I grew up the son of an absent father. I don’t completely blame my dad, or his second wife, for this state of affairs. It was a result of choices on both of their parts but also caused by the fact of geographical dislocation.
My country of birth was Ireland, and when my parents divorced, I was just less than 4 years old at the time, we moved from Ireland to my mum’s home country of the U.K. In the years that followed, so I am told, there were times my father would visit, but then we entered a phase where we would not see him for years on end.
When I was 11 years old my family was relocating to a different part of the UK, and just prior to this happening, out of the blue, my dad reappeared. He took us to restaurants, for me this was the first time in my life eating in a restaurant. Dad took us shopping, wanting to buy us gifts to make up for the lost birthdays and Christmases, as we stood in the superstore and I was asked whether I wanted “a bike, a computer, or something else” I cried. My mum came to ask me what was wrong, “I’ve got my dad back” was all I could say. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Despite the promise that he was back in our lives, he soon disappeared from our lives again.
I have no doubt that it is these childhood experiences that lead me to make the parenting decisions I did when my marriage to the mother of my son broke down. Like me, he was only a little boy when this happened, and I pledged that I would always play an active role and be a present father.
With the breakup of my marriage, it was explained to him that he has two homes. One with me, and one with his mother. He would have toys in both. He would have a bedroom in both, and, most importantly, he would have love in both homes. In one of his very first nights at his home with dad, we began something that became a tradition for us, and something that lead to many hours of truly enlightening conversation. After I had read his bedtime story, wondering what was going through his young mind, I asked the simple question, “is there anything you want to ask me?”
In the decade since then, my son is now 14, we have maintained this tradition, “is there anything you want to ask me?” expanded to, “is there anything you want to ask me, or tell me?” This was his time, this was how I chose to end our days and evenings, by seeking to understand from him what was important to him. The questions I got ranged greatly and showed me how he was making progress and maturing and learning. I will never forget when he looked around his bedroom seeking something to frame a question around, his gaze fell on the light bulb, and he asked:
“how are light bulbs made?”
With that, a light bulb went off in my head, and I was able to give him, in response, the story of Thomas Edison and his persistence in finding a solution to the problem of getting the filament material just right, and that when someone told him after 200 failed experiments that he was wasting his time he shot back, “no, what I have succeeded in doing is ruling out 200 materials that do not work.” And, by viewing life in this way, overcoming a series of setbacks and challenges, he ultimately created something that we all use all over the world every single day.
I recently remarked to my son that I cannot remember the last time when I had to tell him off, for anything. But that does not mean that he was never mischievous. In fact, I learned to spot when he was abusing the “have you got any questions?” moments. On occasion, he was in bed, but just not tired enough to sleep. Or, he was tired but wanted to carry on listening to and talking with his dad. Sometimes I called him out on his game, “I know what you’re doing” I told him when he asked me deeper questions that would lead to long discussions, “do you believe in god?” was one such occasion. For the first couple of years after my divorce, we spent a lot of time together, at least 2 nights per week he slept in his home with dad, often more. I would collect him from school almost every weeknight and take him to the park. I also recently told my son, about those times, that when I would arrive at the schoolyard I would see him playing with whatever he was playing with, deeply and fully engrossed into whatever it was he was doing, and that when one of the teachers would say the words “Sasha, your dad’s here” whatever he was doing instantly lost any interest and he would rush towards me and jump on me. It was one of the very best moments in my life, and a moment that I am lucky to have repeated many hundreds of times.
Then, geography got in the way. My ex-wife had decided that she wanted to leave the country where we were co-parenting, and that meant, of course, that things were going to change in how I approached the responsibilities of fatherhood. Though my first thoughts at the time were along the lines of “over my dead body will you move to another country with my son”, and my lawyers confirmed to me that without my permission she could not, in fact, simply move my child to another country, after a couple of days of reflection the choice before became easier to live with. No, I would not stand in the way of my child growing up on an island in the Mediterranean, he would have an idyllic childhood there, and my needs to be with him had to take a backseat to that fact. I did, though, resolve to take a plane to spend time with him every month.
In the mind of a still very young boy, two weeks was a timeframe he could rationalize, and so it was never more than two weeks since dad was there, and never more than two weeks until dad would be there. We learned to count down the days, the number of sleeps until we would be seeing each other. For the next seven years, I kept that promise. When I would visit him it meant very early mornings for the school run, and it meant stay at home dinners and quality time in the evenings. While he was at school, I worked. When he finished school we would invariably find ourselves walking a beachfront path and marveling at how lucky he was to get to live in a place that some people save up year-round to visit for a couple of weeks of holiday.
Now that Sasha is older, and has more responsibility for making his own decisions, we see each other less frequently, but for longer periods of time. He loves visiting Ukraine, the country of his birth and still my home, during his school holidays, and we are able to convene for regular chats anytime we want because of the wonders of modern technology. Often he will message me on WhatsApp, “something funny happened at school today, do you want a chat?” and the very last thing that I did before returning to complete this piece of writing was to write to him asking if he wants to chat when he gets finished with his swimming lesson.
This is how I have approached fatherhood. It is not always easy, the difficulties on the relationship due to the distance between us in miles have never created any distance between us as father and son. I have made sure that it did not, I did not want my son to ever believe that his father was not there for him, or to cry, like me, at the false hope of one time believing that his dad was now “back”, because, I never left him.
Sasha told me a couple of weeks ago that he has decided what he wants to do after school, he wants to go into medicine. He has my full support in this or any other career choice he makes, I know I am on my, at least, 5th career. I love my son deeply and am proud of the man that he is becoming, more and more every day. Every night before the lights go out we still do our tradition:
“have you got any questions you want to ask?”
About Paul Niland
Paul Niland is the Founder and CEO of Statement Email. He is also a frequent commentator and writer on Ukrainian affairs.