Memoir: I was friends with my dad—until I found out he was secretly dating my mom

Memoir: I was friends with my dad—until I found out he was secretly dating my mom

Memoir: A Family Affair

I grew up the product of a no-strings arrangement: in 1986, my mom found herself single, in her mid-30s and wanting to have a baby. She decided she’d raise a child on her own, and asked a co-worker if he’d help her conceive; they did it the old-fashioned way. He visited often at first, though I don’t remember any of it. Within a few years, our contact tapered off, and by the time I was five, we’d lost touch completely. I remember kids interrogating me in the schoolyard at recess. “What do you mean you don’t have a dad?” they’d ask. “It’s just my mom and me,” I’d tell them.

And that was all I needed. My mom and I were incredibly close, like Gilmore Girls in the big city. We read the same books, went gallery hopping on Queen West and talked about everything. I loved her as a mother, but more than that, I liked her as a friend. We shared a deep mutual respect. She told me she’d help me if and when I wanted to seek out my dad, but it never occurred to me—living without him had become my normal.

The summer I was 23, I was five months into an on-and-off relationship with a sleazy guy—one day we’d end things, and the next day he’d invite me on a motorcycle tour across Canada. I knew he was bad news, but I kept restarting the cycle. I began to wonder if I had daddy issues. I decided to reconnect with my father—the idea was strong and sudden and resolute. Within minutes of searching, there he was on the Google results page: I learned he was living just an hour away, that he liked to fly small airplanes and that our faces were uncannily similar.

I was too nervous to write the email, so my mom did it for me. After a painful three-day wait, he wrote back—it turns out he’d been thinking of getting in touch but wasn’t sure how we’d respond after such a long silence. Two weeks later, we met at my mom’s apartment. There are moments in life that stay with you forever. That dinner date was one of them. He put me at ease right away. His face reflected mine: brown eyes, open and happy. I told him about my work in the film industry, and learned he’d never been married or had other children. He showed me pictures of himself as a kid and of his parents, and even played a video of him and his dad fishing in the Grand River. We talked, laughed, ate and drained several bottles of wine.

We quickly grew close. I began copying him on email threads to my mom, and we started up regular Sunday dinners. I could do things with him that my mom wasn’t into—we’d see action movies, talk sports and drink scotch. I felt like I was in a parallel universe where my dad had been there all along.

As he and I bonded, I noticed my parents reconnecting, too. Their natural chemistry was evident: at our family dinners, they’d fall into rapt conversations and show more-than-friendly affection. It looked like something romantic was going on with them, but I brushed aside my suspicions; surely they would have told me if they’d started a relationship. I kept waiting for them to reveal the truth, but several months passed and they remained silent.

One day, my mom confirmed my suspicions. She and my dad had started seeing each other a few months after we reconnected, my mom said. She insisted she hadn’t told me sooner because she wanted our reunion to be about me and my dad, not her. I felt betrayed and angry: if we were a family, I wanted to feel like one, and instead I was on the outside looking in. I stormed out of her apartment and stopped returning their phone calls and emails. It was weird not talking to my mom—we’d never gone longer than a few days without communicating. A few days turned into a few weeks, which turned into a few months. Let them have each other, I thought bitterly. They took their time telling me they were together, so I took my time getting used to the idea.

One hot summer day, a full year after my dad had come back into my life, I arrived home to find the patio door leading from my bedroom to the backyard had shattered. Panic erased my anger, and I immediately called my parents. In less than an hour, my dad was there, explaining that it wasn’t a home invader who’d smashed the pane, but the extreme heat—glass can break spontaneously when it’s under thermal stress. He stayed with me until my landlord arrived to repair the door.

From there, I slowly started to mend my relationship with my parents: a phone call here, a text there. It took time to adjust—to having a dad, to my mom having a boyfriend, to the shifting dynamics between the three of us—but I got there eventually. “How do you feel about it?” my friends would pry, and I couldn’t answer them in a satisfying way. All I knew was my parents had something special, and I wanted to see it grow.

Four years later, they’re living together in unwedded bliss. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a dad, but I know what it’s like to have one as an adult: it means one more voice of encouragement, one more person in my corner. I have my nuclear family—I just got it in reverse.

Julia Rowland is a screenwriter, producer and assistant director for film and television.

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