I don’t remember my dad at birthday parties. I don’t remember my dad on vacations. I don’t remember my dad taking us to the beach, on picnics, to the swimming pool.
My dad traveled.
My dad golfed.
My dad hung out with his buddies.
My dad was with us when we would visit the grandparents – I remember laughter and lively discussion over long and noisy dinners – but if there was an option to do so, then he’d take off… for the closest putting green or better yet, 18 holes.
I have a few photographs of my father that I cherish. One shows the two of us the last time I saw him alive, which was Father’s Day, more than 20 years ago. I look happy; he looks happy. He and my mother had divorced several years before. My father was, at least to me, a very different man – once he was remarried and enjoying his new life.
My mother, tragically, seemed bitter to her dying day.
My parents managed to stay married throughout my childhood. In fact, they split after some 30 years of marriage. Theirs was a “gray divorce” long before the term was ever coined.
And if my father was largely absent as I was growing up, in those days – the 1960s and 1970s – middle class women ran their households and men were the providers.
Think Don Draper. (Really. No kidding.)
Like millions of others, my father went to work, showed up at the dinner table, and watched sports on TV. My mother had little say in what he did, and it was obvious that she wasn’t very happy in the marriage. Then again, she could be Hell on wheels to be around.
As my dad could be a charming and funny man – he was easy to be around – when he was around, that is. And it would have been a relief, certainly to me, to see him more often rather than being left to my mother’s moods and manipulations.
Adult Child of Divorce
Whle my mother was also capable of great humor and wonderful adventures, her unhappiness seemed to keep her in a stranglehold.
The more she pushed my dad, the more he was absent.
The more she pushed me, the more I learned to put up walls.
The older I got, the more important it was that I do so – she respected no one’s boundaries – and I couldn’t wait until I would “grow up” and escape her overwhelming presence.
I remember wishing my parents would divorce in those years. I also remember asking my mother over and over again: “If you’re so unhappy with Dad, why don’t you divorce him?”
For that, she had no answer. And it wasn’t until I was married myself that I began to understand the range of emotions that kept her anchored to her marriage in a time when women were only beginning to divorce with less stigma. Not only was it about “staying married for the children,” but she was tied to her family and her husband by love, history, fear, convention, and so much more.
On a Father’s Influence
Recently, I was pondering my dad’s significant efforts to get to know me as adult. After he was happily remarried that is. It was as if he wanted to make up for all the lost years, and he welcomed me into his life with open arms and a gentle spirit.
His love, which felt unconditional, was reassuring and healing.
But I was also considering the twenty-some years that he was a shadow, a void, a non-presence.
During those years did I internalize the message that men can’t be depended on? That men may be charming but they don’t stick around? That charm and distance are safer and it’s best not to expect much more? Was this especially true as the other model of adulthood I had – my mother – was critical, intrusive, and overbearing?
Was my father’s abandonment of his parenting responsibilities more of an influence on my life than I ever realized?
Does it explain the extremes in my choices of men – emotionally distant or adoring – with little in between?
What Did I Learn From My Dad? Men Leave…
We know that children learn how relationships work by watching their parental role models.
- We learn how to give and take love.
- We learn how to deal with compromise and conflict.
- We learn to trust or to be wary.
- We learn to be truthful or to evade.
- We learn to open up or to build walls.
We develop our self-esteem when we aren’t constantly trying to please, or feeling as if we don’t measure up. And only recently have I begun to ask myself if my esteem issues were a function of my father’s absence as much as my mother’s constant criticism.
Moreover, I am newly aware of this:
Not all men leave.
A Daughter Needs Her Dad’s Approval
Doesn’t a daughter learn what men are about from her dad? From watching her parents interact? The way they talk or don’t, love or don’t, fight or don’t – and all the subtleties in their gestures and expressions?
My father’s absence was as influential in making me who I am… certainly who I was… far more than I ever knew. And the abandonment I felt after his death, I believe, sealed the deal on my (less than fitting) choice of husband.
But it’s better late than never when it comes to those all-important lessons.
Just because a relationship continues for years doesn’t mean a man will find fault, pull away, or prefer to spend his time elsewhere.