MANILA -- More than a year after businessman and restaurateur Erwan Heussaff became a dad with the birth of his child Dahlia Amelie, he still cannot make heads or tails if his life has changed because of his daughter with actress Anne Curtis or the pandemic that continues to rear its ugly head around the globe.
In 2019, Heussaff was living in a suitcase. He spent six months traveling, as he was on the plane every two weeks visiting another country or hopping to a different destination locally to shoot documentaries.
“In 2020, you go from being hyper-mobile to basically stuck at home like the rest of the world was,” Heussaff told ABS-CBN News. “For me, it happened and coincided at the exact same time that Anne gave birth on March 2 when everything happened all around the world.
“So I guess you can say it’s a little serendipitous that forced me to stay at home just like everyone else and allowed me to really get close to Dahlia and started being a hands-on dad. It’s a combination of both.”
Now that Dahlia is 15 months old, Heussaff still cannot fathom if fatherhood has changed his life. Yet, he knows it has definitely enriched his life.
“There’s a massive adjustment period because all of sudden, your priorities changed. From just being yourself, your wife, your work and your family. All of a sudden, your child becomes your number one priority for everything. I wouldn’t say it’s a big change, but it’s a huge adjustment to make. One that we were very happy to make.”
He considers himself fortunate to be able to experience so much. However, he never imagined the things he has been taking for granted when Dahlia came brought back an insatiable urge for him to appreciate the simple joys.
“Something as simple as sunrise or sunset, you forget about simple things in life that are really quite beautiful,” Heussaff pointed out. “When you have a child, that’s a really cool thing about it. You start seeing the world through their eyes.
“On how they discover colors, textures, shadows and little things that you really kind of never think about. Basically, you learned about things you weren’t paying attention to before.
“That allows you to kind of take a step back and think about everything you’ve done in your past and everything you’re currently doing. Then you can see how you can optimize the way you’re living and try to learn more about yourself and what really is important at the end of the day.”
As a first-time dad, Heussaff is amazed at how so many enticing discoveries he has made with baby Dahlia the past year. “Just the simple joys. Fresh air, wind. It’s so cool when you see a kid and she stepped out next to the sea for the first time and she kind of tasted salty air.”
When the lock down eased in Melbourne after seven months of being holed up inside their house, the couple was able to go down to the coast with their baby.
“When we saw Dahlia react to the difference in temperature and that flavor in the air, appreciating nature more and the simple things, I think that’s what this whole thing is best.”
Dahlia is her dad’s spitting image and Heussaff is aware about that. Aside from the physical attributes, the baby is really in love with food, something that her dad has always been experimenting with.
“I was previously thinking, because I love food so much and I love eating, I’m going to get a child that’s going to be extremely picky,” Heussaff thought. “But that didn’t happen, because Dahlia is such a great eater and she really just enjoys eating. That, she got from me. I experiment so much on what she gets to eat every day.”
The most challenging aspect of being a father for Heussaff is a continuous re-evaluating of priorities. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in terms of fear or anxiety, especially nowadays and with this environment,” Heussaff said.
“The fear is present everyday especially now when you do not know what will happen in two to three months, both economically, financially or where you’re going to be in a few months. There’s a lot of uncertainty nowadays and I think that’s scary for every parent.
“You’re so hyper-focused on making sure your child has the best possible life and you’re doing everything for your child. That becomes harder to do in a very uncertain environment.”
The best part of being a parent is when you start getting recognized as the father. “In the beginning it’s all about the mom and still very much about the mom,” Heussaff maintained.
“When your child kind of recognizes you as an equal caregiver and that you actually feel you’re physically and emotionally needed, that’s the time you start feeling like a father.
“She doesn’t just need her mom; she also needs her dad around during particular moments. That’s a really cool feeling to know that you’re also needed and you can be helpful and your child recognizes you as a parent.
“In the beginning, we were just trying to keep Dahlia alive. That was our number one priority in the first couple of months. Then she started needing you emotionally.”
Admittedly, Heussaff never attempted to compete for attention of Dahlia with her mom. “Obviously, with the mom, there’s that physical bond you’ll never be able to reciprocate and hard to challenge,” he said. “Dahlia knew her mom nine months before I knew her. I think in terms of time spent, it’s pretty equal now.”
The hardest part of being a dad is knowing his daughter can easily copy or imitate what Heussaff has been doing. “I frown a lot,” he attested. “I frown all the time. It’s just a trait I have.
“We were at the beach a couple of months ago and I realized Dahlia was frowning so much. I asked her, ‘Are you unhappy? What’s happening?’ I realized she was just copying what I was doing.
“That’s the scary part is knowing how much influence you actually have in terms of who your child becomes and how your child sees the world or starts understanding the world. That’s a responsibility especially in today’s climate that no one should take lightly.”
Finding a name for a baby girl when you have thousands of options is always difficult, according to Heussaff. He and Curtis initially had three of four names for the baby. Yet, the final names they decided on happened when they got to Melbourne.
“Funny enough, Anne and I are pretty private people,” Heussaff said. “If you date it back when we announced that we were a couple or we announced we got engaged four months after.
“She announced that she was pregnant six months after learning about her condition. We were always trying to keep things to ourselves until the very last moment just to make it feel more special.”
What clinched it for them was while they were walking at the Victoria Gardens in Melbourne. “I remembered we saw a whole bunch of dahlia flowers. It could be a sign and it’s really a cool name.”
Princess Dahlia was also Curtis’ role in Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’ “Magic Kingdom” (1997), her big screen debut. So, the name was not only memorable for her, but also close to her heart.
Meanwhile, Dahlia’s second name, Amelie, came easily for the couple. “That night, we were watching TV on a random channel and all of a sudden, ‘Amelie’ started playing,” Heussaff shared. “We were looking for a French name to showcase Dahlia’s culture and nationality.”
“Amelie” is director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s French romantic comedy that starred Audrey Tautou and was shown in 2001.
Curtis really planned to give birth in Melbourne since her mom lives there. “When her mom is around, that would make giving birth comfortable and easier for Anne,” Heusaff explained. “That was the decision and the reason we went there. All off a sudden, the pandemic happened.
“I was supposed to come home and go back and forth [to Australia] every two weeks until Anne and the baby were both ready to come home. It’s too bad. We were in lock-down in Melbourne for like seven months, staying only indoors.”
“Forced” is a strange word to tie down Heussaff in Melbourne. But it seemed like he had no other option. “It’s either I leave Melbourne and I had no idea when I could return or I stayed there and figure it out,” he explained.
“I didn’t want to take the risk, so I stayed in Melbourne. We were in a strict lockdown there for like seven months when you really couldn’t go out of your house. It was strictly enforced and you couldn’t even see a family member.”
Deciding to go to Melbourne served as a long-delayed vacation for Curtis. “It was more of being able to be with her mom when she gives birth and to take a physical break from work. Whenever she’s here in the country, she has always been busy.
“She’s kind of like me and we both enjoy working. The only way to stop working is be physically away from work She’s been working non-stop since she was 12. I think she deserves a big year off, when she can chill for a second.”
Marking special occasions for Heussaff and Curtis did not prove to be a tall order when the lockdown came. They decided to stay for a year in Melbourne and waited it out to travel again.
“I come from a very small family,” Heussaff said. “We’ve always been very private people, not someone to throw a big party. As you get older, you get appreciate your true circle of friends.
“Definitely, it has been a challenge to see your family and friends socially. I think we’ve managed, because were never really been people who enjoy large gatherings.”
When Dahlia gets older, Heussaff will never force his daughter to venture into something she is not inclined to do.
“I’m one of those newer generation of parents that have zero expectations for her,” he said. “I was extremely lucky growing up with my parents. They never forced me down the path.
“All they wanted me to have was a primary, secondary and tertiary education, which is what I would love for Dahlia, to just go to primary school, high school, hopefully not online, then go to a university. Once she’s done with all that, then she can decide on what to do.”
This early, Heussaff has started to teach baby Dahlia to count in French. “It’s a learning process,” he beamed. “We’re trying, as much as possible, to teach her the three languages at the same time. I just don’t know how successful we will be.
“Right now, Anne does Tagalog and English with Dahlia, while me, English and French. It’s not the easiest to try and teach her three languages at the same time. Maybe, she’ll focus on two languages while she’s young. Then eventually, when she goes to school formally for a third language.”
Heussaff and Curtis have “very defined” tasks at home. “Three meals a day, that’s me,” he said. “I get to be in the kitchen and while I’m there, Dahlia likes to see me cook. She likes seeing how I prepare her meals.
“We both help out in feeding her. During playtime, who is the one taking that shift? We try to be with her, at least one of us with her, for every part of the day.”
Dahlia can be a daddy’s girl on days, but there are certain times when she refuses to leave her mom’s side. “You can physically tear her off and she’ll just hang on to dear life,” the dad lamented. “Whenever I do, I can bribe her with sweets and food, it’s not going to work. She’s going to have one of those mommy days.
“It changes every day. Yesterday, for some reason, every time I would go into my office, she knocked on the door and she’d wait for me to open the door and she’d just wanted to be with me in the office. It really depends on the day.”
Heussaff is amazed how he learns something new and different with his daughter every day. “Kids are sponges,” he said. “Before you’re a parent, you don’t really pay attention to kids’ stuff because you can’t relate to it. But all of a sudden, once you become a parent, you’re hyper-focused on how your kid is developing.
“It’s crazy how much information Dahlia can cut across us. You give her a word five days prior then we never discuss it again. It’s really strange how her memory works. It’s actually quite impressive.”
Adjusting to the humid Manila weather did not prove to be a challenge for Dahlia when the family returned here. “I thought that maybe, it could have been, because we went through all four seasons in Australia when we were there and it did get quite hot there.
“The biggest difference is not the heat, not the humidity. Australia is a very dry country. But Dahlia has been doing fine here [in Manila].”
He insists the pandemic is nothing to complain about at this point. “We’re privileged because we have a roof above our head. We have three meals a day, so there’s nothing to really complain about.
“I think the most important is being able to adapt depending on what’s happening. There were a couple of rough months, especially on my side, business-wise. You look at all your businesses and there were some reporting zero revenue.”
Despite the relentless work output, the business, unfortunately, did not prosper for months and problems seemingly periled. “You really see the business in the red for a couple of months, that’s really scary especially if you’re an entrepreneur. You just learn how to adapt, how to deal with it and how to find solutions.”
A few years ago, Heussaff could manage without an Internet for days. Today, however, that is unthinkable for him. “Personally, it’s a lot of research that’s more on Anne and in my side,” said Heussaff, who endorses PLDT Home. “Dahlia, we try as much as possible, not to give her any screen time.
“Anne and I do a lot of research in terms of things that we’re reading, articles that we’re reading, videos that we’re watching. When you’re a parent, you’re basically on Google 24/7. A rash pops up and you consult Dr. Google.
“We spend a lot of time researching how to best educate Dahlia. Even on what she eats or I play different genres of music to see what she likes. For Anne and I, just when we are able to finally put Dahlia down, it’s always really nice to just turn off your brain, then watch Netflix without disruptions.”
Understandably, Heussaff wants to be a bit more mobile when the virus tapers off. “That’s everyone’s wish right now is to be able to drive to Baguio tomorrow without having to think about registering, getting anti-gens, doing PCRs [polymerase chain reaction],” he said.
“Then, when you book your hotel, you don’t need to get medical certificates. Just that liberty of being able to go on road trips without thinking about health and safety so much.”
Heussaff will love to show Dahlia the Philippines since he travelled extensively around the country over the last few years. “I found some places that I really love and I think Dahlia will enjoy, too.
“She’s been to Australia and now the Philippines, I love to bring her to France, as well, so she can meet that side of her culture and nationality.”
Picking his favorite site in the Philippines proved tough for Heussaff, but he singles out Mount Hamiguitan, a UNESCO national park and wildlife sanctuary in Davao Oriental.
“The only park in the Philippines where I’ve ever felt I was actually like in a park,” he said. “You can camp within the park for four or five days and every day, you will see different things, flora and fauna, animals.”
“We drove the whole east coast of Mindanao, around Davao Oriental to Surigao del Norte. I personally love Mindanao. I feel like there’s so much to do there. The people are so chill.”