At 51, Michael Ray was thrust into solo dad life. A ‘wild ride’, he says, navigating the challenges, wonder and fun of parenting a young child. The experience opened his eyes to outdated gender expectations and led him to become a vocal advocate for equality and change. Michael’s passion is infectious, and his enlightened approach to parenting and advice to dads is true inspiration.
Can you tell us about your career journey so far?
It’s been a colourful one! I was fortunate to have worked and toured with some of the largest performing rock bands and performers in the ‘80s doing security, and also at many hotels and nightclubs back in the day as a doorman and bouncer. Throughout all of this, I kept my main interest in health and wellness alive by coaching, training and touring with a wide variety of clients – everything from professional tennis players to working as an AFL strength and conditioning coach, owning my own gyms and even a sportswear company. I was deeply entrenched in being an examiner and swim teacher for The Royal Lifesaving Society of Australia – which again, with hindsight, prepared me well for becoming a father.
For the past few years, I have focused on advocating for equality and change, writing for various websites, providing comment for media, and speaking to a wide range of organisations and groups about the changing face of contemporary fatherhood. It’s been a wild ride, and I’m often bemused by the amount of interest simply being a dad and having an inordinate amount of fun has generated. However, I am grateful for the opportunities – every day is a learning curve, as is fatherhood.
You are the proud dad of a gorgeous daughter, Charlie. How has becoming a dad changed your perspective on life?
I became a father at the ripe old age of 49. Until my daughter was born, I had no idea that a love so intense could ever exist – an all-consuming, overwhelming mix of fear of the unknown, and a sense of such intense pride that it sometimes makes my heart feel like it’s going to explode. It’s almost as though my life before was of no real consequence or significance, just all in preparation.
Your ‘wonderful little family’ as you put it is made up of you and Charlie. Can you tell us a little about your journey to solo fatherhood and who you initially turned to for support?
Unfortunately, my daughter’s mum and I drifted apart, until eventually, the marriage ended. We shared custody until she suddenly moved away and I was thrust into the role of ‘solo dad’ of a two-year-old.
Initially, my support network was my amazingly supportive family. The relationship Charlie has with her grandmother is the fountain of youth for my mum and a lifeline for me.
As Charlie has grown and reached school-age, has this network changed? How do you establish new networks of support as Charlie and your needs change?
Outside my family, there has always been an abundance of fantastic mums ready to help.
In fact, after Charlie’s ballet school tried to instigate an arbitrary ban on me being allowed backstage because of my gender – which would have resulted in Charlie being the only child without a parent by her side (you can read about in Single father’s fight to lift man ban at daughter’s concert) – it was, in fact, the legendary ‘mum’s group’ that came to my aid with threats of a boycott if I wasn’t permitted to assist my daughter. I was an honorary mum and my posse had my back!
Social media is a fantastic way to establish networks. In fact, a de facto dad’s group has sprung up through the talks I give and readers of my website, that spans several countries and includes such a diverse range of participants, from surgeons, CEOs, to stay-at-home dads and same-sex dads, all with one common thread: fatherhood.
We support and encourage each other with advice from our own trials and tribulations of this messy and magical, exhausting and rewarding, exhilarating, and sometimes terrifying thing called fatherhood. Through this virtual group, we are in the planning stages to facilitate monthly get-togethers encompassing all things fatherly, with an emphasis on physical and mental health.
How do you look after yourself? What is your approach to health and wellness?
Exercise to me is non-negotiable and it’s not just the physical side to it, it’s the mental side as well. It’s also about the example I set for Charlie and, especially as I am 50 years older, I don’t want Charlie to remember her dad as old. While my training takes on many different forms, my aim now is to simply keep up with a rather energetic eight-year-old.
I also consider exercise as my physical and health superannuation – putting a little bit away each day to ensure my old age is comfortable and I have health, fitness and wellness in reserve to draw on in times of need.
Parenting is a learned skill, and families benefit from fathers taking a more active role in childcare and home life. What is your advice to other fathers in regards to leaning in and taking a more active role?
Please don’t think I was some woke new-age, enlightened bloke right from the start, I came from tradition: Mum ran the home and Dad was the breadwinner, and it worked beautifully. Both of my parents are my heroes and couldn’t have had a more successful marriage. However, in a contemporary family with both parents working and no clear delineation between external roles, why do we maintain traditional roles within the home? Basically, waiting to have tasks assigned or delegated, leads to ‘helping around the house’ or ‘helping with the children’. This simply makes you an ‘assistant’. The highest paid jobs are in management for a reason.
In your quest to be a supportive husband or father, you may be having the opposite effect by assuming it’s your wife’s job to know what should be done, and adding more pressure. Parenting is a learned skill and, overall, a father’s involvement appears to be as heavily implicated as a mother’s involvement in children’s psychological wellbeing and health, as well as in an array of psychological and behavioural problems.
The takeaway: don’t be locked into some outdated societal expectation, find what works for you and live authentically. Dad guilt and shame are real, harmful and will rob you of joy. Don’t discount it and don’t tolerate it.
My overriding advice is to get involved. Your children are only young once. It’s the most magical time I’ve ever experienced and it really isn’t that hard – don’t let the experts tell you otherwise.
Michael Ray has made numerous TV and radio appearances, regularly providing comment to news outlets. He has been featured in several local and international publications and would make a great contribution to your next conference, publication, or panel. Visit Michael’s website to book a call or for further information.
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