How my single mum taught me to be a dad

Aussie dad Stephen Corby explains how he learned all about fatherhood from the two mums in his life

new parents with baby

Pretty much everything I know about being a Dad, I learned from my mother, which often makes me feel like I’m flying a very complex machine having read only every second page of the instruction manual.

I’m sure it’s the same for the children of many single mothers, a feeling that you missed out on seeing what dads are supposed to do because you didn’t have one around to observe and mimic.

My parents split up well before my earliest memories were formed and by the time I got to know my father properly, a couple of decades later, it was a bit too late to learn much. Then, sadly, horribly, he passed away when I was 26.

The loss of a father you’ve hardly known is hard enough, I hate to imagine what it’s like to lose one who’s lived with you all the way.

Various boyfriends flitted in and out of my mother’s life when I was a kid, and then came the first evil stepfather, who was more like an ogre than a parent (at least in my fevered and probably exaggerated childhood memories).

The final stepfather, a good man but not one who ever wanted to have children and took me on the way you might take on a mortgage if you moved in with a woman who already had one, never really operated as a typical father, either.

I did learn from him, of course, and still do, things like the value of hard work, the idea that holidays are for the weak and idle and that it is, or at least was, a man’s responsibility to put a roof over the family’s head, and to fix that roof if it leaks.

But everything else, every life lesson, every parenting tactic, moral imperative, political leaning, literary learning and inquisitive desire, I got from my mother.

Single mum doing double time

To say I have admiration for what my mother managed in bringing me up would be to indulge in savage understatement.

As someone who parents as part of a partnership, and occasionally has to do it alone, I can’t imagine how exhausting, unending and almost debilitating it must have been.

Adding to the burden, I was an only child, so I couldn’t be fobbed off to play with my siblings, and we had no money for nice things like holidays, or colour televisions, VCRs or most of the toys I wanted.

My mum had to work, in low-paid jobs, just to put food on our table, and to this day I can’t abide waste of any kind, because we couldn’t afford such a luxury.

There were also times where she had to, or chose to, stop work and be a stay-at-home mum, living on benefits with only rent assistance keeping the tiny roof of a “guvvy flat” over our heads.

We didn’t have much, but we had books and each other, and some of the warmest memories of my life involve just the two of us, tucked up together in a cold Canberra winter, exploring the whole universe outside our windows through the pages and the aegis of books.

So, just the parenting part was hard (the daily drudgery that I’m now fully aware of as a father), but harder yet would be the knowledge that something is missing from your son’s life; the influence of a man, the love and example setting of a Dad.

A single mother thus has to be both, or at least try to be, to the best of her ability. Being one parent is hard enough, playing the role of two must have been like an impossible mission you’re simply not allowed to give up on.

And my Mum, a thinker if ever there was one, did everything she could to work that male side of parenting hard.

She sent me off to my grandparents’ farm for holidays, where I’d be cuffed and coughed on by uncles and my rock-hard grandfather, who wordlessly cut a sheep’s throat in front of me and my cousins, then gutted it and served it up for dinner the next night, so us city kids could understand where meat comes from (at least I guess that’s why he was doing it).

When I told my Mum that story, breathless and horrified, she didn’t look so much shocked as relieved. One more bit of man lore she didn’t have to worry about. It was the same with sport, boy scouts and bullying. She did her best, and muddled through.

In a house with one parent, of course, there’s no sharing of discipline, no Good Mum/Bad Dad, “you wait until your father gets home”.

One person has to do it all, and my mother handed out the floggings (most of them verbal) along with the florid sprays about my inherent wonderfulness and undeniable talents.

She pushed me all the time and all the way, eventually seeing me get the university degree that she would have loved to collect (the first person from my family to achieve such a thing).

I guess I appreciated what she did, I know I tried to, but I also know that you can’t ever really understand, even fleetingly, what your parents have been through until you have children of your own.

There are many moments of reckoning, sharp ones and slow dawnings, but I remember being blown away by the amount of love I felt for my first born and suddenly thinking “wow, this is why Mum’s always been such a total weirdo about me”.

That depth of love, that willing desire to subsume your own life, your own goals, everything, for the sake of this one, seemingly perfect person.

And I remember pondering it for a few days, and years, and then striking on an example that rocked me back on my heels.

I remembered, at age 26, the day I left Australia to go and live overseas. My mother and I had not lived further than an hour’s drive apart my whole life, and probably never gone more than a month apart, and now I was going to London, for who knew how long.

I was excited, and so was she, at least on the surface, but it suddenly struck me, as a parent, how hard that must have been. How excruciatingly mixed and excoriating the emotions of that parting must have felt.

She’d given me the desire to travel, the need to spread my wings, and now she was going to be made to pay for it.

So I asked her, what was that like? “Well, that was pretty much the worst day of my life.” And now I get that, in a way that I could never have comprehended without being a parent myself.

That day, saying farewell, she was my mother and father, and I was saying goodbye to both. But she’s still there today, still trying to be all things to one person, and just about everything I know — rather than the many things I just feel, through instinct — about being a parent, I get from her.

Weirdly, I’d say I’ve learned a few things from watching other people’s fathers do their parenting, but mostly I’ve inherited all the dad things from a woman. And now I’m learning even more of them from another one.

The second mum in my life

As a Dad, and no doubt as any parent, it seems that doubting yourself, feeling like you’re getting it all wrong and occasionally hating yourself are all just part of the job description.

I have mates who are lucky enough to have had a solid upbringing with a mother and father who stayed married, and I know blokes who still love and revere their Dads as adults.

I can see that their paths as fathers are more clearly lit, or at least dimly outlined, because they’ve seen the work of a good dad close up, and can also benefit from the hindsight of the mistakes they saw being made.

For me, flying blind, the parent I now watch and learn from the most is not another dad but my wife.

Truly, there is something remarkable and inimitable about the bond between a mother and her children. No digger, dying in the dirt in World War II, ever screamed out for his father (or if they did, the war poets didn’t mention it). When kids are in need, when they are sick or fully frightened, it is that wail of “Mummmeee” you’re going to hear.

This is not something I find myself jealous of, but more in awe of. There’s a definite and deep link between this person who carried you into the world, who are you are, were and always will be a physical part of, that is just not the same for a dad, and that’s no bad thing.

What I learn, from watching my kids interact with their mum and with me, is that these little people want different things from us. Well, want is the wrong word, because it’s not a conscious desire, it’s more of a need.

Different families do things different ways, of course, because parenting is as individual as a fingerprint, and in my house growing up it was always my Mum who did the discipline, who was the Bad Cop.

Funnily enough, it’s the same in our house now. I know I’m the soft one, the one the kids will try and get around, but the whole big gruff and tough, wait until your Dad comes home thing is hard to pull off for me, because I’m always at home.

It’s where I work, and I do all the school run stuff, so it’s more a case of “you wait until your Mother hears about this”.

That’s not to say my wife doesn’t have a soft touch, because there’s something beautiful about the way she is with our children, a kind of beauty I didn’t even know she possessed when I fell in love with her, and which has only deepened the way I love her today.

I truly believe she is a better parent than me — more patient, more wise, less prone to stupidity, more forward planning (I could go on here) — but whether that’s because she’s a Mum and I’m not, I really couldn’t say.

I’m just very glad she’s here, and very relieved that I can learn from her as we go along, seeing our two incredible flying, crying and smiling machines aloft.

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