I realize now what a profound impact my relationship with my father has had on my life, but in my youth it was harder to see. I certainly knew that my relationship with my father had broken in some way, but since neither of us knew how to fix it, we just lived with it. And now we are completely alienated, in part because he never healed his own inner child wounds. Instead, he has continued to relive them.
My father was born in 1941, a classic “war baby.” He was an accident, born to two people who were too much alike and who, once the war ended and they were thrust together full-time, couldn’t actually stand one another. My father’s father, Pete, left home when my dad was 8 years old. My dad never saw Pete again until much later in life, when we located him at my instigation. Pete was nine months away from death at that point, and we learned from my father’s newly met half-siblings that Pete had always told them that my father had died. Ouch.
I get why Pete left and never wrote or visited my father. My grandmother’s father must have suffered from narcissistic personality disorder, because she had many of the traits herself. She had a wicked temper, and she struck her children until they were her size and wouldn’t take it from her any more. She was smart and highly manipulative. I think she liked to stir up drama and bad feelings for the sheer fun of it. Mind you, I love this woman. She has her good side. But her bad side was pretty hard to live with, even as grandchildren. We always understood the pecking order: who was the favorite and who was trash. God help you if you were on her bad side. So I can understand why Pete stayed away, although it’s not an excuse.
My grandmother was unusual for her generation because she worked outside the home. One of my father’s early sitters used to lock him in the closet all day and tell him that if he told anyone about it, that the spiders would get him. He is still terrified of spiders to this day. Eventually, his mother did find out, and he didn’t go back there again.
At some point, though, my dad was on his own. My father is a good cook because he has been doing it since he was probably 8. He started to cook because he was hungry. My grandmother wasn’t home, and even if she was, that woman just didn’t cook. So he experimented. First, he tried the dog food, as cereal. Even with milk, it was awful. He tried his hand at pancakes, made from flour and water. Not terribly tasty. Over time, though, he figured out how to provide for himself. He had to.
My grandmother remarried when my father was probably around 11 or so. This was a good thing. My Papa was a quiet, kind man, and he adopted my father and gave him his name. My father bears it proudly. Papa was the only father he ever really knew. He was very different from Pete, however. Papa must have really loved my grandmother, because he put up with a lot. His method of dealing was to remain silent and to avoid stirring the pot. Everyone walked on eggshells around the sleeping dragon that was my grandmother’s temper, and Papa was no exception. He was a wonderful man in many ways, but he tolerated her abuse toward him and the children rather than speak out about it.
All of those early years of living on military bases during the war must have been formative, because my father was always interested in the military. So it wasn’t surprising that he went into the Navy after graduating high school. I believe that the military gave him the sense of family, discipline, and cohesiveness that he had never gotten at home. After a tour with the Navy, he tried his hand at being a musician, one of his biggest passions. But musicians don’t make a great living, so he enlisted in the Army, hoping to start a family soon.
My parents met when my dad was passing through Alabama for training. For my father, it was love at first sight. My mother was a good-looking woman, and she has a certain charm to her. After knowing each other for precisely six weeks, they married, and my mother left her job to travel to New Mexico as a new bride. When I asked my mother if she loved him when she married him, she replied, “I don’t know.” I believe her truth is that she has never loved him, but she thought she was heading to a better life with a nice house filled with nice things. She envisioned a man who had the drive to become an officer and do really well. Unfortunately for her, my father had no real ambition, and he always took the easiest route. I think he was just afraid to fail, and his ego couldn’t handle that.
Due to my grandmother’s constant belittling of him, my father had no self-esteem. One way in which people cope with that is to become bombastic and to avoid ever being “wrong” in any way. The mere thought of my father being wrong about anything was enough to send him into a rage. He had his mother’s temper. It would come out of nowhere, and it was always triggered by old inner child patterning. In his fantasy, my father saw himself as supremely competent and intelligent, as someone who knew better than anyone else ever could (he often said if he could just run the country for two weeks, he’d set everything right). My father could not cope with challenges to his authority, either, but that’s just what he got in my mother.
My mother told me that in New Mexico, it became apparent that my father expected her to cook and clean and do everything for him, as though she were June Cleaver. He would run the house and do all the thinking for both of them, and in her view, he treated her little better than a servant. This did not last. As I’ve written elsewhere, my mother is a textbook narcissist, and my father had unwittingly married his mother (as evidenced by the mutual loathing shared by my mother and her mother-in-law). My mother was not going to submit passively. She let him know, in no uncertain terms, that this would not fly, or she would be gone. My mother, when roused to a temper, is a fearsome thing, and my father’s fear of being abandoned overrides everything else. He lost the battle, and he ultimately lost the war.
After five years of marriage, I came along. My father was disappointed that I was not male, but he loved me very much in spite of this shortcoming. In my toddler and preschool years, I was a Daddy’s Girl, no question. He loved to play with me, and he could be a lot of fun when he was in his happy place. My mother, bless her, did not know how to play or be emotionally present at all, so it’s not surprising that I preferred my father’s company to hers. But this aroused my mother’s jealousy, and at some point, she began a campaign to undermine my father in my eyes. It wasn’t conscious, but it played out what I believe is her contempt for men, and my father in particular.
For my father’s part, it became obvious after awhile that I was going to be the only child he would have, so he funneled his desire for a son into me, and just began to treat me like he would a son. We talked about science, and he tried to involve me in his RC airplane hobby (which, I confess, bored me to tears). He really did his best, but I was always aware that I would’ve been so much better if I’d had a penis.
When I was 9, my parents bought a ranch in Texas, as a retirement property. Dad was looking forward to finishing his 20 years in the military, and this was his answer. But he still had some time to go, and buying this property meant that when he was stationed overseas in Germany, my mother and I would remain in Texas, where mom now had a job in order to afford the property. My father left us when I was 10. Aside from two one-month visits, one per year, I did not see him for two years. When he returned, I was 12, skidding into puberty, and not at all the same person that he left. My mother had changed as well, but my father had changed a lot.
When my father returned, I was so excited to see him at the airport. I was waiting for a great big, excited Daddy Hug, like I always used to get. He didn’t give me one. He didn’t seem very excited to see me at all, in fact. Honestly, I felt ignored. I couldn’t understand what had happened. He didn’t seem to care at all that I was there. Some fathers physically abandon their families. But from that time forward, I felt emotionally abandoned by him.
The period following my father’s return was the worst of my childhood. I was 12 going on 13, a truly difficult time in so many ways. But we all had to learn to live together again, and my father was acting as though he wasn’t sure he wanted to be married any more. He started smoking again, in secret, and lying about it. My parents fought daily. My father didn’t seem to like me. I couldn’t do anything right. I had begun to care about coiffed hair and makeup and nail polish, and if I didn’t want to muss my nails, he just got angry about it. Who was this person? I often asked myself. (Looking back, I wonder if the problem was that I was now becoming, unmistakably, a woman, and his deep, dark secret was that he just didn’t like women.)
I don’t know what happened for my father in Germany. Had he met a nice (not mentally ill) woman? Had he had an affair? Had two years of separation given him the space to express himself in ways that he could not within the joyless confines of his marriage? I will never know the answers to these questions. All I know is that I prayed that my parents would divorce, and that I would live with my mother.
In the end, my father’s fear of abandonment and my mother’s fear of being economically deprived (she had grown up in poverty) must have won out. They remained together, physically. But emotionally, the landscape had changed again. My mother had always shown a certain contempt for my father, but now it had grown exponentially. My father reacted to this contempt with periodic bursts of rage, no doubt fueled by frustration (it’s not like my parents talked about their issues). My house was ruled by passive aggression, and my mother ruled the roost. There was no compromise here. We catered to her whims and needs, and when my father flew into a rage, my mother and I entrenched, united against him.
Three is a difficult number, because when you have a threesome, it is easy to fall into “us” against “you.” The “us” may vary, or in the case of my family, it might not. Mom was always the center of the family. If my mother disapproved of me, my father was in lockstep with her, always fearful to upset her. If my father misbehaved, my mother would summon me to her side to disapprove. It was the worst kind of toxic dynamic, and the one who probably suffered the most from it is my father.
My dad feared being abandoned by my mother, as his father had abandoned him, but the truth was that my mother had abandoned him emotionally long, long ago. In fact, she had never really been with him. Because my father had not healed his sense of abandonment, he unwittingly visited it upon me, as well. The rift that opened when I was 12 never really closed.
As I grew into adulthood, my father tried to regain some of our old easygoing intimacy. He’d talk to me about some things. But for me, there was always this uneasy feeling of détente, as though we were carefully and quietly skating around the mammoth sitting in the middle of the room.
For one thing, conversation with him has never been easy. I found that I could not truly express myself, who I was inside, to him. The few times I attempted it, I unleashed his rage. For example, one day at 14, I confided that I had a crush on a certain boy at school. This boy was mixed race. My father exploded, “I ain’t having no black grandchildren!” My respect for him plummeted further as I thought, “You have no say in that.” I never again talked about my romantic interests with him.
Later, in college, I tried to talk to my father about something I’d learned in history class that I found very interesting. But what I was saying began to conflict with his highly conservative beliefs, and once again, he exploded. He ridiculed me, saying that I was “becoming so smart,” which had been a source of pride until that moment. I lost more respect for him as I realized that being educated was fine as long as I always agreed with and validated his worldview. Of course, I can see now that this was an inner child reaction. His inner child heard, “You are wrong,” and he couldn’t deal with that. So he took it out on me.
Many incidents such as these taught me that there were only a few “safe” topics of conversation with my father. We could talk about science fiction books and movies or computers. Airplanes were always a safe bet, too, but that topic had a soporific effect on me. Yawn.
In short, my father and I had nothing to talk about. There was nothing real that we could talk about. If I revealed the inner workings of me, he did not want to hear it (neither did my mother, but it was far worse with my father; my mother, at this time of my life, identified with me and would make more of an effort). If I revealed my true self in any way, it was the wrong thing to do, and I regretted it instantly. As a result, my father did not know me. We were strangers.
I look back, and I wonder where the playful daddy of my early childhood went. In part, I think he was worn down my mother’s joylessness and contempt for him. When he had his post-Germany crisis, he opted to remain in the prison that he built, and he became more and more depressed over time. Both of my parents suffer from long-term, clinical depression, but both came from a background that stigmatized mental issues, so it was never acknowledged.
In my thirties, I began to live my life on my own terms. I left my husband, married a woman, and proceeded to have children. I no longer cared what my parents thought about it. This broke what was left of my relationship with my mother, and I became her enemy. When I gave birth to my daughter, all of her motherly affection was transferred to her, and she actively tried to turn her against me (at age 2), just like she had done with me and my father. To make a long story short, things got so bad that I chose to cut off my parents. It was the only way to save my marriage, my children, and my sanity. My father was collateral damage.
I recognize that my mother and my father are a package deal, so it isn’t possible to cut off one without cutting off the other. And in our toxic dynamic of three, this resulted in my parents teaming up in a united front against me. My father has lost so much of himself that he responds according to my mother’s toxic dynamic.
My father’s worst fear is to be abandoned, and we always manifest our worst fear. I felt emotionally abandoned by him, and now I have physically abandoned him as well. It is sadly ironic.
It does make me sad to know that my father can’t be a part of my life. Sometimes I wonder if he will outlive my mother, and if so, what then? I could reach out to him. How would that go? Or he may predecease my mother, and there is an end to it.
My father is not a bad person. He has many unhealed traits. The rage, the fear of abandonment, the bombastic, in-your-face need to be “right.” But inside is a funny little boy, very creative, smart, and talented, who never learned to value himself just as he is, who has never appreciated his real worth, and who has never really experienced the love and intimacy that he craves. That, for me, is the real tragedy.