Blog, Personal Blog

For Fathers Who Couldn’t Love Us Because They Didn’t Love Themselves

I was getting ready for work one morning when my daughter came into my room and sat on the edge of the bed.  She should have already left for school, but from the corner of my eye I could see that she was still in pajamas.  Attempting to stifle my frustration, I turned to ask her what she needed and noticed the look on her face.

“What’s wrong,” I asked.

“I want to buy my dad a phone so that I can get in contact with him.”

A sea of words came rushing up from the pit of my stomach.  The waves crashed behind my teeth and receded.  What trickled through was, “That’s not your responsibility.”

“Yes it is, because he needs help and I’m the only one who wants to help him.”

“I understand mamas, but he’s a grown man, and only he can help himself.”

Tears welled up in her eyes.

“He’s in pain.  He’s suffering.  That’s why he is the way he is.  He just needs someone to love him and help him.”

For years I tried to help him.  I thought my love could save him.  I loved him through the abuse, the alcoholism, the liquor induced seizures, the constant job firings.  I could not save him, his mother could not save him, and his father could not save him. He needed to save himself.

But words don’t teach, only life experience can.  The more I tried to alleviate her sense of responsibility for this man, the stronger her case became for why he needed her.  “I’m the only one he has.”

We cannot escape our parents.  This is especially true for my daughter who sees his face every time she looks in the mirror; feels his height as she towers over her peers.  I think this is the gift and the curse we’re all born with—this sense of our parents and all their memories, mannerisms, features and expressions etched into our DNA.

This conversation with my daughter was surreal.  As she spoke, I heard my own teenage voice echoing behind hers.  I had the exact same conversations with my mother about my father when I was growing up.

I remember being on the phone with him after my parents split up.  He told me how sad and lonely he had been since my mom left him, but mentioned nothing of the abuse that drove us away.   My 5 year old brain could not discern the manipulation and I felt sorry for him.  My compassion for him only grew with time, and when I reached the age of 16, I was giving him my babysitting money and bringing food to his home.

He needed me.

Forget the fact that he’d abused us.  Forget his negligence.  He needed me.

Because he was in pain.

He had been abused too, so it wasn’t his fault.  He never knew his father, and maybe that’s worse than having one who beats you.

I had tremendous compassion for my father.  I had every justification for why it was okay for him to be who he was.  Meanwhile, I contorted myself to gain his approval, mercilessly.

If I could get my father to see my value, if I could get him to love me, that would undo the worthlessness I adopted as a result of his tyranny.  I took on his monsters.  Maybe I was the monster.  Why else would he punch me in the chest?

I made excuses for him and called it forgiveness.

But that pain still lingers where fists and keys landed on my skin.  The brain may try to forget but the body remembers.  It absorbed the force of the blows and that energy, unexpressed, remained in my body as rage.  My rage, unacknowledged, seeped through cracks in locked doors and permeated my being.  They called it Depression.  Labeled me “disordered.”  But there was nothing wrong with me.  I was just angry.

And for every relationship I entered which mimicked the dynamic I had with my father, the rage swelled.

Then one day, it expressed itself.  It was an out of body experience.  The man it had been directed at had not seen it coming. Not from me, always so composed, so gracious, so understanding, so compassionate, so ready to see the best in everyone…

…such an enabler.

As he talked at me, and down to me; as his voice rose; as he continued to hurl insults at me; as I continued to play the mediator to try and alleviate the rising conflict, I stood up.  I began walking, not knowing where I was going.  And the rage announced itself as a “FUCK YOU!” sandwiched between 2 short sentences.  Then I hung up the phone.

My hands were shaking, and I began to cry in the middle of the street.

There was guilt, and shame.  And yet there was a voice justifying what I’d just done.

“You had to do it.  You couldn’t let him talk to you like that.  You had to do it.”  But I felt ashamed.  Maybe there was a nicer way to have handled it.

Spirit said, “NOPE.”

That night it became clear to me that I wasn’t just yelling at an emotionally abusive man.  The voice of my child self was yelling too.  Yelling at my father.


Yes, it was time to allow the rage to flow through me.  I was ready for it.  Years of therapy and spiritual work prepared a path for it to travel.  Years of clearing out old beliefs and doubts made space for the rage to do its dance.  Because it must.  It must have its way, and like a fire it must also be handled with extreme care.  Years of healing work created a safe space for the flames to erupt.  This anger, evidence of my growth, was good news.  It pronounced a new iteration of me, one I’ve been preparing for.  But there is still soot and ash around me.  There is pain from stretching out of old skin.  The new skin is raw and bare.  I am naked.  But here I am.

The flames burn but they don’t consume me.  I’m safe because of the Ocean I embody—the place where many of my wounds were baptized and transmuted.  The place within where I go to be born anew, over and over again.  The place inside which I come home to.  I float on its waves, bobbing up and down, surrendering to its current.  If I resist I will drown.  I’ve learned to trust myself to the waves, and float.  This Ocean…Spirit, Presence, Source…God.  It mothers me.  It folds me in its arms and says it is safe to wail, and scream, and cry out for all the times I didn’t, and for all the times my child self couldn’t.  I am lost in this Sea of healing, but I surrender to its depth.  It is carrying me to shore.  I don’t know when or where I’ll land, but I will.

I am still healing, and I won’t judge it or put a timeline on it.  This is my process and I must go through it with as much grace and compassion as I can.  I must allow myself to grieve a relationship with my father I never had and will never have.  I must model the journey for my daughter.  I owe it to her.

See, the pain she was expressing that morning was my own.  I birthed it through her.  The seeds of who she is were planted in soil overridden by weeds.  I’m clear how intergenerational trauma works.  I’m clear that I was too late in preventing the weeds from weaving themselves into her roots.  I was dealing with the weeds of my mother and father’s lineage, strangling me.  They almost won.  I almost gave up on life.  But here I am.

My daughter will have to come face to face with her own rage, and in many ways she already is.  She is many steps ahead in that regards.  She has more tools than I had.  I had a compassionate mother who modeled grace.  My daughter has a warrior of a mother modeling grace as well as the journey of healing for her.

I want to end this in some nice sounding way, but I’m not sure that I can.  I don’t have words of forgiveness to impart.  I’m not a foo-foo-shi-shi coach who presumes to have all the answers.  I don’t.  I’m just a human being committed to her growth, and committed to sharing what tools I learn along the way with others.  I am still angry.  The anger I feel is exacerbated by the fact that I still love my father.  I cannot escape him.  I feel his face in my face.  Many of the gifts I embody I inherited from him.  In many ways I’m grateful for him, even grateful for how those hardships shaped me.  The pain I experienced gave me a depth of compassion most people don’t allow themselves to feel.  But guess what?  I don’t feel compelled to clean this piece up either by acknowledging those things.  Something dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) taught me is that it is okay to have all of my feelings.  I won’t cherry pick the ones which sound nice and neat, the palatable ones.  There is an array of complex emotion here.  Life is complex.  Grief and forgiveness are not linear, black and white, one-shot deal concepts.  To some degree we are all figuring ourselves out inside of forgiveness, and grieving never really stops.

I thought that by understanding people’s motives, I could absolve their behavior and even dismiss my pain.  But that’s not quite how it works.  I can have compassion for my father and the hardships he endured, but not at the expense of myself.  I get to have compassion for myself too, and properly tend to the wounds which still require healing.

I don’t only owe it to my daughter.  I owe it to myself too.

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