Everything I’ve Learned About Motherhood From My Single Parent Dad

Being brought up solely by a single dad, one of a foreign, Muslim background, exemplifies beautifully that parenting and families come in all different shapes and sizes.

Single Parent Dad Hugging Child

by Zeena Moolla |
Updated on

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‘You know, Zeena, I brought up three children by myself? And I was working full-time! I did ALL the shopping, cleaning, washing, ironing, driving, cooking – EVERYTHING! ALL. BY. MY. SELF. And, you know, for my lunch at work, EVERY DAY, I’d have a Cup a Soup and home-made cheese sandwich, sometimes banana sandwich – no “yuppie” lunch bought from a shop – just so I had enough money for all your “Maggie Thatcher” hairspray...’

I’ve heard this type of speech A LOT from my dad. It’s usually around the point where he’s in full Cup-a-Soup stride that I zone out or turn the telly up. This particular version of the monologue has been a favourite of his since I became a parent. It’s usually said quite defensively, when I’ve asked that he adhere to some routine with the kids I’ve been attempting, or suggest that an ice cream right before their lunch is probably not the best idea. But every word of that monologue, and its many variations, is true.

Since I was eight, the middle kid of his three children, my dad has been a single parent and an amazing one at that. After he and my mother divorced in 1981, my dad, due to complicated and personal reasons, faced bringing us up completely alone in a culture vastly different to his life prior to living in the UK. My dad, Papa to his five beloved grandchildren, is South African-Indian, of a Muslim background, and, as he’s told me on many occasions, he arrived in London in 1957 unable to do much for himself. “You know, Zeena, I couldn’t even make a cup of tea!” my dad, now 83, will proudly tell me, usually as I’m inhaling one of his gorgeous curries yet to be surpassed by any other I’ve had.

His own background, one of fifteen siblings, was much stricter than my own (although my fourteen-year-old self probably wouldn’t have agreed when I was sulkily heading home on a Friday night for a 9.30 p.m. curfew). His traditional Muslim upbringing saw largely all domesticity assigned to women, while the men in his family worked full time outside the home.

“Your father cooks curry?” one of my many aunties in South Africa would ask incredulously on every holiday there. “He can make chana dahl? Really? He can’t make chicken curry, though? He can? Ooh, Al-laah, your daddy is amazing!”

Their faces were agog in awe, and I could see some pity too. This life, especially for a man of his world, was unheard of. There was usually some female relative – a sister or cousin, maybe – to step in and help. Truth is though, even if we’d have had any family nearby to offer support, I’m not sure he would have accepted it. My dad has always been entirely his own person, stoutly self-sufficient and a natural nonconformist.

Now, as a mother of an eight-year-old and six-year-old with a husband to share the parental and home responsibilities, I often find myself, particularly at the end of a long day, fully appreciative of how hardworking and selfless my father was. Between cooking, doing the housework, helping with homework, ferrying us to and from after-school clubs, filling weekends with days out and countless other kid-orientated activities, the most time my dad took for himself was watching the news and, if he had any energy left, reading the newspaper.

He was, and still is, incredibly remarkable. Defying both gender and cultural stereotypes, it’s easy to see understand why he often evokes such admiration. But, as my dad will admit himself, with single mums far more routine* in the UK, sympathy can often be far less forthcoming for them. ‘If I had to leave work early because you were sick and I had to take care of you, everyone was very concerned and in awe,’ says my dad, a former admin civil servant. ‘But if a single mum had to do the same, she was reacted to like she was “swinging the lead”.’

But while single mums have to contend with recurrent ‘sponging’ stereotypes and accusations of raising ‘ignorant aggressive and illegitimate’ children (according to Boris Johnston inThe Spectator, 1995), single dads, it seems, are frequently subjected to notions that nurturing and ‘caregiving’ qualities are exclusively female. ‘People were always asking me how I was coping as a man raising young children, particularly daughters, but I never even thought about it like that!’ my pop chuckles. ‘There was no time! I just had to get on with looking after you all.’

Such inferences drove me mad, because my modest dad has always been an exceptionally nurturing parent. Every childhood sickness, he would be constantly attentive, dishing out huge hugs and kisses with necessary medicine and temperature checks. Every nightmare I had, his big brown arm would envelop me, like my very own daddy-dreamcatcher, until I was asleep again. And to this day, he rarely radiates happiness more than when he’s tending to the appetites of the people he loves most, regularly listing every item of food there is to eat in his house the second you cross its threshold.

There’s no denying that my dad had it tough; raising three children alone around a full-time job was no picnic. But my childhood with my dear dad contains some of the happiest memories of my life, and actually, we never really wanted for anything. It’s true, we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but there’s nothing ‘broken’ about a family cared for by a parent who does everything they feasibly can to provide a safe, happy environment. And (newsflash) some two-parent families, particularly when the relationship is deeply unhappy, can be far more dysfunctional and damaging. But I guess research into the effects of couples being together when they really shouldn’t be doesn’t make for great bigot-baiting headlines depicting a ‘broken’ Britain.

What I’ve learned most from my dad, is that happy family life can take any take form and is quite simply, driven by love. And love has always been boundless from my single-parent dad.

Everything I’ve Learned About Motherhood , by Zeena Moolla is out on 24 February

*In 2019, the Office for National Statistics, reported that of the 2.85 million lone-parent families there were in the UK, around 85% were households headed by single mums.

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