Even though Father's Day has come and gone, we should celebrate and support our dads all year round — especially the ones who are doing it alone.
Single dads are making up a growing number of the population; according to Statistics Canada, 15.5 per cent of children aged 24 and under were living with a male lone parent in 1996, and that number increased to 20.1 per cent in 2011.
Since 2001, the number of children living with a single dad grew 34.1 per cent compared to those living with a single mom, a group that grew by 4.8 per cent.
In 2016, two in ten children were living with their father, according to census data.
While we may be aware that fatherhood is changing and single fathers are more visible, what is less apparent is how much they suffer with higher incident rates of physical and mental health issues than those with partners.
What makes single fathers so vulnerable?
Money and work
Divorce has a large economic impact on a family, and like single moms, single dads are impacted by the loss of two incomes.
Moving to a more humble dwelling or apartment can make for a depressive environment initially, and poverty is a major issue for many single-parent homes in Canada.
A 2017 report found that about 153,000 children in British Columbia lived below the poverty line — children who lived with a single parent were four times as likely to live below that line.
Men may also worry about being stigmatized as being less committed to their career and may be fearful of being passed over for advancement if they ask for accommodations, such as flexible work hours, to take care of their children.
This was the case for Canadian Glen Wood, a single dad living in Japan, who said his workplace punished him for two years after informing management that he was going to become a father and was going to take paternity leave.
After returning to work, Wood said the harassment he experienced led to his mental and physical collapse.
Emotions and caregiving
North America's gender norms around masculinity has made some men believe that showing emotions is a sign of weakness and vulnerability. Some men don't like to discuss their stress and emotions openly and if they do, it is usually with their partner. Single dads who have lost a partner also most likely lost their confidante just when life became a lot more stressful.
Since moms are traditionally the main nurturer of the family (although dads are nurturers, too), single dads can find it a new challenge figuring out how to comfort their children when they have a bad day at school, or a friendship turns sour, or deal with the grief of mom's departure.
Asking for help is also viewed as vulnerability, so single dads are less likely to reach out for support from others when needed. Social support is key to mental health and single dads are far less likely to have this in place for themselves.
The "dumb" dad
Society also makes gender biased assumptions about fathers, whether married or not.
Think of any sitcom or movie that has a dad — pretty much all are portrayed as buffoons. Society expects dads to be incompetent so they are scrutinized more closely. As a result, dads can feel guilty, be self-critical and can be consumed with self-doubt when it comes to parenting.
The health factor
In a recent study of Canadian single dads conducted by University of Toronto, they found one in five had two or more chronic medical conditions, and one in 10 had a diagnosed mood or anxiety disorder.
Compared to single mothers, single fathers also had lower fruit and vegetable consumption and were more likely to be overweight and binge drinkers.
So, what can a single dad do if he's struggling? Here are some ideas:
- Check in with your single dad friends and ask them how they are holding up and if they want to talk.
- If you're seeing a therapist/social worker/counsellor, talk to other single dads about your experience so it becomes normalized, and encourage them to seek out professional help if they're struggling.
- Remind single dads that raising a child takes a village — it's not weakness to need and ask for help. Then, make direct offers and be specific: "Can I take Emma to swim lessons this week and give you some down time?" "Why don't we have Matthew over for a weekend and let you catch your breath?" "I am going to the grocery store, do you need anything?"
- Remind them of what a great job they're doing and how well their children are thriving.
- Encourage them to engage with dad-specific websites, Facebook groups, books, podcasts, etc. Check out fatherly.com, All Pro Dad, the Single Dads Facebook page and Dad Central Canada for more resources.
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