Scott Hanselman

Just please comb their hair and wipe their noses - My month as a single dad

October 12, 2011 Comment on this post [53] Posted in Musings | Parenting
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OnomatopoeiaThis month I've definitely realized that intellectualizing something is different from actually living it. I've been a single dad for the last 24 days. My wife has been in South Africa attending a family wedding and visiting friends while I've been alone with our two boys, ages three and five. It's been an experience, to the say the least. I decided to take half-time vacation and worked 10am - 2pm while the boys were in school.

Other than my obligatory 4 hours of deleting email work it was all home-making and kids for me. Who knew that single parenting is so hard? There were the first few days of "this is new," followed by "when is Mommy coming back," and the inevitable "so this is what life is like without Mommy." Definitely an emotional roller coaster for everyone.

Then there seemed to be a series of phases I went through, not unlike the phases of grief.
Shock - This phase includes disbelief and numbness. What am I gonna do? Gotta make sure the boys get to school each day. I have to sleep well, don't want to burn out too early.

  • Denial - After a few 3am surprise wake-up calls and obligatory potty emergencies, one tends to find themselves overwhelmed.
  • Bargaining - Just sleep through this one night and...
  • Guilt - Oh, I'm a horrible parent, the boys were late for school today.
  • Anger - This is so frustrating. Just do what I say and everything will go fine.
  • Depression - This totally sucks, how does anyone do this without help?
  • Acceptance - OK, I've got this. Maybe not the laundry, but lunches and playtime, I've got that down solid.

Death by a Thousand Tiny Cuts

Sometimes in a marriage (with kids) one tends to assume that their job to see the hardest. The thing is though, each role fulfilled by each spouse is different. The thing I learned about single parenting is that it's truly incessant. By that I mean specifically "it never ceases." Taken individually the tasks involved aren't difficult: make lunch, do laundry, buy food, but the problem is - it never stops. Just because I made meals and cleaned up all day yesterday doesn’t mean I don’t get to do it again today. And tomorrow. And the day after that...There's no credit to be brought forward for doing well yesterday: the clock resets, and it starts all over.

It seems that single parenting is the ultimate project management job. Every day included not the dozens of daily details that keep a house running but another dozen irregular details that were challenging to keep track of. I keep a lot of lists and notes and to-dos in my day job, but I had 4x the lists and notes and to-dos in this new single-parent job.

Playing to my strengths

One of the most significant things I learned about myself is to play to my strengths. While I may not be very good at remembering whose hair is combed or to wipe noses, I'm pretty good at teaching. I worked with the 5-year old who has been a little stalled at sounding words out. Turns out he's just bored with the material. Seems that "See Spot Run" isn't as interesting as "Batman." I found some age-appropriate comics (no guns, easier stories) and rather than trying to get him to read the dialog of the comics we focused entirely on the onomatopoeia action words. After doing this for a week I discovered that using comic books to teach onomatopoeia is a real thing that's done in schools. Cool!

The Good and the Bad

A good friend of my got divorced a few months ago. He made a large purchase and mentioned said to me,

"You know what the best part was? Not having to ask permission before making the purchase. And the worst part? The same."

That's a powerful and profound statement right there. It really stuck with me and totally applied in my month alone. On the one hand, it was really enabling and empowering to be able to change the system. We ate what we wanted (it was still good food, just what I wanted) and did what we wanted (zoo, museums, etc.) It wasn't that we didn't do these things when my wife is here but the point is, there's just one less adult voting. It felt like things went more smoothly, probably because any debates happened in my own head. It was nice to just decide things.

On the down side, there's no one around to brainstorm with. And there's no break at 3am. Or 4am. Or 5:30am. I don't know how single parents get a break, especially if they don't have family to lean on.

If it works, keep it. If it doesn't, change it

Now that the wife is back, we're going to look at some of the systems that I came up with and combine them with the existing ones that she had going. The goal is for neither of us to burn out doing our jobs. I think each person in a partnership tends to get hyper-focused on the task in front of them and forget the stresses on the other partner. Both of us have jobs that "never stop." We can't turn off and focus on something else just because it’s after 5pm. I really enjoyed my time with the boys as a single parent, and hope I never have to do it again any time soon!

The Customers (Kids) Don't Care

Another fascinating part to this was the complete ambivalence and amazing resilience of the children. While they were sad after Mommy was gone, a few days later "the new normal" become clear and they were back to business. I was a wreck, of course, but the kids didn't miss a beat. Their inherent wonderful "childish selfishness" remains intact, as it should. "What? Mom's gone? Ok, so are you the one making sandwiches now? Service! There's only one waiter in this lousy restaurant?"


I appreciated that my wife didn't just fly in, raise the landing gear and immediately take over the whole ecosystem. The boys and I had a good thing going and found a kind of equilibrium. A snotty nosed, wrinkled clothed, uncombed equilibrium, but equilibrium nonetheless. (Dad's skills lie elsewhere. Their pants were on straight 85% of the time, so I take full credit for that success!) My wife recognized that she was returning to a new house with new rules and we have spent the last few days talking about what worked, what didn't and what things we discovered while she was gone that we might want to keep.

Walk a Mile

It's certainly hard to be judgmental of any single parent when you've been one. We've all seen a single mom or dad walking around and wondered "where's the other partner?" Well, who knows, maybe in Africa, but you can bet that the one left is working hard.

I was explaining how college degrees work to the kids as we drove my a university this morning.

Me: "...Well, Mommy has a Master's Degree, she's very smart."

3: "Where is it?"

Me: "What?"

3: "The master."

Me: "It's on the wall in the office."

3: "Why don't you have one of those smartie things that mommy has?"

This made me remember that my wife has taken time off from one career to make the kids her career for a few years. I definitely understand my wife's job better after this month.

Behind every great man is a woman who is not impressed. - Me on twitter

Now I just need to figure out how to get her to do my job for a month so she'll appreciate how hard it is to tweet and restart Outlook! ;)

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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October 12, 2011 3:49
This is great. Glad to see everyone survived, and is better for the experience (despite the hair and noses) :)
October 12, 2011 3:55
Great post, Scott!
October 12, 2011 3:59
Love the post! And as a stay at home dad supporting my wife's career with a three year old girl, I know exactly how it feels. But we all manage and help each other out when possible. In the end, it's a very positive experience for everybody and one all men/dads should go through for a few weeks, if nothing else. Thanks for sharing!
October 12, 2011 4:06
I haven't gone more than 3 days alone with my 3 year old yet so this post feels more like a horror story to me. I'm filled with the false comfort that I'm not alone in world with the varying degrees of emotional instability child rearing brings one to.

I give you the the tip of my hat good sir, you are a great reference model not despite of your frankness and willingness to share but because of it.
October 12, 2011 4:11
Antonio - Then I've done a poor job of writing. Perhaps I need to update it. Hanging with my boys was an absolute joy during these weeks. When the wife returned the 5 year old could count into the hundreds, the three year old was better potty trained, and both boys were healthy and happy. I got to know them better, their needs, their likes and I was able to apply my strengths (teaching) to them and see real results. We had a BLAST. Kids are the whole point.
October 12, 2011 4:17
I may be speaking more to the first portion of the article, and phases 1 through 5.
October 12, 2011 4:19
Kids are a blast. I bet you were relieved to have the wife back though. It is a lot to deal with when there is no chance of a break. Just think if you weren't on half days for work what you would have been doing each day just to keep everything running.
October 12, 2011 4:24
Pete - Ya, I know! I was doing those things at night! #chaos

Antonio - I hear you. It's hard, but it's worth it.
October 12, 2011 4:26
Great post Scott!
October 12, 2011 4:35
Taking care of two kids for a few DAYS is the hardest thing that I've ever done... it was also one of the most rewarding things I've done. I got to know my kids better and also was able to teach them a thing or two. I can also relate to the bargaining, guilt and anger parts. =) But it was all good in the end.
October 12, 2011 4:36
Wow! This is inspiring to me. I'm in a similar boat (albeit a smaller one). I have a smartie pants wife who has been off work for two years primarily taking care of our 18mo daughter. I am a nerd and now a bit of an evangelist / trainer for Acquia (like you a college drop out and returner as well)..

There is a lot of angst around this between us. I recently reduced my workload (and pay) by 25% to try and be more of a contributor at home. It was a great decision, but *very* hard to enforce, especially in a startup.

Anyway, I hope I can do something similar. I'm not sure how given our schedules, but thanks for inspiring me to be a better stay-at-home dad.

October 12, 2011 5:11
Thanks for the post Scott. Glad to hear everyone survived. I've enjoyed watching your twitter feed through this. I just have a 3 month old and a wonderful stay at home wife. I haven't done fully done the single dad thing yet. This certainly makes me appreciate my wife all the more.
October 12, 2011 6:00
Heh heh, my wife was is SA for 9 days last month, I totally sympathize.

...The laundry gets you every time ;)
October 12, 2011 6:20
I done this for up to a week, I can't imagine what a month would be like.

I have to agree though, that while it's pretty rough, once the routine evens out, it can be really rewarding to be interacting more with your children than you've become used to.

Of course, part of the reward is when Mommy comes home :)

As an aside, the laundry situation actually improves when Mom is out of town. Other things get lost in the shuffle sometimes, but laundry, I can do.
October 12, 2011 6:22
If you write a book, I'll buy it.
October 12, 2011 6:38
Mr. Hanselman -

My ex and I raised her three daughters (from another father) for a good many years before we separated. After the separation, I continue to play a significant role in the lives of both her and the children.

I have seen first hand the superhuman lengths to which single parents must go to make the machine run. She has been working full-time while attending college 3/4 or full-time for several years. I do what I can to take the stress off, and therefore do my own version of single parenting.

The girls are all teenagers now, except the oldest, who is now 21 (when I entered their lives, she was 10, the middle daughter was 7, and the yongest was 3).

Parenting in the dual-income household of today is a full-time job for both parents even when they co-habitate. In separated households, things can get rough. I was fortunate in that we are all still on great terms, and remain a loving family despite the fork in our romantic road. Many parents (and more importantly, their children) are not so fortunate, and do the dual-single-parent gig while slinging mud at eachother, and impacting their children in an even more negative manner.

Things get a little easier in some ways through the teen years, and in some ways they become more difficult. I personally have had an easier time with the teens than I did the younger years, in both cases because I am not the biological parent. When they were younger, I would constantly hear "you're not my dad . . ." whereas now I play a dual role of respected father-figure, but also trusted family friend. Close enough to be trusted, yet removed enough to be "objective". ;-)

Kudos to you and your wife, and thank you for posting about your experience! Also, nice analogy regarding project management. It is always a good thing to walk a mile in the shoes of another to help get things in perspective.
October 12, 2011 7:39
I know you are a Louis C.K. fan and you have probably seen this, but it's relevant

October 12, 2011 8:33
Hi Scott.
Love the post. Thanks for sharing the experience.

This post comes at the right time for me.
I'm also single parenting my 9 year old daughter, but fortunately for only 2 days, today being the first day.

October 12, 2011 9:28
Interesting piece Scott. Thanks for sharing.
October 12, 2011 10:45
Great post Scott! I'll defiantly try out the onomatopoeia action words when my one-year old gets a bit older!

And Jason, I loved that clip, thanks!
October 12, 2011 10:54
I have two young boys, and remember thinking my wife had it easy been at home with them. Boy did I quickly find out I was wrong!

Kids are without a doubt the most rewarding thing I have ever done, but at 3am when they won't sleep it can be very difficult, but just knowing I could wake my wife up if I really needed to swap is a huge relief!
October 12, 2011 11:27
Great Post!

It was a eye opener for me when I had to stay home alone with my 1 year old daughter while my wife do her own thing. Totally understanding you. Best of luck!

When are you coming to South Africa for a Micrsoft event?
October 12, 2011 12:30
Great post, thank you :)

I realize now that i have to help more at home :)
October 12, 2011 13:18
A fantastic and insightful post which recognises the true difficulty of bringing up children in a busy household. I was interested to see how you kept systems in place from both parents to form a better system as a whole. I also understand that looking after children is extremely difficult having become a father myself in the last two years to two great kids.

I identified with almost everything you said, always good to get a male perspective on this topic as they are normally drowned out in the noise from hard-working mums :)
October 12, 2011 13:19
I knew some parent have a way to take a break - just direct the children to watch TV.

I understand lots of people regards creating habit for children watch TV unhealthy, but IMO one or two comedy movies won't harm.
October 12, 2011 15:26
Recently joining the father crew, you are spot on.

I continually think, how the hell does a single parent do this and a carrier.

October 12, 2011 15:44
Awesome post Scott :) I'm nodding and smiling my head throughout the read as all is so familiar.
October 12, 2011 18:03

I agree 100% with you. I have been doing that a couple of times and is really hard, specially when one is less that 1 year old.

and both want different things at the same time....
October 12, 2011 18:41
Dude, I'm totally with you. I've been in the same situation the last 15 days and let me tell you, I'm burned he he. Fortunately this will end soon and everything will get back to normal (kinda). I now have a great deal of respect for single parents and I know what I have to help more with around the house. Great post man.
October 12, 2011 19:05
very simple solution, W.C. Fields advice on how to raise children.

(a) put them in a barrel;

(b) feed them through the bung hole;

(c) when they are 10, seal up the bung hole.

October 12, 2011 19:13
As usual, excellent post. I love seeing the non-technical in technical blogs. It helps to remind us that there is an actual person at the other end of the interweb.
October 12, 2011 19:15
I think you cheated...

As a single parent who did it from the time my daughter was 4 months old(she is 19 now), along with a son from a previous marriage half the time I can tell you "You do what you have to do."
Fortunately, I did have a great support system that would help me out on occasion. I was able to take a few vacations by myself, but for the most part they went along. Made for interesting trips and I would not trade them for anything. "You do what you have to do."
Worked full time as a finish carpenter for the first three years, then went to school and worked part-time for two, and now in the programming field for the last fourteen. "You do what you have to do."
My daughter is now in college working on a nursing degree, but sadly my son passed away two years ago from Dechennes Muscular Dystrophy. Both are good kids who learned that life is what you make it. We have been on cross country trips that were adventures from the moment we left the driveway. From Utah to Virginia we went on the road less traveled, literally. "You do what you have to do."
I found time to volunteer as a junior bowling coach for the local bowling center. When she got into high school, I took over the coaching duties there. "You do what you have to do."
Yeah, there were times the house was not cleaned up totally, or things got neglected a bit. There were many a night I woke up in the rocking chair with one or the other child in my arms. There were times I was so tired that I would forget to turn the pages of the book I was reading, didn't matter because I had read them so many times I had them memorized, and my son would let me know we were on the wrong page. ;) The worst punishment I could give was to tell either one of them that I was not going to read them a story tonight. "You did what you had to do"
Now, I am able to enjoy some freedom, and do what I WANT to do.
And the cheating part? Just kidding, but those four to six hours a day are HUGE.

October 12, 2011 20:54
Great post Scott. I can totally relate to this. As the father of six kids (yes six - ages 6 months to 15 years) and with both me and my wife working full time it's always fun when one or the other of us has to go out of town for work.

I think the longest I've been a "single dad" for was two weeks back when we only had three kids but since I work at home and my wife is a professor at the local university, a lot of the work of getting the kids up and ready for school and then working with them when they get home falls to me. Plus, now that school has started up, the 6 month old stays with me during the day.

I think it is harder for my wife when I go out of town since I'm the one that normally does the laundry, cooks dinner, gets the kids ready in the morning, etc. When she's gone, it's almost business as usual, not quite, but close.

As Jay said "you do what you have to do". It can sometimes drive you completely crazy chasing everyone to all their activities and dealing with everything else going on but it is totally worth it when things happen like your 12 year old son randomly comes up to you, gives you a hug and tells you that he loves you. It's moments like that that make it all worth it.

October 12, 2011 22:35
Poignant and personal post.

Thank you for sharing your experience and in doing so humanising yourself and your readers. Sometimes bits & bytes can get in the way of what really matters. People.
‘Kids are the point’ – that pretty much sums it up right there. I’d like to expand on that slightly and say relationships are the point and they don’t come more important than your partner and your children.
I am a husband and the proud father of a 3 year old boy and 1 year old girl. I am also the founder of a software startup and I can tell you straight up that its waaay easier going to work than looking after my little cherubs. I am in awe of single parents. I think until you have children of your own its impossible to empathise with the challenges of being a parent let alone a single one.

I recently moved to Seattle and left my wife and kids (and pooch) in Sydney so that I can get everything (house, car, pre-school etc) set up so that when the family move half way around the world the transition is as smooth as possible. Effectively this has rendered my wife a single parent for the last month... and man it’s been incredibly tough for her. Incessant? Yup.

3am wake ups, sickness, teething, measles are just some of the things she has had to deal with by herself. Building apps pales in comparison.

Like yours, my wife is also ‘academically qualified’ and appreciating that she has put her career on hold for the children and to allow Daddy to live out his dreams is a sacrifice which I’ve always been conscious of but your post has brought, for me at least, this incredible selflessness sharply in to focus. Could I make that sacrifice? I don’t know if I want to answer that question.

I head back to Sydney shortly for 10 days before returning to Seattle for a week with my better half to show her around (without the kids) and to explore aforementioned things like pre-schools et al… Since reading your post I am better prepared for the ‘new normal’ and am mapping out my Sydney reintegration strategy. Thanks again Scott.

My Seattle integration strategy? Pray. For. Sun.
October 12, 2011 23:27
"Service! There's only one waiter in this lousy restaurant?" Brilliant! Been there, felt that.
October 13, 2011 0:08
Great post! It is good to have these experiences to value our wives work with the little ones.
October 13, 2011 2:53
Excellent writing. This analyzes a question I feel everyone has asked at one time or another. The age-old walk a mile analogy. It was great to be whisked along with your lessons learned and understandings gleaned.

If you come up with a way to have someone test your career I'd love to know. I've often been lost for words explaining to Meaghan why this job is so joyful and so stressful all at once. Done well it can look like a vacation at your desk with a whiny developer not realizing how easy he/she has it. It would be great to know how the experience played out in reality.

-- Stu
October 13, 2011 7:15
Well ... great to see that others have the same experience all over...
October 13, 2011 16:18
Scott, glad to hear that you get a vote in your household. The last time I got to make a descision in my house was when I had to choose between "I do" and "I don't". Now I just wait for instructions.

I can imagine the experience you had though. My wife was hospitalized for many weeks several times. Fortunately I had a family member who stayed with us to care for our 3yo while I was at the hospital and eventually back at work. Being able to work from home certainly makes it easier.
October 13, 2011 17:57

I continue to love your posts for so many different reasons. :-)

I will pray for you... and I can relate in a small way. My wife is a pediatrician in her final year of residency... she works a different rotation each month and this month she's on HELL MONTH working nights (7PM to 7AM) which means she sleeps all day. Tough on me, tough on the 3 yr old.

Reading this helps. Stay up brother. :-)
October 14, 2011 0:18
AWESOME post buddy!!!
October 14, 2011 1:16
Taking care of kids is serious business. Major kudos to all the single moms that have full time jobs, and here some for those that don't. #bacontheSVN
October 14, 2011 2:53
I remember my wife taking a trip to visit family, not nearly as long as yours did. It was such an eye opening experience to take care of our kids.
October 15, 2011 8:22
Hey all,

Scott thanks for the enlightening post. Like some 'I feel for you.' I have been a single father for three little girls. Their mom moved away and it is just me.

The gentleman who said, 'you do what you do' hit the nail on the head. I am pretty involved with the day to day operations at my firm and we have a significant presence in the middle east. I have no family where I live so I have to fly people in to watch my girls while I spend time there.

Those that are giving props to single parents, I say thanks, every little bit helps for sure. It is the most demanding and rewarding thing I have ever done. Half the time you are kicking a** and the other you are afraid you are f**kin them up beyond belief. Between the good and bad you find a wonderful mix that in the end you know you are doing the right thing.

My advice is this... Enjoy, Enjoy, Enjoy... take it all in. I have two older (13 and 11) and a baby (3) and they change so fast so absorb everything, compliment as well as criticize, and give them the most love you can because once they reach that certain age they do not need you anymore, and that is kind of a bummer. Our jobs is to prepare them for that, even though it might be slightly painful.

One last thought... It is not as hard as it may seem. When you realize you have no choice and you need to step up, you do. You make it work just like everything else. I am about a year in now, and it appears that I am in this for the long haul, and knowing that I can be there for them makes anything else seem very manageable.

To all the short timers out there, I am glad you got to experience the pain, agony, and pleasure. I am envious of the fact that is was temporary.


October 16, 2011 18:17
What a great mental disposition!

Looking forward for your post after you would have 24 days living somewhere in countryside, away from computing.
October 24, 2011 19:55
Weirdly my other half is just back after spending three weeks in SA too, leaving me with our two year old.

Re face & hair. I ended up putting wipes and an extra hair brush by the front door. Keys, coat, wipe face, brush hair, let's go.
October 27, 2011 18:45
This is a great post, and feels like it was transcribed from within my own head.

I'm the oldest of five children, my father worked "on the road" a lot so would be away for days, weeks, even months at times which made me "man of the house" as much as expected for my age at the given times.

So while the idea of babies / toddlers and their needs was never really overwhelming to me it was interesting to see a slight panic / deer in headlights look in my wife's eyes at times, a sheer "what have done to ourselves" look. Especially given that she was an "only child" whose mother had passed away when she was a baby, and father never re-married.

I recently read Jeff Atwood's ( blog post "On Parenting", and its comforting to find articles online from fellow developers that have the same view on parenting and fatherhood.

It really is this balance between insanely frustrating and extremely rewarding / joyful.

We have two boys (one and three yrs old) and despite the fact that I was the oldest of five, and I feel like in many ways I've "been there before" dealing with my younger brothers and sisters, the last 3yrs has been mind blowing. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Sometimes people say its a "thankless" job being a parent, but the moment(s) you child looks up at you like you are everything in the world to them will be all the thanks you'll ever need.

At least until they hit their mid-teens, F-U phase... ;-)

January 18, 2012 5:13
".. It helps to remind us that there is an actual person at the other end of the interweb."
Couldn't agree more, Patrick Hines!
January 20, 2012 23:05
As a project manager who's a major contributor to a project management website I can tell you for sure that what you're doing is definitely not project management.

A project has a beginning and an end, and the cost and the scope are both estimated.

Your task didn't have an end (so no timeframe), the costs were completely unknown as well as the scope (you had no idea what you wanted to do).

It's a very good post but single parenting is completely unrelated to project management.
January 20, 2012 23:24
Parenting (single or not) *is* project management. It has a beginning (birth), it has an end (your death), cost can be annually estimated and the scope is pretty much well known.

I had once tweeted that: What can your child teach you about time management? Everything.
January 20, 2012 23:44

Death cannot be considered an end since it's not a defined point in time.

Costs cannot be estimated - there are just too many unknowns (and even if you can estimate the costs using the worst cost estimation technique, it's still not a project), and no, the scope is not known. What is the scope anyway? There is no defined goal for single parenting that will be accomplished at one point in time.

That's just a process that repeats itself everyday - it's not a project, because it fails the minimum requirement, it doesn't have an end.
January 21, 2012 0:02
@PM Hut:
We can agree to disagree on the subject. You seem to take Scott's phrase too much to the letter. Even so, parenting is still project management. You say that death cannot be considered. So you never, ever had projects killed, or otherwise sidetracked I suppose.

If you want milestones with fixed points in time, here are a few for you: Birth, kindergarten, high school, college. How's that for a project twenty years long?

You say that costs cannot be estimated. What, you have not seen projects fail because of cost estimation failures?

Scope is well defined because that is why you have the kid born in the first place. And even if that is not the case, the kid defines the scope by its birth. You just have to understand it.

The fact that you consider only the daily repeating tasks, is just depressing. Parenting as a project is not about the repeating cycle of breakfast - school - afternoon routine - sleep. If it was just that, it could be outsourced.

I am not going into any more discussion in this though for we will wander off Scott's post way too much.
January 21, 2012 0:39

I have to say that all of your arguments are wrong and unrelated, what does death have anything to do with killing projects? You were saying that death is the end of the project - and now you're saying that it's about killing projects.

A project has to have a specific point in time that is not connected to any event as its end to be considered a project - or a specific duration (in days, months, years, centuries).

What you're saying about scope is ambiguous, a scope has to be defined in a project plan before initiating the project.

What Scott did during these 3 weeks was pure management (the same way an IT Manager handles day-to-day activities in his department to ensure everything runs well), but was not project management.

Comments are closed.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.