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Opinion

My 27-Year Journey as a Single Parent

The mistakes and successes I had, and why I think it's harder for single parents to find work than other parents

By Joe Seldner

I have been a single father for 27 years, longer than I've done pretty much anything in my life other than breathing. Whether I have done the task well, poorly or somewhere in between is not for me to say.

Single father Joe Seldner and his son and daughter, single parent journey
Single father Joe Seldner and his son and daughter  |  Credit: Courtesy of Joe Seldner

But I will say that my best moments were these two: getting sole custody of my kids after a five-year, three-state, two-trial, bloodcurdling battle and the day my then 7-year-old granddaughter came running into my arms at the airport in Guayaquil, Ecuador after not having seen her for two years.

I can also say with certainty that single parenting is as different an experience from the two-parent household experience as the word "parenting" can contain. The day-to-day differences of those realities are difficult to explain to those who haven't gone through them.

Single Fatherhood Comes In Different Shapes and Sizes

Single mothers and single fathers all struggle. Please don't believe otherwise. Any assumption that single fathers always have financial resources simply because they are fathers is erroneous — and a little insulting.

Any assumption that single fathers always have financial resources simply because they are fathers is erroneous — and a little insulting.

Of course, single fatherhood comes in different shapes and sizes, just like single motherhood. Some single dads get lots of help, financial and emotional - nannies, "help circles," and the like. Some get none. I got little.

But I had my children, ages 11 (my son) and 8 (my daughter) when I got custody. And I had my energy; as any single parent will tell you, that is all you want.

The custody battle drained me of every penny I had, and many I didn't have, led to appearing in court 40 times or so over five years and left me scrambling for work. I never fully recovered financially from the custody battle, which put my kids in a very difficult position.

When I applied for a job driving the vehicle that collected golf balls at a local driving range and the guy looked at my resumé and murmured, "you went to Yale," I offered a crooked smile, praying he would give me the job. (He didn't.)

After moving from California back east to my hometown, I ultimately commuted a long way every day to the only job I could find, got home to make the kids awful dinners (I was a terrible cook), do laundry, help with homework and everything else, and get some sleep.

Single Fatherhood a Burden? Never!

The summer of 2001 was especially rough for me and for my children. My kids were 17 and 14 then and 40 days before 9/11, six years after getting custody, their mother died at age 51.

But I never felt single fatherhood was a burden. Never.

I never felt lonely as a single parent, though I know many single parents — and married parents — do.

I sometimes missed signals of my kids having difficulties and glossed over their problems, sometimes until the problems became intense.

But there had been times I looked around to hand off the baton and there was no one there and rarely anyone with whom I could talk.

It wasn't because I wanted to ease the load. It was — and is — because I knew I wasn't doing the job as well as I could.

I fought for the opportunity to raise my children, and once I had that opportunity, did my best to be there for them. But a one-man band sometimes misses notes. More than sometimes.

Some of the mistakes I made were small (like cooking, though that resulted in making my son and daughter good cooks).

Some, however, were big. I was a weak disciplinarian. Both my kids did well in school, and both got married to good people, but my ability to set boundaries when they were growing up was lacking.

Another big mistake: I sometimes missed signals of my kids having difficulties and glossed over their problems, sometimes until the problems became intense.

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Being at all the games, plays, parent-teacher conferences and medical appointments; helping every evening with homework; hearing about their fights with friends and dealing with boyfriends and girlfriends; holding them when they cried — it's what you do. You don't give it a second thought.

When my kids left for college, I was happy for them, but I didn't celebrate my "freedom." I never understood why parents did. I knew how lucky I was to be able to raise them. And am. I never understood parents who complained about their children.

Single Dad Becomes a Grandfather

When my granddaughter came along, being in love took on new meaning.

So of course, I did what all grandfathers do. I tried to make up for my mistakes as a father, which did not make my daughter happy. My granddaughter and I had several wonderful years together until she and her mom moved to Ecuador for two years, which broke my heart and reminded me of the many years during the custody war I woke up every day not knowing if I would ever see my daughter again.

Single parents are a breed apart. We do it all ourselves, with little fanfare or voice. There is no respite for single parents.

Now I also have two grandsons and my son married a lovely woman who I adore.

But the worry of a single parent doesn't stop just because the hair gets gray. If anything, that's why the hair gets gray. My son tells me not to worry, but that's who I am. I marvel at parents who don't worry.

Single parents are a breed apart. We do it all ourselves, with little fanfare or voice. There is no respite for single parents.

Finding work, I think, is more difficult for single parents that for parents in two-parent households. We have had demands on our time that many two-parent households simply cannot appreciate or understand.

Single parenthood is not an asset on a resumé — not exactly a surprise. Our employment histories are not linear and are not well understood. And our financial situations often take decades to repair — if ever.

Our relations and connectedness with our adult children are complicated, and though that is true of all parents, ours are likely more difficult because we have had to manage them without another parent with whom to share the conversation and insights.

I'd also say that single parents continue to be misunderstood later in life. If anything, this gets worse as we enter our 50s, 60s and 70s. The older we get, the less our partners, friends, colleagues, current and potential employers will care about what we went through raising children alone 20 or 30 years earlier. Yet single parenthood remains a central part of what, and who, we are.

My advice to single parents in their later years is simple: What you have accomplished is a lifetime of achievement, filled with mistakes and victories, large and small. Be proud. It is the best thing you will ever do.

It is certainly the best thing I ever did.

Joe Seldner
Joe Seldner is founder of the nonprofit Senior Poverty Prevention Project. He is a writer, producer, communications strategist and a media, entertainment, business and politics veteran who has written and produced movies and television for HBO and independently. He has been accepted to the Stanford University Distinguished Careers Institute Program, where he will begin in September, 2022. Read More
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