I’ve written before about the reality that some of us didn’t have great fathers. Some of us had such bad and abusive fathers that events like Father’s Day make us relive some of the trauma. I envy the people who have great fathers–and would like to point out that when we tell the stories of our bad fathers, that just proves how wonderful great dads are, and why they should be celebrated.
It’s impossible at this time of year to avoid all the spam, emotionally manipulative articles, targeting advertising, saccharine memes, and heartfelt testimonials about fathers. This is fine (maybe even great) for people who have admirable dads and are happy to be reminded about how marvelous a good father can be. It is not so good for people whose fathers have died (especially recently), making all this hype a reminder of their grief for the father they loved. It’s not a delight for those of us who had terrible fathers.
I was lucky enough to have two incredible, wonderful, and loving grandfathers as well as an incorrigible (but still loving) great-grandfather who were all three very involved in my life throughout my formative years. I’ve written about my two grandpas on this blog: Rinse, don’t wash and What do you mean, real father?. I’ve mentioned my great-grandpa many times, but haven’t written about him. I need to do something about that.
But not today. This blog post is for all the people who, like me, had a terrible father. Please note my use of the past tense. One of the few bright spots to this holiday is that since he has died, I don’t have relatives (sometimes those who almost never contact me otherwise) trying to guilt me into calling him, or sigh disapprovingly when I tell them I haven’t talked to him in a long while. Two Father’s Days ago I did get a lot of cringeworthy messages from well-meaning relatives trying to offer me comfort in the grief that they assumed I must be experiencing. I was spared that last year, and so far I have been spared it this year.
It’s one thing when people who don’t know me very well express condolences when they learn he is dead. I can accept those sorts of things fine—especially after one friend made me practice saying “We weren’t that close; we’d hardly spoken in forty years.” But it is another thing altogether when it comes from the people who knew he was a physically and emotionally abusive man, who terrorized his wives and children, who regularly spouted racist and misogynist beliefs often phrased with the foulest slurs, who sneered at religious or liberal expressions of compassion for the downtrodden, and who never apologized to any of those he hurt.
I mentioned in an earlier post the mind-boggling series of messages I got from some relatives that all followed the same pattern right after his death:
Recitation of two or more anecdotes of what a sweet, loving young man he was when he first started dating my mom,
Reference to how excited he had been to learn he was going to be a father when mom became pregnant,
Skip to urging me to try to remember the good times “before the troubles began” because of reasons.
Not a single one of the extended family members who sent me messages and cards like that included any memories or examples of him being that wonderful person that occurred after I was born. And that’s the thing, I don’t remember a time in my childhood when I wasn’t deeply afraid of being alone with him. The first time he beat me severely enough that I had to be taken to an emergency room I was only four years old. I and all my younger siblings experienced at least one beating that required emergency medical care. So I have trouble believing the claims that before he became a father he was a paragon of kindness and love.
Even if they are right, most of the people on that side of the family have previously expressed a narrative of how he became the angry, manipulative, bitter man I knew. Most of them say it stemmed from a single betrayal that happened to him which involved the pastor of the church he had grown up attending. This betrayal happened when my mom was about seven months pregnant with me. The fact that she was pregnant and that this betrayal cost my father a job that he had been looking forward to as a way to properly provide for his wife and soon-to-be-born child is one of the central details in the story as they always retold it.
They claim this one single event transformed him from an angel to a monster, they know it happened before I was born, and yet, they expect me to have memories of the alleged angel.
I get it. Denial isn’t a rational process. If they consciously admit that they knew he was violently abusive for my entire childhood, they have to also admit that they stood by in silence as I, my sister, my mom, and later his second wife and my three half-siblings, were subjected to his abuse. And that is a very scary thing to face.
If the only way they can look themselves in the mirror each day is to be in denial, I guess that’s their business. But trying to erase my past in order to assuage their conscience isn’t something I am willing to enable.
I only have some inklings of what made my father tick. Maybe he was a sweet kid. But all the evidence and research out there about abusers is that they don’t just one day go from being a kind empathetic puppy to an angry beast. It’s something that happens over a long time. My maternal grandmother was an emotionally abusive and manipulative person, which I assume was a major contributing factor to Dad’s abusive personality. I also know that as an adult, Dad could be charming and friendly toward people whose approval he sought. So I suspect the sweet, kind young man my various older relatives remember was simply him being on his best behavior toward people who he had no other power over.
I try not to dwell too much on all this. As I said shortly after his death, I thought I was mostly over it. Until the moment I was told he had died, and I felt not just an incredible sense of relief and peace, but also a bit of gratitude.
I am truly happy for all the people out there who have good, loving fathers and wish them joy in celebrating their love for those fathers today. And Just as I wish comfort for those others who have lost their wonderful fathers and find today a reminder of their loss.
But don’t ask me to pretend my father was a good man. Don’t ask me to pretend to be grieving. Don’t expect me to smile and agree with any sentiments of admiration for him you may feel compelled to express. The only thing I have ever mourned with regard to my father, is that I didn’t have the good father that they want to imagine he was.
I linked to my post from a couple years ago about why some of us don’t feel like celebrating Father’s Day. But my particular reasons are exactly why I do think that people who have great dads need to tell their fathers (whether it’s their biological father, step-father, adoptive father, single-mom who had to be all the parents, or two mommies, or two daddies) how much you appreciate the great things that they did for you.
Because bad dads like mine are proof that being great isn’t automatic, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t guaranteed. So, here are a couple of appreciations:
It’s impossible at this time of year to avoid all the memes and heartfelt testimonials and emotionally manipulative articles about dads. Which is great for people who have wonderful dads and are happy to be reminded about how great a good father can be. It’s not so great for people who are grieving the loss of a father they loved. And it’s not so great for those of us who had terrible fathers.
I was lucky enough to have two incredible, wonderful, and loving grandfathers as well as an incorrigible (but still loving) great-grandfather who were all three very involved in my life throughout my formative years. And one of those wonderful grandfathers, my mom’s father, was her adoptive father. Not being her biological father didn’t diminish one iota the love he gave my mom and her sister (and me and the other grandkids). He did everything a dad was supposed to do and more.
Similarly, my great-grandfather was my grandma’s biological father, but he was also a step-dad to grandma’s oldest two brothers. Great-grandma was a 28-year-old widow with two young boys when she met and fell in love with great-grandpa (who, I should point out was only a 16-year-old farm hand). But even though he wasn’t that much older than those two kids, he did his best to be as good a father to them as he was to the other kids that he and great-grandma had together.
So I get more than a little angry when people (or stories or movies or TV shows) imply (or sometimes come right out and say) that step-parents or adoptive parents aren’t a kid’s “real parents.”
Which is why I want to share this little story (and angry op-ed) posted by Dan Savage earlier in the week: Brian Brown Suggests Terry and I Stole Our Son from His Biological Parents. Brian Brown is the head of the odious anti-gay National Organization for Marriage. Dan Savage is a national syndicated sex advice columnist and gay activist. But Dan and his husband, Terry, adopted their son as part of an open adoption years ago, and have raised that child while allowing (and encouraging him) to keep in contact with the biological mother who was a homeless street kid when she got pregnant. As Dan points out, there are far more orphaned children who need families in this country than there are straight couples looking to adopt. When you exclude unmarried people or lesbian/gay couples or other “non-traditional” families from the adoption process, the choice you are making is to leave those children with no parents at all.
It isn’t a choice of straight parents vs queer parents, or a mommy-and-daddy vs a single parent. It’s a choice of these so-called non-traditional parents or no parents. And note about the fact that not one but two traditional couples turned down the baby before Dan and Terry’s adoption paperwork was completed. So, the only people who deprived that kid of a “traditional” family of genitally-opposite parents were straight people.
I’m not a parent. I’ve never had kids and never adopted. But if I were a parent, and Brian Brown had come into my house and told me that he thought my child should be forcibly taken away from me just because I’m gay, I would have said a whole lot worse than what Terry said.
It’s impossible to avoid all the memes, retweets, and sentimental odes to fatherhood being shared this time of year. And for everyone who is lucky enough to have had a great dad, I am very happy for you. Go, celebrate his wonderfulness. Tell him how great he is. Recognize that not every person who manages to make a baby is also a good, loving father. If yours is that kind of wonderful, he deserves a big “thank you.”
Lots of people have great dads. Some people have more than one awesome dad. Why should I ruin their special day to tell their awesome dad just how great he is by talking about the other kinds of dads? So the few times I have written anything about the subject of Father’s Day, I’ve instead focused on my experiences with my awesome grandfathers and my wonderful great-grandfather. Because they were great and awesome, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have had them in my life.
But I’m not the only person who did not have a great dad. I’m not the only person who cringes when certain statements or stereotypes of fatherhood are trotted out with the implication that every single father who ever existed was a shining paragon of wisdom, hard work, and sacrifice. I’m not the only one who has been chastised (sometimes by complete strangers) with statements like, “He’s your father! Can’t you at least show a little gratitude for the things he did right?”
Besides, reminding people that bad fathers exist actually makes all the great dads more remarkable. It reminds us that being a good father is not automatic, it doesn’t just naturally happen, and it isn’t easy. Being a good father takes work. Those fathers who are great, awesome, and wonderful deserve to be appreciated and loved and praised for the remarkable people they are.
Bad fathers come in many forms. When I was young, my father was verbally and physically abusive. That abuse resulted in broken bones or wounds requiring stitches on more than one occasion. The abuse was always worst when he was drunk, and he seemed to be drunk an awful lot. After my parents divorced, Mom, my sister, and I moved 1200 miles away.
Dad remarried and started a second family. A series of accidents led him to admit he had a drinking problem, so he joined AA. Certain relatives kept telling me that he had changed since getting sober. He was a completely different person, they said, and I should give him another chance. He never sounded any different on the phone, or the couple of times I saw him in person afterward, but they were around him more often than me. I don’t know whether I just wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, or if I like to believe that everyone is capable of redemption, or maybe I just prefer stories with happy endings, but for a while I told people that he’d straightened his life out and I wished him well.
I eventually learned that the abuse never stopped. The alcoholism was never the cause, it was just the excuse. There was a period of over a year where at least one of his other kids had restraining orders out on him, forbidding him from being around his own grandchildren without supervision. In the few conversations we have now, he still holds all the racist, misogynist, and generally angry opinions about everyone else, blaming everything wrong in his life on other people.
Yes, he has some good points. He kept a roof over his families’ heads, put food on the table, and helped out when certain kinds of problems arose. He is capable of the occasional gesture of affection—sometimes coming through in surprising ways. But those things don’t make up for the abusing, the controlling, the blaming and shaming, or the refusal to take responsibility for the damage he causes.
I don’t hate him. I fear becoming him. I was definitely on the road to becoming him at one point. I’m glad that I had friends who were willing to stand up to me and tell me I was turning into a verbal bully.
Counseling help. Friends who pointed out when I backslid, but remained friends, helped. Coming out of the closet helped an incredible amount. All that energy expended hiding who I was, plus the fear of being discovered, and the anger about the presumed rejection was like an over-pressurized boiler ready to explode. I seem to have avoided that path, though I still worry about it. Any times when certain tones of voice come out of my mouth, for instance.
Dad’s issues are different than mine. I know some of the sources of his anger and resentment. I’m sure there are more extenuating circumstance than the ones I’m aware of. It does give me sympathy for his situation. I sincerely hope that someday he finds a way out of them and into a place of peace. I do wish him well.
I don’t hold massive grudges against him. Truth be told, I seldom think about him at all. I think it’s sad that we don’t have the kind of relationship that we’re supposed to be thankful for on this day especially.