Accidental Lessons I Learned from My Father

When I turned 25, my dad asked why he wasn’t invited to my birthday party. I gave some vague answer that amounted to “binge drinking,” and he said something I’ll never forget. “Where you are, I’ve been; where I am, you’re coming.” Those words changed the way I approach our relationship. Instead of being afraid of making mistakes, I now take solace in knowing my dad has stumbled in similar ways and survived. Instead of viewing his age and experience as a trump card, I see us as two points on the same path.

Adages like Father Knows Best permeate our culture, and they leave a lot of room for condescension — especially in a father-daughter relationship. He’s a man, so he knows better. He’s older than me, so he knows better. But my dad’s approach to dadding could better be described as, We All Know What’s Best For Ourselves. I don’t receive unsolicited advice about my career, or my lifestyle, or my love life. I do receive respect, the benefit of the doubt, and endless support, which is more valuable than any amount of pre-packaged dad advice he could give me.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned from him. His lessons came not from his mouth, but by observing how he interacts with the world, and with me. These are the accidental lessons I learned from my dad:

Your skills are more important than your career. My dad, a boomer who was probably expected to retire with a pension and a wristwatch, has changed his career path several times (before millennials made it trendy). He was first a musician by love and trade, then he took over our family’s flower business, then he went to night school to learn how to program. He didn’t hop around because he was indecisive — he’s been programming since the early 90s, and he still plays a mean guitar. He did it because he kept discovering new ways to use his skills, new subjects that piqued his interest. Assembling notes on a sheet is similar to assembling flowers in a bouquet is similar to assembling numbers in a code. He’s kept his mathematical mind challenged for 66 years, and it inspires me to build a life that nourishes my skill set rather than getting hung up on arbitrary limitations.

Don’t abandon the things you love. When my dad’s band broke up in the 60s, it wasn’t because he realized music was a waste of time. He continued writing songs through the 70s and 80s (my favorite being “High as a Kite”), recording them on cassettes and editing them in our basement. Then he began giving guitar lessons to neighborhood kids as a side hustle. On weekends, he played open mics, and he always packed his guitar in the trunk of our car when we went to family gatherings. Even when he lost hearing in one ear and developed nerve damage in his hand that numbed his fingers, he kept playing (and when he couldn’t continue, he got a hearing aid and had surgery). He was the chief provider for our family, but he still found time to do what he’s always loved. No excuses for the rest of us.

Making mistakes is not something to be ashamed of. I’m sure he has others, but my dad’s big regrets when it comes to me are: moving us to the suburbs when I was a teenager, and not being informed enough about the student loan process. These decisions had unpredictable emotional and financial consequences for my family. It would be easy to make excuses as to why they were the right choices back then, but my dad doesn’t do that. He apologizes. He wishes he had more information at the time. He listens to and observes the impact of those decisions and instead of getting defensive, he offers support and talks about how he wishes he’d done things differently. His approach to owning mistakes allows us to share our regrets, instead of pitting us against one another. It’s a graceful and evolved way of making sure we’re on the same side, which is important in any relationship.

No one who loves you would ask you to hide who you are. When I began writing, I lived in abject terror that my parents would, for the first time, discover who I really am. Which is not always a good person! And is also someone who did lots of illegal things, mostly while living under their roof. I was also afraid they’d see how vulnerable I am as I move through the world — that my depression would scare them, that my heartbreaks would upset them, that my drinking would worry them. And I’m sure they do feel that way, sometimes. But my dad recognizes that my choices are more important than his feels. He’s read some personal, scary things about me, and he’s never once asked me to suppress them, or to think of his last name when publishing, or to seek help. Instead, he texts me to remind me that he’s my biggest fan. He quotes my work back to me. He believes in me. Not having to hide from my dad has helped me not hide from myself.

Family is important. Every time I speak with my dad on the phone, he asks about my siblings — mostly to make sure we’re making room for each other in our adult lives. He wants all of us to stay in touch, take care of each other. Sibling solidarity wasn’t a huge theme when I was growing up, but as my dad ages, he becomes more aware of what he’s lost. He’s outlived most of his friends, and what’s left of my already small family threatens to shrink every day. His lived truth is that your family might be all that’s left someday; they are relationships worth investing in. So I make more phone calls than I used to. I catch up with my siblings. And in doing so, I remember all the shared experiences we have, the glue that makes us family. I remember that, even as I move or change jobs or let go of relationships, even when I feel completely untethered and alone, I still have a home inside their hearts. And I’ve rediscovered that they have one in mine.

Not all fathers know best, but mine kinda does.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

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