09/10/2012 16:11 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

Life As A Weekend Dad

Life as a weekend dad Getty

Sometimes, when I'm walking through the park on a Sunday afternoon, I look at 'normal' families – mum, dad, yappy dog, 2.2 kids – and wonder what that would be like.

How would it be to see your kids every single day?
To have the kind of bond that only comes from knowing every little thing about them?
And to have someone to share all that with, who loved those kids as fiercely as you did – in a way that no-one else in the world ever could?

I wonder these things because, for over a decade, I've been a separated dad to my 12-year-old lad, Ben.

We've had many different arrangements over the years – every Saturday, every other weekend, regular weeknights – but the bottom line is that Ben comes and goes, spending the majority of his time with his mum.

And it's hard, in so many ways, for us both.
For me, one of the most difficult things is shifting from being Dad to being just Dan and back again. This Saturday he burst into my flat, fizzing with energy, and talked non-stop for 20 minutes. I listened, slightly shell-shocked, having spent the day quietly working, drinking coffee and reading the papers. Then boom! I was a Dad again, with this boy-dynamo rushing about the place, leaving a trail of biscuit crumbs and discarded hoodies/trainers in his wake.

Then there's the goodbyes: it feels like we're always saying goodbye. Sometimes they're sweet, others are tinged with sadness, but some can be heartbreaking. When Ben was six – that age when boys suddenly, desperately need their dads – the drop-offs at his mum's just killed me.
He never wanted me to go, would keep rushing out with another toy to show me, or another urgent question ('Why do boy dogs have nipples, dad?' or 'Why is space black?'), anything to delay the inevitable parting.

One time he actually held on to my legs and I had to gently prise his fingers apart, promise we'd see each other soon, then walk to my car, blinking back the tears.

In some ways, the last year has been the hardest, as we both adapt to his new hormonal, independent, argumentative self. It was like someone flicked an internal switch and changed him from my dad-worshipping little boy into a challenging, button-pushing teenager. As he lurches from being a loving, affectionate kid to a confident, opinionated young man, we've both struggled to maintain our equilibrium.

We're getting there, I think, but it's been a bumpy ride – and the fact that, after yet another argument, he's whisked off in mum's car and we don't have the chance to sort it out, can be really tough.

That said, having known dads who spent fortunes and years of their lives in court, fighting to see their kids, I know how lucky I am. Despite our differences, Ben's mum has always been brilliant about access – she understands how much a boy needs his dad.

And we may not live together, but I am intimately involved in Ben's life. We speak all the time as I try to keep up with the latest craze (it's guitars now; skateboards are so 2009).

In fact, I may see him more than some of those 'normal' dads. I've structured my working life – part-coaching, part-writing – so I'm free to fetch him from school, if need be. I'm often the only dad lurking at the school gate as the mums huddle in conspiratorial knots.

Even as he pulls away from me to become a young man, Ben remains at the heart of my life. As I write this, I'm drinking tea from a mug he gave me for Father's Day, adorned with a picture of us grinning stupidly on a snowboarding trip. I'll call him after school today and see him tomorrow.
Separated we may be, but disconnected we are most definitely not.

Next Sunday Dan starts a new must-read column on Parentdish: The Imperfect Parent.