The struggles facing single mothers are well documented, but what of men left to raise families alone? The Telegraph talks to four single fathers.
One day, which, at first, seemed like any other, Bob Greig, 45, came home from work to discover that his wife of seven years had left him.
'Crazy though it sounds, I had no idea that anything was wrong,' he says. 'Yes, we'd been arguing a bit, but nothing major. Now here I was, alone with my two young daughters and our world turned upside-down. I was devastated.'
Greig admits that the first few days were 'torturous', while he tried to make sense of his situation. Forced to put his job as a property manager on hold, Greig took over the running of his home. 'Up until that point my wife had taken care of the girls and now suddenly it was all down to me. To say it was traumatic was an understatement.'
Six years later and Greig's life has changed irrevocably. He's since had to give up his job, and most of his day is spent knuckling down to the treadmill of single parenthood, while dealing with his daughters' confused emotions.
'Priya, now 13, often asked why her mummy didn't love her, while Anya, nine, finds it difficult to remember much detail about this person who left when she was four.'
Even today Greig worries about the cracks, too deep to fill with words of reassurance. 'The simple fact is that I am a lone-parent dad, continually trying to keep our lives together. Sometimes I cope, occasionally it's fun, but much of the time it's bloody relentless.'
According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2009 there were 200,000 lone fathers in Britain, compared with 1.8 million single mothers. It's often women who are associated with single parenthood, as, like it or not, men generally conform to a parental stereotype. They go out to work, dip sporadically into the childcare and occasionally do a night feed, so when circumstance tips their world upside-down and they become a single parent, all sorts of hurdles get in the way.
How many fathers would you expect to see at a baby playgroup? Have you ever considered how difficult it is for a man to change a toddler's nappy in a public loo? Or what happens when a father takes a group of young girls to a swimming-pool and they need help getting dressed?
Sunil Vyas, 45, is a single father with a high-powered job as the head of projects at Imperial College NHS Trust. When his wife died six years ago of motor neurone disease, Vyas was left to look after their daughter, Tara, then six.
'My wife and I had very traditional roles. I put everything into work; she looked after our child,' he says. 'Then when my wife got ill I had to learn to do things very quickly. The year before she died was probably the most difficult of all, because as she got weaker I had to help feed her, dress her, turn her over in bed throughout the night so she didn't get sores.
'Then every morning I'd get up early, give Tara her breakfast, drop her at school and finally go off to do a day's work. It has been really important for me to continue working and, luckily, my employer has always been incredibly understanding. Work gives me an outlet from my home-life, but it also enables us to live at a comfortable standard. Even so, Tara is my priority, and above everything she must come first. It isn't always easy, but most of the time we do OK.'
In some ways Vyas is one of the lucky ones. He has a very positive attitude and a sharp sense of humour, which must help him get through the more difficult days. But he also credits the support of his family and friends with the smooth running of his life.
'Before my wife died she put a lot of thought into the areas where I might be lacking. She left me a list of personal contacts to approach when I needed specific advice. Like, there's one friend of ours who is always well groomed, so I go to her for tips for Tara, then there's another who is great for cooking ideas, and my brother's wife is always wonderful with emotional support. I never feel isolated. I've always asked for help, and people have always come up with the goods.'
Whereas some single fathers say people can be unsympathetic, Vyas has experienced nothing but admiration, 'not all of it warranted,' he claims.
'Loads of single mums get through this stuff and no one applauds them, but when a man does it we're seen as incredible. I remember one time we were late for school and I was plaiting Tara's hair outside the classroom. I looked up and all these mums were watching me with expressions of adoration.'
He smiles at the memory, but when I ask how he did learn to plait a little girl's hair, the smile disappears. 'When my wife became more paralysed, she sat me down and said I needed a few lessons for life after her death. Plaiting hair was one of them.'
For others, the slog of single parenting isn't as seamless. Many lone fathers find it difficult to work and statistics show that more men than women get rejected when requesting flexible working hours. Inevitably careers suffer and financial problems can escalate. On top of that there can be a loss of identity and sense of worth. Experts say that depression is common, and, while the maelstrom of solitary fatherhood dominates the everyday, grief often lurks beneath.
Cary Cooper, a professor of psychology at Lancaster University, worries that men often suffer because they struggle to express their feelings.
'Typically, men cope with stressful situations by pushing on and getting the job done, but they avoid the emotional aspect of things. They won't ask for support, they internalise feelings and cut themselves off from the rest of the world. This means they can become increasingly isolated, and perhaps the main problem I see with single parent dads is extreme loneliness.'
Adrian Pearson, 47, runs his own carpentry business in Kent. When his wife, Jackie, died in 2006 of pancreatic cancer she left him with four boys, now aged between 10 and 16. It's a big family by most people's standards, but for a man who says he misses his wife every day, the challenge can be overwhelming.
'The logistics of running the boys around and getting everything done is the hardest,' Pearson admits. 'I was hoping that by now I may have changed career and qualified as a psychotherapist, but after the first year of study I had to stop due to exhaustion. Because there is so much to do, the boys have had to grow up quickly and be responsible, but on the plus side they'll be very capable of looking after themselves when they leave home.'
In three years' time Pearson will have four teenagers to manage. 'You can almost scrape the testosterone off the walls now,' he says, smiling.
'The balance is missing. They don't have that softer influence of a woman. And key things happen, like the other week my oldest boy bought his first suit. He came out of the changing-room looking so grown up and handsome. I thought how much his mum would have loved to see him and how much he probably wanted her there. But neither of us mentioned it and it kind of hung between us. When it comes to all the major decisions I often have nagging doubts and ask myself, "Would Jackie approve?'
Yet it is with obvious pride that Pearson talks about his boys. He mentions three times how polite they are and sees his youngest son's winning a place at grammar school as a milestone of achievement. 'I do believe they will be scarred by losing their mother,' he adds. 'But I don't think it will ruin their lives. It will always be a sad memory, but it depends on them how they deal with it.'
Sam, Pearson's oldest son, admits that most of the time he copes by keeping his feelings buried. 'A mother is a person whom you can rely on and confide in. I can honestly say I saw my mother as a friend, and it's all those chats we had that I miss the most. When she got ill I'd often see her crying at the kitchen table. Those images have kind of stuck.'
As the father of a daughter, Vyas finds it's the more tangible motherly things that are hard to manage. 'Tara is at an age where she is growing into a woman, and as a result I have found myself completely at a loss in the female section of Boots.'
Prospective partners can be another minefield. A few years ago Vyas started dating again and, at first, Tara felt threatened. 'She couldn't understand why I needed a girlfriend and so I had to explain that a girlfriend provides a very different female role. From Tara's point of view I am the focus of her life. I have to be very careful not to make her feel more vulnerable.'
What is mentioned time and again by the majority of single fathers is the lack of help and advice from outside organisations. Consequently Greig set up his own support website, onlydads.org, while Pearson ended up buying and running lone-parents.co.uk.
Billy McGranaghan, 46, has been a single parent to his son, Sam, since Sam's mother left 20 years ago. He is the founder of dadshouse.co.uk, a charity that offers advice, counselling, cooking workshops and a day centre with temporary accommodation to fathers and their children.
'I am out the other side now because my boy is grown up,' McGranaghan says. 'But when I was younger and going through the tough times, a support system like this would have been a lifeline. I see so many men struggling on their own, but we want to give them the confidence, hope and skills to get through it. I am so proud of what my son has become and, without sounding conceited, I can take a lot of the credit for that. It's a good feeling. I know I've done all right as his dad.'
Article 2nd May 2010 from www.telegraph.co.uk