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July 10, 2018 02:30 PM

Liam Payne is opening up about life as a dad.

In One Direction’s heyday, the singer was dubbed “Daddy Direction” because he was the responsible one. But maturity has paid off when it comes to parenting. 

Last year Payne, 24, and ex Cheryl Cole, 35, welcomed a son, Bear Grey, now 15 months. Now Payne is juggling raising a son with his solo career.

“I always wanted to be a young dad, but I didn’t really expect that I’d ever be in this place,” he tells PEOPLE.

Liam Payne
Bill McCay/Getty

“When I’m at home, I’m a dad. Then when I [work], I see all these crazy things. I’ve been going by Dada Montana,” Payne jokes, referencing Miley Cyrus’s hit series Hannah Montana.

Since 1D took an extended break in 2016, Payne has found success going it alone, releasing a slew of hit singles, including “Strip That Down” featuring Quavo, “Bedroom Floor” and the Rita Ora duet “For You.”

Payne is often busy recording and performing — most recently at his first solo headlining show, a sold-out Chase Sound Check set at the Beacon Theatre. But “It’s been very hard, being away, being out on the road,” Payne says.

RELATED: Liam Payne Talks Solo Stardom — and Why He Still Loves to Perform One Direction Songs

When he’s not prepping his debut solo album, Payne relishes time with his growing boy.

Cheryl Cole & Liam Payne
David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

“It just goes by so quickly. He was already huge when he was born. I walked past a baby in the park and was like, ‘Mine was never that small!’ He was always massive,” Payne says of Bear. “I look at him, like, ‘Where’s my little baby gone already?’ He’s walking around the house, pretending his teddy’s a phone. He’s awesome. And a lot of fun. I love spending time with him.”

Last week, the 1D alum and Cole revealed they recently split.

These days, Bear lives with his mom in the U.K., which Payne says is for the best.

Liam Payne with son Bear
Liam Payne/Instagram. Inset: Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty

RELATED: Liam Payne and Cheryl Split After More Than 2 Years Together: ‘It’s Been a Tough Decision’

“Babies want their mom; I would never have wanted to get in the way of that,” Payne says. “It was actually easier to go out on the road just knowing he wanted his mom. Now he looks at me and points at me like, ‘Here’s this fun guy!’ He knows.”

“That makes me more upset now, leaving, because I know he’ll want to see me. But he’s not at the place yet where he’s crying when I leave; that’s gonna be absolute disaster; I’m not ready for that,” Payne adds.

When they do spend time together, though, Payne says his son is his biggest fan — and an early supporter of “Familiar,” his new single with J Balvin.

“I played him demo tapes of ‘Familiar’ ages ago before it came out. Then when it came out, he was like, ‘I remember this one!’ He goes rigid and like shakes with excitement and wants to get as close to the speaker as possible,” Payne says.

Adds the singer: “For me, I love making great music for my fans. But when you make something that your son loves, it’s the best thing ever. Whenever he cries or anything, I’m like, ‘famili, famili’ and he’s like, ‘Hey, it’s this one again!’ He loves it.”

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