In 2013 Michael Ray found himself in a position not too many men experience. This was the year he became the sole parent of his two-year-old daughter Charlie. A few years later Michael and Charlie were in the media after Michael was told he couldn’t assist his daughter backstage at her ballet concert. This made waves across the globe and Michael soon found himself in the position of role model and somewhat hero in dads circles.
More recently Michael published his first book, ‘Who Knew’ which talks to his experiences as a single dad, exposing some of the stigmas men come up against in the parenting world. Parents At Work caught up with Michael to ask him if he would share his story and some advice on parenting as a single dad. Here’s what he had to share…
Can you tell us about how you found the adjustment to single parenting? What were the main challenges you faced?
Single parenting was a surprise to me, one day it was just Charlie and me. I honestly believe that I was the luckiest guy for having such an easy kid. It fast became apparent that I was not governed by the expectations of motherhood and milestones. For me it was so different, I was basically a beginner, in fact I still am, and nobody expected anything unbelievable from me. As long as I put the nappy on in some sort of a traditional fashion and it stayed on and I managed to keep her alive, if I didn't drop her too often then I was the most amazing, wonderful dad.
Like many first-time parents, the first time I was solely responsible for getting Charlie through the night, I was terrified. Being a newly single parent, coupled with an unusually high level of anxiety can really work you up about all the possible scenarios that could go horribly wrong with a baby. I’d imagined more disastrous scenarios than the sum total of the “Die Hard” movies and suddenly in my warped paranoid first-time dad brain, I was John MacLaine with a chubby little cherub for a sidekick who wasn’t going to be much use against any villains, and unable to appreciate my snappy one-liners.
I went into fatherhood without the curse of knowledge, without any expectations and without any societal KPI’s. Fatherhood has been nothing but fun for me and fortunately I’ve got the easiest kid in the world. There was no parenting brilliance, no special skills, no secret sauce, just a whole lot of love.
I think a lot of social constructs around expectations are placed on us by others. I grew up in a very traditional household. Mum and dad had a typical marriage in that dad was the breadwinner. Mum ran the house. Mum didn't even have a driver’s licence until dad had a stroke later on in life because dad did everything for mum outside of the home. When people say to me: “It’s great that you're embracing the role of mum and dad”, I reply: “No, I have embraced the role of being a parent”.
Now that I am a dad, I realise that rather than fatherhood being limiting as it may appear from the outside, or as I thought when I was a child looking at my dad, I’ve found fatherhood has given me the freedom to cast off the ego, façade and pretence and actually discover who I am as a person. As a man it’s given me a clarity, a sense of purpose and fulfilment. I’ve come to believe that parenting doesn’t change you, it can help reveal who you really are as a person. For every guy wondering if they have what it takes to be a father and for every father wondering if they’re doing a good enough job, it’s simple, decide how you want your children to remember you, what stories do you want them to tell about you? Then be that father.
You’ve shared with Parents At Work before that your support network in those first few years as a single parent was very strong. Can you talk to how that came about, where you resourced from and the benefits both yourself and Charlie received from this?
I made a conscious choice to stay single for those first few years raising Charlie on my own. I couldn't take the risk of someone getting attached to Charlie and vice versa, only for it to end down the track. Being a father in my mid 50’s, I realised that the age gap between Charlie and I would result in Charlie being without me for more years than she had me, and for this reason I wanted to soak up and enjoy every minute with her. Fortunately, I had so many wonderful, amazing, supportive female friends so Charlie didn't run short of female play dates and support, shopping, nails and hair excursions. My support system started with my family and fanned out to the ballet mums and gymnastics parents along with the before and after school pick-up crew.
Being a single dad in parenting circles isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, in fact there are many challenges. Try asking a mum as a male for her number to organise a play date without feeling awkward!
One of the things I worried about was if Charlie would be accepted and make friends even though we were a single parent family. The dad guilt that I experienced when Charlie asked me for a sleep over and I had to try and explain to her that some parents may not want their little girls sleeping over at a man’s house without a woman present.
How was I to tell her about societies sometimes preconceived notion of men being somewhat unsafe around young girls?
I used to worry if mums would notice how awkward I felt at gymnastics when I’d sit down as a fellow parent, concerned that they would see how intimidated I was. It’s funny that. I have walked into the hardest gyms and clubs in the world and been in the most precarious situations and still never felt the intimidation that I have felt when being confronted with a whole room of mums. I even worried about making suitable small talk at school pick up with the other mums.
It brought back memories of my school years where the cool kids would be off jabbering away, and all of the ‘other’ kids were left on the outskirts dearly hoping that they would get the nod of approval and be included in the inner circle.
Would my lack of any so called real knowledge of what I was doing raising this tiny human be that obvious that I’d be chased out of town by a laughing mob of ‘real mothers’?
After realising that my daughter was always watching for how I respond to life and its challenges, I simply sucked it up, jumped in and now am surrounded by an amazing tribe of families made up of all shapes, sizes, genders and demographics that add an incredible dynamic to our lives.
Support does not necessarily denote a planned or scheduled group that meets to discuss parenting stuff and magically has all of the answers, but rather I have found it to be the amazing people you surround yourself with that feel the same vulnerability, the same angst, the same barriers and sometimes uncertainty that you do and all they do is listen, laugh and be there when you need it.
Just knowing that if I happen to be running a few minutes late for school pickup I have a couple of numbers to call to lend a hand is invaluable.
As a single dad, how did you manage to adapt your work around your caring responsibilities?
I changed my life significantly when I became a single dad because I chose to be an integral part of Charlie’s everyday life. I recall being in a meeting and becoming acutely aware for the first time that my time could be better utilised. I work hard running my own personal training business and I place great value on being committed to my clients and the trust they place in me. I realised in this meeting that now I had a daughter to consider I could have been just as effective had it been delivered online rather than in person.
From this awareness I started to re-organise my time to be able to spend more one-on-one time with Charlie in a way that didn’t impact on my business and my clients. Once I set my values, and this was to prioritise my time with Charlie, my situation and circumstances, it allowed me to be innovative and move everything into a three-day working week.
We constantly hear about the sacrifices that parents make for their children. I remember thinking how much my parents sacrificed for us kids, for our family. As I see it now, sacrifice is giving up something of great value for something of lesser value. I prefer the term ‘trade- off’. There are many trade- offs I’ve made as a dad and I would make every one of them willingly again because they are pretty good deals.
There is nothing that happens outside of the home that is not made instantly better by the enthusiastic and joyful cry of ‘Dad!’ when we reunite at the end of the day.
Did you find it more challenging to take care of yourself and your own wellbeing needs and if so, how did you respond (or not) to this?
As parents we can easily fall into the trap of doubting ourselves, whether we are enough, doing enough and being enough. These insecurities add to a potentially already stressful life of school commitments, sports, social commitments along with the usual daily work grind. The ones that make your left eye twitch and makes you want to find a quiet secluded spot for your head to stop pounding and to just be still for a moment. But then there is supper to cook, dishes to wash, shopping to do, house to clean, homework to supervise and the dog needs a walk!
My mantra is: Love is the Quality of the Attention You Give to Others
Being 50 years older than Charlie, she will probably spend more of her life without me than with me and as she is growing up, I want to make sure that I can keep up with her. I am fortunate to have had a career as a Strength and Conditioning Coach and have always enjoyed and needed some form of physical activity. When I redesigned my life, Charlie ended up spending a good amount of time with me at work so has developed a love for the physical aspect too. We regularly throw on the boxing gloves for our Daddy and Daughter bout …. I can assure you that I come off second best most times.
I often hear how Dads don't have time to exercise, well why not exercise WITH your kids? Exercise doesn't have to be at the gym, get out and kick the ball and run around and challenge them. They will love it.
We make the school run a thing where you can chat and play games in the car. Remember it is the moments between the moments that often get overlooked. It's just the 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes first thing when you get home and 30 minutes after dinner, that is all it takes to keep the children engaged and included. Surprising enough the ability to forget life’s problems for those few minutes is like a complete recharge and you are able to deal with them once you have let off some steam with the kids.
Charlie might not hear everything I tell her but she see’s everything I do! She looks to me for how to respond to life and its challenges, what to value and what to dismiss. She looks at me for examples of love, honesty and empathy and she looks to me for what is important. She must know without doubt, without question and without hesitation that her time with me is HER time.
What are some of the key lessons you’ve learned as a single dad that you feel can inspire others?
I get asked frequently how I do it on my own and what tips, tricks or hacks I would recommend or suggest to new dads.
As a single dad, the biggest advice I would give is to not give yourself a hard time or give in to parenting guilt. The latter of which it’s taken me many years to learn. Even couples find parenting challenging at times and it’s a whole different ball game when you are on your own so you have to cut yourself some slack. Make sure you use your support networks and that you are taking care of your own needs first. Afterall, if you aren’t well, what can you expect to role model to your child.
Modern-day fathers are making a statement. From disciplinarian to nurturer, from feared figure to an embodiment of respect and affection, fathers are candidly recolouring the parenting landscape. They are boldly dismantling traditional gender roles, unabashedly displaying tender emotions, effortlessly changing diapers and gleefully cooking up a storm in the kitchen.
In fact, fathers are doing almost everything that, until recently, was considered ‘mother’s only’ territory. We play a crucial role in our children’s lives as role models at every stage, and as a dad I find this to be both an honour and a privilege.