My friend Ben is one of the best dads I know. A very successful (read: busy) attorney, he is also raising a wonderful son with what seems to be just the right mix of affection, discipline, and humor. This is not easy to do under any circumstances, but what's truly awe-inspiring is the fact that Ben is doing this largely on his own. Even those of us with great support teams (spouses, friendly ex-spouses, grandparents, and the like) sometimes feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities of parenting; to see someone do it so well all by himself is incredible.
So I asked Ben how he does it. And this was his answer:
I am a Bachelor Dad, which means I raise and take care of my son in every way. I only have him half the time, because I share joint custody with my ex-wife … but when he's mine, he's mine. I drive him to his activities, do his laundry, plan and prepare his every meal (including the lunches he takes to school), minimize his consumption of fast food, impose chores and discipline, and otherwise manage his existence in order to ensure he grows into a happy, healthy, motivated, and centered adult male.
"Lifehacks" are my coping strategies. Little things I've done that might seem quirky or weird to others, but … take it from me: they work.
1. Adopt a dog.
After my divorce, I got my son a puppy. How is this a lifehack? Because Na'ia gives my son a reason to look forward to coming home to his martinet dad. Because she needs me to be a calm, assertive presence for her, and is exactly the way I want to be for my son, too. Because … dog. Need I say more? Fine. The dog will also clean up spills, lick those annoying little peanut butter nuggets off the knife before they become fossilized in the dishwasher, and keep you company on those lonely nights when you are on your own. Get a dog.
2. Be on good, cooperative terms with their mom.
Always. Yes, she may be your ex. Doesn't matter. Get along … for their sake.
3. Read To Kill a Mockingbird.
Although Harper Lee's story is widely recognized as a meditation on American race relations, for me it is also about how to be a father. I keep a First Edition Library reproduction in my office. I never refer to it; it's only a touchstone … but like my law partner once said, it's a story he never wanted to end. Fathering is a work in progress, and if one can keep examples like Atticus Finch in one's sights — even when one's glasses slip every now and then — the target will be hit often enough.
4. Learn how to make French toast.
If you're grown-up enough to have your own kitchen at your disposal, you should know how to make this classic treat. If you're a Bachelor Dad, it's a requirement. My son's favorite breakfast on a Saturday morning is Dad's French Toast: Ani's Portuguese Sweet Bread, eggs, milk, honey, and vanilla. Done right... he's mine for the whole day.
Added bonus: As a bachelor, you might want to be able offer breakfast to a date after those evenings when your child is not at home. There's something about the caramelization on the outside and the custardization on the inside that will make a woman want to wake up in your apartment again... not that you necessarily want her to, but that's a different issue.
5. "Get a fun pass."
If you share custody — especially if you share custody — time is precious. When my son was younger, I volunteered to be a "lunch mom" at school — even though it meant time out of the office, and even though I sometimes felt like the odd man out amongst all the ladies in Lululemon — so he could see I would always be there for him. Sure, you have to be a disciplinarian and guide. But also make sure you take time out for the meaningful stuff that's fun, too. Hang out. Introduce your child to your old LPs. Go skateboarding. Build a dream car. Let her laugh at the pictures of you from 1992, when you sported bad hair and acid-washed jeans. Sure, discipline will help your children become responsible adults, but the fun will cement their sense of being loved and empowered to follow their dreams.
6. Save time. Skip directions.
Who cares if your croissants end up looking like the Pillsbury Doughboy had an accident? The X-Box isn't that complicated. Do you really need to "repeat" after lathering and rinsing? Too much time is spent paying attention to the rules that don't matter; spend your time with your child paying attention to the ones that do: Be kind. Play fair. Treat others as you would be so treated.
7. Don't run out of toilet paper.
Trust me. Just don't. If you have to leave empty TP tubes all over the house as a reminder to pick some up on your next Costco run, so be it. Doesn't matter if you have sons, daughters, or any combination of the above … Toilet. Paper. Is. Essential. To. Life.
8. Embrace the opportunity.
It's so easy to fall into the "Helicopter Parent" trap. Reams of research are being published about how important it is to let our children "go" into the big and scary real world in order to ensure their true success. This is another aspect of being a Bachelor Dad that I've been thinking about. I get to practice my child's full departure for college a good decade before it really happens, because it happens a couple times every week. Is this easy for me? No. Is it good for him to see me being comfortable with his independence? Yes.
9. Dryer sheets.
These little suckers are Bachelor Dad gold. Car smelling a little funky after transporting the baseball team for an entire summer? Throw a couple of these into the back seat, and all will be well. Too busy to get your suits to the dry cleaner? A quick tumble on low with a dryer sheet will buy you one, even two extra days in court. Even when they're used, dryer sheets are not totally spent. Next time you're folding laundry, sitting on the floor and watching Ice Station Zebra on DVD, tuck the old dryer sheets into the dog's collar. Fresh as a summer breeze … even if she's been rolling in something that looks and smells like roadkill.
It sounds too simple, but there it is. Adult life is complicated and messy. Grownups fall in and out of love all the time. But the love we have for our children is different; it should know neither limitations nor boundaries. When things get crazy, keep focused on how much you love your child or children, and no matter what else happens, you will all be fine.