Last week, my noggin stirred up thoughts of how I express “I love you” to my daughters when they aren’t in my care. My headspace pinged reminders of how I express my love, show my care and affirm their value.

I have come to be deliberate and conscious of how I go about being a dad to my children. That reflection comes easily now; however, there is also a reminiscence that the earliest months of being a single dad were a series of upsets.

I fell into a gloomy stupor for days at a time. For a little while, toast became a staple for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I added extra concentration at the traffic lights, checking in with a reminder that green means go. I was wrung out by staff in the court process instructing me that “girls need their mum” – and, I get that – but I was infuriated that the addendum of “and dad” was regularly missing. I tried to be chipper, in spite of jolting awake to a sound from my girl’s room, only to realise that my unconscious brain hadn’t registered that my daughters were with their mum that night.

Starting out as a single dad was awful. Still, even at the lowest times, I nursed the sense that I had to adapt to new ways of saying “I love you” to my daughters from a distance. These are some of the ways I have gone about being a single dad.

Keep a diary. Use it to be honest with yourself

Chat in your diary of all the joy and sorrow of being a single dad. One day, your children will read it. They won’t be stumbling over the spelling mistakes when the words shape a message from a solemn dad who dearly loves his children from a distance.

Read a list of feelings and learn them

I did. I was prompted to at some long-ago workshop. I learnt that women can articulate a much greater number of feeling words than men. As a dad to daughters, I wanted to speak their language. If you have boys, sharpen up your feelings vocabulary so that you can coach your sons to chat deeply through feelings. They will do better at relating to girls with an expanded language of feelings. I used to be literate enough to use happy, sad and upset. Now, I get a sense of being in tune with my daughters by being able to say “I feel elated/ sulky/ blessed/ offended/ dissatisfied/ bold/ infuriated/ disappointed/ joyful.”

Decorate your home with pictures of your children, or artwork crafted by them

I need to spread my children’s work beyond the fridge. I see that my children take a lot of affirmation and pride when I grant their school work some reverence by hanging it on the fridge that doubles as a gallery.

Plan

Kids get excited if they have something to look forward to. The cinema will make you popular, but to add in some popcorn and drinks can blow a week’s rental.

Planning a stroll on the beach might only cost you the fuel to get there. Pump up the tyres on your kids’ bikes. Cook up some meals ahead of time, ready to pull out of the freezer.

Planning is vital if you are to pack in all the chores, homework, school sport and friends dropping by into a weekend. Being organised is a surefire way to demonstrate to your children that you care enough to make an effort for them.

My kids hear “I love you” when they know I cared enough to set up a great weekend.

Don’t plan

Every now and then, I like a weekend with my daughters that is clear of kid’s sports and birthday parties. They do, too. I suppose I am sort of planning when I block out a day in the calendar just for us to enjoy a PJ day at home.

Kids hear “I love you” when they know they are important enough that you would spend exclusive time with them.

Send a gift

Gift-giving is not my comfort zone love language. I do gift-giving a bit differently because I have allergies to commercialism, indulgences and entitlement.

On the school day my children leave my care, I will drop an “I love you” note into their lunch box or a quirky gift from the two-dollar shop. I send them back to mum with soccer boots that are cleaned to look new. I gift them with meticulously ironed clothes that are returned to mum as my dual message of “I respect your mum” and “I value you so deeply and want you to take pride in how you project to others.”

Love yourself

Believe in the worth of your role as dad. Dads can shape the sense of worth that children have of themselves. Treat the heartache of missing your children with diligent care. I know the storm and despondency of pressing for more time with my children.

But, go softly with yourself. There isn’t much to be resolved with anger or fury. Instead, set yourself up with good habits that affirm your worth.

I have a lean budget, but will consciously tell myself that I am worth a good coffee. I wear Superman socks. I deserve good people around me and consciously cultivate wonderful friendships. Plus, my children are worth a dad who is settled, peaceful and resolute in his parenting.

I am still a dad when my children are with their mum. Even when my children aren’t in my care, I strive to make my dad role mean more than a status – it is something I do.

I took a while to realise that I could do plenty to say “I love you” even while my children weren’t with me, just as they aren’t now.

But they will be soon enough, and I have to cut short to prep my next love gift… the roast needs to go into the oven!

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Photo by Ketut Subiyanto.

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