* This article first appeared in Telegraph Travel in time for Father’s Day. More on this theme from my book [pictured above], Inside Fatherhood.
We went to stay with Spanish friends during the last school holiday.
It worked well for a family trip with two other kids for my two girls to play with, the freedom of an unstructured routine and an insider sense of the local culture.
But, most of all, as a man who has travelled alone with his kids since they were young, there was another man there who both understood the challenges of modern fatherhood and shared my passion for showing his children the world.
I often struggle to find this kind of camaraderie on a family holiday.
The sense of isolation I have felt at times as a divorced father, who shares custody jointly with the girls’ mother, has made for some uncomfortable travel experiences.
It’s not the just practical aspects, such as who keeps an eye on the children while I go to the bathroom.
More frustratingly, a man alone with two little girls can be viewed with curiosity, sometimes suspicion.
Immigration officials at a major European airport once stopped us, asking to see birth certificates to prove the girls were actually my children.
More commonly, I’m subjected to other holidaymakers quizzing me about why I’m alone.
“Can I ask,” one relative stranger once enquired as I was nonchalantly loading my plate at the evening buffet, “is your wife dead?”
But I really spat the dummy when a restaurant manager rather publicly warned me not to take my youngest daughter, and then aged just five, into the gents.
“If she needs to go, then I’ll just have to take her to the ladies,” she bristled.
I politely suggested through gritted teeth that she should go and get a copy of her DBS certificate first.
So, as thoughts turn to celebrating our devoted dads for Father’s Day this weekend, isn’t time we gave single dads a break?
All fathers want to see their children open their presents on Christmas morning.
But thousands of dads across the UK will miss that moment this year.
A friend of mine, Richard, is one.
Having split from his partner earlier this year, he will spend Christmas day alone “drinking too much red wine and watching movies on Sky” before collecting his young children from their mother to spend New Year’s Eve with them at his place.
He talks about “just wanting to just get through it this year” but he’s not alone. From the divorced to the bereaved via fathers working away from home, thousands of men will miss that Christmas-presents morning this year.
According to a recent online survey by Samaritans, some 45 per cent of men felt sad or depressed at Christmas time; 37% of men admitted to feeling lonely, citing relationship and financial difficulties as their main sources of their anxiety.
And it’s not just older men. A separate survey, carried out for the BBC by market research company Comres, found that 18 to 24-year-olds are nearly as likely (30%) to feel lonely as those over 65 (31%).
The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently described the plight of the “chronically lonely” as a “national shame.”
“We have to move beyond the idea of men don’t talk, boys don’t cry,” says Joe Ferns, Executive Director of Policy, Research & Development at Samaritans. The organisation received 244,000 calls during the Christmas period last year and volunteers will man 201 UK branches over the festive period.
“We’re supposed to be modern men but, when we don’t cope, not coping becomes the biggest problem for us.”
“At Christmas,” he adds. “It’s even harder to hide from the reality of our feelings.”
So how exactly can men get through it this year?
Peter Saddington, a Relate counsellor based in the Midlands, encourages men to reach out and take small, practical steps.
“Separated fathers could plan a Skype call for Christmas Day morning, then plan a second Christmas to make memories for your kids,” he advises.
Relate offers telephone and online counselling over Christmas, according to where you live, and increasingly advises individuals on relationship matters – not just couples trying to stay together.
“Men are just as emotional and upset about a family breakdown but, when they seek help, we often respond really well to counselling,” he adds.
“It helps them put aside the sadness aside and move forward.”
As Christmas approaches this week, mental health professionals will be acutely aware that recent research shows male suicide rates are spiralling.
The Men’s Health Forum, a charity working to improve men’s health services, cite Department of Health figures indicating suicide is the single most common cause of death in men under 35. Of the 5,981 suicides in the UK in 2012, 4,590 cases were male according to the Office for National Statistics.
The Forum this month launched its Man MOT service, enabling men to contact an NHS GP via live text chat or email (it varies according to the day of the week).
“Men tend to put all their eggs in two baskets: work and wife.”
“Then, when a major life change comes, they haven’t nurtured the support networks that women traditional turn to,” explains Dr Luke Sullivan, a clinical psychologist involved with the project.
Dr. Sullivan is also working with the not-for-profit organisation Men’s Minds Matter to create a National Federation of Men’s Institutes to reduce isolation in men and provide a supportive environment to help men cope with challenging life events.
“Ultimately, you can close the door, hide away and think about what you’ve lost, or you can find a way to make it a bit easier, looking to the future and setting some simple goals,” he adds.
“It’s important to recognise that things will be different next year.”
I’m one of the lucky ones.
My divorce was finalised this year on the basis of a shared-parenting arrangement.
I had support during this process and I’ll pick up my daughters on Christmas Day morning this year to watch them open their presents before I cook the lunch.
I’ve invited Richard to join us.
After all, it is supposed to the season of goodwill to all men.
Aged seven-years old, sat with my grandfather in his front room, he would sip his tea and recite the poems he learnt at school to me.
Rudyard Kipling’s If was Granddad Harry’s particular favourite:
“If you can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run …”
I may have preferred Tiswas to Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade at the time, but it clearly had an impact.
I was lucky. Harry had a love of words and shared his passion with me from an early age – a tradition I now try to maintain with my own two daughters, aged four and eight respectively.
The fourth annual Fathers’ Story Week, starting today and running until Father’s Day this weekend, highlights the importance of male role models in getting kids to read.
So are dads (or granddads) better at story time than mums?
Dr Emyr Williams, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Glyndwr University in North Wales, believes that fathers can have more impact on a child’s fledgling grasp of literacy.
In a preschool world dominated by female figures, dads are different – hence they exert more potential to influence social learning. He explains:
“One of the ways in which children learn and develop is through mimicking and copying their role models.”
The role of father figures is, he says, particularly important to encourage boys to read independently, a group that traditionally looses interest in reading faster than girls.
“Fathers, grandfathers and other male relatives have the opportunity to change the path of literacy for young boys by encouraging a deep appreciation of literature established within a well-developed internal working model of seeing their hero read,” adds Dr Williams.
The importance of reading to young children has been well documented in recent years. Less well established, however, is how crucial the role of dads can be.
Recently, on Telegraph Men, Harry de Quetteville described story time as, “a humdrum yet powerful moment of communion between father and child, a moment when a bond of learning and trust is built.”
Michael Rosen, the former Children’s Laureate and campaigner for children’s literacy, used a recent appearance at the Hay Festival to slam Government education policy for a fixation with the mechanics of reading, rather than fostering the enjoyment of reading for pleasure.
He said: “We constantly live with governments who concentrate on all these narrow aspects of reading, and not of interpretation and understanding.”
It’s a subject on which The Fatherhood Institute, a fatherhood think-tank focused on policy, research and practice, goes further.
“Evidence suggests that when dads do bedtime stories well, they can have more impact,” says Joint CEO Adrienne Burgess.
“Mums tend to stick to the script but dads talks round the story, respond to the child and ask more questions.”
“Mums could reflect and learn from that,” she adds.
Recent research compiled by the Fatherhood Institute highlights the importance of fathers to their children’s learning and development. It found, for example, that preschoolers whose dads read to them a lot behave and concentrate better at nursery, and do better in maths.
At age five, these children know and use more words, can pick out letters more accurately, and are better at problem solving. By age ten, their vocabulary is wider and their numeracy skills are better, too.
“Dads tend to have higher aspirations for their children. If they can harness that forward aspiration for reading, by demonstrating a passion for words, or being a more theatrical story teller, they set a very strong example,” says Burgess.
As a single dad, bedtime stories have always been a special bonding time for my children and myself.
At bedtime this week we’ll be turning pages as usual. We’ve polished off a couple of Roald Dahl books in the last month. Charlotte’s Web was a big hit. And, while The Secret Garden is slow going, an iPad poetry app featuring Kipling and Edward Lear is proving a grower.
I may not be necessarily better at story time, but I’d like to think I’m more passionate about it.
And that, Granddad Harry would be proud of that.
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