One night, a few months ago, after reading a handful of stories to Lou, my youngest kid, and tucking him into his crib for the night, I went downstairs to hang out with my oldest, Iago. I’d barely sat down when he announced—as casually as if he were telling me about a weird dream—that he’d gone to the doctor the week before to get checked for an STI. (A message from an ex-girlfriend gave him a scare; turns out he’s 100 percent fine.)
I don’t remember my response. I probably pretended to be as relaxed about the situation as he was. I might have even said, “That’s cool.”
Lou is two years old. Iago graduated from high school last June. In the middle is Olive, who just fell headfirst into her teenage years. The gap between each child is the result of shifting life circumstances, not laughably bad planning: The first was an unexpected gift; the second a good idea that arrived a little late; the third came after divorce and the discovery of new love.
What will my kid be like as a grown-up? Most new parents struggle to imagine the loaf-size baby asleep between them or the little one braving the big-kid slide being a real person with opinions and problems and no pressing need for 24/7 parental supervision.
I used to ask myself the same question. I don’t anymore. As the father of three kids of wildly varying ages, my struggle lies not in wondering what’s coming, but in trying to appreciate what’s happening now—when that now is occupied by three different parental realities at once. My two-year-old has started speaking in three- and four-word sentences, and is obsessed with Toy Story. My daughter fills her iPhone with stand-up comedy and complains about the girls her age who already drink lattes. And my oldest son works as a photographer (he’s really good) and owns a motorcycle. He goes to the occasional party, but he’s not really into booze or drugs—he did the whole weed thing in grade eight, he says. (Me: “That’s cool.”)
I often feel like an involuntary time traveller, being shunted back and forth between young adulthood, middle school and toddlerdom. Or, rather, between the Jaded Old Dad Era, the Dad-in-the-Thick-of-It Era and the Blissful New Dad Era.
Too often, I fight to stay in bliss mode. Two-year-olds are little marvels; everything they do is objectively adorable. Their mental world map is small but dense with wonders. By contrast, newly minted teens see the universe as filled with dragons of anxiety and tiger traps of social acceptance. And young adults are just plain cocky. Given all that, who wouldn’t choose the simpler Cheerio-speckled pleasures of playgrounds and bedtime stories? It’s hard to dole out my parental affections and interest equally, though I do try. Even as I thrill at each new word or skill my two-year-old masters, I know I have to remember to be just as visibly delighted with my daughter’s cultivation of a new friendship or at my son landing his motorcycle licence.
Which isn’t to say being around my older kids is a drag: As much fun as a toddler can be, it’s a relief sometimes to spend time with children who don’t need diaper changes, who can be trusted on the stairs and who can (mostly) express their feelings without having a tantrum. The hardest part about being three dads at once is the way it unsettles my understanding of what it is to be a dad at all. I freely confess: As a parent, I’m faking it. I suspect a lot of parents are, or at least feel like they are. When your children are close in age, you can get into a groove that seems natural, but there’s no parenting groove wide enough to encompass kids that are entering adulthood, starting high school and learning to go potty. I’m forced to constantly shift modes, like a character in a bad farce whose spouse, lover and mother are all staying in the same hotel.
Three young people call me “Dad” (well, one calls me “Dada”), but each one means something different by it. There are even times, as I struggle to be a good father to all of them at once, when I wonder if they’re all talking about the same person.
A version of this article originally appeared in our January 2017 issue, titled “Which dad am I today?” pg. 40.