Harry Borden was 13 when he developed his first photograph – a portrait of his father, Charles, as he mucked out the pigs on their family farm in Devon. Borden, 55, is now one of the leading photographers in the UK. But his childhood was spent in “concrete buildings on a cold, north-facing hill, with 70 squealing sows”. Looking back now, Borden wonders if his father was depressed. “He wasn’t interested in his children in the least. My brother and sister and I had to work very hard to ever get his attention. I don’t think he liked us very much.”
While the demands and stress of motherhood are widely recognised today, Borden believes many fathers are stunted by Charles-esque notions of masculinity. Men must, above all, appear strong. They must not show vulnerability. And they must provide – even if that means remaining at a remove.
The men in Borden’s new book, Single Dad, make this simplistic notion of fatherhood seem ridiculous, says Borden. “I want to honour them; the men engaged in the singular and vital task of bringing up their children.”
I became a solo parent when my partner, Jeng, died in 2015. I got through the first two years on adrenaline and bloody-mindedness. I kept getting floored but I’d get up again, even though a voice was saying, “Stay down, you’re beat!” Sometimes you should listen to that voice, rather than try to fight on. I hurt some people I care about. I’ve had some wonderful, compassionate employers, but not always. In the workplace, you worry you will be seen as weak if you let on that you’re not doing so well. But it doesn’t mean you’re no longer capable of doing great work; it’s just that you need a little support and understanding. The kids’ favourite movie is My Neighbour Totoro. In the film, the mother is in hospital and there’s a sense she might not come back. The film’s outpouring of surreal, wild beauty is a kind of response to that unimaginable loss. It’s a reminder that there is still beauty and joy in this world, waiting for you. I dreamed once that Jeng was a bird. I was alone on a ship with the kids, beating through the waves. We’ve had to let her go but she is flying above us.
I became a single, or perhaps sole, parent in November 2012 when my wife was struck and killed by a speeding car. It happened right in front of my then two-year-old son and me. Clearly it has been tough, and this might sound strange, but I have learned to love being a single parent. My son and I have a great bond and we laugh all the time. When my wife died, I found a travel book that she had bought me for Christmas. At the time, I thought there was no way I would be able to make use of it as the only surviving parent of such a young child. However, six years on, we packed our bags and went travelling all over Italy for the whole summer – just the two of us. It wasn’t until I came home that I realised how much I truly cherish my time with my son, something I’m sure I would take for granted if I wasn’t parenting alone.
My darling wife Helen went to work the week before Christmas 2012 and never came back home. At lunch she nipped out to buy some last minute presents and on the way back used a pelican crossing on a busy main road. She stood and waited for the red light and the subsequent green man before beginning to cross. Unfortunately for Helen a car didn’t stop and knocked her down. She never woke up again. Jamie was two and a half at the time. I’ve loved watching him grow up. He’s such a smiley, cheerful young man and nothing seems to get him down. I love teaching Jamie life skills and we do a lot together. We go on long bike rides, play rugby, walk in the Lake District and he’s learning basic mountaineering techniques. Our bond is very strong and long may it continue.
Harry Borden is a father of four children: Polly, 24, Fred, 21, Oscar, 18, and Florian, 10. Recently, he separated from his partner, making him a single dad too. Then his father Charles died. Over time, Single Dad became “a delve into my own childhood, my own psyche,” he says. “It became about exploring a different idea of masculinity from the one I learnt from him.”
Before the pig farm, Charles had led a storied life. From a Jewish upbringing in New York, he lied about his age to join the Marines and fight Hitler in Europe. After the war, he worked as an art director for leading advertising agencies in New York and London; drinking hard, loving recklessly, earning what would have been unimaginable money. But, as middle age approached, he decided, on something of a whim, to pack the ad world in for a remote, agricultural life on a hill above the village of Bampton, Devon.
He made for a strange fit with the local community. “He sounded like Woody Allen,” Borden says. “He was a wise-cracking, streetwise New Yorker, and I was proud of him. I thought it was cool to have this Norman Mailer-style guy as my dad.”
What I love about being a father is I get to share every precious moment. To be the name they call out in the night. To watch them grow into loving, kind, wonderful children who still want to hold my hand everywhere we go. I am just so proud to be their dad and hope one day, when they look back, they are as proud of me.
I became a single parent after the relationship broke down with my son’s mother. Since then it has been a rollercoaster of a ride as I had to give up full-time employment, roll my sleeves up and get stuck in. It would be fair to say that I embraced my new responsibilities with moxie. At first, it was tough. There was just so much I didn’t know. I’ve learned loads. The thing I love most is being there for my son when life throws him a curveball. Helping him through challenges he faces at school, with friends (he has a lot of them, so juggling his time between them can be tough!), riding a bike, you name it. I’ve realised that fatherhood really is a privilege and my son has brought a meaning to my life that I never had the right to expect. For that I will be forever grateful.
I became a single dad on 10 March 2013. This day represented the end of a tortuous cancer journey that had started five years earlier, a period filled with tears and upset but also with some wonderful memory making moments. Despite being “told” Philippa had an 82%-88% chance of survival, for some reason we knew she wouldn’t. The children and I watched a fit and healthy person who we dearly loved decline in health and eventually pass away with me next to her holding her hand. The children were five and a half and seven at the time. With the help of Daisy’s Dream, a Berkshire based charity who specialise in supporting grieving children, we found our way through the initial grief and now live on the south coast in a happy and lively extended family unit. Life has changed dramatically for all of us and we all wish with all our hearts that she was still here, but we try to live life as she wanted us to, by living, trying new things and having as much fun as possible.
My fiancée Fleur suffered with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease. She managed it fairly well and fell pregnant the week I proposed on holiday. The pregnancy went surprisingly well until she caught the flu near Christmas… the next few months were a case of living in hospital, with both her life and our son’s in the balance. Tristen Luciano was born two months premature by caesarean, making us a family. The love for your child is indescribable. He went up to neonatal, she went down to intensive care … while I spent my time going from heaven to hell to spend time with them both. Without going into detail, Fleur passed away five weeks after our son was born and thus the journey of single fatherhood began. It’s not been easy by far, from the simplest challenge of changing a nappy while out and about (male toilets generally don’t have baby-changing facilities) to playing the role of both mum and dad, being that kind, sensitive person but also the authoritarian to ensure that your son grows up the best person he could possibly be. It’s not easy being a single father, but in the same breath, it’s not hard, you just love your child and do the best you can.
Lily’s mother, my beautiful wife Susan, tragically lost her life in April 2014 after a short battle with cancer. She was the centre of our family life and the rock we clung to as a unit. Beautiful inside and out, her loss left a devastating hole that Lily and I have sought to manage and cope with over the years as a new family unit. From this tragedy, our dad-and-daughter relationship has grown and although the pain of her absence will never go away, we try to live our lives as she would want us to: in fun, hope and love.
After my wife and I separated, our two sons Harry and George remained with their mother in our marital home. I had them on weekends. Our circumstances changed after she suddenly moved. The boys lost all their friends as the new school was 25 miles away. At the end of every weekend they would become upset at the thought of returning home. I felt that my ex-wife was not putting the children’s interests first and decided to act when, months later, Harry and George made it perfectly clear that they wanted to move back with me and be near their friends and family. My solicitor told me that I had a 30% chance of being granted full custody but we went to court. The numerous interviews we gave with the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service obviously played a part, because to our delight I was granted custody of my boys and we moved back into the marital home together. The three of us are still living happily here today. There have been some tough times mixed with the happy times, but without a doubt I would do it all again.
Joseph is almost six now and I have loved watching him grow in these early stages, it’s so fascinating and rewarding. I think I’ve learned so much about myself, because we are so similar. I’ve come to the conclusion that you perceive the whole world differently when you have a child. I’ve also found myself going from being almost selfish to selfless. While I’ve fallen in love a few times, the love you feel for your child is all encompassing. I do have one regret and that is that I did not have a child earlier and maybe had more than one. However, I do feel lucky just to have the one. For many years something was missing from life and now, finally, I feel complete.
As a teenager, Borden remembers his father approaching him at a gathering. Charles leaned in close and said: “You’ll never be as good as me.”
One of the few ways to get his attention, Borden learned, was to demonstrate a competitive edge. Borden remembers getting into far too many fights at school. He ensured he almost always won. “I thought that was what men did,” he says. “That’s what men are, or should be. I thought life was a spreadsheet with two columns – one for the winners and one for the losers. And you want to be in with the winners.”
That mentality has, in some respects, served Borden well – he credits it as helping him make his way to the higher echelons of the photography world. But what happened when Harry became a father himself? “My life changed when I had children, he says. “The perimeter of your being extends to include your children. Everything is enlarged by the experience – joy, but also fear.”
But it has taken time for him to work out what kind of father he wanted to be. Borden reflects on his first marriage: “I thought if I provided materially that was enough,” he says. “I was doing a lot of advertising work and earning a lot of money. And so I felt like I was keeping up my side of the bargain. I think that contributed to the breakdown of the marriage.”
Jasper is my life, my best friend, the brother I never had. My greatest joy? When I am on stage at the piano with Jasper looking on with silent pride from the audience. Jasper is often on stage too – at the drums, or alto sax, as part of his school choir, or the school play (my mum loves the fact he’s playing the warthog in The Lion King this year). From the audience, I try to maintain my silent pride, but am soon a teary-eyed dad. Jasper glows with kindness and has grown up fast. For my last birthday, he bought me a beer fridge for our man-cave. He’s the man.
I met my wife Jo in 2005 and we were married in September 2006. We lived in north London and by 2009 we had our son Aaron. When pregnant, she started to become unwell and it transpired she had developed secondary breast cancer in her lungs, liver and bones. The diagnosis was seven weeks after giving birth and she deteriorated significantly. She’d first had cancer 10 years earlier in 1998. The joy of having our beautiful boy was tempered by Jo’s exhaustion, her loss of weight, the constant chemotherapy (five different types) and the numerous check-ups. Aaron was oblivious to most of this as we ensured he was always surrounded by love, fun and happiness. In 2013, we decided to stop all treatment as the cancer kept coming back and Jo was getting weaker. In September 2013, Jo was admitted to the North London Hospice and died peacefully eight days later while I was holding her hand. I will always remember the last time she saw Aaron. Although no one acknowledged it, we all knew it was “goodbye”. Today we still keep her memory alive in any way we can.