Getting to Canada from the UK in August 2020 was a faff, as you might expect mid-pandemic. There was lots of stress – tests and isolation, rules, regulations and forms. I was doing the preparations at my mum’s. She could see I was getting upset and insisted on taking over, assuming I was being pathetic. Within five minutes, she had lost it as well. Emotions were high in the days before I flew. This wasn’t just a holiday, but my chance – amid such uncertainty and sadness – to spend precious time with Julian, my only son.
He’s the best and most significant thing that has ever happened to me. He was also very much an unexpected surprise. I had a short relationship with his mum; we parted ways on great terms. Then one day out of the blue I got a call from North Korea, where she was working. She was pregnant. I was based in England, and she lived in Canada. We were both medical emergency aid workers at the time and had met while responding to a cyclone in Burma. It was always going to be complicated, but we decided to make it work.
She was incredibly generous. It would have been easy for her to never even have told me what had happened, but instead she made every effort to include me; to let me be a father. I moved to North America for much of his early childhood, a compromise of sorts – first to Toronto, New York next. He lives in Calgary with his mum, little brother and stepdad. He calls both of us “Dad”, which is occasionally confusing but always lovely. It meant I could be with him in Canada in five hours, while also being not too far from my life back in the UK. When he was 10, I returned to London. From then, we’d see each other during holidays. He’d come to stay, and I’d go and visit.
It’s not the way I might have chosen to be a parent. But it’s the way life happened. I love him the same and don’t take my responsibility as a father any less seriously. It’s just that by virtue of our situation, I’m not always in the room. We could easily have created a dynamic where, as a father, I was considered a failure. All of us made sure to mitigate this. I’m Dad. He just has another dad, too. One is more present, both love him the same.
Still, it’s strange how judgmental many people are about our type of parent-child relationship. I’ve had close friends say that I’m not really his dad, that I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent. I’m predisposed, therefore, to being slightly defensive about our relationship, and before seeing him last summer there had been a bigger gap than usual.
Thankfully, I made it to Canada. Normally, I’d have a month or more with my son, but we made the most of our two short weeks together. I rented a cottage and my little brother and his wife came, too. It was amazing. Once we arrived, we were totally isolated. We could have no visitors. It was totally undiluted family time. I taught him to play poker. We built a radio-controlled car. With no distractions, we talked about the big stuff – the dangers of the internet, plans for the future, his greatest dreams. It was magical.
Lots of people hate airports when long-distance relationships are involved. But heading there last August felt different. Until then, we’d always had a day circled in the calendar where we’d see each other again. The tickets might not always have been booked, but the dates were firmly in my diary. This time, there was no “see you at Easter” or “next time it’ll be spring” as we said our farewells. Having no end to our separation in sight was awful. There he was heading off to be a teenager, embarking on the next stage of his life’s journey – the bits of childhood you remember. It was hard saying goodbye, not knowing how or when I might see him again.
There was a woman at Calgary airport, just past security, who had an emotional-therapy dog. I went to say hello, and broke down completely, clinging on to this poor animal as I balled like a baby. I apologised afterwards, and the kind woman told me it happens all the time and not to worry.
Christmas 2020 was a disaster. Mine was by no means the greatest tragedy. On Christmas Eve, I called Julian. We chatted for three hours, telling stories and messing about. It was one of those rare moments where we were both in the right mood, caught at the right time, and found ourselves connecting. At the end, I closed my laptop lid and crumbled. I felt so sorry for myself and I felt alone. I asked myself: what use am I to him? I thought a lot about my approach to parenting.
I never wanted Julian to feel I wasn’t permanently present out of some deficiency of love. It would be easy, I’m sure, for him to have told himself a certain story: that if Dad really cared, he’d have moved in, or at least next door. That bleeds into my own thinking, too: am I just a terrible father? Of course, in reality, that wouldn’t have been the sensible option. His mum is happily married to a lovely man, for a start. Us trying to forge a relationship would never have been sensible and I’m still convinced it was the right decision. He has grown up in a loving family with a secure and stable home.
Instead, I was always proactive in telling him, explicitly, that I love him. That I’m there for him. That I think about him all of the time. These might sound like obvious things to say, but reinforcing them regularly felt right. Every time I get off the plane, I’m genuinely excited to spend time with him.
When we are together, there’s a temptation to do everything: heavy parenting. It’s easy to find yourself desperate to manufacture memories, to squeeze too much in. At first, that’s what I tried to do. He’d come to London and I’d arrange an endless list of activities. Then one time, after a few days he turned to me, exhausted, and said: “Dad, can we just have breakfast?” It was a learning curve for me to realise we could just spend time together. That it’ll be more special, more real, if we did normal father-son things.
Ensuring my relatives were a presence in his life was also key. I didn’t want him to see me as a figure detached from his family, our family. My parents are his grandparents. He knows his cousins, uncles and aunts. I’m certainly not perfect. Picking up the phone to an eight-year-old boy? I found that challenging. Time zones made it difficult and he wasn’t that interested in chitchat. Ideally I’d call at the same time every night. I know his mum and other dad do so much work. Some I can appreciate, plenty I’ll never know about. There’s a division of labour, but a division of joy as well. For every complicated and difficult moment I miss, I’m absent from special things – big or small – I’m gutted to not be present for. I felt that a lot last Christmas.
In August 2021, I returned to Canada. I’d worried a lot. In the run-up to seeing him, I prepared myself to have this big conversation about the previous festive season. To tell him how much he meant to me and how desperate I’d been to see him. That I hoped it hadn’t upset him too deeply. How could I make it up to him?
When I brought it up, he looked at me, baffled. What are you on about, he replied, I saw you at Christmas. The boy had forgotten all of it. It was such a relief. While I felt sadness and guilt, he’d moved on entirely. And while he’d changed a lot – growing both mature and tall, a new wardrobe – our bond was just as powerful. We had the perfect month together.
This gets to the heart, I think, of how that year apart changed the way I think. For a long time I wanted, deep down, for my son to think about and miss me. That’s what I grappled with last Christmas. Now? I’m content if I don’t cross his mind at all until we next speak or meet again, as long as he knows I care, and that he’s happy. I used to worry that I was a redundant dad, but I don’t think that’s true.
The reality I’ve come to accept is that your child will grow up. A parent’s ability to be there is always limited. It’s useful to have a moment as a parent where you can do so little you’re forced to sit back and question what – at its core – your role is. For me, that has happened a whole lot earlier. I am a slightly distant dad, but Julian knows I’m here: a permanent presence, with unconditional love, forever cheering for him. And I can do that anywhere. Of course, he needs a lot more, too. It’s just for now, he gets that elsewhere – from two people who do it a whole lot better than I could. This Christmas, I’ll find the thought quite comforting.
Xand van Tulleken is in Operation Ouch! Live at the Lyric Theatre until 16 January (operationouchlive.com)
As told to Michael Segalov