Lifeways Training as a Single Dad by Robert Heil

The LifeWays curriculum has a strong focus on the needs of people working in the direct care of young children, either as parents, professional care providers, or both. It has a strong emphasis on domestic arts that are still, rightly or wrongly, usually associated with women. And less explicitly, parts of the approach are modeled on a traditional model of a nuclear family – with children living in one home with both parents.

So, as a man, a divorced dad who worked as a city planner, I was a bit of an outlier in my LifeWays class. There aren’t a lot of men working in early childhood, so I wasn’t too surprised to be the only guy. My classmates were warm and welcoming…and curious. They had the same question I asked myself – Why was I there?

In the rough draft of my life plan, as my wife’s business grew I was going to phase out of my current job and move into working with young children, either in direct care, or in a political advocacy role in government or a non-profit organization. LifeWays training fit in well with that plan. But, by the time I actually started my LifeWays course, that rough draft had been revised. I was freshly divorced, feeling shaky as a single parent and didn’t feel I had the financial cushion to pull off a big career switch.  Yet, here I was, sitting on the floor with a group of women plucking out tunes on a kinderharp.

Despite my changes in circumstances, I stuck it out in the training, and I’m glad I did. Even though the main emphasis might be on professional caregivers, the fundamentals still apply more broadly. The support and practice in the domestic arts and celebrations were particularly useful, but beneath that, the basic emphasis on rhythm and routine helped me set up my new household on a strong foundation.

For starters, a more deliberate approach to the domestic arts was a huge help, because, in a slightly typical guy kind of way, I was not the tidiest of people, and my meal planning was a bit haphazard. The daily, weekly, monthly domestic task chart was exactly what I needed to add structure to the new household, which helped everyone breathe easier. It’s still an area I need to work on, but at least now I have a better set of tools to approach it.

One of the challenges any divorced family faces is how to handle holidays. My ex and I have been able to work well together here (for which I am very grateful). But that’s not always the case, and even in the best of situations there are going to be holiday traditions that end up with one parent and not the other. The very practical exercise of creating celebrations, with a craft, food and song all tied together in a central theme reminded me of the simple power in these kinds of rituals and how relatively simply they can be created. This helped me let go of some of the traditions that stayed at their mother’s house, revitalize the ones that went with me, and create new traditions with new celebrations.

I learned one of the most important messages of LifeWays from Cynthia Aldinger, and I summarize it as, “Good food, good sleep and bless what you have.” This is a personal mantra I come back to when it all seems a bit overwhelming and I don’t feel up to the task at hand.

When my girls and I moved, our new apartment felt sparse and bare. For a while their beds were just mattresses on the floor, and it was a while before we had a table or chairs. But the girls didn’t really mind the lower beds as long as there was still a bedtime story and song. For our first dinner in the new place we put a silk over one of the larger moving boxes, and sat on the floor on pillows. We blessed the meal of mac and cheese, sliced apples and baby carrots. Despite my worry at the time, it was exactly what it needed to be.

I’m grateful for the ways the LifeWays training helped me move with strength and confidence into a new chapter of my life, and I find myself coming back to my notes and practices from the class whenever things get a little too hectic and need a sense of grounding, of rhythm and of joy.

Robert Heil and his family live in Austin, Texas, where he took the LifeWays Training.