Shaun and Sam were mid-wedding planning, and home renovating when their son Tyler arrived. Life was busy and beautiful as a new little family when the unthinkable happened, Sam passed away from anaphylaxis when Tyler was just seven months old.
There are no words that can describe the blinding shock and grief that a situation like that deals you, but with a young baby, you can’t stop or retreat into your grief. You have to go on. Here, Shaun shares his story for anyone who finds themselves suddenly a single parent. You’re not alone. For anyone with a loved one parenting alone, may this insight into the realities and immense difficulties help to guide how you support them.
“In the beginning, trying to manage all the tasks of the household on my own, while dealing with my own grief was a lot,” says Shaun. “Our whole routine and the way we operated, the way we’d planned to parent was upended by Sam’s death. I co-own a building company, so work was demanding. I had to use all my favours to get through a heavy workload, and I felt like such a burden on a lot of people. If Tyler was sick, which he was a lot in the early days, it was incredibly hard. Everything was focused on surviving. I had to work really hard to have quality time with Tyler, and I lost all personal time, but the hardest part was being on my own. Sam and I had been together for so long, eleven years, and adjusting to life without her was incredibly hard.”
“My family was amazing. My mum moved in. My aunty, brother and sister-in-law helped a lot, as well as Sam’s parents. I received so many acts of kindness from our friends. People dropped off food and supplies that really kept us going in the early days. I changed my work arrangements to three days a week to give something like balance and we had a schedule. Sam had documented her routine with Tyler. I used that as a framework in the early days. It helped ground me and keeping to it gave me confidence. During that time Tyler was permanently attached to my chest in the Baby Bjorn Carrier.”
Living as a single, primary-carer dad
“I went back to full-time work 12 months after Sam passed, when Tyler was 18-months-old. My mum was living with us so she helped particularly with mornings and daycare drop-off as I needed to start work early. Tyler was in daycare three days a week, and with a carer two, then moved to four days at daycare and one with a carer, which is what he still does now at four-and-a-half. Having this kind of support is truly the difference between being able to work and not. It stayed hard to be social. I was fortunate to have some really great friends who would invite me to their home for key events like Christmas Eve or New Years Eve, times that I could feel lonely. It meant a lot to be around big groups of people and feel more social. Having said that, at social functions, typically, the dads would be at the BBQ and the mums would be hanging out together. I could never be truly present in either group, as I was accountable for keeping an eye on Tyler the whole time and couldn’t rely on my partner to help. I could never have a drink, or unwind as I was ‘on’ the whole time.”
Talking about mum
“When strangers saw Tyler and I out together so often they would comment, ‘Daddy Day today!’ or ‘Oh you’re with your dad today!’, like it was a novelty. I would explain that every day is daddy day. As Tyler’s gotten older, I’ve always told him the truth, that her heart stopped when he was a baby. He’d ask, ‘why didn’t she stay with us?’, almost like he thought she had a choice, so explaining that she didn’t want to die was important.”
Highs and lows
“Sam passed away before all the firsts. She missed our first Father’s Day, Christmas, first time crawling, first time walking… Those milestones were really hard, and I was acutely aware that our family dynamic wasn’t complete. Having grown up myself in a single-parent family, creating my own family was really important, and it was sad thinking that had been taken away from us. I realise now that I never got to be the fun dad, a stereotype, I know, but I was always cooking and cleaning and managing. It was survival. But there were positives: I got to partake in the day-to-day of my son’s life a lot more than most dads. On Tuesdays we’d go for swimming lessons and I’d be the one dad with 10 mums in the pool. I went to the nurse appointments and was fully aware and accountable, taking in all the information and advice first-hand. I took care of my mentality by remembering how much Sam wanted to be there. When Tyler woke in the night, I understood that Sam didn’t get to have those experiences and would have given anything to comfort Tyler in that moment. I reframed how I looked at things. It was hard, but this was extra time I got to spend with my son. It went from being a chore to a privilege.”
“Sixteen months ago I met my now partner, Phoebe and I introduced her to Tyler early on. I think it was date four or five. He was three and a bit and it felt like I was missing a part of me and my story without him being with us. I was really conscious of how he would respond to Phe staying over, but it all went really smoothly and Tyler easily accepted this new person in our lives. I paid attention to his tells and was conscious that you can’t force them to feel a certain way. They have to feel how they feel. Phe and I focused more on creating a positive and safe environment and waited for Tyler to evolve. Once we all moved in together (it was COVID, things moved fast) we started to share responsibilities, co-parenting, which I’ll admit took some getting used to. Even though Phe is essentially Tyler’s step-mum and we’re both collaboratively parenting, I still feel like the buck stops with me. I don’t know when or if that will change.”
To the single parents
“Back yourself in your choices. They are good enough. Everyone’s situation is different, so just do what you believe in and don’t worry about what others think. Also, get people to take photos of you both! I have so few photos of the two of us when he was small.”