Growing Up Mulroney

Their father was prime minister for nearly a decade. What was it like to be his sons?

A portrait of two men and four children smiling and sitting on a couch
Brian and Mark Mulroney and family / Tessa Lloyd

When my own sons-in-law became fathers, I thought about what might support and inspire them. I didn’t picture them seeking advice from other men and expected they would shy away from books on parenting. One thing I thought might help them—and others—was reading about the intimate experiences of fathers, men they knew and respected. But, when I looked for it, no such book was to be found. The more I thought about the idea of creating such a resource, the more it resonated for me and propelled me forward. The result is Forty Fathers, a chorus of diverse voices of Canadian men, ages twenty-nine to eighty-nine, who describe how they are figuring out their relationships with their fathers and with their children. I know that it felt good for the fathers who share their experiences in this book to talk about this vital part of their lives. It’s not for everyone to reveal their thoughts and feelings on this topic, so I celebrate the fathers—like Ben and Mark Mulroney—who have allowed their stories to act as beacons for other men.

Ben and Mark Mulroney are sons of Brian and Mila Mulroney. Their father was prime minister from 1984 to 1993. Ben, forty-three, is a TV-show host. He has been married to Jessica since 2008, and they have three children: identical twins Brian and John, born in 2010, and Isabel (“Ivy”), born in 2013. Mark, forty, is an investment banker. He is married to Vanessa, and they have three boys and a girl: Maximilian, born in 2010, Dylan, born in 2011; Ronan, born in 2013; and Mila, born in 2016.

Ben: My relationship with my father is wholly positive. The older I get, the more connected I feel to him. As a father myself, I remember an incident that brought me closer to my dad. It was that first time I read the Riot Act to my children. We had some friends over, and the kids were playing upstairs and making too much noise. I’d asked them to keep it down a couple of times, and when that still hadn’t happened, I put on my “big dad” voice, wanting to instill a bit of fear. I went up there sounding like I was very, very angry, when in fact I wasn’t angry at all. I got the result I wanted: they settled down right away. On the way back downstairs, I had this “aha” moment when I realized, This is what he had to do all the time when we were growing up. All those times I thought my dad was angry with me, he was actually just doing what I had done.

That moment on the stairs was significant for Dad and me. I was able to access a part of our relationship that only became available to me as a parent. Up until then, I had felt like I was a child speaking to my dad, but now I was a new parent speaking to an experienced parent. I find I am reaching out to him more as I get older, and we spend more time together, talking about things that matter. Now, the stuff we share is infinitely valuable, and with the passage of time, it’s deeper, richer, and more meaningful to me.

Mark: Dad calls me on a regular basis with no particular mandate or agenda. I’ll tell him what’s going on with me and I hear him laughing, chuckling—not at me—and I know he’s thinking about himself when he was my age. It’s a release for me. It settles me down. It puts everything into perspective. In my mind, it’s what a father should be.

His wisdom as a father has permeated our relationship, although he never makes it sound like he’s giving advice. He might say to me, “I am not exactly sure what you’re talking about, but this is what I think . . .” He’s a labour negotiator, so he’ll soften me up and then get to the point after disarming me. A few years ago, our conversations changed: there was no “thing,” no reason for the call except to be in each other’s lives. He might say, “I was just thinking about you,” or, “I just wanted to say I am so proud of you.” It’s uplifting. Right away, I want to tell my wife, “I just got the best call from my dad.”

Even when he might be telling me something that is hard to hear or that I don’t agree with—I always know he’s got my best interests in mind. If I think back to when I was four years old, for example, he could be fiercely proud of me, but if he was disappointed, he didn’t hold back. It was never a threat, but the thought of Dad being disappointed, oh my God did that hurt. The weight of the world was on your shoulders.

Ben: Long after I was on my own two feet as an adult, I’d frequently get feedback from Dad about how well I was doing, and he’d tell me all the good things he’d heard about me from other people. Maybe I thought people were just being kind or polite, because these comments didn’t have much of an impact. It wasn’t until Dad described an account of a negative interaction of mine that I became suddenly far more tuned in to his commentary. He called and told me, “Ben, I was talking to a friend and I heard that you were dismissive, you were unkind . . .” It broke me; it just broke me. My first reaction was defence—Who? When? What?—but then I realized that wasn’t the point. I had been used to hearing these kinds of things from him as a teenager, but as an adult, those criticisms had become few and far between, and they have a big impact. Do they make me a better person? Of course. I am glad I can trust my dad for an honest appraisal.

Mark: People assume we had a tough time as children. They say, “It must have been awful because your father was always away.” The fact is, I have no memory of him not being there. What I do remember clearly is a present father. When the opportunities were there, he was a full-on involved father. I don’t recall him being inaccessible. If there was a problem and I called him, regardless of where he was, he’d say, “It’s my son on the phone—I have to take this.” That was way before other dads were making space for children in their careers. He’d have ministers in his office, but he’d allow me to interrupt, to give him a hug, to tell a story, and he never made me feel that I was secondary. “Okay,” he’d say. “Dad’s going to finish this meeting now. I’ll see you for dinner. Have fun.” He somehow made me feel special, valued. It was just normal for us, but now I know that he was—and is—exceptional.

Ben: I have a friend who works at the Globe and Mail, and he asked me to write a piece for the paper when Justin Trudeau became prime minister. “I want you to write this as a letter to him,” he told me, “because you have an appreciation for what it’s like to be the child of a prime minister.” I said pretty much what Mark remembers—we didn’t have an absentee father and there was no reason Justin couldn’t be the same for his kids. While our father wasn’t always present, he was always a presence. You can be there 24/7 without connecting at all. We never felt, with my dad, that he put anything ahead of us. The responsibilities of running a government are enormous, but we grew up feeling that we were the main priority.

As a boy, I fell off a swing in the middle of winter while my parents were on a flight somewhere between Ottawa and Toronto. The information they got through the “broken telephone” was that I was paralyzed. They turned the plane around. It turned out that I had broken vertebrae in my neck and back, but I was okay. When I heard they were about to arrive, I imagined I’d be in big trouble—but that wasn’t their style. I think all of it amounts to that secret sauce that everyone looks to replicate. Great families, great careers, great boundaries. Lively conversation at the dinner table, no phone calls, no papers or documents, not a screen in sight.

Mark: Any time I was handling something big in my life, I was Dad’s biggest concern. He took me seriously. He wouldn’t lose it.

Ben: He had a great way of giving us perspective. Many times, we’d frame something as a big problem and he’d find a way to help us get around it, to make it smaller or to will it out of existence. Now, I’m doing the same with my kids. I notice there are some people, parents, who take all their children’s issues as worthy of consideration. Every thought and feeling that’s verbalized is treated as valid and urgent and as needing to be addressed. I’m a bit more old-school on that front.

Mark: When it was me causing the problem, what I feared most from Dad was the quiet. When his voice lowered, that’s when you knew the hammer was going to drop. It was calm. There was no yelling. There were times I would’ve preferred some yelling over the quiet treatment. I wouldn’t say he used discipline as much as he taught us self-discipline. Now, it’s us who are dropping the hammer. We are super disciplined. We’re also delicate. And accurate.

Ben: A lot of dads don’t read the parenting books. The models many men have for parenting are women, mothers. But sometimes our roles complement those of women rather than replicate them. I am glad my father showed me how to be honest and straightforward with my kids. On Your Morning, it’s me and a number of women cohosts, and we chat during commercial breaks. Once, I was explaining how my sons disappointed me and I dropped the shame hammer on them. These women said, “You can’t do that to your children; that’s not how you’re supposed to do it.” Who says? I had gotten the result I wanted with my sons. I don’t believe there is one model for parenting that you can always apply. There’s no right way for every parent, or every child, every time.

Mark: I’ve always felt I had the best dad, and I’ve always felt I’ll never be as good as him. But I also hope that my children feel that they have the best dad. As long as I am growing, getting better every day, we’re good.

Ben: I am at work at 4 a.m., and I hit the ground running, but my day really gets going when school gets out. They’re at that age now. Mark, his kids are in three different groups for soccer: he’s got to be at the park for 9 a.m., 10 a.m., and noon.

Mark: People look at you and say, “It’s insane.” Well, yes—it’s my insane; this is my crazy. It’s controlled chaos and I am embracing it with everything I’ve got! Being from a large family, we do things as a pack. If my siblings and I get invited to the same party, you won’t find us at opposite ends of the room. It’s as if there’s a magnetic force that pulls us together. And, with parental authority, we spread it around. If I step in and tell one of Ben’s children to stop doing something, he’ll back me up and tell them, “Uncle Marko has told you to stop.” As my wife and I now have a large family, we get a lot of questions from new parents about how we make it work. I believe it all starts with a sturdy couple and teamwork. Everything flows more easily when we are on the same page. My wife and I have talked through our various roles (we call them “departments”) and how to handle things.

Ben: My advice is to be 100 percent wherever you are. I rarely touch email at home. Anything that comes in probably doesn’t get a reply until the following day, and I don’t feel bad about it. And then, when I am at work, I am 100 percent there. To be the best dad I can be, I sometimes have to be a little selfish. I sometimes need an hour to myself at home. I can tell the kids, “Daddy needs a break to decompress. There are many things around this house that you can do.”

Mark: I’ve got to learn that one. It’s easier to say than to do.

Ben: Because I have twins, there is no one else they’d rather be with than each other. I guess it’s an easy sell for me. Ivy thinks she’s an only child living with roommates! She has no problem playing alone with her toys.

Mark: I can’t do that yet with a two-year-old. But those little footsteps coming down to our room—it’s the nicest sound ever. Anytime I think about complaining, I always have the thought in the back of my head of how fleeting it is, this time of life. I just met a friend who’s looking at universities with his daughter. He’s saying, “I remember my baby; it was just like yesterday.” Our first baby is about to turn eight. This is a slice of life that I know I need to focus on—not the future but now—and I’m making sure I enjoy it as much as possible. It’s not as if there is any training for this job. All of a sudden, it happens. You are launched into fatherhood and you realize what everyone has been talking about. There’s no way you can be ready; you have to learn as you go along. By the time number four arrived, my wife and I felt like professionals! But seriously, are we ever truly ready?

Ben: I’ll never forget that drive home from the hospital with the twins.

Mark: Yes, it’s like this fragile package, and you’re asking yourself, Can we really do this on our own? By the time we had number four, it was like, “Well, we have to head to soccer practice, get groceries on the way home . . .”

Ben: I think it’s important not to take ourselves too seriously. I saw a vignette once of a mother dropping a soother on the ground, freaking out, picking it up, cleaning it off, boiling it, putting it in a plastic bag and freezing it before putting it back in the baby’s mouth. By the time baby number two comes along, the soother drops and she just wipes it on her jeans and puts it back in the child’s mouth.

Mark: We were all put to work in the kitchen when we were kids, so I learned to cook. There’s nothing about being a father and doing the everyday tasks of looking after kids and running the house that I balk at. It feels good to share roles. My wife, Vanessa, handles all the heavy lifting, and I am more of a weekend warrior.

Ben: I’m prepared for all that fatherhood will involve—I know there will be a lot of letting go. It’ll break my heart, but I am confident we’ll have the kind of relationship that will bring them back to us. I took the boys to summer camp for the first time this year, two and a half weeks. I thought I’d be taking them to their cabin, getting them unpacked and sorted, but no, that’s not how it’s done anymore. They just took them away from me—I hadn’t said my goodbyes—and I lost it. I just lost it. It was not pretty. My children see me expressing emotion. I’m not holding anything back. They’ve seen me sad, frustrated, angry, fighting with my wife, making up again.

Mark: Same for me. And I don’t try to erase or rescue them from their own difficult feelings. One thing that stands out for me is that, in our family, we’re demonstrative, we do all the hugging and the kissing. That’s one thing we’ll never shy away from. My dad hugs and kisses us, always has. He’ll say goodbye to me and give me a kiss. I give my kids lots of affection and I love how it feels.

Ben: It’s very important to express caring and love. Don’t bottle it up. I know in some families the brakes get applied, especially for males.

Mark: We have some interesting issues to deal with that our parents didn’t have when we were growing up. We stopped using screens three years ago—we only use them for travel. I appreciate what they can do for us, but they also keep us away from so much.

Ben: Screens are everywhere—it’s hard to keep kids off them, and it’s hard to find the balance. We’ve made mistakes along the way. I think it’s a universal byproduct for kids who are on screens too much; they become dependent, they lose interest in all other aspects of being a kid. They are obviously a big benefit to parents because, you know, a screen will keep a kid occupied for a few minutes. It’s very alluring, so I have found it’s a constant back-and-forth, almost like a war with myself. As a dad, I’m thinking, How much time can I devote to being hands on? How much trust do I place in my kids? How do I reduce the addictive quality?

I’ve found this to be the diciest part of modern parenting, finding a way to incorporate what we know will be an essential tool in their lives, knowing how fraught with pitfalls that relationship can be. It’s not only that they want the screen so badly, it’s the losing of passion for other things that worries me. When they are not using screens, they are watching the clock tick down for that moment when they can get the endorphin rush again.

I don’t think a lot of parents saw this coming. They are a handy tool, gosh darn it—I got two hours of peace and quiet at home yesterday; that’s something I’ve been craving for weeks. It’s like, How is that not a good thing? But it’s not a good thing because my kid hasn’t picked up a book in two weeks.

Mark: There’s also a lot of pressure on parents to do everything right these days: have the right stuff, the perfect home, all the coolest baby equipment. I can see why parents can feel overwhelmed. There are so many people giving advice, and there’s so much comparison on social media.

Ben: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes—and admit them: “Oh, that went sideways on me today”; “I blew it”; “Didn’t see that one coming!”

Mark: You have to be able to let things go and laugh at yourself. You’re in the grey area a lot when you’re a dad. You have to have confidence and trust your own judgement.

Excerpted from Forty Fathers: Men Talk About Parenting, edited by Tessa Lloyd, and published with permission by Douglas & McIntyre (October, 2019).

Tessa Lloyd
Tessa Lloyd is a Victoria-based counsellor, writer, and photographer.