A couple of months ago I was thinking about the idea of my dad. I say “idea” because my memories of my dad have more to do with my memories than with my dad himself. I never really knew the man. I’m sure there was more to him than baking and abuse, but I didn’t know it. The idea isn’t a new one and my dad didn’t just die, but he is my dad after all, and so I do sometimes think about him.
I was recently surprised to discover that thinking about one’s family, dead or alive, is pretty normal. I thought it had more to do with how well we got along or whether we did (regardless of whether we didn’t) and yet, along with my dad, there they were, some of my brothers whom I haven’t spoken to since my mom died (death in the family always seems to bring out the worst, never the best, in people so I’ll let you imagine why) popping up in my head. Apparently, I was popping into theirs too. Not long ago I received a friend request on Facebook from one of them.
Specifically, in this instance, what I was thinking about was my father’s opinion…of me. I know. That’s strange to say. I just admitted my father was abusive and that I didn’t really know him so it naturally begs the question “Why would you care what he thinks?” The closest answer I can come up with is “because I do, because he’s my dad.”
Some things are inescapable, death and taxes come to mind (I’ve made peace with death and I don’t make enough to owe taxes. If I ever do, I might change my tune about how well I accept them), so does something else; what I’ve observed in others as well as myself is a need for parental (figure) approval. It seems to exist in all people (at least those I’ve met) and at any age and certainly it exists in me at mine.
What reminded me of it was the story of two friends. One friend is estranged from her father (basically, her dad wants nothing to do with her despite the fact that most people do; she’s popular and well liked and for good reason) and the other decided it was better to move out (again, after moving back in after a divorce) than be surrounded by her disapproving parents. One comment, one subtle criticism from an unassuming father was all it took. She got home late one night and the next day her father said “good girls don’t stay out at that hour.” I believe the implication was twofold, this 40 something year old daughter was a “girl”, as opposed to a grown woman, and that she was out having sex. She probably was, but the question that came to mind to ask her father was “didn’t your wife ever stay out late with you when you were dating?” (I already know his wife had sex [they have kids], so I didn’t think to have to ask about that). Either way, that small comment, the one that left his lips in one breath and look less than three seconds to say was enough to drive his daughter away.
More than anger at being judged, what both women have in common is hurt at not being approved of by the very ones who are responsible for them being so much of who they are. Yeah, me too. Me and my dad. More than anger and deeper than hurt is my need, and I’ve come to believe acceptance by parental figures is a need, for my dad’s endorsement. Evidently, my friends have this need as well.
Finally, lest this piece be overly critical of disappointed parents (and my dad), I’d like to share my sympathy. When the estranged daughter relives her hurts, I’m careful to remind her of what must be her father’s terrible burden to bear. Imagine ignoring your child’s accomplishments when they’ve done so much to support and provide for themselves, enrich the lives of others and raise their children (your grandchildren, whom you’ve chosen to never meet) better than you’ve raised your own. As difficult a cross as it is to bear going without my dad’s endorsement, what’s worse is to be the dad who’s withholding it.
And that idea leads me to one other: I forgave my dad his many faults; I don’t know if he were able to forgive his own.