He was upset about this and really did try to get close to me, offered to take me on special outings, and always said he loved me. But it would be that we would have a great day together and I would start to feel close to him and love him, and then he would slap my face for some minor offense and it would ruin it and I would hate him again. This happened over and over until I was (and still am) at the point where being near him makes my skin crawl. I do not want to feel this way; it is involuntary. When I was 12, he wanted me to go to therapy, but I was embarrassed and felt like that would be just another form of punishment. After that I think he gave up on trying to get close to me, and we have maintained a very polite but superficial relationship.
He tells me he loves me and I know he really does. He would do anything for me – maintaining my car, doing my taxes, helping my friends move; once, he even drove 12 hours straight to pick me up when I was having a hard time in college. But we do not have real conversions and obviously are not physically affectionate. My mom (who is still married to him) tells me that to this day he does not think that he did anything wrong, as his parents were just as violent with him and it was typical for his childhood- backwoods, middle of the country in the 1940s. I’ve accepted this now.
I moved across the world three years ago and now I only see him once or twice a year and we do not talk in between. Right before I left, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s which has swiftly changed him from the ultimate authority figure to a fragile, confused old man. It is now occurring to me that I am running out of time to connect with my father and have the close father-daughter relationship I always wanted and assumed would happen at some point. I rejected him so much that I know he will never initiate improving our relationship himself.
When I bring up this topic to my mom, she changes to subject. I think this is because she feels a lot of guilt about my childhood and does not handle guilt well. But another possibility is that she knows my father is not interested in being closer to me and she doesn’t have the heart to tell me. I am crying as I write as I am so heartbroken over it. I am extremely close to my mother and consider her one of my best friends, and I wish I felt this way about my dad. I don’t know him at all, and now I am so sad that it’s very likely I never will.
What can I do to start? I am not due to visit home again for over a year so to connect I will have to call him on Skype or email, but I have no idea what to talk to him about. Please help me, Wendy, as I am running out of time. — Not a Daddy’s Girl
You probably won’t ever have the kind of relationship with your father that you’ve fantasized about. Even if you had 100 more years together, you probably would never have that relationship. That’s the bad news. And it’s only bad news if you had your heart set on that fantasy relationship. The truth is, most people do not have dream relationships with their parents. You’re lucky that you have such a great relationship with your mother — that is more than a lot of people can say. Parent-offspring relationships are filled with baggage, and disappointment, and hurt feelings and all that stuff that make an easy relationship hard to come by. But that doesn’t mean that people — and you, specifically — can’t have authentic relationships with their parents — despite the baggage. That doesn’t mean you can’t get to know your father — like, really KNOW him and come to a place of understanding and accepting him and even liking him and enjoying his company and finding commonalities you share and building some happy memories while you still have time. (That’s the good news).
If you adjust your expectations so that you’re pursuing a BETTER relationship, and not necessarily a dream relationship, with your father, there’s no reason you can’t have just that. Start with asking your father questions. Ask him about favorite memories he has of his parents and what he remembers of his childhood home. Ask him about how he spent his summers as a kid and what some of his favorite holiday gifts were and what he can remember about birthday parties he had. What kind of vacations did he take with his family, and what kind of car did his parents own? Ask what a movie cost when he was a kid and how he learned to drive. Ask him how he met your mother and when he knew he loved her. Ask how he proposed to her and what their wedding was like. Ask how they decided on your name and what he felt when you were born. Ask him if he has memories of you as a baby. What were you like? Did you cry a lot? Does he remember your first words? When your father was a kid, what did he want to be when he grew up? Is his life how he imagined it would be when he was 20?
Stay away from questions that might sting — why he raised you the way he did and whether he has regrets about decisions he’s made. Instead, stick with questions that will open his memory bank and reveal to you a man who is more than your dad — a man with a past, whose childhood and adolescence and young adulthood were filled with experiences and hopes and dreams and failures that all shaped the man he is now. Because he IS more than your father and the mistakes he made as a dad. He is your mother’s husband — one that we might assume is a loving husband. He was someone’s son. Someone’s employer and employee. He’s been someone’s friend and someone’s neighbor. Maybe someone’s brother. If he grew up in the 40s, he’s been alive well over 60 years — he has a million stories and experiences that have shaped him, and, if he’s willing to share some and if you can find the right questions to ask (the ones I’ve suggested are certainly good starting points) to open him up, you may just find that he’s a likable, maybe even lovely, man — one that you may enjoy getting to know.
Obviously, asking questions and learning more about your dad is just a start, but it’s a good start. When you visit him next, you may want to look at old photos with him, share an activity one or both of you enjoys, just BE with him — be with him-the-man and not necessarily him-the-dad-who-used-to-hit-you. If you can find a way to separate the two, it will be easier to truly like one and forgive the other (or at least feel compassion for one or both).
And, look, if it never happens — if your father isn’t receptive to improving your relationship or you run out of time before you start or if you simply can’t get past the resentment you feel about the way he raised you, don’t beat yourself up. It isn’t a reflection of YOU or even his feelings for you. You know he loves you. A parent never stops loving his or her child, no matter how distant their relationship might be. And a father who would drive 12 hours straight to pick up his homesick daughter is a father who loves his kid, despite his imperfections. It may not be the perfect love and it may not be the perfect relationship, but it’s LOVE. And sometimes that just has to be enough.
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.