’s ripe for abuse,” said one man.
Lack of transparency
Several spoke of the lack of transparency in the system. “As a white, middle-class male, the only time in my life I felt discriminated against was in court, and I do recognise that I’m coming from a place of privilege in saying that,” said another.
Other aspects of the State’s treatment of single parents also pose problems to families. The organisation One Family cites the example of the €1,650 one-parent family tax credit, which was previously available to both working parents sharing parenting after separation. Since Budget 2014, it has only been available to the parent in receipt of child benefit – most often the mother. If she’s not working, in many cases, neither parent gets it. The primary carer can opt to temporarily transfer the credit to the child’s other parent, but this doesn’t always happen. “Many fathers have been left in a situation where they can’t access the tax credit and as a result feel their role isn’t valued,” says Valerie Maher of One Family.
Maher also points out that many women also feel let down by their experience in the courts system. “We hear a lot from fathers that their role is not acknowledged, but we do also hear from mothers that they have concerns that access is being awarded where it isn’t appropriate, so there are issues there on both sides.”
Despite the challenges, the stories of fathers parenting alone and sharing parenting in Ireland are not all about adversity. Despite sometimes difficult and often sad circumstances, there are single fathers creating happy homes, good memories and lasting bonds with their children.
Four fathers who ended up going it alone share their very different experiences.
Gary Spain: ‘We’ve had a different life together than we would have had, but we’re still having a good life together’
“It happened on a Tuesday morning in 2005. I was in work preparing for an important presentation – at least it seemed important then. My landline and my mobile started hopping. It was a colleague of my wife Catherine, who was a school principal. The colleague said my wife felt unwell, and she had collapsed in the classroom. I didn’t understand the seriousness. I asked if I could speak to her, and they said she was unconscious and the ambulance was on its way.
“By the time I got to Tallaght Hospital, I was told there was no hope. The bleed was too bad and there was no point sending her to Beaumont. In the space of one hour, my world changed forever. Catherine was pronounced dead the next day.
“Our daughters were four and one. I had to tell the four-year-old, which is still the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. My younger one was so small she didn’t understand, but she had been really attached to Catherine.
I miss having somebody to talk to, someone to help with what to say yes to and what to say no to”
“It was a horrific time. I don’t know how to describe it. I just kept going because I had to keep going. My sister-in-law moved up for a couple of weeks and helped out. I found a live-in childminder, and I went back to work. I’m still in the same job, with an American multinational. I can work from home a bit, which helps.
“That’s now my norm, and I still have a good life. My children are 16 and 13, and they are happy and healthy. But I really feel for Catherine that she missed out on so much with the kids, and for them that they missed out so much of her. I suppose we were fortunate that they were so young. I think losing a parent can be even harder as kids get older.
“My eldest daughter remembers her mum bringing her on the Luas. My younger daughter has no real memories, and I think that’s very hard on her.
“I miss having somebody to talk to, someone to help with what to say yes to and what to say no to. I can take advice from others, but ultimately it’s all down to me.
“More probably has to give when you’re a single parent. The house is not as nice as we’d like it to be. My younger daughter had Winnie the Pooh curtains until it got to the stage where she was too embarrassed to have friends in the room. If Catherine was still alive, that would have been sorted years ago.
“But I hope I’ve got the important things right. Both of them are happy, healthy, well-adjusted young women. We’ve had a different life together than we would have had, but we’re still having a good life together.”
Jim McKee: ‘There’s a lot of juggling, a lot of guilt and a lot of compensating’
“The best piece of advice I got as a father was: pour your love into your kids, stay positive, and keep them the number-one focus.
“My ex-wife and I broke up when my son, Dualta, was three months old. We shared custody of him until around the time he turned three. At that stage she was offered a job abroad and we both felt it was best for his schooling and everything else if he stayed with me.
“I’m a musician and an artist and for the first 10 years, when Dualta was in play group or at school, I would sleep. He’d be with me all day, and after he went to bed, I’d stay up all night painting or recording music. In 2007, my career began to take off and I was making money at art and got offered a record deal, but I couldn’t do it. I would have had to fly around the world and who was going to take my son to school then?
You feel like you have to be a mother and a father. There is a wee void, no matter how much you try and fill it up”
“Every year, I’d do four tours and my mother would come down to North Clare, where we were living, and step in. She was a fantastic support, but she couldn’t always be there. I remember one time my son got sick with asthma when I was out playing a gig, and he was at home with a babysitter. I was wracked with guilt that I hadn’t been there – I almost gave it all up then.
“Being a single parent, there’s a lot of juggling, a lot of guilt and a lot of compensating. You feel bad for the child not having the two parents, and you feel like you have to be a mother and a father. There is a wee void, no matter how much you try and fill it up. You’d go to McDonald’s after a football game, and you’re surrounded by mothers and fathers sitting there with their kids, and you’re very much aware that the two of you are on your own.
“One time I had a slipped disc and I was hopping around on one leg trying to care for Dualta. My mother couldn’t come down. I had one friend who brought me food, otherwise I don’t know how I’d have managed.
“Then the recession hit and there were times when we had no money. We were literally counting out the pennies to buy a loaf. But we had fantastic support from the community where we lived in North Clare.
“We got through it together, and my son has just turned 16, and he’s a good, rounded lad. He’s intelligent and he’s a great sportsman. He’s my right-hand man – I call him my guardian angel. He knows what’s good for me, and he knows what’s bad for me, and he can immediately tell when there’s something up. He’s been the biggest inspiration in my life.
“If I’m honest, I was reluctant to get into a relationship, to bring someone new into his life. But then I met Emma [Heatherington, a writer] in April 2013. She’d seen a poster for a gig in a chip shop, and she asked me if I wanted to do a joint giveaway on Facebook – a musician and a writer from Tyrone. Then she came to my gig on her birthday, and that’s how it all began.
“Emma and I have had another son now, Sonny James, who’s 2½. When Sonny James was born, myself and Dualta moved up to Tyrone, and we went from being a family of two to a family of seven [Emma had three other children from a previous relationship]. At the start, it wasn’t easy, it was all a wee bit new, and Dualta had to move school, which was tough on him. His one request was that he could have his own room, so I’m working on converting the granny flat for him now.
“It was strange going from the two of us to becoming part of a big family, but they’re a very tight little pack now, and they all watch out for each other. We had them all on holidays last year in France, and they’re all sitting around eating dinner and laughing, and Emma and I just sat backing watching them and smiling at how lucky we are.”
Kevin Dunne: ‘I don’t want to find myself looking back and thinking I should have been there more’
“I have two children living with me full-time, Ellie who’s 12 and Daniel who’s nine. They came to live with me four years ago by mutual consent, when their mum was going through a tough time. At the time, I also had a six-month-old daughter from a new relationship. That relationship has since ended, and Robyn – who’s four now – is with us on weekends.
“I’ve just finished up work – the whole juggle was just too much, even though I get fantastic support from my own parents. I couldn’t have got through the last few years without them. But the summer holidays are coming up and, as much as family might be willing to help, I don’t want to keep leaving the kids in different houses. And the young one is getting into teenage discos and starting secondary school, and I don’t want all those transitions to go by and then find myself looking back and thinking I should have been there more. Financially, we’ll manage with a lot of cutting back. I’d like to keep working, and I’ve always enjoyed working, but I’m only 34 now so I’ve another 30 years ahead of me at work.
From day one I’ve felt under the spotlight, that people are looking and wondering: can you actually do it?”
“I’m lucky that back in February we got a council house, after privately renting for the last four years. It’s great to have that sense of security, and the kids are finally able to decorate their rooms.
“There are times being a single dad is a bit tricky. Last year my daughter wanted a slumber party for her birthday and I kind of didn’t know how other parents would react. As it turned out, we kept it small, just three or four girls whose parents I’d know, and my girlfriend came over as well.
“From day one I’ve felt under the spotlight, that people are looking and wondering: can you actually do it? There’s that element of pressure there where you feel like you have to get things right. On the other hand, I do feel like sometimes I get too much credit. The fact that I’m raising a kid on my own by default makes me a great father.
“What are the things I feel I’ve got right? I suppose the big thing is trying to have a good relationship with them while still being the authority figure. It’s always having one on one time with them, even if it’s just five minutes with them sitting on the bed before they go to sleep and asking about their day.
“I love being with my kids. I’d happily just spend a week hanging out with them at home. It’s very rare that a father is given custody over a mother – it’s assumed that the best thing for a child is to be with their mother, but it isn’t always the case. There are plenty of fathers out there who have real concerns about their kids, and their welfare, and they are not being listened to, they think there’s nothing they can do about it. I really believe the father’s opinion needs to be taken into account.”
Mike Carbery: ‘You might be a lone parent, but nobody parents alone’
“I had set my own landscaping business up just before the recession, and I was only in it a few years. Then the recession came along and effectively rendered me part-time. My wife was working and studying at the same time so the arrangement worked for the whole family unit, and got us through the recession, but I suppose in the end it didn’t work for us as a family, because we separated three years ago.
“At that stage, we had been married for eight years, and together for 20, with two children who are now 12 and 9. The fact that I had been the stay-at-home parent actually complicated everything in our separation, because we had different views on where each person stood.
“Our circumstances meant we had to stay living in the same house for a year after we separated. That was a necessary evil on all of us, but it was a terrible scenario. I felt I couldn’t leave because I wouldn’t have been able to secure access, and everyone advised me to stay, but it was awful.
How do kids spell ‘love’? The spell it ‘t-i-m-e’. That’s what I’ve always believed”
“We were a year and a half going through the courts system. We actually came to an agreement on the steps of the court, and now I am living elsewhere and renting, and the kids come and stay with me pretty much half the time. I am joint custodian of the kids, and although it was an arduous task to secure that, I’m very glad I did.
“My ex-wife and I both work full-time and employ separate childminders. It’s effectively a two-home, two-different-childcare, and two different people looking after the kids scenario.
“The good parts of my situation are that I have day-to-day contact with the kids. I was so involved when they were growing up in their formative years at home, cooking dinners, bringing them to school, growing vegetables. I was a very hands-on father, and because I’ve got 50-50 access, I don’t feel I’ve lost that bond with them. I still have enough contact time to stay engaged with their day-to-day activities, and to stay in tune with the mundane little stuff that happens. The small stuff is really important because it’s in those little mundanities that you feel when there’s something wrong.
“I have a really great relationship with the kids. I can’t give them money or the tangible stuff that comes with money, but I can give them good craic and really open communication. I talk really openly to them, and sometimes I cry, and they see that and know that’s how it is.
“How do kids spell ‘love’? The spell it ‘t-i-m-e’. That’s what I’ve always believed.
“The kids have adjusted well. My son feels a great sense of loss, and I know he sometimes wishes that he could roll back the clock. But I think ultimately what he misses is the idea of a mom and dad who are together; that picture postcard family set-up. He wants the postcard version, but not the reality which had become awful for all of us.
“Do I feel optimistic about the future? I think a separation inevitably has a detrimental effect on everybody involved. The most obvious one being standards of living have dropped. It’s hard to be optimistic about that. In the broader scheme of thing, in terms of the kids, I’d be optimistic for them.
“You might be a lone parent, but nobody parents alone. Everybody has people they lean on. You see people who have grown closer to family through situations like mine because they’ve got to lean on them. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s fine because it takes a village. Early on I just accepted that I needed help and I was going to ask. One good thing is that you end up with a support network that you might not have had otherwise.”
Askonefamily, the helpline for people parenting alone, sharing parenting, or separating can be contacted on 1890-662212, 01-6629212 or via onefamily.ie.