Feeling Fatherless

Ugh, Father’s Day. One of those days I prefer to avoid Facebook. Lots of statuses with endearments for dads by friends who have or had great relationships with their fathers. I want to be glad for them, really I do. It’s just difficult when your own experience has been less than satisfying.

It’s not that my dad is a horrible man. He never beat us or molested us. Although he didn’t deal well with family drama and during our high school years, he drank frequently to escape. He could be mean when he’d had too much. Once when I was about sixteen, we were at the dinner table and he’d had an extended cocktail hour before we sat down. I don’t remember what he said but it was despicable. I was so angry, I was shaking. Shoving my chair back, I leaned over the table at him. “You’re drunk and I don’t have to put up with it!” I only remember two times I ever had the guts to speak my mind to him and that was one of them.

Dad worked for the same company his entire career. He provided well. He had lots of hobbies and interests when I was growing up. Diving. Painting. Gardening. Photography. My favorite portrait of all time is a black and white photo, almost sepia, that he took of me when I was about 2 years old. He developed it himself on this stiff, old-fashioned photo board that looks like something out of the early 1900’s. It’s the only photo I have of me as a baby.

My father could build or fix anything. Once, through an electronics correspondence course, he built a TV from the circuit board up . Every month, he’d get a bunch of wires, resistors, transistors, and electronic do-dads along with an orange three-ring binder of instructions in the mail and he’d disappear down into the basement with his soldering iron. The thing actually worked! Then he built a cabinet for it which was so blasted heavy, he couldn’t get it upstairs and the TV found a permanent place in the basement gameroom.

Dad was in my life, he just wasn’t engaged. He didn’t get too close. If he had something to say to me, which wasn’t very often, he usually did it through Mom. “Your father wanted me to tell you . . .” It was a weird dynamic, kind of like Ralphie’s family in “A Christmas Story.” For my part, I watched him from a distance. I knew him through Mom, as if she was some sort of interpreter for fathers who don’t speak “daughter.”

I have wondered if his total lack of participation in our childhood was a means of getting even with her. Mom once told me (and no kid EVER needs to know this kind of information) that Dad didn’t want children and she’d lied to him about birth control in order to get pregnant. Was Dad’s seeming apathy a passive/aggressive way of saying, “You wanted kids, well now you got ’em. They’re all yours”?

Many people have told me it’s just my dad’s generation. That’s the way it was back then. Mothers raised the kids. Fathers brought home the income. But I don’t buy it. I have plenty of friends my age whose fathers were and still are actively involved in their lives.

One thing I do know. I needed him. Jerri and I would both be healthier adults if he’d been less absent. Girls, in particular, have a strong need to be cherished by their fathers. It gives them a model of what to look for in relationships with men. It gives them a sense of value and self-worth. Without this foundation, there’s a void. I think that’s why so many of us spend our lives only feeling valued when a man shows us attention. Even if that attention is negative, abusive, or purely sexual.

I’d like to have a relationship with my dad now but that seems hopelessly impossible. Mom and I are at an impasse and I’ve chosen to disassociate. You can only have a relationship with Mom if you are willing to do so on her terms. Her terms require me to be someone I’m not. They require me to lose myself, to be this imaginary perfect daughter who never disagrees, never has an opinion, always puts everyone else’s needs above her own, always does what Mom wants when she wants.

I feel like I’m in some sort of battle to preserve the very essence of who I am. That I’m surrounded by people who refuse to see me, refuse to embrace me, will only have me if I prostitute myself and become who they want me to be. To deny the essence of who you are in order to please someone else seems to me an egregious sin against God. Who made me this way to begin with. Am I the only one who feels that way?

My dad doesn’t see it. He still interprets me only through my mother, a notorious revisionist. He listens to tall tales about why I’ve disassociated (mental illness, selfishness) and he choses to do the same even though what’s going on between me and Mom has nothing to do with him. It’s not that hard for him to cut ties. We lived in the same house for 18 years and he almost seems like a stranger. Like someone I’ve heard about but only actually met once or twice. I tell myself he is making this choice in order to maintain peace with Mom. She has a way of making life a living hell when she doesn’t get her way. But I will probably never know why Dad does what he does. He is in his late 70’s and we are running out of time.

There was one post today on Facebook that I did actually find helpful:

Father to the fatherless, defender of widows— this is God, whose dwelling is holy. God places the lonely in families; he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy. [Psa 68:5-6a]

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2 Comments on “Feeling Fatherless”

  1. Diana says:

    Terri, your mom and your relationship with her sounds just like mine. Controlling, cruel comments, it’s about them, appearances….

    She turned on me full force, when I decided to divorce. Her cruelty I could take, but to also spill it on my daughter….unreal.

    There are psychological terms for that type of personality….borderline personality disorder, narcissistic….doesn’t matter, nothing we can do to change it, we can only attempt to change how we deal with it.

    My dad had died 2 years previously and he probably kept her in check. So, for 4 years, we didn’t talk, if we saw each other at family functions, she would turn her back.

    In my infrequent chats with my brother, he would fill me in on her behavior with his wife, 4 kids and in-laws. Her 2 surviving sisters also were the recipients of her venom, they always had been too, though. I was busy with my life, feeling alive, at peace. My daughter moved on to college, dropping out midway and travelling the world.

    Two years ago I decided to rise above it all and visited her for her birthday, taking yellow roses, her favorite. Anger, negative emotions, harness us and are just as lethal as what’s externally inflicted on us. Conversation was light, in the present, the visit short, She knew I was there for her, i was there on my terms.

    Turns out she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 5 months later and died 3 months after her diagnosis.

    Carpe diem….it’s about the present and moving forward. We can wrong and be wronged. God forgives, how can we not, even if it’s for the selfishness of experiencing a lightness of being, compassion for yourself, spills to others.

    You’ll know when it’s time to reach out to your dad…..

    • Diana, Thank you for sharing your story with me. I admire your strength and your courage in re-engaging with your mom. I have a lot of disjointed thoughts about anger and forgiveness that I’m trying to sort through. May be a future blog post. Forgiveness seems to me a process, almost like grieving. I grew up believing it was more automatic, like a switch you turn on. Working through the anger is part of the process. For some things in life that takes longer than others. You are right-we need to forgive. And I want to. I’m just not there yet.


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