A teen dad grows up

Paul Bigus was only 18 when he fought for access to his baby son -- and to make a better life

Photo Credit: Evan Dion

Left: Evan (left) and Paul hang out at home: “Sometimes people think he’s my little brother,” says Paul.

I was in high school, 17 years old, and I had a girlfriend — let’s call her Leanne. I walked out of math class one day to find out she was pregnant.

We told our parents. They forced us to consider the hard questions: our educations, our careers, our future. But we both wanted to keep the baby. We were young — we just assumed it would work out.

Once our parents saw that our minds were made up, they supported us. I remember going stroller shopping with my dad. It felt like shopping for a car — testing out the different models, listening to the salesman talk about suspension and balance and shock absorption.

Six months into the pregnancy, my relationship with Leanne fizzled. She told me I didn’t have to be part of the child’s life. I told her that I wanted to take responsibility. Yes, I was only 17, and I certainly didn’t have much to offer in terms of being a dad, but the thought of not being a part of my child’s life made me lose my breath. Leanne told me if I wanted any access, I’d have to pay for it.

I dropped out of school and started working two jobs, one as a dishwasher at a resort near my home in Hockley Valley, Ont., the other as an automotive clerk at Canadian Tire. Between the two, I was putting in about 60 hours per week.

On January 3, 1996, Evan was born. I wasn’t allowed at the birth. Leanne called the next morning and let me visit him. I adored Evan from the first time I held him. All I wanted to do was touch him, smell him, take in every little bit of him, those sweet little fingers and toes, that big tummy. He looked up at me and grabbed my index finger and wouldn’t let go. For some reason, it reminded me of one of those National Geographic shows where the monkey is holding on tight to the parent. From that point, I started calling him “Monkey.” Leanne left my name off his birth registration and reiterated her demands for money.

Before Evan was born, I had gone to a lawyer to learn my rights. She helped me arrange the earliest court date she could — it was three months away. I’d stare at the pictures I’d taken of Evan and try to imagine him with me. I relived the sinking feeling of handing him back, not knowing when I’d see him again.

The court date finally arrived. I told the judge that even though I was working two minimum-wage jobs, I’d pay more support than I had to. That helped, a little. I was granted periodic access.

At first I got to see Evan a couple of hours every week. Often one of my parents would stay with me and teach me how to feed Evan and how to read and respond to his signals. Mostly, I’d just hold Evan and talk to him about random things. I’d tell him over and over that I was his dad and he was my son and that I loved him.

A couple of hours a week turned into a couple of days, then overnights, then full weekends. I couldn’t afford to do much, so we kept it simple. I’d take him to the mall or the park. Sometimes, I’d just put him in the Jolly Jumper and watch him fly around like an acrobat.

I realized that not having a high school education was going to get me nowhere. I looked into Evan’s eyes and thought about what my parents had always taught me, which was to look at the big picture. I enrolled in a different high school, where I wouldn’t know anyone and could focus on the only thing that mattered: studying.

During that same year, it became clear that Leanne wasn’t up to the challenge of parenting. I knew that she’d started making some bad decisions and associating with some questionable people. As a result, Evan came to live with me, my parents and my younger sister. I was overjoyed, although it was hard. When I was at school or work, my mom would look after Evan, and when they could, my dad and sister would pitch in too. They even threw me a baby shower. It felt a little funny, but they were trying to make me feel special. My family loved Evan, and they were very patient with me as I learned how to become a parent. Part of it is instinctive, but there are plenty of skills I needed to learn — changing diapers, giving baths, dealing with fevers.

Sometimes I’d have to take Evan with me to study groups. I’d keep him in a stroller or bring some toys for him to play with. If I was lucky, he’d sleep, but other times I’d have to sit him on my lap while the group tried to work. One time, I had to come back to school to get a book that I needed, and I brought Evan with me. I could hear people murmuring behind my back. A classmate came up to me, told me not to worry about what people thought, then took my diaper bag, slung it over his shoulder and walked with me through the halls.

I graduated high school in June 1997, when Evan was 18 months old. I didn’t go to the prom: I stayed home and played with him instead.

Soon after, my dad was transferred to London, Ont. I decided it made sense for Evan and me to go too. I was accepted as a part-time undergraduate student at the University of Western Ontario. I really wanted to get into the Ivey School of Business. I kept my day job at Canadian Tire for the benefits and went to class at night.

It took me two years to get a year’s worth of credits. My average was above 80, which qualified me for a half-tuition undergrad scholarship. To meet the requirements to apply to the business school, I needed to pass a specific course with at least a 70. I just squeaked by. Now all I could do was wait.

Eventually, I received a letter from Ivey. I went to my favourite place on campus, a quiet spot at the steps of University College. I screamed like crazy when I opened the letter. I had made it.

The business school was a huge change — more competitive, more intense. I was the only one in the program with a child, plus I was still working at Canadian Tire, though I’d cut down to part-time. I asked one of the faculty members if a single dad had ever graduated from the program. She said no.

We were still living with my parents — I felt it was important for Evan to have a sense of family and stability. He was in grade one, doing the things kids do: playing sports, making friends, getting into mischief. I loved watching his intelligence and creativity start to blossom. Often I felt like I was listening to someone much older, especially when he’d tell me about things like storm cells or magma chambers. Sometimes we’d do a guys’ night: go for pizza and a movie. There were times when I didn’t know how I was going to make it all fit, but I took it one week at a time and just kept hoping and staying focused.

Part of that meant sacrificing a social life. There were events going on at Ivey, but I found when I did go, I spent most of the time thinking about getting home to Evan. I tried dating a bit, but it’s tough to find someone patient enough to be around a young kid, and up to the overall challenge. It’s not so much looking for someone to be his mom; it’s more about finding someone with good values who he can look up to. So that’s had to wait. I’m sure she’s out there somewhere.

After surviving the two years of Ivey, I received my diploma in Honours Business Administration. I looked into the crowd and saw Evan. My dad was waiting at the side of the stage with the other parents. He squeezed me tight and told me how proud he was.

My classmates went off to Toronto, the US or other parts of the world to work. I stayed in London. Finding a job wasn’t easy. I worked as a teaching assistant for a year, then got a six-month contract at 3M, which ended up lasting two years.

Now that I was in business, I didn’t feel a passion for it. What I was passionate about was learning. So I went back to university to get my teaching degree. Evan was in grade five and in school during the day. I earned a small scholarship again, which helped. I kept putting aside as much as I could, and it kept being just enough.

Today, I’m 32. I do contract and supply teaching with the London District Catholic School Board, and still work as a teaching assistant at Ivey. Together, the two jobs supply my income.

Evan starts high school next year. We watch movies together at home with my family or play video games. Other times we’ll go out for dinner or go shopping at the mall. If the weather is nice, we might hit the beach or the drive-in. Sometimes people think that he’s my little brother. I don’t say anything. I just glow inside.

Evan’s mother isn’t really involved in his life. I tell him it’s the quality of the people around you, not the quantity. Evan has a wonderful family, and each person in it truly loves him.

I remember sitting with him late at night when he was a baby. I’d give him a bottle and stare down at his tiny hands — just the two of us, the whole house quiet. I was so scared. I thought to myself, if I don’t come through, it’s his life. You can’t define the journey ahead of time, but you owe it to yourself to make everything out of it you can.

Paul Bigus speaks to classrooms and organizations about the importance of education and overcoming obstacles. He has compiled his tips at paulbigus.com.