A Parent Is Born
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A Parent Is Born

Dad Was in My Face a Lot

Is a “tough love” father a loving teacher, or an abusive tyrant?

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

As a young girl, I watched with envy as my neighborhood friends seemed to have it made.

If they didn’t want to go to school, they got a pass.

If homework was too difficult, they didn’t have to do it.

If they signed up for a sports team and it became too hard, boring, or inconvenient, they dropped out.

The girls had a good shtick going. They seemed to be able to get anything they wanted by simply batting their eyelashes and wailing, “DA-DDEE…”

The boys? They were obviously also running some type of con — one that made their parents swoop in and rescue them from all life’s discomforts.

Our house was like a whole other world.

Dad was larger than life, with a fiery Irish temper and a big to-do list for his brood of four kids.

He expected us to get top grades. Plus take part in after-school activities. And do household chores. And community service. And, after turning 16, hold down part-time jobs.

Dad was never one to coddle. When I proudly presented my best report card ever — a 3.8-grade point average — he asked, “Why’d you get a B?”

When my sister wanted to try out for cheerleading, Dad said, “Do you want to cheer for other people, or do you want people to cheer for you?”

When my sisters and I whined about yard chores, he handed us tiny hand-clippers and told us to edge our property — which stretched across a half-acre.

When I complained about “my boring History class,” Dad had me memorize the U.S. Presidents, from Washington to Nixon, in order. After a month’s work to accomplish that, he added a twist. Go back to the list of 37 Presidents, he instructed, and recite them backward.

As a typical dumb kid, I didn’t give in to Dad without a fight.

After all, I reasoned, his antics were nothing but cruel power plays, designed solely to torture and humiliate me.

Our confrontations often ended with hysterics on my part, plus a fair amount of door-slamming and pillow-pounding. Several times, I threatened to run away and never come back.

Dad wouldn’t even look up from his newspaper. “Have a good trip,” he’d say.

Fifth-grade girls’ softball, and I was as gangly and unmotivated as they come.

I was assigned to right field — where I bided my time daydreaming about after-game snacks and waiting for fly balls to whack me in the head.

I was no better at the plate, where I wielded my pink Louisville Slugger like an errant flyswatter. After a couple of dozen times at-bat, I was completely hitless.

It was beyond humiliating to know I was the worst player on the team. And probably the league. And most possibly, in the entire history of girls’ softball.

So imagine my horror when our coach quit, and the replacement turned out to be dear ol’ Dad.

At that point, I knew my lazy act was up. But what I didn’t expect was Coach Dad’s first team huddle, when he introduced the team’s brand-new fast-pitcher.

Me.

After a moment of stunned silence, my teammates fell about the field, holding their gloves to their stomachs, convulsing in laughter. I sobbed like never before.

But it was the beginning of a whole new season, as well as a lifelong lesson.

Both Mom and Dad left indelible marks on me.

But Dad’s influence added the element of challenge — the drive to push my limits.

Dad never worried he was too hard on us. He would have scoffed at today’s “hands-off” parents. He never bought into the notion that we needed unlimited freedom and protection from pressure.

He never catered to our whims, gave in to our tantrums, or allowed us to believe we were the center of the universe.

He never tried to be our friend. We already had friends, he said, and besides, they all needed haircuts.

Dad didn’t read parenting books. He didn’t watch Dr. Phil. He didn’t agonize over parenting decisions. He cared only that we learned what we needed to become contributing members of society.

My adolescent brain couldn’t grasp it at the time, but the undeniable fact was Dad always showed up. Sometimes in embarrassing plaid shorts. But still, there he was.

And unlike many of my friends’ dads, he never checked out. Even when I made the going hellish, he didn’t hang back and let me try to raise myself.

He was in my face a lot…because he cared enough to be there.

In the end, that was Dad’s gift to me: To teach me to believe in myself. I’ll always be grateful for that.

The author as a teenager, showing newfound determination

And the softball team? Our little ragtag crew won three consecutive championships, in large part thanks to my fastball. The transformation dumbfounded everyone — especially me.

Dad, I love you. Thank you for being a remarkable parent.

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