A few years ago, I started a happy tradition on Father’s Day. I’d wake up in the morning, stretch out my arms to shake off the night’s sleep and yell gleefully, “It’s ‘I Don’t Have a Father’s Day!’” After decades of tumult, tears, humiliation, pain and abandonment, I had cut off my father for good. I was free. But, as most of us know, freedom often comes with a price.
Growing up, I was the very definition of Daddy’s Girl. I lived for my father and wanted nothing more than his approval. Every grade, cartwheel, basketball shot, and witty retort to the anti-Semite down the street: all of it was to show Daddy that he was my hero. By the time I was twelve, his relationship with my mother was irretrievably broken, but I was safe in the knowledge that he fully, deeply and unconditionally loved me.
Then he took a trip alone to Florida, a trip at least partially funded with my bat mitzvah money. When he got back, he walked through our front door and exchanged harsh words with my mother. Moments later, he turned around and slammed the door behind him, disappearing into the dark night. In the days that followed, we discovered his belongings had already been removed from the house and the bank account had been drained. For months, I heard not a peep from my father and did not know if he was dead or alive.
As much as I've moved on, those old memories still have a way of sneaking up on me, especially now that I'm a parent myself. On almost a weekly basis, I observe how much my daughter needs me and loves me and how her father and I help her navigate and feel safe in the world. I can't imagine either of us walking out of her life with no warning. I can't imagine saying, "You're not my daughter anymore" or "we took you in as charity." Even now, decades later, my fingers tremble as I write this and I feel sick to my stomach, recalling those years of misery with my father and the chaos he left behind. No matter how much I kissed his ass and strove to please him, I was discarded. Again and again and again.
After his return from Florida and those dark months of silence, my father reemerged and boasted of his new life. While I didn’t have a dollar to go to a football game, he had a new apartment, a new wardrobe and a new girlfriend. When I asked him for clothes or any other essentials, he accused me of using him for his money. When a few years later I asked him to help with college, he accused me of using him for his money. He could show me pictures of himself on fancy cruises featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous but would not give me money for food or shelter.
His girlfriend was creepy and territorial, with fake hot pink nails that were almost as grating as her fake Brooklyn accent, which she said she got from hanging out with my “faaahthaa.” They married, and for the next 10 years, my father and I spent approximately one afternoon alone together, just the two of us. I had a tuna fish sandwich with him at a deli in Delray Beach, FL. Eventually, he divorced her, and I thought to myself: Wow, I get my father back. But, not surprisingly, nothing changed; his angry, blameful, critical, and inconsistent behavior continued unabated.
Fortunately – and I should add, luckily – I got into therapy and slowly began to explore the possibility that I was not a worthless piece of garbage for my family to walk all over. Then I met and married my husband. Needless to say, for the first few years I put this poor fella through hell. The man who created me found me to be unlovable – certainly my husband would as well. But hubby hung in there, and once he finally convinced me he was sticking around I experienced, and continue to experience, a profound love that has transformed my existence. Love can indeed heal.
This Father’s Day, for a variety of reasons, I didn’t wake up and gleefully yell, “It’s I Don’t Have a Father’s Day!” Perhaps it’s because, at this very happy and content point in my life, I ache even more – oh, how I ache – for the girl who spent so many years trying to please a man who would never love her in a healthy way.
So for all the parents out there considering divorce, don’t be an asshole and abandon your children, because the scars you leave on their hearts will never heal. For all the adult children of divorce whose fathers left or were cruel, remember on this difficult day that you have worth. And for all the dads out there like my husband – loving, generous, kind, patient and imperfectly perfect – thank you for showing people like me that we deserved and will always deserve better.
Happy Father’s Day.
If you like this post, check out Mother's Day When You Don't Have a Mom
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[photo credit: David Castillo/FreeDigitalPhotos.net]