I’ve been a single parent since 2005. This is a simple fact. There are many of us raising kids without the help of a partner, yet single parenthood has become synonymous with poor parenting, particularly within certain sections of society where the emphasis is placed on tradition and small ‘c’ conservative values. Yet I have been witness to a certain degree of double standards, which I attribute to being a man. I find it curious that when we read stories in the tabloid press or listen to this or that political pundit, the ills of society are more often directed towards single mothers than single fathers. People tend to think differently about single dads when, in reality, we all just muddle through life and do the best we can, and the problems society faces can in no way be attributed to a single cause or group of people (but I digress).
For me, single parenthood wasn’t something that came naturally, perhaps because my own father never seemed all that sure about how to raise his own sons, despite having four of them. My parental blueprint didn’t prepare me for single fatherhood, but then, I’m not so sure that anything could.
Dad wasn’t what you would describe as hands-on. Born in 1939, a year that changed the world forever, he always seemed, to me anyway, an unfathomable character. His own father died when he was young and he and his younger brother were raised predominantly by his mother with help from Father Dickinson, a catholic priest who employed my grandmother as a housekeeper. It was through this relationship that both boys attended Ushaw College, a Catholic seminary near Durham, perhaps hoping they would one day become priests themselves. Neither did, of course, and while my father would later reject religion (and Catholicism specifically) because of his experiences at Ushaw, his brother would keep his faith for many years, eventually discarding it entirely when he took his own life with, according to Dad, a glass of sherry in one hand and the collected works of W. B. Yeats in the other.
The Smith line appears beset by tragedy. After a life of extraordinary highs and bone-crushing lows, years punctuated by financial security, bankruptcy and homelessness, Dad died aged 57, not much older than I am now. He was an old-school journalist, more at home in a war zone or in smoke-filled city pubs than with his family. Eventually the drink and the cigarettes would take their toll and leave his body old beyond its years. I never really understood what being an alcoholic really meant until I read ‘alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver’ on his death certificate.
It must have been hard for my mother, raising four boys in a household with little money and a husband who never really came to terms with being a father. But we managed the best we could, Mum putting money aside for birthdays and special occasions while Dad contributed to the upkeep of the local pubs. She dutifully followed her husband from the Northeast of England to the London commuter-belt, Australia, New Zealand (where my younger brother was born) and eventually to Yorkshire where I have raised my own son.
Although she would never admit it, Mum was the resilient half of the partnership. She would ensure that we were fed and clothed, enrolled us in school after every move and did her best to ensure that we were happy. Born in Sunderland, Mum would tell us stories of the city, once one of the greatest centres for shipbuilding in the world. Both her parents’ families were merchant seamen or worked on the docks; donkeymen, welders and engineers. Mum’s maternal line were Irish immigrants who had travelled to England from County Mayo in the 19th century. They would have been farm labourers or smallholders, working off the land until famine drove them away. I don’t know much about my dad’s ancestors, but they also originated in Ireland. My parents were a curious match, Dad with his private education and love of the classics and Mum with her working class background who had left school at fifteen.
My son, Ethan, was born in 2001, barely three days before the tragic events of September 11. The prospect of being a father filled me with both excitement and apprehension and it took me some time to discover that there is no right way to be one. All I knew about fatherhood came from my own father, so there was precious little to go on. Nevertheless, I still believe my dad did his best, he was just a little adrift when it came to parenting.
I didn’t deliberately set out to not be like my father, I just felt a yearning to be more than he managed to be. And in this I succeeded, even though it was an unequal partnership. Vanessa revelled in motherhood. Every moment she spent with Ethan gave her immense joy and an overwhelming sense of purpose. I’m sure that if life had turned out differently, our home would have been filled with children.
But fate intervened and by the time Ethan was three years old his mother was already seeing her own life slip away. The uninvited guest in her brain took her from us a few weeks after Ethan’s fourth birthday, after eleven months of watching her slowly disappear.
It’s difficult to recount those months without making it more about me and less about Vanessa. To me, she was the strong one, with her dogged determinism that she wouldn’t let a simple thing like a brain tumour defeat her, while I drifted chaotically through life, tried to concentrate on a job I had only just begun and somehow care for Ethan at the same time. To be honest, there isn’t all that much about that period I recall clearly.
The one thing I realised quickly was that our lives would change. My father had left me ill-prepared for raising a child alone, but by mum’s experiences would be invaluable. Within the blink of an eye I became a single parent with a four-year-old who could only partially understand the circumstances that had led to his mum leaving. Needless to say, those first months would begin to shape the parent I would become.
Being a single parent of any gender is hard, we are programmed to view parenting as involving a partnership, as well as extended families. My experiences as a single father are little different to those of single mothers; it’s the societal norms and cultural expectations that make them so. Parenting became the primary component of my life, the main purpose of my existence. I was there on Ethan’s first day at primary school (and his last); I watched him head off to secondary school, neatly dressed in his new school uniform; drove him to his year 11 prom and celebrated his 18th birthday together. We celebrated each milestone without her while all the time I kept telling myself that this was not the way it was supposed to be. Now he’s preparing for university, a young man born into the chaos and uncertainty of post-9/11 and now wondering what the future holds in a world of Covid-19.
If the past decade and a half has taught be anything at all about parenting (and I’m still not convinced I’ve learned anything) it’s that the harder you try, the more likely things are to fall apart. In the early days I tried to be everything and failed at most of them. There were certainly difficult times, such as the period at primary school when Ethan seemed to be in trouble constantly and I would find myself in the headteachers office more than once. Or the time he bought more than a hundred pounds worth of Yu-Gi-Oh cards because I hadn’t logged out of my eBay account. Generally, however, life progressed surprisingly well.
Even the teenage years were relatively free of the usual storm and stress. I waited apprehensively for the hormones to kick in and the moods to begin, but this never really happened. I’d love to claim credit for this, perhaps attributing it to my laissez-faire parenting style or a simple yet misleading claim that I was a natural parent. Yet I suspect there were many factors that smoothed the way, and one of these was music.
I had raised Ethan on a diet of ’90s grunge, Dylan and classic British punk rock. We’d sing along to Foo Fighters, Nirvana and Linkin Park in the car and there was usually music playing in the house. His own tastes would eventually favour ’80s hardcore punk and heavy metal, but we would meet somewhere in the middle. When he was 14, I took him to see Black Sabbath, an experience that extended his growing obsession. Over the following few years we spent much of our time together at gigs or searching the stacks of the Leeds record shops; Crash and Jumbo, the same ones I’d frequented when I was a teenager in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Music bound us together like nothing else ever could, and it still does. In the Autumn he’s hoping to study English Literature in Leeds, the city’s vibrant music scene heavily influencing his choice. Even during lockdown, he’s researching an article he hopes to write on the emergence of the Goth subculture that arose in the city during the late ‘70s, frantically sending emails to the bands and promoters who dominated the scene at the time.
Fatherhood emerged, it wasn’t forced. Our relationship certainly wasn’t the norm, but neither was it unique. At times I wondered if I was trying too hard to become a cool dad, yet looking back, I don’t really know if I understood what a cool dad looked like. I can never know if he would have been the same young man had Vanessa lived to influence his life for longer than she could, but my promise to her has, I believe, been fulfilled — our son is a caring, compassionate, hardworking and curious young man. How much of this is because of me and how much is about his early experiences with his mother (or the result of innate traits) I’ll never really know. And in the end, it doesn’t really matter.