I don’t think my father wanted children. He always said he felt like a failure. Early in his life, he’d had a brief and reckless marriage that ended before the birth of his firstborn, Jed. We had a solitary picture of Jed as a ten-year-old boy in our family album, but talking about him or the photo was discouraged.
In later life, when I’d visit my father with my own children, he would sit on the sofa stiff and irritated as my mum cooked Sunday lunch. He would increase the TV volume as his grandchildren played around him. At best he was distant, at worst sullen and angry.
As a child you accept things. Witnessing my father’s interaction with my own kids, as an adult, prompted me to reflect on my relationship with him – and it’s possible this photo essay is a way of exploring what I missed out on.
My own life changed when I had children. I have four, the product of two relationships over 25 years. Everything is enlarged by the experience, including joy but also fear. The perimeter of your being extends to include your children.
I always meant to find Jed, but recently discovered that he’d died in a car crash four years after the picture was taken. The death certificate said he drowned in 12 feet of water, having been thrown from the car into a lake. When I discussed this with my dad, he appeared impassive.
I now pity my father. Frail and vulnerable, at the end of his life, he was still incapable of connecting with us. He must have felt so alone.
The men in these portraits are the main carers for their children. In a world where Homer Simpson is some sort of archetype, they confound the simplistic notion of fathers as ridiculous. I asked each of my subjects to write about how they became a single dad and what they enjoy about fatherhood. Their stories are different, but all share a love and commitment for their children.
Anthony with Izak and Jacob
“I adore my friends, wider family and my work, but being a dad (a single dad, especially) is a total privilege. It defines me. Above all else, it’s who I am.
When my partner, Amanda, was pregnant with our first son, I was full of trepidation about being a father. Could I cope? Would we manage? Would I be any good? Speaking with my sister Sarah, she said, ‘Whatever happens, you will always have love at the centre of your life.’
I lost Sarah ten years ago and the boys’ mum, Amanda, died in 2016. There have been difficult times, but our hearts are full of love.”
Benjamin with Jackson
“I became a single – or perhaps sole – parent in November 2012, when my wife was struck and killed by a speeding car. It happened right in front of my then two-year-old son and me. Clearly, it has been tough, and this might sound strange, but I have learned to love being a single parent. My son and I have a great bond and we laugh all the time.
When my wife died, I found a travel book that she had bought me for Christmas. At the time, I thought there was no way I would be able to make use of it as the only surviving parent of such a young child. However, six years on, we packed our bags and went travelling all over Italy for the whole summer – just the two of us.
It wasn’t until I came home that I realised how much I truly cherish my time with my son, something I’m sure I would take for granted if I wasn’t parenting alone.”
Bruce with Cerys, Dilys, Tate and Malakai
“It was 3pm on 19 April 2013. Sitting in the car outside of the school waiting with Tate for his siblings, I knew that I had to be strong, for the kids’ sake more than mine. The children were about to experience a life-defining moment, one that none of us would ever forget.
When we got home, their mum would explain that she was moving out of the family home. Those two hours were the hardest we have ever known. They came out of school happy and excited for the weekend ahead. It was my birthday the next day, and we’d planned on visiting the zoo. ‘Daddy, are you excited about going to the zoo? Oh, and your birthday!’ I welled up not knowing how to answer the question, so put their favourite song on while trying to hold back the tears.
The drive home seemed to take forever. Fearful of what might happen, I went into the kitchen and put the kettle on. Eventually we summoned the kids, as ‘Mummy has something she wants to talk to you about’. 34 minutes later, she walked out of the door. Our world had just fallen apart.”
Neil with Kiwa and Ngaire
“I became a solo parent when my partner, Jeng, died in 2015. I got through the first two years on adrenaline and bloody-mindedness. I kept getting floored, but I’d get up again, even though a voice was saying, ‘Stay down, you’re beat!’
Sometimes you should listen to that voice, rather than try to fight on. I hurt some people I care about. I’ve had some wonderful, compassionate employers, but not always. In the workplace, you worry that you will be seen as weak if you let on that you’re not doing so well. But it doesn’t mean you’re no longer capable of doing great work; it’s just that you need a little support and understanding.
The kids’ favourite movie is My Neighbour Totoro. In the film, the mother is in hospital and there’s a sense that she might not come back. The film’s outpouring of surreal, wild beauty is a kind of response to that unimaginable loss. It’s a reminder that there is still beauty and joy in this world, waiting for you.
I dreamt once that Jeng was a bird. I was alone on a ship with the kids, beating through the waves. We’ve had to let her go, but she is flying above us.”
Daniel with Jamie
“My darling wife Helen went to work the week before Christmas 2012 and never came back home. At lunch, she nipped out to buy some last minute presents and, on the way back, used a pelican crossing on a busy main road. She stood and waited for the red light and the subsequent green man before beginning to cross. Unfortunately for Helen, a car didn’t stop and knocked her down. She never woke up again.
Jamie was two-and-a-half at the time. I’ve loved watching him grow up. He’s such a smiley, cheerful young man and nothing seems to get him down. I love teaching Jamie life skills, and we do a lot together. We go on long bike rides, play rugby, walk in the Lake District, and he’s learning basic mountaineering techniques. Our bond is very strong and long may it continue.”
David with Ruby
“In July 2015, following a short illness, my wife Laurel died of bowel cancer. Our daughter Ruby was ten weeks old. She is about one in this photo and has now grown into an energetic, curious and playful three-year-old. She is a constant source of joy as she explores her world, from our local neighbourhood to nursery and further afield.”
Luke with Owen, Levi and Cody
“I became a single father to Owen and Levi on 26 December 2009 after a lengthy period of problems with the boys’ mum and her partner.
Their son Cody came to live with us on 20 August 2010. He had no family member to continue his care and would have been placed into the hands of the local authority. I couldn’t let that happen. We went through the process and I became his legal guardian under a private fostering arrangement. We have all lived together since then and helped each other rebuild our lives.
After the pictures were taken, I met someone and am now engaged after staying away from relationships for seven years. My new partner, Chloe, has no children of her own and has adjusted very well to a house of males. She loves the three boys unconditionally, and they love her as much. Life is finally heading in the right direction.”
Dan with Jack
“In May 2016, when Jack was only nine months old, his mother relocated to Scotland, taking him away from me and the only home he had known, without my consent. I desperately pleaded with her to return Jack to London, but she refused. After six weeks of uncertainty and no contact, I was forced to commence legal proceedings.
The lengthy process impacted on my mental health. I fell into a deep state of depression and grief, which saw me unable to eat properly, go to work, or even leave the house.
After a number of court sessions, a judge decided that Jack should live with me and he was returned home permanently in April 2017. I now look after Jack with the help of my parents whilst he spends holiday time with his mum. We do all we can to ensure Jack knows he is dearly loved and cared for. I hope that one day Jack will be comforted in the knowledge that his father would never abandon him, or settle for an occasional visit here or there.
A life without Jack wouldn’t be worth living. Jack, we love you and always will. You are the light that shines through us all.”
James with Archie and Alexa
“I became a single dad when my wife died in 2014 after a nine-month battle with cancer. Our children were two-and-a-half years old and 11 months. It’s been really tough at times, but I am now so much closer to my kids. We have become a really tight unit.”
Phil with Amber
“Amber was only two when her mother and I decided to go our separate ways and we agreed custody would be shared 50:50. Her mum has always been very career-focussed and this has often meant she doesn’t have time to honour her childcare commitments. I predicted this, so when Amber came along I switched careers from finance to teaching. This has afforded me the flexibility and time to take the lead role with regards to Amber’s home life as well as her social and school activities.
I spend every day of the week with her and she’s such a little daddy’s girl, I don’t think I could be wrapped any tighter around her little finger.
We talk about everything and she’s a real chip off the old block, being really sporty. I’m hoping she’ll qualify for Wimbledon Finals by the time she hits 14, although she’s made it very clear she wants to make it as a YouTube singing sensation first!”
Rick with Holly
“I met Sarah in 2004 and we were married in 2011, making me stepfather to her daughter, Sophie. Upon returning from our honeymoon we discovered Sarah was pregnant with Holly. We were blissfully happy.
When Holly was five months old, Sarah was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. We knew our world was never going to be the same, but we never gave up hope. I became a full-time carer for Sarah and our children. We did our best to fit in as much as we could in the time that we had. Sarah fought bravely for 14 months, undergoing chemotherapy and surgery. It was a gradual decline and she died in my arms on 7 September 2013.
It was a truly terrible experience. Holly was only 18 months and Sophie nine years. Nothing can prepare you for raising children as a single parent while dealing with loss and grief. You try to find your own path and slowly find a way to cope. Things do continue, time heals and a new way of engaging with life emerges.
We have a ‘keeping busy’ strategy and, with the support and love from family and friends, things are manageable. Each day we make memories, stay active, have fun with everything we do and most of all, live a happy life.”
Kevin with Ben and Toby
“I became a single dad on 10 March 2013. This day represented the end of a tortuous cancer journey that had started five years earlier, a period of time filled with tears and upset, but also with some wonderful memory-making moments.
Despite being told Philippa had an 82 to 88 per cent chance of survival, for some reason we knew she wouldn’t. The children and I watched a fit and healthy person whom we dearly loved decline in health and eventually pass away with me next to her, holding her hand. The children were five-and-a-half and seven at the time.
With the help of Daisy’s Dream, a Berkshire-based charity who specialise in supporting grieving children, we found our way through the initial grief and now live on the south coast in a happy and lively extended family unit.
Although things have changed dramatically for all of us, we try to live life as she would have wanted: trying new things and having as much fun as possible.”
Andrew with Edith and Jasper
“I lost my wife to post-stem cell transplant treatment, following her courageous and successful battle with three blood cancers.
I have feelings of pride in everything my children do. They outstrip any feelings about my own achievements. Unconditional love.
Today, my daughter said that Daddy makes her happier than anything. I love watching them have a positive impact on everyone and everything.”
Jon with Aaron
“I met my wife Jo in 2005 and we were married in September 2006. We lived in north London and, by 2009, we had our son Aaron. When pregnant, she started to become unwell and it transpired she had developed secondary breast cancer in her lungs, liver and bones. The diagnosis was seven weeks after giving birth and she deteriorated significantly. She’d first had cancer ten years earlier in 1998.
The joy of having our beautiful boy was tempered by Jo’s exhaustion, her loss of weight, the constant chemotherapy (five different types) and the numerous check-ups. Aaron was oblivious to most of this as we ensured he was always surrounded by love, fun and happiness.
In 2013, we decided to stop all treatment as the cancer kept coming back and Jo was getting weaker. In September 2013, Jo was admitted to the North London Hospice and died peacefully eight days later whilst I was holding her hand.
I will always remember the last time she saw Aaron. Although no one acknowledged it, we all knew it was ‘goodbye’. Today, we still keep her memory alive in any way we can.”
Nav with Eisa
“I became a single parent after the relationship broke down with my son’s mother. Since then, it has been a rollercoaster of a ride as I had to give up full-time employment, roll my sleeves up, and get stuck in. It would be fair to say that I embraced my new responsibilities with moxie. At first, it was tough. There was just so much I didn’t know. I’ve learnt loads.
The thing I love most is being there for my son when life throws him a curveball. Helping him through challenges he faces at school, with friends (he has a lot of them, so juggling his time between them can be tough!), riding a bike, you name it…
I’ve realised that fatherhood really is a privilege and my son has brought a meaning to my life that I never had the right to expect. For that I will be forever grateful.”
David with Lexie and Leon
“Kelly and I met when she was 18 and I was 22. She worked in the travel industry and we ventured abroad at least twice a year, making memories across the world. Eventually, our two children were born and life was brilliant.
Our lives were turned upside down in 2012 when a routine smear test revealed an issue with cancerous cells. I watched a super fit, walk-miles-everyday type person gradually deteriorate, powerless to do a thing about it. She died on 20 January 2014, eight days after her 30th birthday.
I can honestly say that being a father is the best life experience bar none. Every day is a new opportunity to have fun and be grateful; to learn and try new things; and make as many memories as possible. They give complete and utter unconditional love and watching them grow has been a brilliant journey.
I no longer have two babies utterly dependent upon me. They are now two very different, independent mini-people that come with opinions and ideas, continually questioning and challenging the status quo.”
Michael and Mateo
“Back in 2001, I was scraping a living as a photographer. I’d never managed to get myself anywhere near planning a family with anyone. My son’s Belgian mother was exciting, chaotic, reckless and capricious. Deciding to have a child with her was crazy. We didn’t really think of the consequences.
Mateo was born in Antwerp, July 2003. As soon as he was conceived, I was cast aside. Without any rights as a father, any contact with my son was controlled by his mother and she fled, travelling the world with my son, prioritising drugs, alcohol and dangerous relationships – often with violent men. After almost ten years and numerous serious incidents involving social services, I was finally reunited with my boy and gained full custody in 2013.
Mateo is the most incredible young man: beautiful, caring, creative, and without any of the scars that could so easily have blighted his life.
We return once a month to Antwerp. My son sees his mum and things are now much better, she is calmer and no longer in such disarray.
I am working as a teaching assistant in a primary school in London. One day, I’d like to return to my photography career, or perhaps I would be happier assisting my son, a talented photographer in his own right.”
Tayler and Tristen
“My fiancée Fleur suffered from cystic fibrosis, which she managed fairly well. She fell pregnant around the time I proposed to her. All was good, until she went down with the flu. She lived in hospital for a few months because her life, and that of my unborn son, was in danger. Little did I know, she would never come out. I watched her deteriorate over the next few months.
Our son, Tristen Luciano, was born on 26 February 2013, two months premature by caesarean. Tristen went up into neonatal and Fleur went down into intensive care. Visiting them was like travelling from heaven to hell, the joy and beauty of a newborn mixed with the horror of watching the woman you love suffer in pain. She was strong and determined, fighting with all her strength to stay alive so she could be the mother she so desperately wanted to be. I was forever hopeful.
Fleur passed away on 4 April 2013, aged 23, five weeks after our son was born.
The love a father can hold for their child is unexplainable, it runs deep into the very core of who you are. Managing grief whilst raising a newborn has not been without its challenges, including having to explain to your son why he is the only child in his class without a mum.
It’s not easy being a single father, yet in the same breath, it’s not hard. I just love my son with all my heart.”
Kit and Joseph
“Joseph is almost six now and I have loved watching him grow.
In these early stages, it’s so fascinating and rewarding. I’ve learned so much about myself because we are so similar.
I’ve come to the conclusion that you perceive the whole world differently when you have a child. I’ve also found myself going from being almost selfish to selfless. Whilst I’ve fallen in love a few times, the love you feel for your child is totally encompassing.
My one regret is that I did not have a child earlier, and maybe more than one. However, I do feel lucky just to have Joseph. For many years something was missing from life, and now I feel complete.”
Single Dad by Harry Borden is published by Hoxton Mini Press