More dads discover joys, challenges of single fatherhood

FATHER'S DAY
2011-06-19T08:25:00Z 2011-06-19T12:25:12Z More dads discover joys, challenges of single fatherhoodDAN SIMMONS | dsimmons@madison.com | 608-252-6136 madison.com

Here's what they think about: broken arms and baseball practice, spaghetti suppers and dentist appointments, getting the last load out of the dryer before a bedtime snack, shuttling the wee ones to school or day care before hustling themselves to work.

And what they don't: Where's Mom?

"I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about what's missing in our household," said Brent Nelson of Waunakee. "You provide the best you can."

Nelson came to single fatherhood by choice, while Ryan Schaub of Sun Prairie came to it by necessity. They're part of a surprising trend: from 2000 to 2010, single-father households with children jumped 35.2 percent statewide, the largest growth among family households, according to Census figures. Single-mother households with children reported the next largest growth, at 13.4 percent.

The number of families headed by a single mother in Dane County is still nearly triple that of father-headed families: 11,371 to 4,179. But the last decade saw the latter group increase by 41 percent, while the former jumped 23 percent.

Behind the trend is a court system that over the last decade has granted fathers increasingly more parenting rights after divorces and a growing social acceptance of unconventional families of all types.

Still, single fathers face more scrutiny and doubts than single mothers because some tasks of child rearing — diaper changing, cooking and cleaning — aren't things men always come to enthusiastically. 

"Women tend to question men's competence in these areas," said Sandra Eugster, a Madison psychologist in private practice since 1996.

Some choose it, some have it thrust upon them

Nelson, a 46-year-old who works in student academic support at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, is a foster father and soon-to-be adoptive dad to an 8-year-old boy. Fatherhood wasn't something he'd pined for or planned on but he'd coached youth sports and volunteered with sick kids. When he reached his 40s and found himself still single, he decided to try being a foster parent. 

His first foster son, J.D., came to him just before Christmas in 2009. It wasn't long before thoughts emerged of making it permanent.

"I reflected on it a great deal," he said. "I knew it would completely change my life."

Contrast that period of reflection with Schaub, a 30-year-old who suddenly found himself alone with his two young sons in January 2007 after his wife moved out and largely disappeared from their lives.

"I don't know that I even had a chance to be nervous," he said. "I guess I worried about logistics, how I was going to make it all work."

Support network important

The challenges of single parenthood shift as children age, Eugster said. Early on, single parents of both genders struggle with making time for all the tasks of child rearing without a partner and the social isolation it brings. 

As kids grow into teenagers, the challenges become more gender specific: girls and boys need someone to talk to about their changing bodies. Although not always the case, those conversations tend to happen more naturally with an adult of the same sex, Eugster said. 

She recommends single parents involve adult family and friends in their kids' lives when they're young. 

"It's helpful for a parent to try to fill that need early on with people of their choosing," she said. "Hopefully the kids can hold onto them through the harder stages of adolescence."

Nelson's son spends a lot of time with his birth and adoptive grandparents. Schaub's sons spend a lot of time with his girlfriend. 

The kids' time away gives their dads what they crave more than anything, on Father's Day and every day: a break.

"It can be draining," Schaub said of his daily schedule, which has him up with the kids by 5 a.m. "You definitely value time with adults more."

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