Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Parent Trap

My father turned eighty-years-old at the end of January. Well, I guess I should say that the eightieth anniversary of his birth just passed. He died twenty-one years ago, a lifetime ago but like yesterday all at once.  An entire generation of people grew up never knowing this man at all. My kids didn't question why there wasn’t a Grandpa to go along with their beloved Granny. It had just always been that way. January tends to bring me around to thinking about him because it is both the month of his birth and the month of this death, and I’ll be brutally honest here: I really don’t think about him much any other time of the year.

To say that my father and I weren’t close would be a gross understatement. Until the last six months of his life, I made a conscious effort to avoid him at all costs. I resented him for not being the kind of man I expected him to be.  Is it so hard to hug your kids or tell them you love them? I hated him for not being the dad who wears a tie to work and plays ball with his children or helps them with their homework. I was furious because I didn’t have the Daddy whose lap you climb onto and feel protected from the mean, scary world.  More than anything, I wanted someone to protect me from him. He was never physically abusive, but more like the icy dictator who forced his minions to tip-toe around him, lest we wake the ire of the sleeping beast.

However, when someone - even your nemesis - is painfully dying of cancer, the river of hate flowing between you can sometimes be diverted long enough to let a little bit of sympathy and caring seep in, possibly even drying up the toxic feelings forever. When my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I wasn’t sure what I should feel. There was sadness of course, but only because my mother was devastated. I kept it to myself that relief  was the emotion that came to mind first. (Daughter of the Year, I was.) More than anything, I just felt nothing. I was twenty-one and stupid and consumed with myself.  I just went through the motions of doing what my mom needed me to do until he was gone, careful to suppress any feelings that might bubble to the surface.

Now that a couple of decades have passed, I’ve had time to consider what kind of legacy my father left for his children. We are, by definition, one of the most dysfunctional families around. We are scattered, disjointed and disconnected from each other, and I have stopped trying to mend that. It takes two (or six in this case) to tango.  I’ve embraced the idea that even though you are meant to love your family, you don’t have to actually like them. What I have also come to realize after twenty-plus years is that (gasp!) I am just like my father.  Even though we are cut from the same cloth, I - unlike my father - have the alcohol-free clarity of mind to work toward being a better parent. I know I fail most days. I’m ill-tempered. I’m moody.  I’m demanding in that I probably expect too much from a couple of elementary school kids (and the rest of the world), but I hug them and hold them and tell them I love them every day, and that alone means that I’ve done better.

I understand now that he wasn’t really the monster I painted him to be in my childhood. Like me, he didn’t have the clearest picture of what good parenting should resemble, and I have come to the place in my life where I don’t hate him any more. At the end of the day, I learned one very valuable lesson from my father if nothing else: how not to act as a parent.  For me, that’s big.


  1. Great self perspective. Isn't it ironic how as a child we thought how horrible and unfair our parents were to only find ourselves in the very shoes they were. I have like realized my short comings and faillures as parent. I try each day to hug my kids and offer a word of encouragement and praise to each one of them.

  2. Lynda,

    Your growing up and mine seem eerily similar, with one exception: I have was able to reconcile with my father, who turns 80 this year.

    He did a lot of damage to a lot of people I love, but I know now that his aggression originated from fear.

    Born in 1931 in a hardscrabble factory town, my dad was beaten regularly by his mother, father and brothers. His brothers would actually lock him in a dark closet and leave him there for hours.

    The fearful little kid grew up to be an emotional bully. He drank to excess & cheated on my mom with our next door neighbor's wife, among others.

    For me, that was the final straw. We didn't speak for over 18 years. When I came to a point in my life where I was challenging many long-held beliefs, I decided to try to be friends with him and forgive the past.

    It was rough going for a few years, but we're friends now. I am still working on the forgiving part every day. When I remember he is essentially a kid who was bullied into being someone he really did not want to be, I can find it in my heart to forgive, if not forget.

    I hope you can find empathy for your dad's plight; his earlier life may have left him too scarred to open up emotionally.

    Great blog post - thanks so much!

  3. Wow, thanks for sharing! Our dads sound like they were living parallel lives. I did come to understand that his less than stellar childhood and fighting in the Korean War while really only a kid himself completely shaped who he became. He had to be tough to survive, and he never gave up that persona. I did forgive. Carrying all that baggage around for so many years was getting too heavy. :-)

  4. Plenty of people can relate, for sure. Maybe that’s a normal part of life…being angry at parents for what they didn’t do. Issues that affect us can be hard to let go of.
    That generation (my parents were born in the 1920’s) grew up in a no frills world - many never thought about developing sophisticated parenting skills or recognizing emotional needs of their children. They believed that if they kept a roof over your head, and kept you fed - they had lived up to their responsibilities. For any other issues, you were on your own.
    So we try to make it better for our kids, and hope that they don’t grow up feeling like we ruined their lives.
    One of the greatest gifts we can give them is to try to live a healthy lifestyle, so we’re still around when they’re middle aged. Then they can tell us to our faces how defective we were at parenting.

  5. Dave, you're so right. We never went without the necessities, so in that respect, they did their job. My kids BETTER wait until they're middle aged to complain unless they want a week without TV! :-)

  6. Aw, hon. I just want to come down there and hug you.

  7. I'm so glad you're free of the burden you carried for so long. Forgiveness is perhaps the greatest gift we can give ourselves.

  8. I have very few memories of grandpa, but I feel like I grew up with him. I am very familiar with tip toeing around a dad in front of the tv. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

  9. Oh Lynda, I SO get it. It wasn't my dad; it was my mother, who was following in her mother's footsteps, who was following hers...

    When she saw me with my first child, I think she finally realized what she'd done, and the enormity of what she'd thrown away. One afternoon, she apologized, and though I can't forget, I truly did forgive.

    But, you can't rewind decades and retroactively generate that bond. I will always long for a relationship that I never had, but I accept what I have, have tried to learn from her mistakes, and hope my sons will be kind and loving fathers.

    Thanks for posting your story. It's validating to know you're not the only one. This round's on me.


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