Raising Children As A Single Dad: “Is There Enough Of Me To Go Round?”
Harry with Florian. Photograph by Mr Harry Borden
I don’t think my father wanted children. He always said he felt like a failure. Early in his life, he’d had a brief and reckless marriage that ended before the birth of his firstborn, Jed. We had a solitary picture of Jed as a 10-year-old boy in our family album, but talking about him or the photo was discouraged.
In later life, when I’d visit my father with my own children, he would sit on the sofa stiff and irritated as my mum cooked Sunday lunch. He would turn up the TV volume as his grandchildren played around him. At best he was distant, at worst sullen and angry.
As a child, you accept things. We all have our own idea of normal. Witnessing my father’s interaction with my own kids prompted me to reflect on my relationship with him. It is possible that my new book, Single Dad, is a way of exploring what I missed out on.
My life changed when I had children. I have four, the product of two relationships over 25 years. A catalyst for emotional growth, they’ve made me feel connected to the world and part of a greater whole. Everything is enlarged by the experience, including joy, but also fear. The perimeter of your being extends to include your children. You are afflicted with their suffering.
When my wife and I split, personal upset was eclipsed by a concern for how our decisions would impact on them. Thankfully, over time, family dynamics shift and, with kindness and love, things can heal stronger where they were once thought to be broken.
“Their stories reflect on fatherhood and the role men play in their children’s lives”
The men whose portraits I took for Single Dad are the main carers for their children. In a world where Homer Simpson is an archetypal father, they confound the simplistic notion of fathers as ridiculous. I asked each of my subjects to write about how they became a single dad and what they enjoy about fatherhood.
Their stories are different, but all share a love and commitment for their children. They also reflect on fatherhood and the role men play in their children’s lives and contribute to the ongoing debate about what it is to be a man, not least one who performs the vital task of bringing up his children.
Joss with Connie and Elmo
Joss with Connie and Elmo. Photograph by Mr Harry Borden
“I raised my two children alone from the ages of six and one. My wife, the writer Suzy Hitching, discovered a lump while breastfeeding when Elmo was five months old. She then had surgery and extensive treatment for breast cancer and following a four-year remission, against all odds, had the great fortune to get pregnant with Connie.
“When Connie was five months old, the cancer reappeared in multiple sites and nine months later, she died. I’ve raised my children as a single dad ever since and have puzzled out a way of working as a busy photographer with the real job of being a dad. On good days, I have pride and strength from knowing I have risen to a mighty challenge. On bad days, I just feel that wherever I am, there is not enough of me to go round.”
Michael with Mateo
Michael with Mateo. Photograph by Mr Harry Borden
“Back in 2001, I was scraping a living as a photographer. I’d never managed to get myself anywhere near planning a family with anyone. My son’s Belgian mother was exciting, chaotic, reckless and capricious. Deciding to have a child with her was crazy. We didn’t really think of the consequences.
“Mateo was born in Antwerp in July 2003. As soon as he was conceived, I was cast aside. Without any rights as a father, any contact with my son was controlled by his mother and she fled, travelling the world with my son, prioritising drugs, alcohol and dangerous relationships, often with violent men. After almost 10 years and numerous serious incidents involving social services, I was finally reunited with my boy and gained full custody in 2013.
“Mateo is the most incredible young man: beautiful, caring, creative and without any of the scars that could so easily have blighted his life. We return once a month to Antwerp. My son sees his mum and things are now much better. She is calmer and no longer in such disarray.
“I am working as a teaching assistant in a primary school in London. One day, I’d like to return to my photography career, or perhaps I would be happier assisting my son, a talented photographer in his own right.”
Anthony with Izak and Jacob
Anthony with Izak and Jacob. Photograph by Mr Harry Borden
“I adore my friends, wider family and my work, but being a dad, a single dad especially, is a total privilege. It defines me. Above all else, it’s who I am. When my partner, Amanda, was pregnant with our first son, I was full of trepidation about being a father. Could I cope? Would we manage? Would I be any good? Speaking with my sister, Sarah, she said, ‘Whatever happens, you will always have love at the centre of your life.’
“I lost Sarah 10 years ago and the boys’ mum, Amanda, died in 2016. There have been difficult times, but our hearts are full of love.”
Graham with Harry and George
Graham with Harry and George. Photograph by Mr Harry Borden
“After my wife and I separated, our two sons, Harry and George, remained with their mother in our marital home. I had them at weekends. Our circumstances changed after she suddenly moved. The boys lost all their friends because the new school was 25 miles away.
“At the end of every weekend, they would become upset at the thought of returning home. I felt that my ex-wife was not putting the children’s interests first and decided to act when, months later, Harry and George made it perfectly clear that they wanted to move back with me and be near their friends and family. My solicitor told me that I had a 30 per cent chance of being granted full custody, but we went to court.
“The numerous interviews we had with the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service obviously played a part because, to our delight, I was granted custody of my boys and we moved back into the marital home together. The three of us are still living happily here today. There have been some tough times mixed with the happy times, but without a doubt I would do it all again.”
Tayler with Tristen
Tayler with Tristen. Photograph by Mr Harry Borden
“My fiancée, Fleur, suffered from cystic fibrosis, which she managed fairly well. She fell pregnant around the time I proposed to her. All was good until she went down with the flu. She lived in hospital for a few months because her life and that of my unborn son were in danger. Little did I know she would never come out. I watched her deteriorate over the next few months.
“Our son, Tristen Luciano, was delivered on 26 February 2013, two months premature, by caesarean. Tristen went up into neonatal and Fleur went down into intensive care. Visiting them was like travelling from heaven to hell, the joy and beauty of a newborn mixed with the horror of watching the woman you love suffer in pain. She was strong and determined, fighting with all her strength to stay alive so she could be the mother she so desperately wanted to be. I was forever hopeful. Fleur passed away on 4 April 2013, aged 23, five weeks after our son was born.
“The love a father can hold for their child is unexplainable. It runs deep into the very core of who you are. Managing grief while raising a newborn has not been without its challenges, including having to explain to your son why he is the only child in his class without a mum. It’s not easy being a single father, yet in the same breath, it’s not hard. I just love my son with all my heart.”