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Monday, June 18, 2007

Post-Father's Day

I went onto PostSecret today to read the new secrets and, not surprisingly, they all centered around fathers. Yesterday was Father’s Day. I remember that they did the same thing last month on Mother’s Day. As I read the last secret, I realized that my dad didn’t even cross my mind yesterday. I didn’t see him, of course. I didn’t talk to him, not surprisingly. And I didn’t send him a card. It never occurred to me that I might.

My relationship with my father is broken, probably largely because my father himself is broken. But it took a long time for that bond to finally unravel, and now that it has I feel a great sense of relief, and an enormous sense of confusion and loss.

The loss is self-explanatory. I don’t think anyone can endure the absence of a parent -– whether by death, estrangement, or abandonment – without some sort of deep emotional pain, acknowledged or buried. But for me the confusion arises from the cognitive whiplash of contrast: my extreme closeness to my dad as a child and my profound alienation from him as an adult. It didn’t happen suddenly, and in fact it took my entire adolescence and early adulthood to happen. But the contrast between then and now is still incomprehensible.

Then: I’m eleven years old and my dad is one of my best friends, maybe my very best friend. I walk four blocks home from school to eat lunch at home every day, and every day I call my dad at work to talk to him for a few minutes before I return to school. One day I decide to surprise him by doing something extra nice for him. I write him a hundred little notes and stick them in places I know he’ll eventually find them: his vitamin bottles, his dresser drawers, inside his shoes. They all say something slightly different, but they all send the same message: “I love you, Daddy.” He is still finding them a month later. He will keep a couple of them taped to the mirror of his dresser ‘til long after I’ve graduated from college.

Now: I’m having a baby in September, and my dad doesn’t even know I’m pregnant. In the context of our relationship, it’s not strange that I haven’t told him yet, since we only talk on the phone maybe once a year, maybe twice. But it’s getting late, and soon it will be strange. I dread telling him; for some reason I just don’t want him to know. But I guess I am aware of at least one reason: a new grandchild might represent a motivation for him to want to see me, and I don’t want to see him. He has met O., his first and only grandchild. It was a long time ago and at a funeral, but still: he’s seen my son. With this new baby, I won’t be able to say “Well, he’s seen her.” Unless, of course, I see my dad. Then again, when O. was born, my dad never once expressed an interest in meeting him. And that was a huge relief. And it was hugely wounding, too. And here we go again.

My dad has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you look in the DSM IV, there are nine characteristics of the disorder, and a person needs to have five in order to merit a clinical diagnosis. My dad has at least eight. It’s essentially impossible to have a functional relationship with a narcissist, particularly someone with as advanced and pronounced a version of the disorder as my dad’s. But it’s also pretty easy to have a remote, extremely partial relationship with this particular narcissist, because he doesn’t seem to notice that I never share any news or information about myself with him. I don’t need to, because he’s happy to remain the sole focus of the conversation. And he doesn’t seem to care that I don’t say much at all when we’re on the phone; he’s happy to do all the talking.

But I have some news I need to share between now and late August. And I wonder how I’ll gather the will to do it, afraid as I am that it may disturb he weirdly placid surface of the sad-as-hell but least-distressing-and-painful mode of detached relationship I have established with my dad.

4 Comments:

Blogger Orange said...

I'm sorry your dad is troubled and not a supportive part of your family, e.

My dad died six years ago, and at a time when we were feeling optimistic about him. He used a suicidal gesture to get himself into the hospital and committed to sobriety, serious about it for the very first time. He was in the psych unit and actually enjoying himself, taking a friendly father role for a troubled young woman on the unit. We were looking forward to having a dad and husband who wasn't drinking. And then he had a heart attack in his sleep, which was actually a huge kindness on the part of the universe. A chronically depressed man who's always self-medicated with large amounts of wine and never learned to talk about his feelings? His odds of success as a non-drinker were stacked against him. Had he died two weeks earlier, when my sister had cut off contact with him, his death would have been much harder for us to deal with.

My best friend's dad has no psychiatric diagnosis—he's just an asshole. He turned into a conservative evangelical, whereas his daughter is a very liberal atheistic Jewish bisexual woman with a female partner expecting their first baby. Dad claimed to be happy (mainly he was excited at getting a grandson to carry on HIS surname), but he blew off the coed baby shower. Two other guests traveled from out of state with babies because they recognized that it was important to be there. Asshole made excuses and minimized it all.

Maybe you could send your dad a postcard, e. I don't think you're obligated to show him more regard than he shows you. A phone call's the "right" thing in most circumstances (etiquette-wise), but you oughta do whatever's the easiest for you. If it's sending a birth announcement after the fact, so be it.

7:00 AM  
Blogger Kablammie said...

I relate to your feelings about your father. I've been estranged from my dad--it's been more than ten years since I've talked to him. For a long time, I dreaded my birthday because I'd always wonder whether my dad would remember or not. If i got a card, I would feel awful about getting it--guilty for not responding, guilty about the check that would come with it. If I didn't get a card, it would be a relief not to feel the guilt, but then I'd feel forgotten. It's only the last year or so that I've been able to enjoy my birthday again.

12:22 PM  
Blogger E. said...

Thanks for the support, Orange, and the stories. It always helps to know that there are other people who also deal with the difficulty of having a profoundly dysfunctional parent. I feel lucky to have one especially stable and supportive parent. Some people don't even have that good fortune. It's nice that things were relatively resolved within your family when your dad died. I was totally out of touch with and fully estranged from my dad for a couple of years, and though it was easier in a way, it was an awful situation. I prefer the pathetic and barely-there relationship we have now. It's sad, but not as tragic as knowing my dad is walking the earth and I'm just not in touch with him in any way.

Kablammie - Yeah, birthdays are hard. All milestones are so double-edged. I'm relieved if they just pass unnoticed, because I don't have to deal with my dad (or feel guilty if he's actually managed to remember or respond appropriately). But it still hurts when he forgets or ignores.

12:53 PM  
Anonymous Julie said...

Well, I have zero words of wisdom. Just wanted to say that you're a wonderful writer. Really good post about such turmoil.
And I'm a first time visitor on a night when I've been trying hard to figure out a really angry reaction I got from an almost-new-friend tonight. That's baffling enough, but a family member is a whole different world.
I'm sorry things are the way they are with your dad. I'm especially sorry for the little kid who wrote the notes.

1:07 AM  

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