Long Reads

An open letter to all the single dads, from a woman who was raised by one

From screen roles to support networks, single fathers are often overlooked. That needs to change, says writer Mary-Jane Wiltsher.

It was a shepherd’s pie that first got me thinking about the visibility of single fathers.

A Colman’s shepherd’s pie, actually, served crisp and bubbling from the oven in an advert released in 2014, by a lone dad at a loss as to how to handle his teenage daughter’s break-up misery.

“I’m useless at this sort of thing, but I give good hugs,” narrates the voiceover, as the pair unite in a stove-side embrace.

Sappy? Maybe. “The hug would’ve sufficed, there’s no need to say it with corn starch,” wrote one broadsheet commentator, taking a serrated knife to the Modern Man’s “dehydrated pie”. 

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Whether the Colman’s dad is a single parent is ambiguous, and the ad’s narrative of an emotionally-stunted male isn’t without its problems. But for me, it presented an image of fatherhood with all the familial warmth of the kitchen it played out in – and I realised that the reason it caught me off guard, like a rush of hot steam from the oven (I’ll pack in the pie references soon, I promise) was because no depiction of a single dad had struck a chord with me before.

From King Lear to Fleabag’s hapless dad – who finally came into his own in the teary loft scene of the series’ final episode – via Vinnie Jones’ turn as protective Big Chris in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the bar is set low for lone fathers in film, TV and literature, which are filled with paternal portraits of repression, awkwardness and anger. 

fleabag dad
Phoebe Waller-Bridge with Bill Paterson as her dad in Fleabag 

There are exceptions, of course, like Will Smith’s sensitive portrayal of Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happiness, or J.K Simmons’ deft turn as the endlessly understanding Mac McGuff in Juno (who, like 41% of single American fathers, compared to 16% of single mothers, lives with a cohabiting partner). But generally speaking, positive and nuanced portrayals of single dads are few and far between.

That’s probably because single fathers are a unique demographic. In the UK, single dads form 10 per cent of the current 1.8million single parent households. Our knowledge that women are more likely to take on the main caring responsibilities for children when relationships break down, combined with statistics showing that solo dads tend to be older, better educated and on higher incomes than single mothers, means single fathers are often overlooked. But despite those disparities, single dads need almost all of the same support systems as single mums, and may face issues that are different to women in bringing up children on their own.

In 2004, a decade before the Colman’s ad was released, my mother took her own life following a battle with depression, and my father began raising a teenage daughter alone while navigating the murky waters of his own grief. I watched as he embraced his new twin roles with growing confidence, steering me through the darkest stages of bereavement, body insecurities, first boyfriends – and yes, teen heartbreak, sometimes remedied with chats, other times with hugs, mince and potato.

At the time, support networks for solo dads were in short supply, but we muddled through. I saw a school therapist, while Dad sought counselling through bereavement charity CRUSE. Dad had always been a proactive parent and was well-versed in the domestic side of things, and later, because he was retired, we were eligible for a grant to cover my university fees. Friends and neighbours rallied around us. 

dad and daughter laughing
“Just like the lack of emotionally authentic depictions of dads on screen, there remains a lack of targeted emotional support for single fathers”

Today, charities like Dad’s House, founded in 2008 by William McGranaghan, offer specialised support for single fathers, ranging from accommodation initiative HOFF (Homes For Fathers and Families) to a Buddy Service where dads can discuss concerns informally over coffee. To date, Dad’s House has helped and supported more than 5,000 single dads over 12 years. Practical advice and counselling services to help combat parental alienation are also provided by long-serving single parent charities like Gingerbread and Families Need Fathers, who run local branch meetings across the country.

But, just like the lack of emotionally authentic depictions of dads on screen, there remains a lack of targeted emotional support for single fathers. Given the shocking statistics surrounding the crisis of mental health among men, that needs to change. Only last year, a study published in the Lancet Public Health Journal reported that single dads die at twice the rate of single mums or partnered parents. While the study did not directly correlate the deaths with being single, it did highlight unhealthy lifestyle choices such as poor diet and excessive alcohol consumption as key issues.

single dad
It is estimated that there are 200,000 single dads in the UK

Dad’s House estimates that there are 200,000 single dads in the UK, with 20,000 in London alone, and those figures are expected to rise dramatically over the next five years. That’s a lot of solo dads who need to know that they can, and should, ask for help.

So, here’s an open call to scriptwriters, authors and filmmakers for more emotionally authentic depictions of the realities of single fatherhood. Here’s to all the single dads out there, doing the best they can, learning as they go, and to the crucial initiatives like Dad’s House that support them. And here’s to you, Dad, thanks for everything – including all those shepherd’s pies. 

Images: Unsplash, Universal Pictures, Amazon

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