One day you form a family with a loving couple at its head and the next you're on your own with one or several children to look after. How do you survive?
As in any difficult situation, as a parent, you have to accept that your children must come first. Taking care of their needs has to be your prime concern from the start, even if you would dearly like to take time out to lick your own wounds. In the first weeks of this new situation, it could be a good idea to accept help from family, close friends or even neighbours to enable you to adapt and to ease the pain of the mother's absence.
If you are going to have to reorganize the logistics involved in running the household such as the school run, after-school activities or meal times, it's best to make the changes all at once and not gradually so that one routine is replaced by another. Consider taking the kids to spend a few days with grandparents or another family while you set up the new routine so that everything runs smoothly from the start.
In the early days you will also need to make sure that your children do not hold themselves responsible for what has happened, which means talking to them, explaining in simple terms what has happened. Don't be afraid of expressing your emotions as this can encourage the kids to talk about how they feel themselves.
But don't make the mistake of talking to them as if they were adults. If you need to confide in someone to evoke more complex feelings, do so when the children are out of hearing. Invite a good friend round for a drink once bedtime's out of the way.
Once you've established a new routine and the kids have settled into it, you need to take a step back to check that it includes quality time. That means moments when you are doing nothing else (preparing a meal, driving, giving them a bath, etc.) so that you can wholly concentrate on actually doing something with them like playing a game, reading a book or helping them learn a new skill like riding a bike or tying shoe laces.
With two parents around, you don't necessarily have to think about creating this quality time, as one or other of you can always devote their attention more exclusively to the kids while the other is handling the logistic side of family life. But when you're on your own, it's easy to get caught up in the maelstrom of imperatives that seem to engulf you. It can be tempting to always be ‘doing things' to avoid a more intense interaction.
Don't go down that road! No matter how difficult it is for you, you need to develop that quality time – for their sake and yours! And you've got to accept the inevitable shift in the rapport you have with your kids without their mother.
Being a mother and a father at the same time is a challenge, especially as it doesn't come naturally! Try being honest. You're on a learning curve and so are the kids coming to terms with a new family set-up. Get them to tell you how they feel about any changes and take the time to explain why they have been made. Show them that there is a reason for everything and that you are trying to keep their interests at heart.
Don't be afraid to recognise that you've made a mistake if necessary and discuss how to improve matters with them. It doesn't matter if they're too young to really understand. What counts more than anything is that they know you care about them and how they feel. From a practical point of view, you probably need to create checklists to help you run things smoothly. Put them on your smartphone or on your fridge door to make things even easier. Take time to plan ahead – the next meal, the next day's activities, the next shopping trip, the next visit to the dentist…
The more you project yourself, the better organised you'll become. Some things will come naturally to you like playing ball with your kids or getting them to settle down at bedtime. For others, it will take time but you'll get there. But no doubt your greatest difficulty is going to be assuming the double role of mother and father. At times, it will feel like being Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
You'll have to assume the role of authority and demonstrate the tenderness and affection that every kid needs to develop their personality. You won't go wrong if you make sure you explain to your kids why you have to be strict at times and how much you love them.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when you are a single father is that you are not alone, and you shouldn't try to raise your family single-handed all the time. As a human being, you need time out. You are entitled to take a break and have some breathing space from time to time. So make sure that someone else can stand in for you even if it's simply a baby sitter for an occasional night out.
Take advantage of the offers of help from your parents and in-laws too. Their role as grandparents is just as important, so don't feel guilty about handing over to them now and again. It may well happen that you meet someone else and that you are tempted to make it a permanent relationship. Think carefully about how you negotiate the inevitable changes in your family unit.
Don't rush. Take it slowly. If you can, explore this new relationship outside home and only introduce your new partner to the children gradually. They need time to adapt and they'll need reassurance that you aren't just replacing their mum, and that she'll always have a special place in your hearts. In a nutshell, take your time, listen to your kids and tell them what's going on and why. It'll make life easier for you all! And don't forget to join an association for single fathers in the mean time!