"So where’s Mummy today?" the shop assistant asks my little boy as I load our shopping into my backpack. She’s new here; most of the existing staff know us enough to chat to. I already know how this conversation is going to end even as the - perfectly ordinary, pleasant - platitude leaves her lips.
He just frowns at her like this is the craziest question in the world and says, “She’s at her house.”
Aidan is two and half years old.
"Be back there on Friday, won’t we, mate?" I say to him.
The penny drops, and, as always, so does her face. That quickly-covered moment of embarrassment and guilt - was that an awkward question, have I just upset a small child, etc. - and the beginnings of a stuttering apology. “It’s absolutely fine,” I say. What I really want is a t-shirt that I could reveal every time this happens. On it, in bold capitals: IT’S ALL OK. IT’S NOT AN AWKWARD SUBJECT AND EVERYONE GETS ALONG FINE. DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT.
I don’t have one, and it’d probably take too long to read even if I wasn’t arrested for acting like a flasher.
That evening, I make ‘pasta aidanese’ under his watchful eye. In a few months time, when he and I move flat again, finally leaving the freezing cold student conversion I’ve christened ‘The Beige Horror’ - the best of what was available when his mother and I split up - he will surprise my sister-in-law by rattling off a complete from-scratch pasta recipe when she asks him what he wants for lunch. He’s a great kid.
Come Friday, I’ll say goodbye to him for three days. Just as I do several times a fortnight. His mum and I worked out a split rota a long time ago that shares his time with us totally equally.
You get used to saying goodbye. Every time you do it, you have to tell yourself it’ll only be a couple more days until you’ll be saying hello again.
When he’s a month shy of his second birthday I take him to a taster session at a local Tumble Tots group. A dozen kids flinging themselves around a makeshift obstacle course in a church hall and howling with laughter while their parents watch. I’m the only man in the building older than four, and somewhat outside the existing cliques.
You get used to this too. In the children’s bookshop cafe around the block, I’m the only regular male customer. I talk childcare and ‘kids say the darndest things’ with mothers while our offspring bicker over who plays with what toy. A friend’s wife jokes that I have honourary ovaries when we meet at the local play park and she’s discussing pregnancy with another friend of ours.
Nick Hornby and Hollywood would have you believe that single fatherhood is gold dust for meeting women. In my case, at least, this is a lie. I meet plenty, sure, but all we talk about is child stuff and that’s not the instant “come to bed with me” pulse-racer you might think. And in any event I’m not sure I even have much time for a social life.
When we return from Tumble Tots, I wash up and cook dinner for the pair of us. By the time Aidan’s in bed and I’ve tidied up the rash of wooden train track that routinely covers my floor, it’s 8pm, and time for me to start work. Tomorrow is a changeover day, and I know I’ll only have to be awake and running at full steam for a few hours in the morning. I can stay up late, survive on limited sleep, and get a good few hours writing done.
Writing for a living is what makes the half and half split with Aidan possible. I can juggle my hours to fit a full-time job around my half-time parenting duties. A lot more time with my son than I’d otherwise have, at the cost of sacrificing many of my evenings and every free weekend, particularly when a deadline’s approaching. The pay’s low, the work’s uncertain, but the flip side outweighs all that. I get no government benefits, no support; his mother claims his child tax credit (since I had a source of income already, this seemed only fair as arrangements go). Only one parent can claim. You have to declare a ‘primary carer’ even when there isn’t one. The same is true for a lot of official bureaucracy, and the assumption as to who’s the primary point of contact always falls on the mother’s side. I understand why this happens, but it’s extremely frustrating at times, not to mention demoralising. “Take your fatherhood responsibilities seriously,” society says. “Just be aware that we’ll still assume you don’t even if you do. Tough shit.”
This is the only life Aidan will ever know. His mother and I broke up when he wasn’t quite eighteen months old. This wasn’t what either of us had planned, but it was at least as amicable as might be expected and we were both committed to Aidan. Which means we’re now both stuck in each other’s orbits. On changeover mornings we have a cup of tea and catch up. When she falls in love with a soldier, I’m invited for a barbecue to meet him. The next year, a month before Aidan turns three, I’ll be at their wedding. My then-new girlfriend, now fiancee, will come to the reception afterwards.
It’s an odd arrangement, and we’re all very lucky, and Aidan’s very happy, that we get on fine with one another. It takes work and dedication and the occasional difficult conversation to keep it going and to keep life stable, but it mostly succeeds.
A month after that almost-awkward conversation with the shop assistant, Aidan and I are on a bus, off to visit a friend and their little boys across town. There are two other lone parents with kids who are a shade younger than Aidan. One guy maybe my age who’s been playing dinosaurs with his son since we got on the bus. A young woman across the aisle with a daughter about the same age, equally content. The two adults seem to know each other and are chatting perfectly politely while their kids amuse themselves.
"There’s another one," a voice says behind me. An old guy in the next row back, talking to his wife. "They’re everywhere. You know they live separate so they can both claim the benefits. They all do it. Don’t even know what work is, most of them."
Aidan, next to me, is rattling off the names of everything he can see out of the window, oblivious. I’m thinking, “Does this old sod mean me? All three of us? Just the other two?” The lazy tabloid prejudice - benefits, marriage, even at one point national service - trickles into my ear in a stream, his wife murmuring bored agreement, until the couple finally get off the bus. This bitter old man knows nothing and has based his vile opinions on nothing; all three kids are quiet and well-behaved, I’m silent and the other two adults are talking pleasantly and politely. For all he knows, none of us are single parents at all. No one has done anything to earn his ignorant hatred, and if the same papers that peddle the ‘scrounging single parents on benefits’ line he seems to be quoting word for word also tout the old saw that ‘motherhood is a full-time job’ then they’re hypocrites and he should, surely, have the sense to realise that.
The thing - the only thing - that stops me saying all this to him is Aidan. He’s plainly enjoying the ride, he’s off to see some of his friends, and I’m not about to hurt his good mood. Because tomorrow I’ll be saying goodbye to him again, and as much as you get used to it, you don’t want to spoil the time you do get together by rising to other people’s prejudice.
My son is four now. We have moved again. He is about to start school. In the same week this happens, my fiancée is due to give birth to a boy, our first and likely only child. Aidan’s mum recently had to explain to him that his new brother wouldn’t be changing over with him every time but staying with us, but he seems to have overcome that disappointment. I still give up a lot of my evenings to work and this doesn’t seem likely to change so long as I can keep writing for a living. Aidan’s happiness and stability remains my top concern; in a few weeks, he’ll start sharing, equally, that perch with his newborn sibling.
A few months ago, he was asked by another shop assistant, one who knows us better, whether he liked hanging out with his dad. “Oh yes,” he said. “Daddy’s my best helper.”
Note: This was written a month and a half or so ago, on the off-chance we could persuade Guardian Family to take it. Life of the working writer WHO JUST HAPPENS TO HAVE A BOOK OUT sort of thing. They were a bit swamped but have hung on to it for a while in case a slot opens, but I’d guess if it was going to happen, it would’ve done by now, and it seems a shame to let it go to waste. Obviously it was written before Morgan was born and before Aidan started school. It also obviously covers a broad spread of time, from my single single parent days, through to the settled split parenting life of today.
I do still start work once everyone’s asleep, though. So tired. So very tired.