Tips for Dads: Becoming the Primary Caregiver after Divorce

By Sharon Perkins, Stefan Korn, Scott Lancaster, Eric Mooij

You have either been granted a parenting order by the courts or negotiated with your former partner to be the primary caregiver. It’s more unusual for dads to be primary caregivers than it is for moms, so take pride that you’re blazing a trail for dads everywhere! As the primary caregiver, you’re in charge of your kids. Whenever you have to make a decision about your family, keep in mind that the kids come first.

Coming to terms with being a primary caregiver

Having day-to-day care of your children on your own can be both exciting and terrifying. Being primary caregiver is a huge responsibility, and you need to take a lot into consideration:

  • How do you look after yourself in all this?
  • How will you handle contact arrangements with your former partner? How often will your children see your former partner’s family?
  • Where will you find the money for mortgage payments or rent, food, clothes and school uniforms, school fees, doctor’s visits, transport, school supplies, extracurricular activities, and sports fees? Will you work, or receive welfare or child support payments?
  • How much time will you have for paid employment? How will you juggle your children’s school and sports schedules?
  • How are you going to sort out life with your children if you have a new partner?

At times it may seem daunting to be a single dad, but plenty of single moms are out there looking after children and doing a bang-up job. A dad can do just as good a job as a mom! It helps to have a routine and make sure your kids know what’s happening. Enlisting family to give you some space or help with pick-ups or babysitting from time to time also helps.

Supporting your children’s mother

Even though you’re not partners in a romantic sense, you and your children’s mother are still partners in a parenting sense. Whatever happened during the marriage or partnership that caused the breakdown and separation, it’s time to let go of the negative feelings — the hurt, the resentment, the anger — and get on with raising your children as best as you can.

Your children need their mother around. Although she doesn’t live with your children anymore, she can see them all the time and have a close, loving bond with them.

What can you do to support the relationship between your kids and their mom? Here are some ideas:

  • Just like bedtime and dinnertime, you might like to make mom time a daily ritual. Mom could call at the same time each night to say good night or read a bedtime story on the phone. If she lives nearby, she could come over for half an hour at the same time each night to tuck the children in.
  • Keep your children’s mother up to date with your children’s progress at school, any special events that are coming up, or parent–teacher evenings she should attend.
  • Keep your negative comments about your kids’ mom to yourself — bad-mouthing her to your children is not okay. They love their mother and have trust in her, and eroding those feelings helps no one.
  • Realize your former partner may be feeling inadequate or irresponsible as a mother. Appreciate that this arrangement is probably quite tough for her.
  • Share pictures, stories, artwork, and school successes with your former partner so she still feels a part of what the children are up to when she’s not there.

Try not to be too rigid with contact arrangements. Go easy on your ex-partner if she’s a little late. At the beginning she may be a bit nervous or unsure of how her relationship with her kids is going to work out. Make sure the kids are ready to go when she arrives and pack their bags so she’s not caught out without diapers or sippy cups.

Seeking help and assistance

As the primary caregiver of the children, you may require some (or loads) of help and assistance. You shouldn’t hold back from making use of what is available.

Parenting courses

In some cases, courts can require you to complete online parenting courses during the divorce process. Websites such as positiveparenting.com can provide you with a list of acceptable courses. Fatherhood.gov can help you find local programs in your state as well as provide other sources of information that can help you be the best parent possible.

Financial help

Contact the appropriate government department to see whether you’re eligible for any benefits or tax credits. The IRS website can give you information on whether or not you qualify, based on your income and other factors.

Getting out and about

Just knowing you’re part of a wider network of dads raising their kids alone and well is invaluable. It’s also really healthy for your kids to know they’re not the only ones dealing with mom and dad being apart. If parents’ groups or dads’ groups are close to where you are, join in so you can network with other parents.

Personal help

The end of a relationship can bring up some personal issues. You may realize you need help with anger management, self-esteem, or managing stress. Don’t procrastinate — if you feel you could benefit from a coach, therapist, or other specialist, pick up the phone or search the Internet. Your kids need you to be the best dad you can be, so if that means getting a bit of help, just do it.

Having fun

Despite everything that has happened, spending time with your children is still generally great fun. But you may encounter some times when it isn’t so much fun. When you’ve had a rough day in the office and come home to bills in the mail and children who turn up their noses at their dinner, just stop for a moment and clear your head. Take a look at your children’s faces. Remember how much you love them and how they make you smile and laugh. Your children are worth every bit of extra effort in the end.

Your children will bring you more joy than frustration if you’re open to it.

Play and interact with your children as much as you can. Read books together, give them lots of hugs, and let yourself be a bit silly with them. Children can learn so much from an involved and caring father.

If you’re an older dad, constant playing can take a toll on you, so get other family members involved, set up play dates, and share the fun, while you spend time with adults watching the children have fun. Actually, this is highly recommended for parents of all ages!