Does The Guilt Go Away?

Single dad and writer Eric S. Elkins shares the victories and challenges of parenting his young daughter while trying to get back in the dating scene after divorce.
Eric S Elkins

I wonder if the dichotomy ever goes away. The last fourteen months have delivered some of the best and worst times in my life. Being single again is, by turns, a new adventure and a lonely slog. Despair and outrageous optimism can come so close together, I couldn't tell you where one ends and the other begins. Being a single parent means huge rewards; my daughter and I get concentrated time with each other -- we share new experiences, develop our own ways of communicating, have our private jokes. But it's also painful and difficult at times to live without backup -- 2 am puke sessions; navigating a crowded airport carrying the car seat, the backpack, the coats, the daughter; getting Simone up, dressed and into the car by 7:15 each morning.

But the dichotomy is, for me, the most difficult part of being a single dad. It's when I've had an amazing weekend with my daughter -- a trip to the zoo, home-cooked dinners or goofiness at the sushi bar -- but I'm still looking forward to the date I have scheduled for 6:30 Sunday night, just an hour after Simone's mom has picked her up. It's that feeling, at 5:15, of being both thrilled to get the night off (and I can be pretty strung out by the end of a Simone weekend), but depressed that our time together is ending.

Simone weekends are great, and off-duty weekends can be spectacular. But the dichotomy is always there. I'll be out and it'll be midnight on a Friday, and someone will ask me how Simone's doing. Suddenly, I'll feel the emptiness of not having her with me. And I'll feel guilty for being out having a good time when I should be pining away at home for my sweet kid. Or at least washing her sheets.

Does that go away? Being a single dad seems to be the best, and the worst, of both worlds. I get to go out carousing, but I don't get to see my daughter whenever I want to. I don't have to go home some nights, but if I do, the house is an empty carapace -- no laughter, no snuggles, just a guy with a headache and smoky clothes.

What I've decided to do is try to maximize the time I do have with my daughter, so I feel less guilty when she's away by:

1. Banishing the laptop from the dining room table. It's okay for me to watch the latest Homestar Runner short or catch up on email while I eat frozen French fries and carry-in KFC by myself. But when the girl's home, and I've already lost a half-hour cooking up a healthy dinner while she watches Kim Possible, it's ridiculous for me to check to see if some new, wonderful, beautiful, e-mail-savvy woman has dropped me a line. It can wait until Simone's in bed.

2. Leaving work 10 minutes earlier so I can stop at the grocery store before I pick her up at school. Yeah, it's always fun to go tearing down the aisles with Simone in the cart, and she does a good job of picking the ripe pears, but that time would be better spent in the Big Blue House wrestling on the floor or reading a book together. Which leads to

3. Resisting the urge to park Simone in front of Prehistoric Planet after a long day at work, and eating dinner in front of the TV. Unless it's one of those weeknights where I'd been out until 2 am, got up at 6, picked her up for school and worked a whole day, I should have enough reserves to keep Simone entertained without the aid of the television. Sometimes a picnic dinner in front of a flick is okay, sure. But it shouldnt happen too often.

4. Read that "one more book." Simone's in bed, blankies tucked around her, we've read four picture books, and she says, "Daddy, read one more, please?" Hell, I love Arnie the Doughnut. Of course I'll read it again.

5.No distractions during the last hour of the weekend. I will not "just send one quick" e-mail. I will not send a text message. I will not talk on the phone. I will only watch football if Simone's sitting with me on the couch, knocking back popcorn and Doritos.

The problem is, no matter how much I try to follow the above resolutions, there are still times when I feel like a crappy dad. A short time ago, I had to get a sitter for Simone so I could catch the one screening of Starsky & Hutch. Normally, I stick to screenings on my off nights, so I can have my weeknight Simone fixes. But UnderGroundOnline was depending on me for the review, and, hell, I wanted to see the film. So I picked Simone up at school, we grabbed her a Fazoli's kids meal to go, and we played at home until the sitter came over. Then I set up Lion King 1.5 on the DVD player, put Simone's dinner out on a little stool in the family room, and gave the sitter the scoop. When I urged Simone to be asleep by the time I got home, she asked if I'd come in for a little snuggle. I assured her I would, kissed her goodbye, and slipped out the door, waves of guilt chasing me into the garage.

When I got home, she was, indeed, asleep. And after paying the babysitter and turning off some lights around the house, I debated on whether to risk waking her up by climbing onto her bed. But when I looked in on my daughter, her mouth slightly open, her room filled with the smell of her particular sleep fragrance, I couldn't resist. And the best thing happened: She woke up enough to say, "Oh, Daddy!" and put her arms around me. Then she was asleep. I snuggled her for a few minutes, kissed her warm cheek, and snuck out of her room. My conscience wasn't clear, but I felt a little better.

There must be a way to take joy in the moment. Do single parents ever get used to it? Can you be psyched to get your time away without feeling that pang of guilt for being happy? Can you miss your child but still enjoy yourself? Is it okay to count down to the next off-duty weekend, but still take pleasure in the parenting time until then? I'd love to hear how other single parents deal with the dichotomy. Drop me a line!


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