“Hey Dad. I need to talk to you about something.” I hesitantly said over the phone.
I’ve had a heaviness lately with all the familiar fear thoughts playing in a loop in my head like a record with a skip. I think talking to Dad about it might help.
The heaviness started a few weeks ago while drafting a story for an event in Virginia that had the theme of lying. I thought of a funny anecdote about a time I lied to Dad in high school.
Normally when I went out, I would tell Dad, “I’m going out, see you later” or “see you in the morning” and he’d respond, “have fun.”
But that night, he did something different. He asked, “what are you girls up to tonight”?
He never asked about my plans and it caught me off-guard. I told him, “we’re just going to hang out at Julie’s.”
But it wasn’t true. Instead, I was going to an all-night party with drinking. I hoped a boy I liked would be there.
The night ended with a giant spruce tree on my car and I had the sense that it was a less severe equivalent of God striking me down with lightening. The car wasn’t damaged, but I got the message. Don’t lie because you never know when a tree will fall on your car and out you.
In the middle of drafting the story, I tried to teach my niece and nephew to ride bikes. My seven-year-old nephew tried a couple times, my arms under his armpits to help him balance, but fell twice, which hurt.
After the second fall, he lay the bike down on its side and said, “I don’t want to bike.”
When I first brought the bike to his house, he leapt on it, wanting to ride it away. So I knew that he wanted to bike, he just didn’t want it to be so hard or painful.
Some days after that, while driving him home from school, as usual, I tried to draw him out about what had happened that day, “What did you learn about hurricanes today in your STEM class?”
“They’re less annoying than aunties.”
“Does that mean you don’t want to talk?”
“That hurts my feelings. Next time can you just tell me you feel like being quiet?”
I was already pretty grumpy. I’d been home all day with my sick four-year-old niece and she’d stubbornly refused to nap. So I hadn’t finished the work I’d had planned for the day and was tired myself.
Being called annoying because I expressed an interest in my nephew’s day put me in a funk. Later in the evening, he apologized and gave me a kiss. My grumpiness dissipated with his sweetness, but I still felt down. Now it was guilt over allowing my frustration to carry into our time together.
On the drive home, all I could think was I wish I had someone to go home to who could just hold me.
These words are the hallmark that tell me I have descended into a “low place.” I had been heading there for days and my nephew’s seeming preference to not have me around was the final kick I needed to fully land.
My body was sluggish, my low back felt like someone had poured cement in it so I couldn’t stand up straight, tears seemed precipitously close to erupting. My brain whirled with thoughts: mostly fears about the future and how I’m making a mistake in my choices, but also focusing on my grief around the losses of my mom and brothers, and then there’s my perpetual singleness. I craved a partner that I could fall apart with and who would hold me. I wondered why I’d never had that. Then I criticized myself: Who am I to feel down when I have so many friends that love me, I’m not dodging bombs in Syria, etc.?
I’ve been in this place so many times and I’m ready to be done with it. It’s like some kind of groundhog day. I knew I needed to do something to change the narrative, but I wasn’t sure what. I hadn’t yet realized that the low place was tied to the writing of the story about lying and my relationship with my Dad. A relationship that fostered a tremendous independence allowing me (almost) unfettered faith in myself and my strength. Yet, our relationship contributed to my finding it difficult to let myself break down, expose myself, and ask someone to hold me.
When I first tried to write this blog post, I thought about my nephew saying he didn’t want to ride a bike, and how it was not unlike how I will often say, “maybe I don’t want a relationship” to try to explain away my lack of one. Except I do want one, but, like my nephew, I just want it to be easy.
I wrote about the tediousness of internet dating with the hours of swiping and messaging it takes to end up with only a few dates, and how the dates I’ve had in the past year went nowhere. How I’m out in the world doing activities that I love, but I rarely meet single men in my age range. And how I don’t want to go to events that I’m not interested in just to meet men. At the moment, I’m done trying. But then I go to a low place and all I want is to be held and supported. My lack of having that special someone becomes a part of what is holding me down.
As I continued to work on my story about the lie and this blog post, however, I recalled that months before the lie I told Dad, the boy I liked, who I hoped would be at the party, had picked me up for my first date ever and Dad had barely looked up from his paper to meet him. At the time, rather than admit I wanted Dad to care and maybe even be a little protective, I told myself how grateful I was for a Dad who didn’t interfere or embarrass me.
In the realm of love languages, my dad’s is acts of service. No story is more illustrative of how he loved me than when in 1985, Coke made the ill-fated mistake to change its formula and I wanted nothing to do with it. It left me in a quandary since I drank Coke daily and didn’t want to give it up. Dad discovered that gas stations had stashes of old coke so he bought up their cases and stored them in the garage. In those fateful months, I never had to put my lips to “new” Coke.
He wasn’t, however, the kind of dad who asked me about my life, gave advice or expressed empathy. From a young age, my brother and I were allowed to roam fairly unfettered. I worked hard to earn and keep my parents trust, so by high school, I had few limits on my life and Dad rarely asked questions. Out of this had come a desire to be the perfect child and never screw up or get in trouble to avoid disappointing my parents. So when I wrote the story, I initially thought the fear I felt when the tree hit the car was the thought that I had failed.
That wasn’t the main significance of the story, though. When I thought about the date and how I had been disappointed by Dad’s reaction, I realized that I had lied about the party, not because I was afraid Dad would tell me I couldn’t go. I was afraid he wouldn’t say anything except “have fun.” I was grateful for his trust. But by lying, I could fantasize that I had a protective dad who embarrassed me by prying into my life – I guess a little like how my nephew seems to feel when I ask him about his day.
I finished the story and told it at the event to lots of laughter. I thought by figuring out the source of my lie, I’d start to pull out of my low place. But I didn’t. I did my self-compassion techniques, hugging and rubbing my arms, and telling myself I love and accept me just as I am. I meditated. And I felt better for a bit, but the broken record of my thoughts came back at 3 am and I was back where I started.
I wrote more drafts of this blog post, but kept trying to assert that the source of my angst was the lack of a romantic relationship. Except my friend kept pushing me about my relationship with my dad and the need to talk to him about it until I yelled at her for being ridiculous, then cried.
What did I even want from him? I’m 47 and he’s 80. It’s not like he’s going to protect me from those sex crazed boys anymore. He can’t hold me over the phone and even if we were together, the idea of him doing anything other than a brief hug sounded more awkward than comforting.
Dad and I hadn’t talked in four months, since my brother’s memorial. Not because we were mad at or avoiding each other, we just don’t talk on the phone much. Friends are always surprised when I tell them how little Dad and I speak. I’ve explained it as, “we’re not phone people. We know we love each other, but it’s more about presence.”
I visit him twice a year, but we don’t even converse much then, at least not about ourselves; politics is a popular topic. When I’d feel guilty for not calling him, I’d justify it by saying, “it’s not like he’s calling me either,” but mostly I didn’t call because it would be an hour of him telling me about the same topics that we always cover – like his latest computer problem – and I was too busy.
Then I watched the first episode of a new show on Amazon Prime called Modern Love. In it, a young single woman had a friendship with her doorman who struck me as a father figure in her life. She was nervous to bring guys back to her place because he would judge them and tell her that they weren’t right for her or weren’t going to call her back. He was always right. I don’t want to spoil the episode for anyone, but eventually, a significant event occurred and she turned to him as she broke down crying. He comforted her and helped her with wise advice. In other words, he was the Dad I had been wanting, but not admitting to. I thought to do so would be ignoring all the ways Dad had loved me.
After the episode, though, I knew that I needed to talk to Dad. I didn’t expect him to be someone that he’s not, but as my friend had pointed out, I needed to tell him what I wanted and give him a chance. In the past few years, I’ve tentatively tried putting him in the role of protective and wise father: taking the risk to tell him how I was thinking about quitting my job, but was scared, hoping he’d give me advice or at least empathy. Instead, he told me he couldn’t relate and we went back to talking about politics.
But more and more we’d been talking about his relationship with his parents and, after my brother’s death, he had mentioned to one of my friends a story I’d written and, related to it, regrets about his parenting. He also tried tentatively bringing it up with me, but I didn’t want him to feel bad so I pushed the conversation away.
Something about the Modern Love episode helped me realize that my inclination toward thinking that talking to him was silly or pointless was the same as when I told myself I didn’t want him to be that Dad. It was another way to avoid risking rejection or seeing myself as too needy.
So I called him and told him everything. I cried at times. I told him I felt bad for dumping this on him because I knew he loved me, but I needed to get it out. He listened and expressed regret that he hadn’t been the kind of Dad that I knew was there for me. He, rightfully, put a lot of faith in the fact that I was capable and trustworthy. He was wrong though in thinking that I would go to him if I had a problem. I understood that I needed to take care of myself and I did.
He spoke about the way he had been brought up by his parents and some of his own tendencies, not just as a parent, but as a person, that contributed to my sense that he was uninterested in my life. It was everything I could have hoped for in the conversation. At the end, we agreed to make an effort to talk every two weeks by phone and that they didn’t need to be long. A starting point for conversation will be my blog posts. And he agreed he’d try to be the one who called rather than always relying on me.
This, I suppose, is the hard part about recognizing that our parents are just human beings with their own flaws. I accepted my father’s tendencies long ago, but it never occurred to me that I could talk to him about how they affected me or that we might work toward a relationship that I hadn’t imagined possible. Spending so much time with my niece and nephew has made my own humanness glaringly apparent. I hope that they will forgive my many mistakes I make when I’m with them, but I know that’s not how it works. They will interpret my actions with their kids’ eyes and with their own personalities and adjust accordingly, even if they’ve misunderstood. I hope at some point, however, that they will be comfortable telling me if they need something different and I hope that I’ll be as receptive to hearing it and trying to make changes as my dad was.
I’m grateful for having a dad that trusted me and let me live my life without much restriction. It fostered a tremendous independence that has allowed me an adventurous life with little fear. My unmet desire to be held and cared for and inability to ask for it, however, has made it difficult for me to be a person in relationships who can admit to wanting these tendernesses. While I made strides in doing this with my last boyfriend, when he broke up with me, I wondered if I had become too needy. It was as if I had chosen him to prove that I was right not to let go and trust another person would be there to catch me if I fall. That I should rely on my ability to care for myself and others and just be “the strong one.”
When I got off the phone with Dad though, my heart felt buoyant, like it was floating to the surface after having been held under water. I like to think that this conversation has taught me that my asking to be cared for in the way that I desire is a valid one and will help me to be open to taking the risk to show my desires in future relationships. Since our conversation I’ve tried to manage my expectations as to whether or how this conversation will change my relationship with Dad and my romantic relationships. Yet I believe that our conversation has helped to heal and release some long-held beliefs about myself. In that belief and healing, my heart is still floating.
This story is also published on Medium.