‘I was always the outsider’ – Chesterfield dad and Derbyshire Times reporter shares his life as a single dad

James and Neve. James said being a single father does come with a few differences that he wasn’t quite expecting.
James and Neve. James said being a single father does come with a few differences that he wasn’t quite expecting.

Parenting, however rewarding, is tough. Whether you are a happy two-parent family or a single parent, the challenges you face on an almost hourly basis can affect both your and your child’s life. Having the responsibility of raising a child on your own is very unique, and doing that as a father, as I have done, offers its own set of obstacles.

I was 26 years old when I found out I was going to be a dad. There was a mixture of emotions, initially it was happiness, but there was also a part of me that was terrified.

Yet here I am as a parent to a 11-year-old daughter sat on the other side of the room while I type this.

James and his daughter Neve, aged 11.

I read up online on what to expect, trying to learn the basics of feeding, changing nappies, and the usual. I think I forgot to read the guide on being perpetually tired. Time flew by, and the day of her birth came. Sitting at her side while she was having a C-section, the world as I knew it came crumbling down, in an incredible way. There she was, my beautiful daughter in the flesh. All those ideas of being childless vanished from my mind, and I was in love with the little girl I held in my arms.

The first couple of months seemed to go well, the fear of not being able to be a parent started to subside, and whilst it was difficult to be at work all day and then come home to be a parent, I realised it was much harder to have to be a parent all day long.

Things started to get a bit more difficult after those initial few months, it first started when I was sent a text message from her mum to come home in the middle of the day. She didn’t respond to my phone calls, so I went home and found her passed out on the sofa and my daughter had not been changed or fed. Her mum had been drinking wine.

Our little world started to unravel, fairly quickly at this point. The drinking became worse day by day and the abusive behaviour towards me started. At this point I left and took my daughter with me, there were a few months where we tried to maintain a “normal” relationship by co-parenting, but she clearly couldn’t cope.

Neve Salt

My daughter was only around a year old at this point, and for the next six years, she didn’t see her mum apart from a fleeting visit when she was at her grandparents. Then in 2018, I got a phone call, which was nothing unusual, I got regular calls from social services, but this one was to tell me she had taken her own life.

There it was, it’s just me now. I felt incredibly sad for my daughter and immensely guilty that I didn’t try and do more.

Now, for those six years when her mum was still around, I never felt in control of the situation. Even though I had my daughter 24/7, and she never saw her mum, I always felt like she could decide to have contact again and whether my worries about her ability to safely look after her were justified or not, I couldn’t stop that. I felt like I was a stopgap for her real parent, the mother, to turn up.

Being a single father is no more difficult than being a single mother, and having done this on my own I have a great deal of respect for anyone who raises their child on their own, it’s incredibly hard and takes a lot from you. Yet, being a single father does come with a few differences that I wasn’t quite expecting.

James and Neve Salt

When she was a baby I tried the usual baby clubs, but I was always the outsider. It has been the same at school. Baby clubs, community centers, and nurseries are filled with mums, and as a single dad you stick out like a sore thumb. No one was quite sure what to say to you or to even go near you.

I remember recently, at her new school, I was always there at drop off and pick up times but apart from another dad there I never got talking to anyone else. Around six months in, my mum had to pick her up for me. That one time she went, she got approached by one of the mums at the school and asked if she wanted to join the WhatsApp group for the class. My mum knowing how I felt excluded, made her feelings clear. That was just one example of how difficult it has been to fit in as a parent and feel valued.

Then there are her friends – she’s a social child, the complete opposite of me. Over the years I have reached out to her friends to see if they wanted to come around to play, and there’s always been an excuse, but it’s never a problem to go to theirs. Having spoken to other single dads, this is a common issue where other parents don’t feel comfortable with their child being supervised by a dad on his own.

I took my daughter away for a couple of nights, where I had the police knock on the door one evening because the staff in the hotel had called – worried about what a single man was doing with a young girl, my daughter. Outraged, but unfortunately, I could understand.

James and Neve Salt

The little comments you get from strangers when you are out, for some reason hit hard. You know they don’t mean anything by it, and you shouldn’t take anything from it but it does make you think, ‘Am I good enough?’. I’ve heard them all, “Are you giving mum a rest?”, “Is it your day to babysit?”, the list could go on.

Father’s Day is one of the worst days in the year, knowing that the schools and nurseries she has been to have celebrated Mother’s Day, but not Father’s Day, even knowing what I have been through.

Then there is dating. Being a parent is a big part of my life, and has often dominated the conversation whenever I’ve tried out whatever the most popular dating app is at the time. I’ve had conversations about what I expect from them as a partner, and what they would be to my daughter. I don’t want someone to come in and be her mother, but I’ve found they don’t feel comfortable with the idea of that potential responsibility.

I love being a dad, it has been difficult, changed my life in many beautiful ways, and while I would love to have that typical family unit, I have come to understand and respect what we have. We find ourselves stumbling through it sometimes, and now she is older, we are doing it together – the ‘almost’ teenage years and puberty have hit us like a brick wall, and it’s a learning process for us both.

As long as there is love, you can succeed as a single dad and you are enough. If I was to give advice to myself back then, it would be to believe in yourself a little more, and if you can’t find a group where you fit in – make your own, there are bound to be others looking for the same thing.