I want to preface this post with a completely unsentimental, but absolutely apropos quote from Anne Lamott:
My parents were young when I was born, barely into their twenties and living on the cusp of the 1970’s. On the surface, they had a lot in common, both bright, intelligent and from large, close knit Roman Catholic families. It was the underneath of their relationship that held all the cracks and flaws that would eventually pull them apart. If I had to guess now, as an adult, what finally did break things, I’d have to say it a matter of priorities. My mother’s were to her young family and her marriage. My father’s were simply not. I was three and my sister was newly born when things finally hit critical mass between my mother and father. It’s funny the things you remember:
I was asleep on the couch and he kissed me goodbye early that morning. I must have thought he was going to work, because I wasn’t upset about his leaving at all. There was a quick hug and the promise of bendy straws (one of my favorite things to this day) and that was it.
Other things and other people took up his time after that. There were drunken phone calls, surprise pick ups at school with ‘friends’ that we’d never see again, but were as drunk or flying on whatever drug was fashionable on Wall Street in the late 1970’s – early 1980’s as he was. We were forgotten about for Thursday evening visits that my mother would cook for and we would watch down the street for the sight of him until it got too dark to stay outside. We got the message young that we weren’t important or interesting enough to keep promises to.
This is a lesson that I’m still struggling to unlearn, and it causes no end of trouble in my relationships. This actually hit me as I write this blog, too. I’m not a psychiatrist AT ALL (as one closest to me has reminded me on more than one occasion and of course, he’s right *see it’s in writing, I admitted it*), but in this case, I know I hit the mark, because it HURT to read it. Really having this hit home is particularly difficult. Knowing that someone you loved so much was okay with letting you down all the time sucks. Realizing that you’ve come down like a ton of bricks on people who have loved you and let you down (and felt badly about it) is a billion times suckier. I’m so sorry, you know who you are…because I’ve done that to you more than once. Thank you for sticking around and not being scared off.
I’d be lying if I said that in spite of this, I didn’t love my father.. It’s such a twisted, conflicted emotion that it’s hard to acknowledge in a logical way. It’s easier to just gloss over that.
He loved us. That’s what we were told by our mother, our grandmother (his mother) and him. It didn’t matter that his way of showing it was severely flawed by any parenting standard, we were just asked to believe that, and we did. I’ll give him this: he did cram every possible thing into his days with us in those first early years. Museums, plays, toys, books…and yet, the basics we needed for every day life just weren’t on his radar. Child support was paid sporadically and then not at all, and he almost never managed to make it to all the little “big” moments that happen in a kid’s life. His work, he said, kept him from being there for us. My mother worked (I don’t ever remember her NOT working through my young childhood,) and she didn’t miss a school play, parent teacher conference or brownie meeting, EVER. What is love, especially from a parent, if not being present and interested?
So spoiled. It was a verse in the litany of resentment sung by the women he chose to share a bed with instead of our mother, that we could claim but not expect two days of his week, days that were meant to be ours alone. I couldn’t ever figure that out – we were on food stamps and medicaid, living on what little my mother made, (and let me tell you, winters in NY are cold, and my mother couldn’t afford to run the heat. We were fans of blanket sleepers and hot cereal and never questioned her when she said the heaters were broken.) and we were spoiled because we were greedy for the time we had with our father and his weekends of indulgence after having so little during the week? I’ve solved the puzzle, of course, and I take a dim view of women that criticize the time their men spend with the children post divorce, and I admire men that take their children’s well being seriously. It was something that was powerfully attractive to me and still is. That comes from perspective as a single parent myself – your children are part of you and anyone coming into that picture needs to be on board. The silly women my father filled his time with had no idea and really did resent my sister and I for our brief intrusions into their charmed New York City life.
My father’s fade to virtual nonexistence took years. By the time I was 15, we only saw him once a year with periods of extended tension that resulted in not speaking at all for even longer stretches of time. It directly relates to how much further his life in every other aspect swirled out of control – drugs, alcohol, leaving New York for Florida and then Colorado. He married again, and managed to be as involved a parent to my youngest sister as he could, so that’s something, even if it doesn’t change how he was with his older children. The advice he gave me about writing I’ve covered before, you can check it out here.
I doubt anyone would be surprised if I said that for the first time since the 1980’s, my father lives in the same town as I do, and in spite of that, we are not close. He’s lived here two years, I’ve seen him eight, maybe ten times. So much polluted water has passed under the rickety bridge of this family tie that I don’t think I could write about it all at once. Even Anne Lamott would say, “Whoa…that’s enough! Piece those stories out. Give people a chance to digest them.” She’d be right. So, I’ll wrap up with this – there were lots of kids worse off than my sister and I were.
But, it still wasn’t good. He should have been better if he wanted me to tell nicer stories, I guess. Luckily for me, there were others, lots of others, that could provide an example, and actually step in as a parent.
I was jealous of my friends and cousins that had their involved fathers right there, every day. I’m not a naturally covetous person, either. My best friend’s father sang “The Rose of Tralee” to her every day, especially when she was in an awful mood, which she HATED (and secretly loved, I’m sure). My uncle made sure my cousin knew she was perfect, special and important. The more I looked, the more I found men that actively chose their families to love and care for, men that loved their children to absolute distraction and supported them 100 percent. I wanted that. Who doesn’t want that? I didn’t care that they had better clothes than I did, or that they didn’t want for one single thing. That was just stuff. I wanted a father that let me know every day that I was worthwhile, important and wonderful. I didn’t need to learn how important that was, I already KNEW it was important. I also knew I wasn’t important.
There was my grandfather, who covered his mortification at his son’s behavior by over compensating and doing more for my sister and I than was probably fair for him to do. There is a lot of him in what I expect from the men in my life, which is probably unfair to them, but a girl has to have some standards.
My mother remarried when I was thirteen. My stepfather, who is called Poppa by all the grandkids, has been there for us every day. He was there when every single one the grandchildren were born. I know he loves us and would do anything for us. That was something I learned – that a father does that, that it matters to him if the kids in his care are warm, fed and safe. He imposed curfews, upheld the family laws and gave us a home like everyone elses. How wonderful to be normal! How amazing to be cared about and have a family unit you belong to! There are definitely times I feel better equipped to be a stepparent than an actual parent (but I think all parents have that “EEEK..am I doing this right?” feeling) and I thank my stepfather for giving me the example of what to do when making sure the children of the person you love know that you absolutely love THEM, too.
I feel badly for my ex-husband sometimes. (Only sometimes.) The prevailing thought, when I considered a long term relationship with him, was that he wasn’t the kind of guy to just take off and leave his kid. Not that we would be so happy together forever or anything like that, although I’m sure I did think that, otherwise I’d not have married him. Years later, he did surprise me by packing up and moving West. 3,000 miles away BUT, he does everything he can to help take care of our son and be involved. There are phone calls, video chats and long distance game marathons. I was right about him – he didn’t just forget he had a son and go off to do his own thing. He’s tried to do his best in spite of the distance and I have to give him credit for that.
Then, there’s the one closest to me (yes, I know you’re going to hate this, but please don’t be mad) that has really shown me that everything I ever imagined a father was capable of was not some fantasy I’d created in my childish dreams. Raising boys alone, dealing with a challenging career, harsh circumstances and devastating losses and still being involved in their activities and interests is beyond heroic in my mind. He hasn’t once run screaming for the hills, leaving his kids behind, and a lesser man would have. The best part is that his boys are just wonderful, and I’m sure that’s because of his influence. Someday, I hope my son gets the benefit of that influence, too. I know I don’t tell him enough how much I love him for being that way as a man and a father. I’m never 100% sure of where the future is taking us, but the constant is just knowing he’s out there, that he’s real and that dedicated to his sons makes me feel a little better about the world.
So, Happy Father’s Day to all of the men out there reading that have made the sacrifices, large and small, to give their children the absolutely best of everything that has nothing at all to do with the material possessions all kids want. You and your choices have a much bigger impact than you know, believe me. One of your kids friends, a niece or nephew can be watching you and learning about what a good father is. No pressure, but you matter much more than any tie, or silly gag gift could ever tell you.