Live Through This

Halfway Home

Even when he lived with us, my father was always vanishing.

But then came the real betrayal. The fall of my senior year, my father announced that he was moving out. The coffee date, I now realized, had been a ploy to soften the blow, or to keep me from reacting the way I did, which was to blame him. He’d used his work to distance himself from all of us for years, but that didn’t get him far enough, apparently—now he was leaving. My mom, I could tell from her shell-shocked expression, had not been prepared for this. I later learned that they’d gone to a few couples-counseling sessions, but he’d already made his decision. I was furious. I felt like he didn’t even try to fix things.

Shortly after my parents split I got feverishly sick while my mom was out of town at a conference. Even though I was fully capable of being alone, I’d wanted him to stay home with me. It seemed like such an easy opportunity to show me that, in spite of everything, he still cared. Instead he left a list of which pills to take at what time. Less than a year after separating from my mother, he left Chicago for Atlanta. It seemed like he was casting us off entirely, perhaps to punish us for being angry about the divorce, or perhaps he’d never really cared about our feelings as much as he said he did.

Every time he visited, we fought. The summer after my first year of college, he sat down with me in his old office, which I’d started using to do my own writing. He was drinking from a bottle of seltzer water when he told me he was planning to remarry. He’d only been divorced from my mother, his wife of 18 years, for a little more than a year. When he set the seltzer down on a file cabinet, I leaned back in my chair, brought my foot up as high as I could, and kicked it straight into his face. I didn’t go to the wedding. I didn’t meet his new wife until two years later, when my dad bribed me with the promise of dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, and I was broke enough to accept. The next time he visited, he announced that his wife was pregnant. My brother ran out of the house in tears. Before storming behind him, I told my dad how messed up I thought it was—he was old and he’d messed up two kids already. I didn’t speak to him for over a year. Not on Christmas, not on his birthday, and not when my half-brother was born four days after I turned 21.

In college, I thought about Dad often. I was in school for writing, a dream he had encouraged me to follow, because we had that in common, too. (On the computer with all of his scientific papers and articles, I’d once found a locked file of poetry.) I had friends with dead fathers or abusive fathers they could never forgive, but my dad sent emails and cards, even when I refused to respond. He wrote to me about his relationship with his own father, how it was distant because my grandfather was mentally ill. Sometimes it felt like he was just making excuses, but I knew from his efforts that he must want a relationship with me, too. Strangely, we were two writers who couldn’t communicate with each other through words.

It was so tiring, hating him so much. Even more draining was how much I hated myself for still loving him, for still wanting him to be the dad I remembered from when I was little. Despite my anger, I missed that dad so much, and I missed the conversations about literature or politics that I had with him even when I’d gotten so used to being disappointed by him. I started talking to my therapist about all of these feelings, and I eventually realized that I had two choices: I could resent my father forever for not being who I wanted him to be, or I could try to understand where he was coming from and build a relationship from there.

My dad actually flew to Chicago from Maine to attend a few therapy sessions with me, which proved he cared at least a little, but those sessions weren’t easy for either of us. I just wanted him to somehow take it all back, to tell me that every decision he’d ever made that had hurt me, especially remarrying and having another child, was a mistake. And he couldn’t give me that.

Right after college, when I was 24, I finally ended a codependent relationship with an alcoholic after eight long years, and even though I knew it was the right thing to do, I was gutted. I felt like I’d made so many mistakes, especially when it came to guys. I was always dating these broken, distant dudes in the hopes of fixing them. I used to think the idea that women pursue men who are like their fathers was silly and outdated, but I was starting to think maybe it was true. The loss of his presence in my life hit me anew, and hard. I called him sobbing, admitted that I was messed up and had been messed up for years, and told him I needed him. “I just want you to come here and help me fix the leaky faucets,” I sobbed. “I want you to do stuff with me. I want you to take care of me.”

I poured my broken heart out, terrified he’d break it even more, that he’d have other things to do. Instead, to my surprise, he quickly arranged to get off work and flew out to Chicago, where he stayed with me, sleeping on the floor because my ex had taken most of the furniture. We fixed the faucets and we talked. I told him that I wanted to keep talking, but I found it hard to do when we were miles apart. He responded by finding a job in Chicago and moving there.

I don’t think that my father suddenly felt a need to be close to me; but I think my anguished phone call finally got him to understand how much he’d let me down. And so when I offered a concrete way for him to prove himself to me, he took it. I wish I could say this fixed everything, forever, but it was hard to let go of the anger and resentment I’d been hoarding for years. I was glad he was there for me then, but I wanted him to have been there all along, and to have understood that that’s what I needed. I told him so. He told me he wished I could just accept how things are now. Together we realized we both have wishes that will never come true, and others that might.

In recent years, my dad has helped me work through my fears and doubts about my life and my work, becoming the advisor I always wanted him to be. He walked me down the aisle at my wedding, an honor that during my most outraged moments I swore I would deprive him of. I’ve tried to be as supportive as possible in return. I listen to him talk about his own hopes and frustrations, and I recognize how very alike we are. We’re both passionate about our work, and we tend to throw ourselves into it completely. And so he has served as a kind of cautionary tale for me: because I know the effect his absence had on me growing up, I’m careful to make sure make sure my loved ones don’t feel shut out of my life. He’s careful now to do the same. And last year, when he got offered a dream job back on the East Coast, I was proud of him and knew he had to take it. I trust that he loves me, and I don’t need him to constantly prove it. We’ll never have a fairytale relationship, but we do have something real. ♦

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24 Comments

  • rosiesayrelax January 28th, 2013 3:07 PM

    This makes me kinda sad, but happy too. Thank you for sharing Stephanie

    http://rosieandthewolf.blogspot.co.uk/

  • talia anais January 28th, 2013 3:14 PM

    this is so moving. thanks for sharing.

  • JoanaNielsen January 28th, 2013 3:39 PM

    This article is really moving. I’m about to cry.

  • melloncollie January 28th, 2013 3:55 PM

    Hi Stephanie,

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve had similar feelings towards my dad. He was around a lot when I was a kid, but cheated on my mom when I was 12. When they split, I was angry but the anger didn’t hit until later. I was more angry at what he did to my mom. She hasn’t gotten over it. But I need to let that go. She has chosen to hold on to the past. I was lucky, looking back, because my brother and I saw him twice a week and we would always do something fun like go to the movies or mini golf. I’m an older Rookie reader, 29, but I find this website helpful for my adult self. My dad is a lot busier these days, but I know he cares about me which is all that matters. I’m glad you got to work things out with your dad. Thank you for writing great articles (and books)!

  • evagm January 28th, 2013 4:05 PM

    This was so relatable. My parents are divorced, and my dad and I never had a great relationship even when he lived in LA. So when he moved to New Mexico, I thought it wouldn’t effect me in the slightest but it totally did. Thanks so much for knowing that there is someone out there who understands.
    gurrlpowerr.blogspot.com

  • BREECHEE January 28th, 2013 5:04 PM

    I feel this way about my father, too. Ever since he and my mom divorced, he has gotten remarried. Because of this marriage he writes absolutely horrible notes to my mom claiming that she’s a “Bad Mom.” He also said that my back surgery was not as important as camping with my family. What hurt the most is the straight face he said it with. I still can’t bring myself to forgive him.

  • StrawberryTwist January 28th, 2013 5:21 PM

    I can also relate, by not having a close relationship with my father. My parents got a divorce two years ago, and it’s been a long journey in coming to realization how draining hatred can be. Forgiveness can be a tough thing. Thank you for sharing Stephanie. Your story really touched me.

    http://fashiononfire.org/

  • Melisa January 28th, 2013 5:39 PM

    I don’t have any experience similar to this, but your story really touched me, Stephanie. Teared up right there. Hope that with time, all will be even better with your dad.
    :)

  • ___ellarose January 28th, 2013 6:25 PM

    I’ve also had a pretty tough relationship with my dad. He’s done some things that really hurt me and weren’t necessary but the worst part is that he couldn’t even understand why they hurt. I really actually hated him all through junior high but after a good amount of therapy I’ve realized how it’s extremely easier to forgive. I love my dad very much now even when he still does things that I can’t understand. This article explains things really beautifully and I hope it helps anyone who needs it.

  • scarlettO January 28th, 2013 6:36 PM

    I, like many other readers, can relate to this. Such a touching article, especially opening with that lyric from “Winter”. I grew up without my Dad, who has a whole complex range of issues. I was raised by my Aunt who married a stern, strict man who I hated and fought with until I went to College. I didn’t grow up with any good father figures and as a result ended up marrying someone completely opposite from both my dad and my uncle, someone who is sweet, caring, and emotionally available. What drew me to him almost from the first moment was I knew he’d be a terrific father, something I never had.

  • llamalina January 28th, 2013 6:44 PM

    i cried as i read this. stephanie, my relationship with my dad is almost exactly like yours, except that my parents are still trying to work through their problems, and my dad and i aren’t quite okay yet. as a kid, the most important person in the world to me was my dad, and it really hurts that our relationship will never be that way again. growing up i felt exactly like you, like my dad was out there so busy saving everyone else that he forgot he even had a daughter. it feels so good to read a story that feels so familiar to me. i hope someday i can repair my relationship with my dad like you did.

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

  • thefilmrookie January 28th, 2013 7:33 PM

    this is so beautiful. thank you so much for sharing this wonderful story, it even got me a little misty eyed

    http://www.pink-lantern.tumblr.com

  • lizzyheinie January 28th, 2013 7:49 PM

    Tears <3 This just makes me miss my dad, who is luckily awesome (I'm 90 minutes away at college, so basically I'm a wuss).

    Literally the only thing I have in mind for my potential future wedding is the song for my father-daughter dance. I don't care about anything else really, I'll get to it if I get there, but my dad and I WILL be dancing to Fine Young Cannibals, dammit.

  • chloegrey January 28th, 2013 8:18 PM

    wow. wow wow. this is so touching, and so much more true than a simple sort of ‘my parents divorced and I was angry at one of them’ story (not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just really special to hear something so nuanced and emotional as this). Thanks you Stephanie!
    I value my dad a little more after reading this.

  • violetfairydust January 28th, 2013 11:37 PM

    This was very touching and I can definitely relate. Going through kinda the same thing but not quite. Thank you for sharing this. Glad you and your dad are working on your relationship.

  • Stephanie January 29th, 2013 12:57 AM

    Thank you all for your very kind comments and for those of you going through something similar, that is exactly why I wrote this because I know it just helps to hear something kind of similar and know you aren’t an alien for feeling like you do. Of course it also helps me to read your comments and know I wasn’t an alien for feeling like I did. And I hope it helps everybody to be able to say something here. That’s what I love about Rookie :) For those of you still struggling with this stuff, hugs. I hope your fathers open their eyes and see what beautiful daughters they have. Forgiveness is tough and in some dads’ cases they will never deserve it and in all cases they do have to work to earn it, but yeah being angry sucks so much energy, so I hope all of you can find some peace. xoxo

  • eliza dolittle January 29th, 2013 1:58 AM

    “It was so tiring, hating him so much. Even more draining was how much I hated myself for still loving him, for still wanting him to be the dad I remembered from when I was little.”

    My dad died when I was 7, but the past few years I’ve been experiencing a similar break down of the relationship with my mum, and these words hit me so, so hard.

    She didn’t date for 9 years, and then she started 3 years ago and the guy was awful (smart, rich and the most emotional abusive coward who was a terrible father to his own daughters) and my brother and I were forgotten and the way everything changed from our previously close relationship was, and is, impossibly hard to deal with. The amount of times she would come to me, complaining about this guy and how she would leave him this time, and then proceed to get back together with him broke my trust, care and love for her severely.

    She remarried less than a year ago, to another man who is boring but incredibly kind to her. It’s a hard thing to feel nothing but pain for your mother’s happiness, but we were still so broken and she didn’t realise it, didn’t see that letting him move in 6 days after they started dating and not explaining why, ceasing to involve us at all, would be damaging.

    I’ve been trying to work through this for the past three years, and am getting back to a place where i want to know my mum and have her know me, but as you said, it’s exhausting. It’s embarrassing to have to repeatedly ask your mother to care about you before she does.

    Things aren’t fine yet, but I hope I’m working towards a better relationship.

  • mjeano January 29th, 2013 2:12 AM

    when i was in junior high, my father cheated on my mother. i found out by hearing a phone conversation between my mom and my aunt. i pretended that i didn’t hear it. a couple of days later they told me that my dad was going to go away for awhile. the next few days my mother was on the phone constantly looking for my dad. i made the mistake of telling her that i knew why they were fighting. she proceeded to tell me every last detail of the affair. my dad came home after 3 or 4 days, but my mother decided that i was her confidante. she told me everything. down to every last detail. the lady had a daughter named Molly as well.

    • Anaheed January 29th, 2013 2:25 AM

      Wait. Is your name Molly? That is the creepiest detail ever.

  • lottie January 29th, 2013 9:10 AM

    This article is so great and it’s helped so much. My dad moved out about a month ago and he never gave a reason and he still gives vague ones now. But it’s just nice to hear what i’m feeling from someone else. He was a hero to me and my mum and now he’s a completely flawed human being who’s hurt everyone. I hope one day i can make the decision to stop resenting him and this article gave me hope. <333

  • Jen j. January 30th, 2013 5:54 AM

    I’m 20 this year and this year, my family found out that my dad had married another woman (polygamy is legitimate here). yes, it is legal, however he never told us anything, it was a secret that even my late aunt carried to her grave (the beans spilled during her funeral). the marriage has been for one and a half year and he has been lying through his teeth to my mother and siblings and me. my mother is filing for divorce, she gets angry a lot nowadays. I can understand why. I am disappointed by him too. I felt so betrayed but at the same time I don’t have the heart to hate him. he’s my father after all. it’s so confusing, trying to walk between hate and the requirement to love your own parents.

  • Annie at Cher Ami January 31st, 2013 2:40 PM

    This was such an amazing article, that i feel i can relate to. My mum and dad are split up (not divorced yet) and he had an affair, which both he and my mum kept quiet about for a year before telling me. I found out later that they had tried one or two counselling sessions (before he cancelled them) and then he had the affair, and this made me angry at him because it seemed like he wasn’t bothered about my mum or me. So, yes i can totally relate to the whole ‘didn’t try’ thing. I really loved this article, thank you Stephanie!

  • mjeano February 1st, 2013 2:37 AM

    yeah, my name is Molly as well. that almost hurt more than my father’s indiscretion. i was wondering, “how could he possibly do this with someone who has a daughter with the same name?” (insert the appropriate feelings: “is he trying to replace me?” “am i not good enough?” and of course, “i was adopted, so i pretty much don’t count as much as natural born children.”)

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 3rd, 2013 9:23 AM

    This was such a touching, moving article. You are one of my favorite writers on Rookie, Stephanie – you manage to articulate everything so well and it all flows perfectly. I’m very glad your relationship with your dad has improved and I hope it continues to get better. ♥♥♥