This piece appears (in Estonian) in the most recent issue of Ajakiri Ema
IT’S 11 AM ON THE SECOND MORNING of the new year and my pancakes are burning. My business partner asked me to clean up some copy and to file a new invoice, and I was doing this after flipping pancakes, keeping the fire going, and trying to pay attention to my youngest daughter’s stories about something that happened with another girl at school. I was trying to pay attention when the wisps of smoke reached me and I turned to see big plumes of it in the kitchen.
Fortunately, I made a lot of batter for this batch, so it’s okay if a pancake or two goes in the trash. I’m used to losing pancakes and other meals the same way. I forget food in the oven. I have to be reminded to take out the trash and when I do take out the trash, I have to be reminded again to deal with a clogged drain in the bathroom. I fix the drain, take out the laundry, and then try to make pancakes again, but burn a few of course. Then the youngest demands juice or milk, which I spill. There’s real mayhem to the whole scene, real anarchy, but at the end of the day, we somehow get through it, and I can even read the youngest a story. Somehow the children are fed, the dishes are clean, and we can sleep in peace, but while they sleep, I lie staring out the window.
From my bedroom window, I can see the Old Water Tower in Viljandi, and for some reason the clouds are very low here. So I can watch the clouds passing behind the tower. This becomes a meditative focus point for me. I watch the Old Water Tower and I go into the zone.
My weak spot as a single father, I think, is multitasking. It always has been my weak spot. I imagine women are geniuses at this. I am sure a few scientific studies have shown this to be true. Women can make the pancakes, keep the fire going, and keep listening to the kids’ stories. Women are more cut out for this kind of life. They can juggle everything at once.
My handicap therefore is that I’m not a woman. I’m a man. I can actually only do one thing well at a time. Give me a task, and I will do it. Assemble the furniture. Fix the wifi. Simple! Time and again, I have amazed people with my ability to complete complex, focus-intensive tasks. But making breakfast, working, and trying to be an attentive parent at the same time is much harder. There is no choice in the matter though. I am a single father now, and I must and will manage.
The term “single father” is political. None of us are really single parents. Each one of us — with a few exceptions — is born to two parents, and even if one of them isn’t there, that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. I have a friend who fits the classic definition of the single mother — the father of her daughter long ago cut off all contact — but that doesn’t mean the child doesn’t ask questions about who her father is, or miss his presence in her life. He does exist, somewhere out there, and so even though her mother is raising her alone, her father is present in his absence.
I am not a single parent in that responsibility is shared with the mother of our children. I am not a single parent in that we co-parent, the kids move freely between both households, and we even celebrate Christmas together. This is not the kind of single parenting you see in movies. This is more like decentralized parenting. Canada is no longer a colony of the British Empire, but it’s still part of the Commonwealth of Nations. Queen Elizabeth II is still their monarch and her face is still on their money. This is the political situation. It’s the best way I can explain how things function.
I am a single parent though in the sense that I live with one of my children and with nobody else. I am single in that I am responsible for the upkeep of my home and I am single in that I sleep in a twin bed that can only accommodate one person. How this came to be is a story like any other. What I can tell you is that since January 2017, I have been living with my second daughter, Anna, here in Viljandi. The eldest has moved to New York to go to school, and the youngest is living with her mother in the south. On occasion, I am lucky enough to have all three of my daughters here. That’s when I become a short order cook and make food all day long and burn some pancakes. Somehow we manage to survive and even have a good time.
When all three children are here, it’s actually easier. The eldest is a teenager now — 16 — and she helps with the youngest, who is eight. She makes her take a shower and combs her hair and helps her with her clothes. The middle child — the one who lives full time with me — has become incredibly self reliant and independent in all of these years growing up with dad. She wants food, clean laundry, and maybe some entertainment. She mostly asks for money. Even if I see her on the street, she’ll pick me clean of five euros and then be on her way with her friends to a shop.
I chiefly entertain the kids by taking them hiking, usually to one of the trails in Soomaa, which is near Viljandi. Or we go to the movies. I have seen so many kids movies, you have no idea. I think the girls watched Mary Poppins two or three times. My skill is cooking. This is one of the ways I know how to be a parent. I make them gnocchi with Bolognese sauce. It’s one of the few ways I can pass any Italian culture to them. At least my children know what Pecorino Romano is. At least they know something!
I suppose most mothers would disapprove of the scene when all three of them are here. There is no law or order. I am too busy making dinner and putting laundry out to run some kind of tight ship. I am not Captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music with his whistle. The youngest rides her bike around the house, the other two talk to friends or watch films. They are free, in essence, to do whatever they want, so long as they stay alive. Yet we do survive — that’s the most important part — and I’m proud that we manage together. Maybe there is no bedtime, maybe I don’t feel like washing the dishes, but everybody’s awake the next morning. It’s truly a cause for celebration.
I do feel sometimes that I have no script or manual on how to do this. Yet I know many fathers have done what I’ve done. My neighbor was raised mostly by her father. It’s not unusual. When you are living alone with one child, though, you have to take on both roles. You have to be father and mother sometimes and this is hard to do. As kind as I am, as tender as I can be, I can never give them that motherly feeling you get when you rest your head on a soft chest because my chest is hard. Or when you come home and there’s some lovely woman standing with an apron on and she gives you a wet kiss on the cheek. That never happens in my house. I just can’t give them those kinds of motherly experiences. I suppose it’s not my responsibility to even try.
Sometimes I’m aware of how pathetic the whole show I am running is. They see some 40-year-old man struggling each day. Someone who is tired. Someone who is focused on writing all the time, and for what purpose? I try to help them understand that without all this typing that goes on, there can be no movies, no trip to the spa in Pärnu, no flights to New York, and no toys.
I don’t have much of a personal life. There are no dates with women, no dining out at restaurants, no going to the movies or on trips. I know Brad Pitt has a hundred children and can manage to do those kinds of things, but I can’t. I don’t go out to parties or concerts that often, but I can get out sometimes if I need to. I don’t think the children think I would ever remarry. They have somehow gotten used to the idea that their father is alone and that’s just how it is. The idea of bringing some new disruptive female personality into the equation also seems complicated. It would bring into force a new political reality. I am sure everything would be reorganized in about 45 minutes.
On most days, I recognize that I just don’t have time for anything like that. My job is not to have that kind of life right now. My job is to make the dinner and clean up the cat vomit. Someone needs to fix the curtain that fell. This is my real purpose in life. Of course, I have a dream life too. This has taken on greater significance in these years. For me, my dream life is more nourishing to the soul than my real life. This is why writing helps me. It helps me to cope.
The girls are changing too. Only the youngest is still affectionate with me. The older ones? Not so much. Those little girls who used to hang on me now cringe when I hug them. I try to tell them they look nice, or are very smart, because supposedly this will help build their self esteem. They brush away any compliments, but I keep on saying them. My eldest daughter Marta used to tell me everything. Now I don’t know what’s going on. We keep in touch via applications. Skype. Whatsapp. Being a father to her from so far away has proved to be nearly impossible on a day-to-day basis. Yet I am still here, and I think my existence counts for something in all this.
Proximity isn’t everything though. Anna used to ask me to read her stories long ago. Now I have to knock to even speak to her. I knock and she asks, “What do you want?” “Your dinner’s ready.” “Oh. I guess I’ll come.” I go in her room sometimes, sheepishly, and ask how she is. She tells me, “I’m fine. Now can you please leave? And make sure to shut the door behind you. Really shut it.” Anna has also adopted the Estonian habit of ending the call without saying goodbye. I’ll be standing in the supermarket talking to her for a minute or two and then realize she’s no longer listening. Then I feel really foolish.
It’s hard to discipline them as a father, I admit. All my life I have heard so many stories about what abusive, terrible people men are to women, so that I treat my daughters with kid gloves. I can’t be too strict. It’s very complicated for a man who is almost two meters tall to be hard on his daughters.When I do have to set them straight, I try to be as honest and forthcoming as possible. I’m not sure if it works though. They’re pretty much the same people they have always been.
Some people would characterize me as a passive father, or a passive man. Yet in my experience, it’s been those tough guys who are the first to crack under pressure and go running to the forests or for a bottle of vodka. They’re the ones who hit midlife and suddenly “fall in love” with some chick they met at a bar. You have to know when to pick your battles. You have to keep moving.
Only once in a while do I recall those first few nights alone with my second daughter. It was the middle of winter, we had just moved into that first apartment. It felt like Napoleon in exile. I remember watching the snow drifting down beyond the windows, listening to the little girl sigh in her sleep. Back then, it felt like an incomprehensible turn of events. I couldn’t understand what was going on. I felt so weak and so vulnerable, completely at the mercy of the universe. Now I feel this experience has made me much stronger. I can take on anything. I’ve become resilient.
I have been very fortunate, I think, in that unlike fathers of the past, I have spent a lot of time with my children. Even when I was a kid, I would usually see my father at dinner and on the weekends. He had an office and he went to it. He would go away on business trips. Other than steaks cooked on the grill, I think he made me two meals in my entire life, and one of them was a bagel. I’m not sure if he even knows how to make pancakes. My mother would take me aside and say, “Here, let me teach you how to cook. Someday, you will make a woman very happy.” She didn’t know then that I would wind up living in a little northern land called Estonia. Had she known that, she might have taught me more about animal husbandry or forestry. No matter. Maybe these “women” I was supposed to make happy weren’t my love interests. Maybe they were these small women I’ve wound up raising at times. I make them plenty of pancakes, and when they get a whole plate full of them, covered in butter and syrup, they are happy indeed.