Dear son, your father’s absence is not for a lack of love

  • Covid-19 has impacted Singapore in unprecedented ways and much of everyday life as we once knew has changed.
  • Having a family member who is a healthcare worker presents special challenges for those who love them.
  • Educator, mother and writer Victoria-Marie Er pens her thoughts through a letter to her son.
  • [This article was first published on the author’s Medium page here]
"He spends most of his free time savouring every picture, every video, every glimpse of what he had missed of your growing years ... times that would never be turned back for him." (Photo source: Canva)
"He spends most of his free time savouring every picture, every video, every glimpse of what he had missed of your growing years ... times that would never be turned back for him." (Photo source: Canva)

Dear M,

You had just turned two at the end of the month. 

My heart swelled with joy marveling at your presence, your energetic spirit, and your ever-growing penchant for making your mother’s heart stop with your active antics and miraculous need for little sleep to function. Your existence had undoubtedly changed our world — and I couldn’t believe you’d only been here for two years. As your awareness grew, and your sensitivity to people’s presence, spirit, and intimacy with you sharpened, there were some important things that I would love for you to know, as your mind wandered to these places in more difficult times.

<em>Your existence had undoubtedly changed our world and I couldnt believe youd only been here for two years Photo source Canva<em>

You were born into a strange world, where people’s faces were covered, and many became terribly ill. While we had been spared so far from this overbearing disease, our lives were affected in other ways. The people you spent the most time with were me, your ah-ma and kong kong, and uncles. We were incredibly lucky that ah-ma and kong kong had a house big enough for all of us to live in. That in itself gave you the experience of being surrounded by many adults who loved you immensely — and also, frankly, a sane mother. And on occasions, our lives were sweetened with the joy of your father’s presence, when he was truly present in mind, heart and spirit.

Yet, I knew in my heart that it wasn’t enough for you, and you deserve more than this. Your eyes sometimes met your father’s with unfamiliarity, especially when he had been away for his night calls. In your moments of anger and sadness, which was overwhelming for that little body of yours, you pushed your papa away, and cried for me. Even when he was the only one there because I was away, admitted at the hospital for some strange illness, or had to attend to matters outside the home, you would wait, crying in the arms of your exhausted father for me. It was in those fleeting moments of rejection, that my heart mourned for what could have been a beautiful father-son relationship, if not for your dad’s vocation of being a doctor.

I want you to know that your papa loves you immensely. I would say equally or even more than I love you. We sometimes take people’s absences to mean that they don’t love us, or care for us. However, it was not the same for your papa. As a newly-minted doctor in the midst of a global pandemic then, he really tried his best.

Do you remember the nights when I put you down to sleep without papa around? Those nights, you would crawl into my lap with your favourite book as we poured over the pages, and you soaked in every single image and colour on the page. Before we went to bed, I would always try to call papa — but most times, I had to tell you, “aww, papa is busy tonight, but I’m sure we will see him tomorrow”. Then I would stroke your hair and nurse you to sleep.

On special nights, the ringing on the phone transformed into a beautiful image of your papa, although quite oddly dressed. I remember your smile when you saw your papa on the phone, possibly amused at the funny attire he had on. That light blue funny “hat”, a very, very big mask, and sometimes what looked like a raincoat over his blue clothes. Trust me, he wasn’t enjoying himself in the rain as you did when youenjo donned your blue raincoat when the skies opened up.

Those nights were hard, hard nights for your papa, physically, mentally and emotionally. He didn’t want to be away from you, but he had to. In fact, those nights he didn’t sleep. He would stay awake, working nonstop for 30 hours. You must have been thinking that it was pretty cool to stay awake because you were at the stage where, for some reason, sleep was a chore but frankly it sucked for an adult. Worse still, when he got home, he just spent the day sleeping. To you, it probably seemed like he had been absent on purpose for two full days in a week, but on a pretty unlucky week, he was away for as many as four days as he had two night calls to fulfill. This unfortunately came with the job and I was hoping that it would change before you reached your 10th birthday.

<em>During those waking moments your fathers heart was torn He wanted very much to be with you but he had tons of work to complete Photo source Canva<em>

Yes, M, I can hear you protesting as you read this — “but he wasn’t even playing with me when he was here. It was very rare that he ever really played with me.” Oh, my dear son, yes you deserve more than this. I don’t want to make excuses for this experience in your childhood. All I can tell you is that during those waking moments, your father’s heart was torn. He wanted very much to be with you but he had tons of work to complete. He had to prepare presentations on complex cases of his patients, read medical journals to figure out why someone’s lung is filled with water, and also study for difficult exams. It is an unenviable position to be in. I think you may understand in about 15 years if you should decide to enroll in a junior college and somehow finds that your existence revolves around school. You need to fight for time to rest, be with your loved ones, and really engage in the things you love to do.

During those times when I was feeling down, and he was stern, all I can say, dear M, is that he was exhausted. He didn’t have the capacity to regulate his or your emotions, especially those moments when you were throwing tantrums. You were such a head-strong baby — something I have been incredibly amazed by and am assured it will serve you well in your future endeavours. However, this also means that when you don’t get what you want, you would burst into a storm of anger. Then you were inconsolable but your cries could only be soothed by hugs, support, and still holding our boundaries. Your papa didn’t grow up in an environment that allowed for such emotions — and he was and still is trying to learn. You can trust me on this, because I had paid a few hundred dollars for your papa and me to attend online parenting courses together. He actually watches them, reflects on his relationship with you, and tries to do better. However, the nature of his job often demanded all of his energy, and little was left to deal gently with you.

How do I know your papa loves you? I’ve coaxed him many times to quit his job, one that forces him to choose between you and his patients. I calculated our finances and also worked out how we could live on just one salary. But he refuses — even when he is feeling so down about his life. Whenever I ask why, it always comes back to you. He wants to give you the best that life has to offer. We wanted to be able to still send you to the pre-school you will love, enrich your life with beautiful experiences, and where needed, papa wants to make sure that I can leave my job to spend time with you, raise you, and provide you with the comfort and care you deserve.

His heart aches for you — and he never knows how to put them into words. Not because he is a man, but because it is hard to admit that on most days, his job has to come between the both of you. It isn’t so simple to quit. In fact, he spends most of his free time savouring every picture, every video, every glimpse of what he had missed of you as an infant and a toddler — those times that would never be turned back for him. It is a heartbreak he often nurses quietly. 

<em>It is hard to admit that on most days his job has to come between the both of you Photo source Canva<em>

In moments where he wished he could be your comfort, you would run into my arms, violently pushing him away, he would whisper, “He doesn’t want me, Vic.” I wanted to hug you both at the same time because this isn’t what the both of you signed up for. He knows that it is hard to earn his place with you because he hasn’t and been there.

I don’t know what the future holds for your papa. I can only hope that it changes, for your sake, his sake, and my sake. None of us expected the toll his job would take on our family. It is a cross we are burdened to bear, but few would understand. 

Many people scoffed at doctors who complained of burnout, calling them “snowflakes” or “ungrateful” for the privilege of serving as doctors. Few know or even see the impact it has on us, the doctor’s family and supporters, who bear the pain of living with an absentee father and husband. Never let their criticisms feed your thoughts of your papa not loving you.

And so, my son, in those times where you wonder if your father loves you, know that he made every effort within his means, to love you, even in these unforgiving times.


Your “Me-Ma”

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