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If we do it now, we reasoned, he will grow up knowing his mom and dad have always been apart. He won’t have to go through the pain of our separation. Friends asked, and that’s what we told them.
The first night my son and I didn’t sleep under the same roof, he was 18 months old. Before I left that night, I had gone up to see him sleeping. I suppose it was to say goodbye. My wife stayed downstairs. The few final odds and ends I was taking to my new apartment were waiting in the hall.
I wondered then if we had made the right decision, and I still wonder now as a single dad.
I don’t know what else to call myself. My son doesn’t spend all his time with me, so in a way I feel the title is a bit of a cheat. It doesn’t carry the same weight as it does for the single moms I know, who are doing it on their own.
Their situation is a special kind of sacrifice and challenge, but it is also one that I think I can at least better appreciate now from the rounds of solo parenting I’ve had over the past three years.
There are still the all-night colds, the fears, the not being able to consult a partner about the current round of coughs, or worsening symptoms, at 3 in the morning when he is with me. But we’ve gotten through them.
One night, with a bad cold, he was having trouble breathing lying down. We spent five minutes in the bathroom with the hot shower running while he calmed down, then sat on the couch and watched one of his favourite shows together. The cool night air coming in from the window, and the sitting up, seemed to help.
I was sitting there with him, wondering what we would try next, when I felt him touch my arm. I had fallen asleep, and when I opened my eyes and looked at him he said, “Dad, let’s go to bed now,” as if it was he who knew the next step. He slept the rest of the night, and I got through the next day groggy-eyed but fine.
We were making it up as we went along.
Then there’s dating. For the most part, women don’t seem as surprised as I had expected when I tell them I’m a dad. Or as unwilling, which was the part I was more concerned about. Some have met my son more or less straight away, by happenstance, while others were introduced after a certain point.
When one woman was spending more and more time with me, my son asked me straight out while we were alone, “Is she your girlfriend?”
“Yes,” I replied, and in that moment decided that I supposed she was.
A wardrobe stuffed into plastic bags and backpacks a few times a week means my son doesn’t always have the right shoes or his favourite shirt on hand. He’s been good about missed toys or stuffed animals. But I worry that the shuttling back and forth between his mom’s house and my apartment at his young age will have some sort of lasting detrimental effect.
I mostly reason that it shouldn’t, but like most other parents I worry to at least some degree about any and all child development studies that show up in the media from time to time.
He wasn’t breastfed, either, but as far as I can tell he doesn’t have a distant relationship with his mother as a result.
I wonder what sort of relationship he’s supposed to have with me. How do I know if we’re bonding?
While playing with Lego or eating popcorn as we walk along Queen Street, I wonder are we doing this right? Where are the scientific benchmarks for a healthy father-son relationship?
I watch other dads in the playground and wonder if they’re thinking the same thing. But over all we’re a quiet bunch. We stand side by side in our sunglasses, pushing our little charges on the swings.
I imagine they wonder, like me, about a lot of things. Even among close friends who are dads, topics like this don’t really come up. I question whether they would even tell me how they truly felt if they knew.
Encouragement and support is always there from those friends, however – dads, moms and singles – but in the end, what can any of them really tell me?
Like all parents I get tired and frustrated, doubt whether I was cut out for this, question whether I learned enough from my parents or if I can go the distance.
And then it’s my turn to pick him up from daycare.
I locate the sandy mop-haired four-year-old among all the kids, taking a second to be sure I recognize the clothes his mother put on him that morning. Then I wait for him to spot me.
I see a smile come across his face. I hear “Daddy” and watch how quickly he drops what he’s doing to rush toward me. It’s in that moment that I feel we’re doing something right. And as we walk off toward home and I think about what’s in the freezer or the fridge, whether it’s healthy enough, organic enough and most importantly if he’ll eat it, I remember that we are still making it up as we go along.
Nicholas Tustin lives in Toronto.