5 lessons I learned from 16 Years of Being a Single Father.

5 Lessons I Learned From 16 Years of Being a Single Father.

This week my youngest son turned 18 years old.  In the eyes of the world, he is an adult. To me, he will always be that little 2-year-old boy that asks too many questions.  I’ve been a single dad for over 16 years now and I can it’s truly been a long road full of good times and bad times, triumphs and struggles. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it.

I’ve learned a lot from being a single father, more than I can write in a simple article.  I will, however, list 5 very important things I learned over the 16 years I have been a single father.  I know there are some guys out there just beginning their journey as a single parent, and yes it can be frightening. I just pray that I can pass on some of the lessons I’ve learned to help those who are struggling.

5 Lessons I Learned From 16 Years of Being a Single Father.

The Beginning Of A Long Journey.

" There's so much negative imagery of black fatherhood. I've got tons of friends that are doing the right thing by their kids, and doing the right thing as a father - and how come that's not as newsworthy?" Will Smith

It started in 2002 when my wife and I separated and a year later divorced. Most the five years we spent together was filled with constant fighting. I can honestly say that neither of us was ready for marriage.  She still wanted to live the single life, going out every weekend with her single friends, which eventually led to her infidelity.

One day while at work I received a call from our downstairs neighbor telling me that both my sons were outside by themselves. Milan, my oldest, almost got hit by a car trying to cross the street to get to the playground.  Michael was sitting on the sidewalk with nothing but a pamper. It was mid-March in Wisconsin, and if you know anything about Wisconsin weather you know it’s cold in March.

I rushed home and he told me when took the boys upstairs the door was open and she was passed out on the couch.  I was furious! That for me was the last straw.  I took my car, clothes, TV, computer, and my boys. I left and never looked back.

I always told myself that if I had children it would be with one woman and if for whatever reason our relationship didn’t work that I would raise my children. I can’t trust anyone to raise them with my sense of morals.  So, when the time came I kept that promise to myself and my boys.

My Boys in 2002. 5 lessons I learned from 16 Years of Being a Single Father.

My Boys in 2002

Lessons Learned Over The Years.

"Real fatherhood means love and commitment and sacrifice and a willingness to share responsibility and not walking away from one's children." William Bennett

1. Never Take Your Frustrations Out On Your Children.

I’ll be the first to say that I didn’t have a lot of patience.  However, I developed patience because I knew I couldn’t take out my frustrations with life on my boys. For the first several years I worked in a couple customer service call-centers. You know, the kind where you’re expected to answer 80 calls a day while making very little money.  I was also going to school online trying to finish my degree, so I was often mentally fatigued from the stress of the job and lack of sleep.

Because I made little money we moved into a one-bedroom apartment.  I let my boys have the bedroom while I slept in the front room. I would never let them see it, but there were nights when, after putting them to bed where I was on the verge of tears.  I was seriously struggling to keep it together juggling a full-time job, full-time school, and taking care of my boys.  Depression was the norm.


I look back now and know there were times I not only lost my patience, but I took out my frustration my boys. Never physically mind you, but I would raise my voice at even the slightest infraction.  That was until one day I looked at them and saw how much I was affecting them mentally.  They already had an absent mother and I was supposed to be their anchor. Nevertheless, I was quickly becoming their worst nightmare. Stuck in a home with a father who was depressed and angry at the world, my young sons had no one else but each other to turn to.   That realization convicted me to the core of my soul. I prayed to God for forgiveness and asked them to forgive me as well.

I finally lost my call center job and was unemployed for five months in 2006.  I had no savings because I couldn’t afford to save.  Every dollar had to be stretched further than ever.  Luckily, most of those five months were in the spring and summertime. I say luckily because I could take them to the park to play while walking around thinking what to do next.

That summer my parents decided they were moving south. While at their going away party I overheard a man talking about how the festival he worked for needed a graphic designer.  I told him I did graphic design.  He set up an interview with the Festival board and I received a graphic design contract that paid me over a thousand dollars.   That money got me through the rest of the summer as well as paid my rent until I got another job. Things eventually got better, I finished school and found a better paying job which allowed us to move to a bigger place.

I thank God that we made it as far as we did.  You don’t see it when you are going through hard times and life can throw you some curve balls. However, never take out your frustrations on your children. They didn’t ask to be here and they didn’t ask to be put in the situation they are in.  You are the father (or mother) and I can honestly say my boys are the reason I persevered.  I thank God for those hard times because they made me who I am today.

2. Be a Friend, But Be a Father First.

Milan and I in Chicago watching the Bayern Munich v. AC Milan game. 2016. 5 lessons I learned from 16 Years of Being a Single Father. Terrellcotton.com

Milan and I in Chicago watching the Bayern Munich v. AC Milan game. 2016

I absolutely hated the fact that my boys had to grow up without a mother in the home. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt over this and because of that, I was often more a friend and less a parent.  I wasn’t as strict as I should have been when it came to rules.

We had a very busy schedule. They both began playing soccer at the age of 6 and 8. They practiced three days a week and had games on weekends. So, add that to my working 40 hours a week, online classes at night, cooking daily (yes, I learned to cook because I refused to eat junk), cleaning, and their homework.  I was exhausted and I let them play games for an hour or two nightly.  This was a big mistake.  This was the time they should have been reading or doing something else educational.  I was a good father, but I can freely admit I was a poor parent.

Being a parent, you need to set guidelines and stick to those guidelines.  Their education comes first and foremost. You can have your pity party about how life sucks later, but they need to have structure.  Set bedtimes, limit television and game time, read with them every night, pray with them, do whatever you need to do but have a sense of structure in your home. They may not like the rules, but remember, you are a father first and a friend second. They’ll get used to it eventually.

3. Keep Other Relationships at a Distance.

One thing about being a single father is… the single part. I’ve learned a lot from years of dating different types of women, and yes, some you need to keep many of them away from your children.

Often when women hear that I am a single father bringing up his own children they’re quickly intrigued. This is especially true if they have children also.  I had one woman take a picture of me and my boys off Facebook and merged it with a photo of her family.  This was one week after meeting her.  Others just seem to think they can do a better job than me at raising my boys.  Oddly enough, these were the ones that were often a bit younger than me with no children of their own.


Check out my related article, "9 Things I Would Tell 18 Year Old Me About Relationships."


I learned that you need to keep your home life and dating life separate for a long period of time.  I let my boys meet too many women, and the danger of that is twofold. One, they see me with many different women and think this is normal. Two, if the person lasted even a year either the woman or one of my boys would get attached. Already having their mother walk out on them, to have other women enter and leave their life regularly again set a pattern of inconsistency.

I’ve had to talk my boys and explained that some of the things they saw shouldn’t have been the norm. I had to teach them the difference between love and infatuation which is something I didn’t learn until later in life. If I would have really known the difference they wouldn’t have seen the revolving door of girlfriends. I had a talk with them about dating and how not to do the things I did.  I taught them is that those feelings of infatuation you get when you first meet a woman isn’t love and you shouldn’t make rash decisions based on those feelings.

4. Be The Example of Authentic Manhood.


Words mean nothing if your actions don’t back them up.  As I’ve stated before, I am a Christian. I taught my boys right from wrong and had regular bible discussions with them.  Being an African American I discussed things I would see on the news, especially when it came to the state of race relations in this country.   I taught them that people will judge them simply on their ethnicity, but also to be proud of their heritage.

I taught them to be respectful. To treat others the way they wanted to be treated. Since I taught them to be respectful at an early age, they grew up to be respectful young men. Everyone that meets them will tell me so.  But it wasn’t just the lessons I taught them, it was the example I was to them.

Check out my related article: "What Does It Mean To Be A Man? 10 Rules That Define Authentic Biblical Manhood."


I will be the first to acknowledge that I wasn’t perfect.  I have definitely done things I regret (See above with patience and dating). However, my boys know I am a man of integrity.  If I told them I didn’t want them listening to music with swearing, I didn’t listen to music with swearing. There were certain shows I wouldn’t watch because I wouldn’t want them to watch or see me watching.  Even though they saw me with too many girlfriends, they never saw me mistreat a woman. They have never caught me drunk, never seen me smoke, never seen me do anything I taught them was wrong.

What they see me do is study my bible and pray.  I’ve brought them to the gym and taught them about the importance of physical fitness. There are many things I have taught and showed them, especially what it means to be an African American man. I didn’t let television and music teach them a false idea of manhood. Men, Fathers, we need to be the example of true manhood. Teach your boys that being a man isn’t about filling your wallet and draining your balls. Show your girls that no man can love them as much as daddy so that they know how to be treated by a man.  Be the example.

5. Show Them That You Love Them Every Day.

Mike and I. Milwaukee lakefront 2017. 5 lessons I learned from 16 Years of Being a Single Father.

Mike and I at the lakefront in Milwaukee. 2017


I tell my boys every day that I love them.  Even with them being 19 and 18 I tell them that I love them daily.  Not only do I say it, I show it.  It’s not about buying things, it’s about being present every day.

When they were younger, we did little things like kick the soccer ball around the park. They eventually joined a soccer team and for two seasons, I was the coach. Later, my oldest played High school varsity soccer and I made sure that I never missed a game.

"Being a father has been, without a doubt, my greatest source of achievement, pride, and inspiration. Fatherhood has taught me about unconditional love, reinforced the importance of giving back and taught me how to be a better person." Naveen Jain

Things that seem small are huge in the eyes of a child. Things like helping them with homework and reading with them. Silly things like wrestling or playing Mario Party for hours on weekends. There is nothing more important to a child than to have their father spend time with them.  That is how you show love, by being present every day. Not just on weekends or when you decide to make time. Show your children that you love them every day.


I know there are more single mothers than there are single fathers and I salute you for all the hard work you do.  I wish more men would step up and show up when it comes to their children. Still, there are men such as myself who are also single parents.  There are dead moms as well as deadbeat dads. Mothers who walk out of their children’s lives just as some men do.  I’ve been asked over and over “How can a mother carry a child for 9 months and abandon them”? Well, I can’t answer that one. I just know I’m the type of man who would never abandon his children and there are other men like me out there.

For the men like me who show up every day. The men that are real fathers, not baby-daddies. Continue doing what you do for your children.  To the young men just starting on the journey of fatherhood, don’t give up. I know it’s difficult, and yes, you may have to share time with the children’s mother. But in the time you have them, make the most of it. Be the example of manhood you want your children to see.

Terrell Cotton Pic

Terrell Cotton is a motivational blogger and a full-time single father of two boys who are his heart and soul.  His blog, Terrellcotton.com, is dedicated to helping people become better versions of themselves by building on principles of mindfulness, self-love, and positive self-esteem. Know thyself, Love thyself.









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