6 Ways Being A Single Dad Made Me A Better Man

Image: Philip Murphy

Image: Philip Murphy

In 2012, I found myself responsible for a tiny human being. For various reasons, my child’s mother was in and out of the picture and I found myself nearly completely responsible for taking care of her.

As an entrepreneur running two businesses in NYC, I was now faced with the prospect of changing diapers nine times a day, feedings every few hours, baths multiple times a week, frequent doctors appointments, several walks around the block at night to get my baby to sleep, and about a thousand other little things that had not previously factored into my life.

Terror would not be an inaccurate description of how I felt. But I made it through the tough years in the beginning (albeit with less sleep than I can ever imagine living on again) and my daughter is a wonderful little person. I now share custody with her mom, which allows me to work and sleep a bit more despite missing her immensely when she is not here. I rationalize my emotional pain of missing her by being grateful that my daughter can experience two parents in her life. All things considered, it could have ended up worse.

Describing years of solo parenting time in a few sentences doesn’t give justice to the challenges I faced. Simply put, it was the toughest best job I’ve ever had (and continue to have). But that’s not what this article is about. It’s about life lessons that I learned by facing the challenge of being a single dad. Life lessons that surely made me a better man than I was before.

1. “Stuff” Became Unimportant To Me

Certainly “stuff” never should have been important to me, but through much of my adult life it was. I liked the latest and greatest gadgets, expensive clothes, pricey club memberships, and dinners out. I had a fancy Manhattan address and split my time between working on my businesses and socializing.

All of this changed when I became a single dad. As an entrepreneur trying to run two businesses while also taking care of a little baby around the clock, my businesses suffered. While some people may be able to be a full-time parent and run their businesses at the same time, I was not blessed with that ability. In a year’s time, most of the “stuff” that I thought was important was gone (including the fancy address).

While most would find this devastating, I was surprised to find it oddly freeing. My daughter looked at me with the same love in Brooklyn as she did in Manhattan. My friends all remained friends and many became closer. I didn’t wear fancy clothes anymore, which was good because everything I owned was covered in baby spit anyway. I worked when I could and cousins and grandparents helped with hand-me-downs and toys. In short, we had nothing fancy but our basic needs were met. And we were (and are) happy.

Life is much better financially now, but the “stuff” lesson stuck with me. I may splurge here and there on something for my daughter or a friend, but “stuff” and things are no longer factors that contribute to my happiness. It’s all about people now. And that’s a good thing.

2. I Learned To Take A “Life Punch”

I’ve always been a pretty tough person. I grew up in a blue collar town in the ’70s and ’80s, taking my lumps in the neighborhood. I wrestled in high school, often choosing to take on people who were much bigger than me, and I raised a good amount of hell in New York City punk bars in my early adult life. I’ve had my ups and downs and taken some scrapes along the way. Taking a punch has never been a big deal to me.

But nothing prepared me for the kind of “life punch” that becoming a single dad can be. Don’t get me wrong. It’s worth it in every way. My daughter is a wonderful, smart, funny little person. What I’m talking about is the moment you realize that everything your life was up until that moment is about to be turned on its head. And the following few years when you give up everything you once thought was important for the greater goal of raising a smart, funny, confident human being. If you’re just one person raising a young child, you make big choices about how to spend your time. Career, friends, money, sleep, even your own personal health are necessarily put on hold at times. That’s the life punch I’m talking about. Being a single dad taught me that I can weather any storm life may throw at me and come out the other side better for it.

3. I Became Way More Patient

Before becoming a single dad, I was not a particularly patient person. Part of that comes from being an entrepreneur. Often when I need something done, time is of the essence and I push people (including myself) really hard. Another part of it comes from living in NYC for so many years. One of the things I love about living here is the pace of things. If you don’t move fast, act fast, walk fast, and talk fast, someone’s going to run right over you. It keeps you on your toes.

But moving fast and pushing hard are not great qualities in terms of taking care of a young child. Imagine holding a crying baby who has just pooped and peed and spit up on you. She is crying and possibly hungry or tired or a million other things. The dog is jealous and angry and has pooped on your favorite rug and is now looking at you while barking in a rhythmic pattern. One phone is ringing while you are attempting to speak with one of your remaining clients on another phone. You have 29,000 unread email messages that keep “binging” every few seconds. You haven’t showered in days and you can count the number of hours of sleep you’ve had this week on two hands. Your rent is due and you need groceries for tonight’s meal. That’s what being a single dad is like. You take a deep breath and smile, knowing that it won’t always be so hard. Patience now takes the form of years rather than seconds or minutes.

4. I Gained A Lot Of Humility

I’ve always had a good level of humility. Everyone who knows me personally is familiar with my self-deprecating sense of humor. But I’ve also had some successes in my life of which I am very proud, particularly where business and education (and more recently, parenting) are concerned.

Self-deprecating humor and modesty about success and achievements are one thing, but nothing comes close to the humility you gain when you are a man taking care of a baby by yourself. Blame it on society or the media or ourselves if you want, but men aren’t raised to think about “success” in terms of raising another human being. In those first few months, memories of your professional life contrast profoundly with your new life as a single dad. Monday morning … covered in spit up, having not slept more than an hour the night before. Baby crying, dog barking, clients wondering where you’ve gone, and the rest of the world wondering what the heck you’re doing with your life.

But you don’t get sad. You accept your new reality. And you do the best darn job you can possibly do to raise that child. You are no longer in the board room but you are a success — albeit a success that is defined differently than by society or colleagues or friends. The rewards are intrinsic and personal rather than external. You are humbled by what you are doing and OK with that. Because you get that smile from your little child and you realize the struggle is more than worth it.

5. I Learned To Say “No”

Before becoming a single dad, I said “yes” a lot. To clients, family, friends, social contacts, alumni groups, neighbors, and to myself. My main focus was my business, but I really spread myself pretty thin outside of that. Saying “no” felt selfish to me, especially when someone genuinely needed my help.

All of that necessarily changed when I became responsible for another little human. My default became, “I’m sorry, but no.” Lucky for me, I didn’t struggle with this decision at all (as many people do). I knew that I would need vast resources to learn to be a dad while taking the best care of my daughter that I could and that anything left over would need to go to keeping my fledgling businesses afloat.

Saying “yes” to others meant saying “no” to my daughter and secondarily my businesses. That wasn’t something I could sleep at night having done. Now that I have a little more time, I am again able to spend more time helping others. But that time can’t interfere with my time with my daughter. If it looks like it might, the answer is “no” and I’m good with that.

6. I Learned To Savor The Present Moment

Despite all of the challenges I faced as a single dad, I’m truly a lucky man. Because I got to “be there” for everything. Sleepless nights, constant feedings, diaper changes, crying, and fussiness were struggles I got to share with my daughter. And that has made us immeasurably close as she has gotten older. There have also been countless good times at playgrounds, museums, parks, restaurants, and at home. I am her dad but we are also a team in every sense.

So many of us miss the little moments in our children’s lives for one reason or another. Each moment in their lives can never be gotten back once it’s gone. Lucky for me I got to be there for every moment in her beginning years. What a gift! I try to remember that each day and be fully present for the people in my life during the time I am with them.

“6 Ways Being a Single Dad Made Me a Better Man” originally appeared on The Good Men Project.