“You know, Zeena, I raised three children – by myself – without any ‘fancy pants’ books!” I remember my single parent dad chuckling, when I was a new mum and he’d spied yet another parenting book I’d ordered online at some desperate, ungodly hour. “I cooked, cleaned, washed, ironed, shopped – everything! Alone! You can’t learn from a book how to find the energy to work full time, come home from work, make a meal, help with homework, wash PE kits, iron school uniform… And then hope your children sleep well that night, because you have to do it all over again the next day!”
I won’t lie, I’ve heard this sort of speech many times from my pop (particularly since becoming a parent and often, quite defensively when I’ve asked that he adhere to some routine I was attempting or suggest giving my kids ice cream right before their lunch is not the best idea). But every well-worn 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 dad and an amazing one at that. He’s South African-Indian, of a Muslim background, and, as he’s told me on many occasions, he arrived in the UK in 1957 unable to do much for himself. “You know, Zeena, I couldn’t even make a cup of tea!” he’ll proudly tell me as he whips up his incredible prawn curry, yet to be surpassed by any other I’ve had.
His own upbringing, 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 home life saw largely all domesticity assigned to women, while the men in his family were expected to bring home the roti.
“Your father does all the cooking?” 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 good.”
The parenting legacy my pop has passed to me is, without doubt, about unconditional, selfless, devoted love. The kind of love that makes a child feel safe and strong.
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, fiercely independent and a natural nonconformist.
Papa is so exceptional that when I decided to write a funny nonfiction book about my experiences with motherhood, featuring him in some capacity was an absolute given. But it was the publisher who really recognised that my dad had to be more than a chapter in a book. He had to be the heart and soul of it.
“It’s such a rare thing to be brought up entirely by a dad, particularly of his background, that it would be lovely to explore this throughout,” she explained. “How do you think being raised by your single parent dad has shaped you as a mother?” It was such a shrewd question, and one that flooded my mind with a mixed bag of memories…
The nights when I was about nine and he’d cuddle me back to sleep after a nightmare had me scurrying in for a hug; his big brown arm encasing me like a mother hen’s wing. The weekends he’d pack out with trips to the local pebble beach, the nearby water-themed park, strawberry picking, swimming, among countless other kid-orientated activities. The parents’ evenings he’d dash to as soon as he’d finish work to make sure he didn’t miss a single one. The shopping trips to the local outdoor market he endured to buy the pixie boots or batwing jumper I simply had to have. The many childhood illnesses he’d tended to, dishing out cuddles and kisses with every temperature check and necessary dose of medicine. The words ‘love you Zee’ that he has always ended our daily phone conversation with.
The parenting legacy my pop has passed to me is, without doubt, about unconditional, selfless, devoted love. The kind of love that makes a child feel safe and strong. This is how Papa has shaped me as a mother. Because, there’s no doubt about it, single-parent families can face huge challenges. And yes, it can be so hard for a single parent dad, much like a single parent mum, to become the sole provider of all a child’s needs. But I can tell you first-hand, a happy family, whatever its make-up, is quite simply driven by love. And this has always been in overflowing abundance from Papa.
Everything I’ve Learned About Motherhood (From My Single-Parent Dad), by Zeena Moolla is out now. (Thread Books, £8.99)