Becoming Your Own Parent When Yours Lets You Down
My father isn’t perfect, far from it, and neither am I. This morning I had a shower thought which spontaneously led me to ponder this in more depth than I have in a while.
My father and I started growing apart half my lifetime ago. Shortly before I began high school, he moved out of the city (out to “the boonies”), and it was not practical for him to drive me into the city every morning for school, and back out again at the end of the day (as we had been doing for the year since he moved). Plus, then I would not get to see my friends as much. This turned out to be a moot point, since I was a reclusive, introverted basement dwelling gamer/musician/computer geek anyway (I am still some of these things).
Nevertheless, I moved in with my mother at the beginning of high school, and was grateful to not be stuck in the barren social and technological desert of “the boonies” where my father lived. He chose to live there, and that’s where he wanted to be, even if it meant not seeing his family as much. He got what he wanted.
As a kid, I was closer to him. He took me up to the family cottage, I would occasionally go fishing with him, take in a campfire and have smores, ride on the back of his snowmobile. We also watched hockey and wrestling together, and played with the family dog. Despite these bonding moments, they pale in comparison to the inverse.
My father was very hard on me (a bad habit taught to him by his own father), though I don’t think he realized it. It ran in the family, I can remember every adult male in my family yelling at someone, at some point. When something went wrong, he would yell, it was the only response he seemed to understand. Yelling typically got results, even if they weren’t the best results. Whether I got the wrong screwdriver from the tool box, or accidentally broke something, he would yell. He called me “stupid kid!” more times than I could count. Over the years, that sunk in. No surprise I guess that I’m so hard on myself now.
I have come to greatly value emotional intelligence (and emotional literacy) because I can see how crucial it is with children and their self esteem. Hell, with adults and their self esteem.
By the time I was a tween, the gap had begun to grow. I was really not very interested in the outdoors anymore, I was becoming ever more creatively and technologically oriented. This directly conflicted with him on a fundamental level. My dad is very analog, and not in the cool, records on vinyl kind of way. He still struggles with the remote for his satellite dish, and with ATM machines. He is that person.
Through high school, living out my ever important teen years with my mom began a relational desert with my father that has endured. I pretty much only speak to him once every 3–6 months. We have nothing to talk about. He doesn’t understand my life, and while he will do his best to feign interest, it’s an interaction that I could do without, which is why I don’t make much effort. Our phone calls typically last 15 minutes or less.
My father is not emotionally mature, or sensitive (another way in which we have grown vastly apart). That has been a big part of me not really caring to make an effort with him. He’s old-fashioned, simple, practical. He doesn’t think about subtle distinctions, he just knows enough to get by. He is “street/bush smart” to my “book/technology smart.”
He was set in his ways long before I ever had any sense of self, and I have continued to evolve rapidly as a person over time. I have changed massively over the last roughly 15 years, and he has absolutely no idea of the extent. If I tried to explain, he would probably change the subject, because that’s what he does when he doesn’t understand something.
He has softened up in his old age a bit though. Maybe all those years mostly alone in that big house of his has sobered him up a bit to what his choices and actions awarded him. I am sad that he could never seem to figure out what he was doing wrong and fix it in any substantial way. He may lack emotional intelligence, but he does not lack feelings. He’s not a gruff, harsh, insufferable man. He just has a very limited range of emotional dynamics — happy, or angry.
What brought me to write about this, was a memory I’d forgotten about, which slightly changes the context in which I remember and think about my father. I’ve spent years focusing on how he is an insufficient parent for me now, and all the poor choices he made, forgetting that at one time he was a decently good one. At least he acted in such a way that could be construed as trying.
One day in grade school, when I was coming home at the end of the day (I only lived a couple of blocks from the school), a couple of kids decided to prank me. I was not the kind of kid who knew how to stand up for myself or even process my emotions when kids were mean to me. I got hit by something, and quickly was being pelted by dirtballs I realized. At first I was in shock, I didn’t know why they would do that, and then I was upset and angry, that they were doing it to me. I never hurt anyone, why was I being tormented?
I ran home, barely holding back tears. My dad noticed, and forced me to tell him what happened. To his credit, the only thoughtful parenting decision I can specifically remember from him, he took me over to the house of the kid I had identified and talked to his father. The kid wasn’t remorseful but was forced to apologize. It didn’t really make me feel any better at the time though.
I remembered this suddenly, and started thinking things over again. What I’ve realized is that he may still be my father, but I haven’t needed him as a parent in ages. But the same is largely true of my mother as well. She had very strict, emotionally unavailable parents who made her childhood very difficult and she has spent most of her adult life both going to counselors and self-counseling.
When I was a young adult, I remember trying to ask her for advice or guidance, and she was often not really able to give it, because she didn’t live a normal, happy youth from which to draw from. She spent her childhood and teenage years just trying to survive two bitter, emotionally distant parents who also littered her soul with self-doubts and self-consciousness. She didn’t know much about how to be happy, but she knew what wasn’t good for happiness and tried not to drench her own children in those things. She did her best, as good parents do. Her parents never supported her, so she became an extremely supportive parent, though she probably coddled me a too much at times.
Neither parent was ever really able to give me the kind of parental wisdom and perspective that I sought, which forced me in large part to try and find the answers my own way, or through friends. I grew up physically, mentally, and emotionally, and became my own adult. I became self-sufficient, built up enough self-confidence to function in this world, and went on with my life as best as I could.
My father helped raise me, protected me, fed me, clothed me, and provided just enough support as a human to get me to a point where I could take the ball and kind of run with it. Kind of. I’ve fumbled that ball lots of times, but I keep picking it back up and running a few more feet. I think good parents teach you how to hold that ball securely so you don’t drop it as much and can go further with it. Bad parents don’t even teach you how to hold the ball to begin with. You end up either running in circles, or laying on the ground picking blades of grass. Either way, you don’t get very far in your life.
It’s important to be able to recognize when someone is fumbling their ball, and hopefully have an idea of how to help.
I’ve told people before that my mother was “two parents worth in one,” because she knew when she divorced him that he didn’t measure up, and she did her best to pick up that slack. And considering the example she had to draw from, I think she did an amazing job for herself, running and fumbling that ball, but always picking it up again, every time.
As a result of everything, I’ve become incredibly independent, and have made it a pillar of my adult life to not need the support of others any more than absolutely necessary, and I think I am only just now realizing the effects that has had on my life having lived enough of it to be able to look back and identify the patterns. While it is definitely positive that I’m self-sufficient, and much more emotionally intelligent and a good communicator, it has also created a void in my life. I push some people away if I feel like engaging with them will bring similar pitfalls as my father. I seek very strong, well-composed humans to interact with. And there don’t seem to be a whole lot of those, so I end up feeling quite lonely as I continue to try and repair myself.
I’ve also noticed myself being strongly drawn to women who have a very supportive, compassionate, nurturing vibe to them. Some would call it the “maternal instinct,” but that ignores all those wonderful men out there who possess those same qualities (and also make great friends, lovers, and parents). I’ve come to understand that those qualities are very important, as well as — emotional support, communication, forgiveness. Being able to process your own emotions, and not get overwhelmed (or dragged down) by someone else’s.
But as it stands, I’ve distanced myself from my family. My father hasn’t been my parent since I was about 15, my mother doesn’t feel so much a parent anymore as a peer, my sister and I lead virtually polar opposite lives, and I barely ever talk to any of my other blood relatives because I just don’t feel a connection to them. Anger and neutered emotional intelligence run in the family, and it just pains me to be around.
I think I better understand now why it has always kind of freaked me out when I’ve seen this written in people’s dating profiles: “My family is extremely important to me, they are my world.” That is a concept I just can’t imagine. It is a life I haven’t known. If I met someone who’s family I could connect with and feel like was my own, well that would be pretty amazing.
I figured out years ago that my father couldn’t be what I wanted him to be and stopped expecting it. I’ve tried to become my own self, my own guide, parent and teacher. I have not been as successful at learning to love myself. I’ve felt a persistent need to prove, and to improve. To prove to the world that “I can,” despite my faults and shortcomings. I place many unfair expectations on myself (and consequently on others) because I know the sting of someone who doesn’t measure up, and lets you down. I don’t want to do that to anyone.
“Everyone comes with baggage, find someone who loves you enough to help you unpack”
I know I’ve always felt like I disappointed my dad because I didn’t come out more like I know he would have liked, but at the same time he disappointed me because he couldn’t meet my emotional and intellectual needs. As a teen I started growing away from him, becoming my own person, and the more I identified what I didn’t like about who and how he was, the more I knew who and how I wanted to be. It’s amazing how much one can shape themselves based on what they don’t want to be like.
I was successful, but I feel a bit like I have emotional scar tissue from excising him from myself.
Interestingly enough, as I was finishing a review of this piece, my dad called. It was a bit weird thinking about all of this while talking to him, and yes, I pretty much felt like I was just talking to a person I know and doing a short mutual life update, rather than talking to a parent or family member. I certainly don’t hope that my father dies so I don’t have to do those calls anymore, but I guess in a sense I feel a bit like I am talking to a ghost. The ghost of a relationship that once lived but faded away long ago.
Despite that, I am in a sense a phoenix of that ghost, and while I’m still rebuilding myself, I’m better than I’ve ever been.
Aside from writing on Medium, I also do several other things including: a thought-provoking podcast called Noise in my Head, a curation blog called Curiosity Crossroads, instrumental music and photography, promoting Polymathism, and my first ebook “Why Can’t I Stop Thinking So Much?”