Arlene Harris talks to three men about their delight in being parents to growing children and how they deal with the difficulties of single or sole fatherhood.
DADS play a vital part in their children’s lives and for the past three years new fathers in Ireland have been granted two weeks of statutory paternity leave at any stage during the first 26 weeks of fatherhood.
Fear of missing out at work is stopping some men from taking this paternity leave with just 40% of dads taking time off to be with their newborns last year.
But with many experts extolling the benefits of paternal bonding, these figures will hopefully rise as employers encourage new dads to spend time with their families.
Almost 220,000 family units in Ireland are headed by a lone parent — an increase of more than 3,500 since the last census in 2011. And while the vast majority of these parents are women (84%), one in seven (or 13.6%) single parents are male.
With Father’s Day just around the corner, we speak to three solo dads whose children are their world.
Stephen Teap (38) lost his wife, Irene, to cervical cancer in 2017. As father to two boys — Oscar (six) and Noah (four) the Cork man, who is a high-profile member of the CervicalCheck steering committee, says there is nothing more important than his sons’ health and happiness.
“Spending time with my boys, making memories and being a family is everything to me,” he says.
“Reliving my youth through their eyes is always great fun, whether it’s Santa Claus around Christmas time, dressing up for Halloween or watching the favourite movies I loved as a kid and seeing the expressions on my boys’ faces as they experience the magic I did for the first time; even the tooth fairy brings its own excitement.”
We don’t often hear about young widowers with small children, he says.
“I know a lot of single-parent situations can be filled with conflict but there are also many who still have the assistance of the other parent in raising their kids even though they’re still not together. But I’m on my own and that became very apparent last month when Oscar became ill after a trip to Legoland in England.
“The GP referred him to hospital for tests and it was decided to admit him overnight. Once I heard that the panic kicked in and I truly felt alone. Thank God I have great family and friends who come to my aid and Oscar, who had picked up a bug, is doing fine.”
Birthdays feature among the most difficult days. “It’s when we notice Irene’s absence the most. She took great pride in baking the birthday cake and hand making all of the decorations.
“Special occasions are also very difficult, especially the firsts, Oscar’s first school concert or Noah’s first Christmas singing concert in Montessori, you can’t help but feel sad for the boys that their mother isn’t around to witness this.
“Also, silly things then like Oscar taking off on his bike last year or reading his first book from start to finish recently or something as simple as Noah dressing himself for the very first time and being so happy with himself with his huge, three-year-old achievement.”
Stephen, head of network and training at Volvo Cars Ireland, says the most challenging part of being a sole parent is trying to juggle routine — but it is hugely rewarding and worth all the effort.
“Making packed lunches, dropping the boys to school and crèche, going to work, being back in time to collect them, making dinner, doing homework and, most importantly, squeezing in family time together, can be exhausting,” he says. “It leaves very little time for things like heading out for a run or going to the gym, which requires a lot of planning.
“But the three of us are the best of friends and try and have as much fun as possible. We love going swimming, to the cinema and to Fota.
“Last summer we bought a tent and have been camping a few times with friends and the boys absolutely love this. We just did our first trip of 2019 last weekend.”
The boys value their one-on-one time with their dad.
“Normally it means sweets for them and a quick espresso for me, but it’s their time they have on their own with me and, for some reason, they love to suggest a ‘sneaky coffee’ which I will never refuse.”
Making memories has become all the more important since Irene passed away.
“Memories are the one thing which can’t be taken away from us. I try to keep her memory alive as the boys were so young when she passed away, which is why we try and do the most we can every day.”
Mums are often seen as key with support services focussed on her role. What advice would he give to sole fathers? “All the support groups out there for parents all seem to be concentrated around mothers and it’s difficult if you’re looking for advice on anything.
“All I would say is surround yourself with friends who have children of their own so you can weigh on them for support and get parenting tips for whatever reason you need them.”
He believes more needs to be done to help people in his situation. “The increasing cost of childcare and lack of governmental support is something which affects all parents. I wasn’t always a single parent and the problems I have today are the same as when my boys had their mum around, just now it’s highlighted more that I’m the only income.
“The cost of childcare forces a lot of parents to make the choice between work or staying at home and given that most households require two incomes to keep a roof over their heads this puts an awful lot of pressure on young families , so I definitely think there could be more done in relation to tax breaks for single parents.
“As a single income household, something certainly should be done to ease the financial pressures around childcare particularly.”
Michael Rossney (40) has two children — Aimee (five) and Harvey (four). He shares the parenting role with his ex-wife and says the days his children are with him are the most special.
“It’s hard to put into words how much I love being their dad,” says the employment specialist. “Aimee loves planning things so I really enjoy our negotiations around what will she wear that day and what we’re going to eat.
“Harvey is wonderful and incredibly funny. He is constantly moving and singing or making sounds. I love it when he finds a song he likes and he gets completely still as nothing is allowed to distract him from the music. He’s a real boy — obsessed with pirates, Lego and superheroes but at the same time, he is incredibly gentle and kind.
“I told him that I wanted to ’trim down my belly to make it like a superhero’s belly’. He thought about it for a while and then told me not to worry because ’The Hulk’ had a belly too and he was a superhero.”
Michael, who lives in Dublin, says being a dad has allowed him to revisit his childhood and enjoy ‘being silly’.
But the part-time role does bring challenges.
Ray Brennan (47) is father to Zara (nine) and Sean (five).
A software developer, he says the rewards of being a father are endless and he never tires of watching his children grow.
“It is fantastic to see them develop and mature and I have noticed that whatever I ask of them, they will exceed my expectations,” he says. “I just love spending time with them and am amazed by how determined they are, whether it comes to learning to swim or building something out of Lego.
My daughter recently gave me the birthday present of being able to swim 1k — this she achieved because she wanted to do something special for me and had been practising for months — I was so proud that she managed to achieve such a feat at her age.”
It can be difficult when it’s time for the children to return to their mum.
“Not being with them all the time is very challenging and waving goodbye to them when they have to go back to their mother is very hard,” he says.
The Dublin man says being a parent brings many unexpected moments, but the most surprising thing of all is how it totally transformed his life.
“I would change course and go wherever I fancied at the drop of a hat but that all seemed to change when I had my first child. I was suddenly given a purpose in life and all I wanted to do was to protect my little girl — the feeling was amazing.
“Then when my son was born I developed a real sense of pride, followed by a responsibility to teach him well. So without a doubt, I would say that being a dad has changed me for the better.”
Fathers play a significant role in their children’s lives and this has often been overlooked, but thankfully times are changing, says child Wexford-based psychologist Peadar Maxwell.
“In the past, research focused more on the role of mothers, while fathers were portrayed as providers and disciplinarians when a mother needed backup,” he says.
“This jaded and unhelpful view has been replaced by modern research which supports what most of us already know — fathers are a hugely important part of a child’s development and emotional life.
“Children who have a caring, involved and supportive father are more likely to feel more secure and have better outcomes across a number of themes in their life.”
Research shows that having a devoted dad is hugely beneficial to a child’s development.
“Several studies indicate that children of men with a nurturing and encouraging style of fathering are more likely to have enhanced verbal and emotional skills, which is also associated with better intellectual and academic achievement,” he says.
“This is not to say that children cannot be parented successfully by one parent or two mothers but it does put paid to the outdated notion that fathers have a restricted role in their children’s lives.
“There have always been loving, doting fathers just as there have always been absent or preoccupied fathers. What has changed is that we are starting to pay more attention to the role of men in their families and to the ability of men to relate in a loving and nurturing way.
“Now society and workplaces need to catch up and provide fathers with the permission and support to be the best father they can be.”