Wednesday, April 23, 2008

There were things I wanted to tell him but I knew they would hurt him, so I buried them, and let them hurt me - JSF

I’m going to have to agree with Freud on this one and concede that my long history of tumultuous relationships with chronically emotionally unavailable men stems from the nature of my relationship with my father.

My father is a man who is weak, but constantly lurks in the specter of strength. A man who is not afraid to fight for his own ego, and despite that initial infirmity, seems afraid of nothing, except perhaps his two daughters. My sister and I have long since realized that we can take advantage of this aspect of his personality, and have used it to our advantage when it comes to getting the things we want, or combating the things we don’t want. We have not learned to forgive his weakness, but instead to manipulate it.

My father’s inability to address any topic of substantial meaning has been the cause of many fights in our household; it was the worst when I was a rambunctious teenager, but it continues to put a tenuous strain on our relationship even now that I no longer live under his roof. When my parents divorced when I was 14, I became my father’s right-hand woman; helping him with dinner, planning our calendars, keeping my sister in line. I had transitioned from his daughter to his work partner. I was responsible for most of the things a mother or a wife would be responsible for, simply because my mom now moved to another part of the city and wasn’t physically around to help my father. They still worked as a cohesive team when it came to child rearing and discipline, but the menial day-to-day tasks were no longer a result of their concerted effort to work together.

This inevitably changed the nature of the relationship I had with my father; I saw him less as a man I should respect and listen to, and more as a peer. This led to so much resentment between the two of us. He could not understand why I couldn’t revere him as an adult, and I couldn’t understand why he could treat me as an adult when he wanted to, but then make me sit in the backseat of the car. This battle came to a difficult head with the introduction of my stepmother into our lives; she usurped the wife and mother role, and I was left to reconcile what it meant for me to be a daughter again. I was, in some ways, emasculated from my position because my father had someone to replace me.

Yes, replacement. It’s key in all remarriages and it is something that my sister and I continue to grapple with today. No matter how logical or rational or normal you are, no matter how well you can comprehend the fact that the way you’re feeling is ridiculous and clichéd, you still feel it: my sister and I could not understand why my father wanted to build a new family that didn’t include us.

That wasn’t part of his plan. Of course he wanted to include us, he claimed, he loves us. We are his daughters. But actions speak louder than words, and the more secrets he kept from us, the more he confided in our stepmother instead of us, the worse it got. In a few short months I had gone from being the person my father told everything to, to the person my father yelled at for having an attitude.

It was awful. I didn’t know how to handle the shift, and I especially didn’t know who I was. I was caught between the adult-kid paradigms. I had always acted like a mini-adult, even when I was very young, and for months I was treated as such until my father could find an appropriate replacement.

Now that I live away from him I like to think these feelings don’t come into effect much anymore. I keep just as many secrets from him as he does from me. The foundation of our relationship sits happily upon secrets, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy having been implemented the second I moved out. He knows I smoke pot, but we don’t talk about it (unless I get caught smoking a joint before Christmas dinner). He knows I have sex, but we don’t acknowledge it because what father-daughter coupling does? But when a broken home and stepmother are thrown into the mix, it complicates things. The more secrets we keep from each other, the further apart we drift, and the more the resentment builds. So I think to myself: he can have his new life, it’s not like I want to be a part of it anyway.

But I do, so I keep answering his phone calls even though he pisses me off. And he keeps our topics of conversation painfully superficial because he is a WASP, and intensely private, and the most emotionally immature person I’ve ever known. But the trouble is that, while I forgive my boyfriends and even seek out men who can offer me that same kind of emotional fragility and instability, I cannot forgive my father for refusing to talk about anything real. I can understand and even appreciate the lengths my boyfriends go to to conceal their feelings from me, but I cannot forgive my father for not understanding that our relationship is so timid and strained because of all those secrets.

Perhaps part of it stems from the fact that we can only truly stay angry at those we love, and have confidence that they will love us back no matter what. I know that my father will love me unconditionally, so I am not afraid to hold this grudge, this cancerous thing. With boyfriends it is different; that love is not an unconditional one. In fact, it is built on conditions, and so I tell myself: this boy will only love me if my hair looks nice, if I give good head, if I am his intellectual equal, if I take things lying down. There are no comparable conditions like these to family love. You are born to them, you are stuck with them, you love them. It is strange and beautiful, but it also allows for greater gaps to widen between family members. All of the things that we do not say build walls around us until we no longer understand each other. When this happens with boyfriends, you know that it’s time to break up. But when this happens with your family, there seems to be no adequate solution. My father will not address it, and I will not force him to because I learned long ago that it really does nothing. He will appease me by lowering his voice a few octaves and acting serious, but then he will make an awkward joke about all that seriousness.

My sister and I are not like our parents; we can’t divorce my mom or dad. We tolerate them because we love them, but we do not claim to understand them. In a way this has really pitted us against them - my sister and I rallying against my Dad and my stepmother, and every secret he keeps from us, every single thing that he won’t say or doesn’t want to say or simply can’t say, widens the gap.

I don’t know how to fix it. I’m not sure any of us do.



NK said...

This brought tears to my eyes, Jess. What beautiful writing.

I used to be very close with my dad as a kid (but not necessarily distant with my mom), but somewhere along the way, i switched gears and gravitated towards my mom. I don't even remember how or know why it happened, but i'm still closer with my mom because that's just the way it's been for so long.

There are times that i worry that i'm drifting away from my dad, and just like you, i don't know how to fix it. I'm the same way with my brother, too, except worse. Way worse. When we were young, we never got along, but we still did sister-brother things together. Then when i entered my teens, it was like he and i were strangers. It's scary, actually. To this day, i never think about him or miss him or anything. I even dread talking to him when my mom makes me. I don't know how it got to be like this, and it frightens me. I want to restore our relationship, and i have a feeling that he does too, but neither of us knows how. But i guess the important thing is that we both recognize the need to hold on. The scary part, though, is that there's no way of knowing how these things will change as we grow older.

Anonymous said...

yes, agreed, very beautiful writing

Matt said...

very well written, jess. i haven't spoken to my dad in a month (maybe more?), which isn't unusual but still kind of sad. i ignore his phone calls because i'm still kind of hung up on how he put my sister and i on the back burner when he and my stepmom had a child. i understand that it's a tough situation to be in as a parent, but that's what he signed up for. maybe one day i'll be mature enough to get completely over it, but who knows.