by Damon D’Arienzo
I will never forget the moment I learned my girlfriend of 9 months was pregnant. I had just left the gym and was sitting in my parked car. She said on the phone, ‘I need to tell you something.’ Honestly, the thought of pregnancy didn’t even cross my mind but, shockingly, those were the next words out of her mouth.
As much as I hate to admit it, my heart sank. I knew I had always wanted to have children, but this wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. Not in a troubled relationship. Not before I established that I could love this person for the rest of my life. Not until I was sure I had enough maturity for this role.
It’s not that I necessarily panicked in this moment, because I was confident I could handle parenthood, but ideally, I would have established the emotional foundation to assume this responsibility. I was disappointed in myself and embarrassed I was careless. I had always dreamed this moment would be joyous. It was not.
Everyone close to me in my life knew my relationship was vulnerable, which made me cringe about having to share this news. About a week later, we drove to my hometown to tell my family. Even to this day, I have never been more anxious about anything in my life.
I had planned to tell my parents first over dinner, but found myself in a situation that afternoon where we were alone with my mom and three sisters. My heart was thumping. ‘Was this the right time and way to do it?’
Finally, I saw an opportunity as someone referenced a baby in a story they were telling. In a semi-joking nature (to help calm my chaotic nerves), I piggybacked off this and said something like, ‘Yeah, we are having a baby too.’ In hindsight, probably not the best delivery. Nobody spoke. Everyone looked around at each other dumbfounded.
Finally, my eldest sister broke the painful silence. ‘Are you serious?’ she asked. I was serious. Once I confirmed it, my sisters hesitantly started sharing their congratulations – I mean, what choice did they have? But my mother just walked away.
I went to her, and she was crying. With tears flowing, she said, ‘Do you know how hard it is to raise a child in a situation where the mother and father are in love and committed to one another?’
She was well aware of my relationship weaknesses. I realised she was sad for my child because I would be bringing this son or daughter into an environment that lacked love and stability. I got the message. Her reaction validated my same feelings when I first found out.
Things eventually transitioned from shock and worry to support and excitement. I educated myself and began to shift my energy to this upcoming life change. Over time, my tensions began to settle. It was time to be more pragmatic and less emotional. No more dwelling on the circumstances surrounding my relationship and this pregnancy. Then, the moment came when I was to find out the gender. My girlfriend slid me a card across the restaurant table.
I wanted a girl, though I can’t necessarily explain all the reasons why. My father of three boys and three girls had once expressed that he enjoyed raising his daughters more than his sons. He referenced this incredible feeling he would get pushing his toddler daughter in a shopping cart at the market. That ‘daddy’s little girl’ moment stuck with me, and I guess I just wanted that too.
As soon as I opened the envelope, I saw pink and immediately started tearing up. It was a really incredible moment. This was the point where the seriousness of this responsibility hit me.
Thankfully, the pregnancy went very smoothly. Mind you, as hurt and upset as I had been about some poor choices my girlfriend had made in our relationship and the uncertainty about our future, I was there hand and foot through the pregnancy, caring for her. I knew that regardless of where we ended up, she was birthing my child, and this woman deserved my respect and support. In these hospital room moments, I set aside all other feelings to focus exclusively on this moment.
Then it happened. Standing bedside as she was in labour, I proceeded to sob uncontrollably. I could not form words. I have always tried to understand my feelings in this once-in-a-lifetime moment, but only until recently did I realise this is maybe the purest form of unconditional love. And it wallops you at first sight. I think I may still be regaining my composure to this day!
Becoming a Single Parent – My Story
Parenthood officially began that night in the hospital when the last nurse left the room, and we were alone for the first time. Some things, I guess, just come instinctually, especially when all of a sudden you assume responsibility to keep a human alive! As confident as I was in my abilities to raise a child, I was apprehensive.
The first year was really hard and, candidly, I’m not sure how much I enjoyed it. I also started a new job in a different field ten days after she was born. As well, we were living with my girlfriend’s mother in a small apartment while I saved and searched for a house to buy. I was up almost every night to help with feedings, pumping, and just supporting her emotionally by being awake with her. With all this going on, I wasn’t able to really think about my relationship. It was purely survival mode.
It was an unbelievable grind for a few years following this split. First of all, there was the matter of sorting out custody/visitation. Family courts, regardless of what jurisdiction you reside in, use the principle of acting in the best interest of the child. Sure, that can be a bit subjective, but I try to believe the intention is pure. However, this doesn’t mean the system isn’t beleaguered with biases and outdated guidelines established to protect against ‘deadbeat dads’. Unfortunately, this was exploited in my situation.
In Massachusetts, physical custody fully defaults to the mother if a child is born outside of marriage. Do you understand how much leverage that gives to the mother?
From the moment my daughter was born, I was a shining example of what a devoted and engaged father should be, and here I was having to prove my capabilities, fight for visitation time and make all these concessions (i.e. increases in financial support, more driving) to establish what should have been rightfully mine from the start. This frustration nearly defeated me, and I consider myself a pretty self-confident person.
Fighting for My Daughter
The emotional and financial stress was unbelievably taxing. I struggled in my job and was unable to have a romantic relationship. I struggled adapting to life as a single parent and not seeing my daughter every day. I had to find additional sources of income to make ends meet. The emotional and financial weight of the court process was wearing me down.
I had to rent my apartment and live in my partially finished attic with no kitchen. My ex would tell me one thing one day and do another the next. However, despite this inconsistent pattern of behaviour, I was determined to establish a strong co-parenting relationship.
I was exhausted, and I was really angry. My struggles felt unnecessary and unfair. I was screaming on the inside for answers and relief, as I think most parents who go through this do. I cried almost every week to my parents, and sometimes it was so intense, the call would connect, and I couldn’t even speak.
As disheartened as I often was, I leaned on my loved ones and kept on fighting because time is of the essence in your son or daughter’s youth, and I didn’t want to sacrifice a single moment. My incredible love for my daughter gave me hope, too.
Despite these overwhelming and distracting feelings of disappointment and resentment, I never lost sight of becoming the best father I could be. Single parenting is still a grind several years later, but I suppose that is what it should feel like when you are investing every possible inch of yourself in your child’s welfare and growth.
Whether it can be classified as intentional or not, I have always struggled with being a victim of parental alienation. Not being kept in the loop about important school and health things, for example. Confiding in my ex about something personal our daughter shared with me, only to find out she got scolded for talking to me about it.
Using no phone communication with me as punishment. Telling our daughter the clothes I dress her in are ugly. One-upping me when the opportunity is there. Essentially, I’ve been treated like a secondary parent instead of an equal. It’s infuriating.
Here is the thing, though. I have learned over time that a majority of these actions are solely because she is jealous and threatened by the relationship my daughter and I have. It used to consume me, but I’ve learned not to let it weaken my spirits or throw me off course. ‘Lead with love,’ my friend has instilled in me, ‘that wins out every time!’ I’m done second-guessing myself and worrying about things out of my control. Instead, I can use this energy to be a better father for my daughter.
Over time, I learned to embrace my situation, and while different from what I expected parenthood would be for me, I am taking full advantage of it. Being a single parent is uniquely special, and I never would have imagined I could be this happy raising a daughter on my own.
Sure, I am terrible at doing her hair or putting a cute outfit together. You know what, though? I don’t care. My victories are in things like potty training her, teaching her to tie her shoes, opening her mind through travel, opening her heart by helping her facilitate a project to help the homeless and coaching a Special Olympics team together. I could go on and on. Single fathers first succeed by being present and active.
Single parenthood, in that it’s just you and your kid(s) during your parenting time, comes with the freedom to make your own choices. There is a ton of value in that. The time is yours for the taking! Don’t get me wrong – I miss my daughter terribly every day she is with her mother, and I wish it could be different. But – ‘newsflash’ – it cannot!
So take advantage of what this situation is. Rest up on those days your children are away so you have the energy to give them your all when it is your time. Use the time to invest in yourself, because our kids require a better us to make a better them…
We all need to remember and accept that a father’s love is no less than a mother’s. But we, as fathers, need to love and act for this to be true, as well as to break unfavourable stereotypes that are impeding progress for equal parenting rights. You are only a birth parent until you demonstrate your loyalty to your child through words and actions. You must earn the right to be known as a mother or father. And ultimately, only you will know in your heart if you are giving it all you have.
I also respect that everyone has different circumstances, which is why my message is one of individual responsibility – what you alone are accountable for. There aren’t many rules to follow, but practising certain ones is sure to relieve your worries and enhance your experience as a single parent. Never talk poorly about their other parent. Be careful about jumping to conclusions. If you co-parent, don’t stop working on the relationship. Be flexible. Be patient.
Remember, parental disagreements aren’t unique to co-parents. Everybody has their own parenting styles and expectations, and they will forever require collaboration to achieve the right balance. Start accepting that not everything will be in your control, as this is important for your sanity.
You will need to make sacrifices to be the best parent you can be. My joy and successes as a single father have come at the expense of some things, such as a romantic relationship or advancing my career. Sure, I worry about it and wonder if I am making the right decisions.
But being an awesome dad makes me feel better than anything. These early years are so important and cherished – I wouldn’t have it any other way. If there are consequences down the road, then I’ll be able to approach them more courageously because my relationship with my child is so rewarding.
You will make mistakes. You cannot foresee every obstacle. I recently endured an abusive relationship with a narcissist and made some terrible choices that hurt my daughter and damaged my co-parenting relationship. My daughter recently lost her best friend. Accept that things will happen where you will be required to learn on the fly. But if you already have love as a cornerstone of your relationship with your children, then this will be much less demanding to deal with.
Love. Act. Enjoy. Inspire. Use these four actions to make the most out of your single parenting experiences. ‘If you want a relationship that looks and feels like the most amazing thing on Earth, you need to treat it like it is the most amazing thing on Earth.’ Don’t wait for things to get easier or better, as life will always be complicated. Just do the best you can. Learn to be happy right now.
Originally published at Single Dad Magic & Love What Matters.