When faced with a “sink or swim” dilemma, you need to start swimming.

By Dr Michael Pittaro

Hello, my name is Mike and I am a single parent of two teen boys simply winging it in life. It sounds like the opening introduction to a support group, but the message that it is intended to convey is far more interesting.

Becoming a single parent was not part of my long-term life plan, and I would venture to say that most single mothers and fathers would agree, but like I always say, “We all have a story.”

In a world in which we mostly promote our successes and our happy selfies in our perfect lives with cool filters on social media, many of us, including myself, have faced some pretty tough challenges and yet, we somehow persevered in the face of adversity.

With my situation, the family court awarded me full physical custody of my two sons in October 2011 and as a result, my boys have been in my primary care for the past seven years with sadly, little to virtually no contact with their mother.

To get a better perspective, watch this Aussie video titled “The Harsh Reality of Being A Single Dad.”

Admittedly, in the beginning, the challenges of being a single parent were quite immense. At times, it was downright overwhelming and all too consuming. Stress had started to take its toll on me, physically and emotionally.

I was midway through completing my doctorate degree and working full-time and two part-time jobs to make ends meet, especially since I was not receiving child support on a consistent basis, and when I did receive support, the monthly amount awarded was minimal at best.

Falling Apart

For the first few years, I carried with me a tremendous amount of guilt and disappointment for my kids because the marriage had dissolved, but in reality, I was incredibly angry and frustrated as to the situation my kids and I found ourselves in. I felt deceived, manipulated, and blindsided, especially when I learned that my marriage was nothing more than a bunch of lies, a sham, entangled into a scripted story that I was led to believe. My ex is an alcoholic, and her drinking had spiralled so far out of control to the point where the kids were no longer safe under her supervision and placed in my care by child services.

The guilt and disappointment, as mentioned, stemmed from a failed marriage in which I clearly missed all the signals and signs that I was in a toxic relationship from day one. They often say that love is blind, and I would have to agree with that statement.

I normally consider myself to be an exceptional judge of character, and my thoughts tend to be intuitive in nature, but I missed the clearly marked signs (like huge neon lights blinking in a dark alleyway) that should have been seen and dealt with early on in the relationship.

I have since rid myself of those toxic, negative emotions (for the most part) since I do not want to see myself, or have others see me, as a victim; for the sake of my sanity, it was better to accept what the kids and I had experienced and keep moving forward. Common sense dictates that carrying those negative, bottled-up emotions around will not change the past and will only destroy the future; therefore, it was necessary to let go of those toxic emotions and live in the present. I suggest that others do the same.

In the words of Buddha, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; yet you are the one who gets burned.”

Court Processes

The anger and frustration were not just directed toward my ex-wife and the unforeseen predicament that we now found ourselves in, but also with the attorneys who failed in delivering on their promises, the antiquated civil (family) court system that automatically assumes that since I am a male, I am less fit to be a parent.

Frustration grew over assembly-line court proceedings that typically lasted 20 minutes or less in which you had to convince the court that you were emotionally and financially fit to be a single parent even though there was no evidence to the contrary that you were unfit in any way.

Granted, I realise and accept that there are more deadbeat dads out there than hands-on dads, but judges are supposed to remain impartial and to not cast judgment by projecting the actions of others who have failed as fathers to those standing before them. As individuals, we are unique and therefore, each case should be heard with an open mind without any preconceived judgment or perceptions of the men or women that come before the court.

I have always done my best to learn from the past and to walk away from every negative situation or event with a positive learned lesson. When you embrace a “sink or swim” type of outlook, you tend to excel only if you learn how to swim and navigate the waters, so in a weird sort of way, everything I experienced motivated me to be the absolute best person that I could be – a better father, a better employee, a better neighbour, and a better friend. There is no greater feeling than in knowing you pulled yourself out of the darkness and back into the light.

Towards the end of the four-year-long tumultuous custody battle, I fired my second attorney and decided to go pro se, a decision that I never regretted. Pro se is a fancy Latin term in legalese language that simply means, representing myself as my own legal counsel. Thankfully, I was able to present a persuasive case representing myself and that of my children. My education and background in criminal justice, psychology, and addiction proved quite helpful and for that, I am thankful.

Loving Again

One of the most noteworthy moments validating that I had begun to emotionally heal is when I started dating again, especially now that my boys are older and more independent, and life’s stressors have been significantly reduced. I have learned how to love, care, and trust again.

When lost or misplaced, these emotions are incredibly difficult to regain. They remain tucked away in the far depths of our psyche because the human mind is conditioned to protect us – emotionally – from our own traumatic thoughts. My problem was that I buried those positive emotions so far into my subconscious that I could not figure out how to retrieve them.

Thankfully, I have met someone incredibly special whom I deeply admire and respect on so many levels. She, without trying, has found a way to chisel through years of pent-up emotional baggage, of sorts, to unleash the greatest emotion that humankind has to offer, and that is to love and be loved.

This is something that I struggled with over the years, and if I had to psychologically assess myself, I would say that it was my mind’s way of protecting myself and that of my kids from being hurt. For years, I was simply into maintaining the status quo of just getting through life with minimal challenges and disappointments each day. As the saying goes, I accepted life and all that it had to offer me on a “one day at a time” basis.

However, I was genuinely worried that I would not be able to love again. I mean really worried. I created an incredibly thick and tall wall blocking off my emotions that unfortunately, prevented me from getting close to anyone, and this included friends and family.

I found myself distancing myself from others, and I would sabotage intimate relationships when I started to get too close. I judged, albeit somewhat critically, every word, every behaviour, and every action, selfishly, of course, because it was a self-coping strategy that I inherently developed. The problem, though, is that I had inadvertently created an emotional blockade.

Advice Required

On a positive note, I have always been one of those people who is constantly looking for ways to improve, to be better than the person I was yesterday. I live by the motto, never stop growing, learning, and improving. Writing, to me, is a form of therapy. It helps me to understand life from my own personal and professional vantage point. It helps me in understanding myself at a much deeper level.

One thing that was missing in the early years of single fatherhood, but would have been genuinely helpful, is information on acclimating to life as a single father. How do we, as single fathers, navigate life as a single parent? I believe that I have done “pretty well” so far, but it would have been nice to follow and embrace the advice and guidance of some of the experts out there.

I sifted through the research literature and googled the heck out of every possible search term; yet, I was unsuccessful in finding what I was looking for in the way of guidance in not just being a single father, but in helping my kids cope with an absent mother. A double-edged sword of sorts.

For example, if you were to Google “absent parent”, which I did, the majority of articles focus on absent fathers, and that is because when you compare men and women, men are more likely to fall into that category of absent parent. That, I somewhat reluctantly understand and accept, but there is truly little in the way of information pertaining to absent mothers, and more specifically, how their absence might influence a child’s development and future outlook on intimate relationships as well as their own parenting style and philosophy that they will eventually embrace as future parents.

As an academic researcher, this is something that interests me. There is an abundance of information on single mothers raising children in comparison to single fathers raising children, but why?

The question posed is somewhat rhetorical because I know the answer; therefore, my issue is more with researchers and practitioners, including myself, getting on board with studying single fathering, so that men do not flounder on their own by simply winging it and hoping for the best while simultaneously being scrutinised by the family court system.

Growing Demographic

Most of what I have read about single fathers has sadly been negative, but the evidence to support the various studies’ assertions is limited in scope or simply speculation with no corroborating evidence. The inquisitive social science researcher in me cannot help but emphasise the need for empirical evidence.

Most researchers tend to focus on subjects in which we have a vast amount of information already available at our disposal, whereas I prefer to focus on those subjects or topics that lack enough, and this is one of them. I purposely look to find the “gap” in the literature and to subsequently fill that gap with useful information that will help in bringing awareness.

Another reason as to why we need to learn more about single fathering and its ultimate impact on our children and their futures, is that the number of single fathers raising children is increasing – slowly but steadily. As noted, the research is admittedly lacking and decades behind where it should be, in my opinion; however, an interesting 2013 Pew Research Center Study determined that a mere 8% of households with minor children in the United States are headed by a single father, up from just over 1% in 1960. Obviously, the increase in single-father households is not staggering by any means, but nonetheless, it is statistically significant. Any trend or pattern showing an upward mobility should be studied and assessed, in my opinion.

An excerpt from the aforementioned study stated,

The role of fathers has evolved, and the public now acknowledges their importance not only as breadwinners, but also as caregivers. Analysis of long-term time use data shows that fathers are narrowing the still sizable gap with mothers in the amount of time they spend with their children.”

Additionally, the Pew Research study found that “the public believes that a father’s greatest role is to provide values to his children, followed by emotional support, discipline and income support. Public opinion ascribes roughly the same hierarchy of roles to mothers.

I know that I am not alone in my thinking or my experience. I know many men who have shared, encountered, and been challenged with similar experiences who I greatly appreciate in my life, and I regard as exceptional fathers. I guess that you could say that we, as single fathers, are in a unique club of sorts. We can call ourselves the “8 percenters” (tee shirts coming soon) since we only make up 8 percent of US single-parent households.

Therefore, in order to truly sway the courts’ steadfast and most often, negative view of fathers, we need to step up and prove that while some men are genuinely deadbeat dads and deservedly so due to their own behaviours and actions, there are some who take this role seriously and therefore, they should be held in the same regard as dedicated, committed single mothers.

Impartiality is embedded into our nation’s judicial system and symbolised in the statue of Themis, the personification of justice whose blindfold symbolises that judgments be made based on the facts, the evidence, and not mere gender or any other demographic like race, nationality, ethnicity, and so forth. I have always said I am not pro-male, but rather pro-equality, only wanting to educate and address the gender inequity, stereotypes, and biases that exist within the family court system. Not all men are deadbeat fathers.


Originally published at Psychology Today. Photo by Kindel Media.

About the Author: Guest Writer

Dads4Kids is a harm prevention charity committed to excellence in fathering. Our vision is to transform the nation by inspiring fathers to help their children be the best they can be. There’s a crisis in Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 870,000 children, more than 1 in 6, live without their biological father at home.

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