Justin Trudeau asks himself one question when he's forced to be away from his kids

In an excerpt from Tessa Lloyd's debut book, Forty Fathers, the Prime Minister opens up about how his famous father shaped who he is as a leader and, more importantly, a dad.

Photo: Tessa Lloyd

Tessa Lloyd’s debut book, Forty Fathers, is a collection of interviews with prominent Canadian dads, candidly exploring modern fatherhood in all it’s complexity, from toxic masculinity to divorce and gender transition. In this excerpt, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explores how his own father influenced the relationship he has with his three children today.

Justin Trudeau was born on December 25, 1971, the eldest of three boys. He grew up at 24 Sussex Drive while his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was prime minister. His parents split up in 1977. Justin has degrees from McGill University and the University of British Columbia. He worked as a teacher before entering politics in 2007. He has been prime minister of Canada since October 2015. He lives in Ottawa with his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, and their three children, Xavier, Ella-Grace and Hadrien.

Justin Trudeau playing with his son
Photo: Tessa Lloyd

What my brothers and I got from my father was the purest intent and complete and absolute love. I’m of two minds about whether that means “unconditional”: I knew that there was nothing I could do that would make him love me less, but at the same time I felt the pressure to do the things that I thought would make my father happier, more proud, so that he would love me more.

When my parents’ marriage was breaking up, I remember the fighting. The differences between my parents were obvious to me: I could see when my mum was in pain, but my father didn’t show it, even to us. He was an extremely sensitive, emotional man, but he was trying to be so together and so reasonable. He kept it all inside.

Like any young kid impacted by divorce, I felt helpless. While Sacha lashed out, and Miche became more independent, I tried to hold myself to the highest standard, to varying degrees of success. I faltered more often than not; I was angry and hurt. Once when I was about five years old, I smacked my father in the face. He reminded me about it years later, and told me he knew I was trying to communicate something I couldn’t get across any other way.

Save for the occasional outburst, that high standard followed me into my teen years. But living up to it became harder as I got older. When it came time to choose a career, my father passed on wisdom he had received from his own father, saying that a law degree could “get me anywhere.” Maybe he was right, maybe he wasn’t. As directionless as I may have been, all I knew for sure was that law school just didn’t feel right to me or for me. For a few years I struggled to find my own path, torn—I was determined to become my own man, yet still chased the approval of my dad.

Eventually, at the top of a mountain while I was backpacking overseas, I made an important decision that would change my life: I decided that I would become a teacher. In that moment, it all seemed to click. Becoming a teacher made sense to me—it reflected who I was as a person, and what I believed in. I was aligning myself not with my father but with my maternal grandfather and a long line of teachers before him. Thankfully, my father was supportive of my choice. I wanted his approval, but at the same time I needed to carve out my own identity in the shadow of his larger-than-life personality.

Alt text Hadrien joined dad Justin Trudeau on Parliament Hill and the result is adorableTeaching was not only the way I chose to contribute to society—it would also serve as a pillar on which my own, unique identity would be built. I remember once my father visited me while I was teaching in Vancouver, and I had an opportunity to be seen for who I was while in his company. A student caught up to us on the school grounds, calling “Mr. Trudeau…” We both turned around thinking that she wanted to get my father’s autograph, or shake his hand, but it was me she was addressing. I was Mr. Trudeau. The slight smile my father gave me spoke volumes. I had finally found my place in the world, and I had done it on my own terms.

Fatherhood was next for me. And luckily, I had not one, but two examples to follow. My father’s staunch Catholic upbringing had left him clearly conflicted about sexuality and relationships. It was a hard topic for him to get into. In conversations, I often found myself protecting him from his own discomfort. When my mum remarried, my stepfather became a father figure to me. Happily, his way of being and relating to us boys complemented and stood in contrast to my father’s approach. With him, conversations about sex and girls were much more easily accomplished.

When it came to fatherhood, I remember the evolution of my thinking as a young man. It used to be that the most important thing for me was having kids rather than being a father. But in my late twenties and early thirties, it evolved into being the right person to become a father; it wasn’t just about being a dad, it became about being a good dad. To me, being a good dad means shaping the world around my kids in whatever way I can. I owe it to them to try to make this place that they inhabit better, safer and more just. This core belief, I know for sure, I inherited from my parents.

These days, when I come home from work, my kids, Xavier, Ella-Grace and Hadrien, always have new tricks to show me—things they’ve learned at school or with their friends. I miss out on things, no doubt about it. I’m not there with them all the time, but I’m constantly asking myself, Are the things that I’m doing at work making a real, meaningful difference? I want to work hard every day to create a better country, and a better world.

And as I navigate the complex world of leadership and governing, I look to my dad as a good example of parenting in political life. After my parents split up and my mum moved out, every single weekday evening my father would come home to 24 Sussex at 6:30p.m. We would swim, read and do homework together. On these weekday nights, “the prime minister of Canada was not available.” Now that I’m prime minister, I understand fully the hoops that he—and others—had to jump through to make this happen. But it was essential to us then, so I try to be as disciplined in my schedule with my own kids now—in that, Sophie is an essential partner.

That’s not to say there’s no overlap between work and family. I remember my dad bringing my brothers and me on work trips, not only across Canada, but to countries around the world. He was determined to make time for us and give us a peek into his job. We were incredibly fortunate to have lived that experience, and it’s something I’m trying to replicate now with my own kids. Sometimes the whole family will come on one of my work trips, and they get to learn about other cultures while I’m busy in meetings. But oftentimes I bring just one of my kids along. It’s important for them to have one-on-one time with their dad, and for us to share experiences that are ours and ours alone.

In this job, being fully present for my children is paramount. It’s a work in progress, but I’m mindful of it every single day. When my dad was with us, he gave us 100 per cent of his attention. It was a beautiful gift. Now I’m trying to develop that same capacity, though I admit that sometimes my work phone is too close by. I often find myself looking to my dad as an example of how to find balance and remain an effective leader. I want to hold on to all the things my father did right. He was an incredible role model for me and my brothers. My dad was calm, wise and rational—some would say to a fault. He tried to make things equal with his pure intent.

But I’m also deviating somewhat from his mould as I raise my own kids. My father once took me on a rafting trip on the Tatshenshini River when I was still a teenager. None of my brothers, just me and my father and a range of fascinating people—scientists, environmentalists, academics and of course river guides. Sometime later, he told my mother how impressed he had been to see me connecting and holding my own with such a range of interesting people. It’s that kind of comment I wish I could have heard directly from him—and that I am going to make sure my children hear from me.

I try to be more emotionally engaged than my father was. More relaxed and spontaneous, too. I want my children to see me in a happy, successful relationship with their mum—that’s very important to me. Sophie is my love, my equal and my life partner. When I met her, I knew pretty quickly I had found the right woman to be the mother of my children. She’s been by my side throughout this incredible journey, and there’s no doubt in my mind that I couldn’t have done it without her patience, her guidance and her grace.

When my father was dying, I was at his side. He was eighty, I was twenty-eight. It was a beautiful time. I tried in those moments to return the love he’d given us, and to reassure him that we’d be okay. I miss him like you wouldn’t believe, but I am also very much at peace. Parents are the centre of our solar system, even when we’re adults. Being a father—nothing else matters as much. I get that now, and looking back, I see that same belief in the actions of my father. If I can follow his lead and strive every day to be a good husband, friend and father, I will proudly consider this a life well lived.

Tessa Lloyd is a counsellor, writer and photographer. She has a BA in child and youth care and a Masters degree in counselling psychology, and has over thirty years’ experience as a counsellor with children and families. She has four children and six grandchildren and lives with her husband in Victoria, BC. This is an excerpt from Forty Fathers: Men Talk about Parenting, a collection of interviews by Tessa Lloyd, publishing from Douglas & McIntyre on October 19, 2019. 

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