Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I think I lost him years ago

This is the first year I haven’t called my father on his birthday. Instead I sent him an e card. In all the years (post divorce) my father has forgotten the gifts I have given him– literally– at my apartment or house. Gifts have ranged from books (he is a huge reader) to enormous tins of cashews (he is perpetually on Atkins and loves nuts) to framed photos of Chelsea and me.

All of which have been forgotten.

For father’s day, I used to make brunch at my house, for a few years. He always would show up an hour late, and one year his excuse was he had to stop at the pet store on the way.

I stopped doing the brunches this year.

My dad doesn’t call me for months at a time. Recently I sent an email of photos of my daughter, he didn’t respond. He never responded to the e-birthday card I sent him.

And who feels bad in all this? Who feels responsible? Me. I must have done something wrong. I mean why else would my father retreat from me?

The history of our communication is rather patchy; he won’t call for months at a time.

It used to be that in response to my own guilt about his not calling me, it used to be that I wouldn’t let it (the silence) go for longer than a month. I would call him and pretend all was okay.

But now, since the birth of my daughter, I finally drew a hard line with myself, a line that I drew because of my daughter and the way he has now not shown up for her and her life; now I don’t react to my guilt. I don’t make the phone call after the month has passed. So instead of only a month going by, the record now has been six months. Eventually I get the phone call of “Gee, haven’t talked to you in awhile been swamped with work and the house and everything.” This round is now up to almost 2 months. Last round was 3.

I used to, when the one month would pass, I would call him. I used to tell him how I wanted to see him more and that we shouldn’t let so much time pass. Now I don’t. I find that he will say, in an awkward-I-am-supposed-to-say-this way, “We should see each other more. We will. We will make more times to come see you guys.”
***
The other night I said to someone very close to me, “Tell me what I am missing. Why, why, why do I feel bad and why, why, why, why would a man not try to see his daughter and granddaughter more than once every three months? How do you stop being someone’s father after so many years of being in their life?”

That someone’s reply was perfect: “How–? How–? He’s an asshole, that’s how.”

***
You know what? I did most of the work to have the father I had growing up. I made my father pay attention to me. I told him exactly what I needed and when I needed it and how if he didn’t give me it, I would feel terrible. It was exhausting because the lovely part of having a parent is that they know you so well that they can intuit what you need emotionally– at least a good parent does just that. I would tell my father how to be the dad I needed, and he didn’t do anything beyond that. Never did he do something to extend himself to me because he really wanted to– it seemed to be all out of guilt, duty, and obligation. I never saw my father joyful from doing anything for me.

How sad that my father could not just allow himself to love me in the way that I think I love my daughter. It’s an unconditional love, one that is not attached to anyone or anything else.

I think my father doesn’t like being around me because he has never really seen me for me but just for what perhaps he sees he is not, and also he sees me as attached to the part of his life when he felt really terrible about himself, when he was with my mother.

When Dad sees me, he still thinks that I am things I am not and never was. When I left my teaching job, a secure locked-in situation he was visibly angry at me and even said things like: I think you are making the wrong move. You shouldn’t put the burden on Mike to support you guys. My mouth dropped open, we were sitting in my living room and I was holding my then four-month-old. When I told him the decision came from us both, he didn’t even respond but went back to “I think you are making a big mistake.” Every conversation that came up later about this, he would turn cold and not even look me in the eye. All I kept thinking at the time was: If I told him I was going back to work, you would approve and love me again. I realized that only when I lived my life the way he saw as right, that’s when he would be around and talk to me. He was angry that I didn’t take his career advice. His love felt conditional.

Oddly enough, the last time I saw him, he brought all this up and apologized. I wish I could tell you that it made me feel good. That it repaired something between us. It didn’t.

***
I don’t know how a parent can not just want to be around their kid. In other words, I don’t get people like my father who put conditions on their children, conditions of love.

My father makes very very little effort. I too make very little effort with him. I find myself around him trying to explain who I am….it is exhausting. I feel misunderstood around him, I feel like he is disappointed in me but also that he doesn’t get me or my life, including how I live my life with Mike and Chelsea and my work.

I feel sad and guilty. I feel sad that my father TODAY isn’t the man I want for a father. That he disappoints me as a person. I wish he was warm and loving. I wish he was concerned and that he wanted to see me, take me to dinner, play with Chelsea, take Mike on a submarine not because he is guilted into it or feels obligated to but because he wants to.

He is the kind of father who doesn’t check in on me, doesn’t feel he “should” because I am an “adult”. I will be checking in on Chelsea until the day I die. There’s nothing “should” about that. I will check in on her NOT because I want to control her, NOT because I think she can’t handle her life on her own, and NOT because I don’t want her to grow up. No, I will check on her because I love her. How do you show your children that you love them? You look out for them, you take care of them, you protect them. And that doesn’t stop just because they grow up.

My mother and I talk every other day, and it’s not because she thinks I can’t do things, or control my life with out checking in on her. No, it’s far more simple. She loves me. She likes me. She wants to know, for herself, that I am okay and if I am not, she wants to be there for me. Why? Because she loves me….

I have clients and friends with fathers who haven’t called them in years. With fathers who divorced their mothers only to remarry and have more children, children that he may dote on. I don’t get that. These clients and friends are nice, funny, interesting, good people. Even if they weren’t, they are someone’s child, they are the children of these men who abandoned them, they are their children, and I don’t get how you wake up each day and live your life knowing that you don’t have a relationship with your own children, children in many cases that you helped to raise. I don’t understand that.

I don’t understand how my father wakes up each morning and doesn’t get choked up thinking about the daughters he raised. Daughters he no longer really has relationships with.

That brings me to the questions I think I want to pose to him but not sure if I want the answer to.

“If you had it your way, if there wasn’t a feeling of guilt, would you just stop? Stop even the once every three months of seeing each other?”
“Why don’t you try to have more with Chelsea?”

I struggle with the whole bond I feel with him as his daughter. Our past, all the good years and moments of support and love and then it all blinked off. I don’t get it. I would accept my father and all his weirdness if he gave me love, and I think that at one time he did do this.
***
After talking with my two students “J” and “C”: J says step back, get some space….C spoke about letting go, as oppose to forgiveness because how can you forgive someone who doesn’t think they have done anything wrong, you know?
***
Howard Stern said something so perfect for me, so much something I have been looking to hear from a father, a man who is the father of grown children, of daughters. He said the other day on his show that when he interviewed Jack Black and brought up Jack’s kinda f-ed up childhood that Jack kind of backed away from talking about his childhood because his father heard him talk about it publicly once and the dad got mad. Howard went off. He said, you know these parents who get mad at their children for discussing their childhood and the things they went through, the things that they went through because of what their parents did, that’s bull-sh-t. A child has the right to talk about his experiences in childhood, and the parents have to deal with whatever things they did in the past and allow their kids to feel what they feel and express what they feel. Because it is not about the parent but the child, and part of being a good parent is allowing the child to be free to express themselves about their lives.

So all self-consciousness I have about my father and expressing my feelings here on this blog, all the fears I have about him reading this and then completely cutting me off or getting mad….well, this is the truth of how I feel and my experience and, for God’s sake, it is not about him.

I have to let go of protecting my father and his feelings…mainly because in so doing I am lying to myself about how I feel. Even as I write this, I worry that he will be mad. I am always worrying about upsetting him. That certainly is not rational or logical. If I was so concerned, I wouldn’t be blogging this.
***

Someone said to me recently, just call him and have it out. This is my reply: You know the reason why I have stopped telling him how I feel is because he tries to talk me out of how I feel, he tries to tell me that my feelings are not rational, he never just listens to me. I wind up changing my feelings to him and feeling awful.

Plus, I am not talking about this, blogging about this in order to repair or fix anything or anyone, him or me or our relationship. I talk about it and blog about it to get the feelings out of my body. To release the sh-t. To simply stop the struggle and allow myself to let go.
***
I once wrote a blog that upset my sister. She called me and she spoke to me about it. She and I together worked through the anger that she had at me. I took it down. I promised to never do that again. Why? Because my sister shows me she loves me. I feel confident that no matter what we have disagreed about, my sister has never stopped talking to me or loving me.

My father has. He stopped speaking to me for almost six months, almost 2 years ago, because I didn’t invite him to the party for my daughter’s first birthday. I had the party with my mother, sister, and in laws. I didn’t want them all in the same room. That was almost two years ago. When we did finally speak, he told me I was an enabler and that he was disappointed in me as a person. I told him he was full of sh-t.

Eventually he said let’s agree to disagree about the birthday, but things were never the same. Since then, things have been strained.

I keep going back to this thought: I used to call my Dad when a few weeks would pass with out word from him, and my motivation wasn’t always that I missed him, especially in the last four years, but more that if I didn’t call him, he would stop completely from being in my life or he would get very angry or that somehow the responsibility of our entire relationship rested on my efforts.

I am anxious about losing my dad, and yet I think I lost him years ago.

***

I think my struggle today is that I want the entire relationship to be different from what it is and I want the entire divorce to be different from what it was. I struggle between fantasy and reality: the fantasy of a perfect father-daughter relationship and the fantasy of the perfect divorce with the reality of a strained father daughter relationship and a horrible divorce that wrecked an entire family.

Privately I have never denied what I feel. Privately I have never forgiven my father. Privately I have admitted that my father is hard to love and hard to be around. Sometimes, now, today, it is so hard, I want to give up.

4 comments:

kbbate said...

Oh Hannah. I'm so sorry for all your mixed feelings, the frustration, the guilt, the dissatisfaction, the pain, and the justified anger. You're right -- you ARE carrying the relationship, and that must feel so unfair.

I had a very difficult relationship with my sister-in-law for many years. There were constant misunderstandings, hurt feelings, anger, blame, silent treatments, etc. She lives near us and it had a negative effect on my husband, her brother, our kids, and everyone in the extended family.

When my husband got a new job, his office wanted him to participate in this weekend new-age self-transformational thing called the Landmark Forum. He evaded it for a year but finally went, and then wanted me to go. I thought it sounded about as much fun as a root canal, and also dodged it for a year. Finally he begged me to go, so i did, for him. It took up an entire weekend, all day and night Friday, Saturday and Sunday and was a pain in the ass.

However, what the Forum does is get you to look at your life and your relationships and how you see them. It asks you to pick one relationship in particular that is troubled, and it helps you write a letter to that person defining what kind of relationship you really want to have with them. You let go of all the hurt and disappointment and anger, and the other person inevitably is so relieved to be released from all the guilt and anger, to start from that moment and only look ahead, to redefine your relationship the way you both wish it could be, that it truly does change.

I picked my sister-in-law, wrote her the letter and called her on the phone to read it. I was literally trembling with fear and dread, and was SO relieved when she didn't answer and I got her machine instead. So I continued with the weekend, watched how other people's trelationships were repaired, and planned to call her again as soon as I got home. A month later I finally did. She was terrified too.

And guess what? As I read the letter, she cried and said she felt exactly the same way and had for a long time, but didn't know how to change things. From that day to this, we have never exchanged a cross word. We now laugh and let each other slide in all our many flaws and foibles. We tell each other we love each other all the time, and have become real friends. It truly is a miracle, and our entire family has benefited from it a LOT.

So although I have never done another Forum thing, despite their many calls and tries, and although I hate their heavyhanded marketing techniques and pushy sales pitches, the Forum really did change my life, as corny and culty as that sounds. In fact, I hadn't thought about it in ages until I read your blog.

I've only ever advised one other friend to try it, who had gone through a difficult divorce and is very unhappy, but she just couldn't bring herself to do it -- it was too weird. I don't know if you will either, but it sounds like the only pain-free answer to any kind of satisfying relationship with your dad.

Yes, you can let him go and not take responsibility any more. You can let months go by and resist the impulse to call. He certainly isn't behaving in a way that asks for more. But that doesn't allow YOU to be the kind of daughter you want to be, to experience being the best daughter you can be. The Forum teaches you to turn the whole thing on its head: it doesn't matter if he is a lousy father. What matters is how you can be a great daughter and get your happiness from that. You can give 100% even if he gives nothing, and still be happy. Because it's you CHOOSING how you live your life, and what possibilities you create for your experience as a daughter.

In fact, be warned -- it sounds like if you went to a Forum weekend, you'd probably want to send your whole messy family along to another one! And that would be a wonderful thing.

A lot of CEOs and other business people do the Forum. My husband's legal recruiting firm sends every single new employee -- they think it builds a great team. I know a Lebanese family who run a restaurant in my town and they and all their employees go too, and just rave about it. During the weekend I went, I saw families that had been estranged for years brought back together. I saw women who had been sexually and physically abused actually forgive their abusers and move forward in their lives for the first time. It really was amazing.

And as I said, I have no involvement and am no salesperson for the Forum. But you are stuck -- and it's the quickest way i've ever seen -- better than years of unhappiness -- for getting unstuck.
Check it out...and good luck.

p.s. I think you are an incredibly honest and real writer and person. Your father is missing so much.

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Writerperson said...

Hi Hannah. I just checked in and read this post. it's very moving. You are indeed brave to write naked like this. I have different issues but everything is really the same at the core. And for me, the older I get the more I am, rather than trying to be, a Buddhist about things like this. And I think the Gen Y's are instinctively. let it go, they advised. Really, that's all you can do. Let it go. He's who he is. You are who you are. And who he is doesn't have to define who you are. Detachment with compassion is the Buddhist goal. It took me about 20 years to even begin to get that on a visceral level.
Does he live in the same town as you? Man, that would be hard to deal with.

Naked Writer said...

Writerperson–Sorry I didn't reply earlier...Detachment. I do that with alternating boughts of anger and sadness. I hope to get to a more Buddist place with it. I have a new post...Maybe you will catch that soon?