Monday, March 16, 2009

Bad Daughters, Bad Fathers, Etc.

When my parents split up, I was 11 years old. The divorce was finalized when I was 12. Let me get this out here first: I never thought it was my fault. I thought my parents were both assholes, to be honest, and I blamed them for not being grown-ups and for finding a way to honor the commitment that they made. I thought I was grand. I thought that the failure of their marriage was solidly their fault. They were the ones who promised to be together until one or the other of them died, and if they fucked that up, that really was on them. You could ask my mom and she would tell you that this was exactly my perspective: I'm not rewriting history as far as that goes.

No, where I started to wonder where I was a "bad daughter" was after the divorce. See, I knew them splitting wasn't about me. But when the split played out, well, I wondered whether I might be not the greatest daughter in the world - to my dad. I mean, sure, my mom is not the easiest person in the world to get along with, and sure, she can be a real bitch, but I always knew I was her number one most important thing to her. And yeah, she was a TOTAL bitch to my dad (at one point during the splitting up she spit in his face! Seriously! Who except for people on Rock of Love spits at people? And seriously, this was not the way of the two of them during their marriage) but she never actually got in the way of him seeing me. She didn't beg him to do so, but if he'd have manned up, well, she wouldn't have stood in his way. I know that with certainty, and I think my father should have known that, too, seeing as he knew my mom since they were both 14 years old.

See, the divorce agreement said my dad was to have every other weekend with me. My memories are fuzzy in the years when I was 11-13 years old, though I believe he saw me more frequently then, even though I don't remember many full weekends. But I can tell you with certainty that he saw me maybe 5 times - never for more than a few hours - over the entirety of the time that I was in high school. I can tell you with certainty that I wasn't invited to his wedding with my stepmother (when I was 13) and that I only found out that they were married after the fact. I can tell you with certainty that my stepmother was a bitch to me when they were first together, and those handful of times that I saw my father throughout my high school years that she was not present, I assume because she hated me. Or maybe because she thought I hated her and she was too much of a douchebag to get that I was a fucking kid and of course I thought she sucked but if she'd have made an effort then I'd have come around. Whatever. I can tell you that I only ever saw my father's side of the family - including 6 brothers and sisters and their kids and my grandmother - because my mom took me to see them - my dad cut them off (with the exception of one sister) as surely as he cut me off. The point is, the way my dad just... disappeared in that time... well yeah, it made me question whether I really was a cool kid. Whether it even mattered to him that I was his kid.

He believes that he didn't want to get in the way of my life with my friends in that time. That's what he's told me since. I'll note that it wasn't me who moved to the other side of town, which was why this was (if it even was) a problem. But I never had a room that was mine in his house, and I never was part of his life in a consistent way from the time my parents split.

Everything came to a head with my stepmother's first pregnancy, when I was about to turn 18. I only found out about it because my aunt told me that the baby had been stillborn, right around my birthday (in August - I hadn't invited my father to my high school graduation, though I found out later that my mother had sent him something telling him about it, which he ignored). I reacted not well. I called my dad on my birthday and bitched him out about not calling me on my birthday, knowing that he'd gone through that loss just a few days before, but pissed off because he hadn't even told me about the pregnancy. I acted like I didn't know that he'd just had a baby die. I made him tell me. Because I wanted to hurt him. Put this in the "bad daughter" column, if you're keeping score.

After that, things actually kind of got better with my dad. I had a car at that point, and we could manage our relationship without my mom, and I was basically grown, and he could relate to me on a friendy good-time level. He moved me home from college a couple of times, helped me out when my car died in Nowhere Ohio, we saw Buddy Guy and B.B. King in concert, etc. I thought things were going well. I introduced FL (high school and college boyfriend) to my father and his side of the family. And then my stepmother had my half-brother K. And all of a sudden she didn't think I was so much of a threat, and this was the time in my adult life where I was closest with my father and with my father's new life. I babysat K., and I visited with them somewhat regularly. Sure, I was astonished when my uncle acted like my father had contributed to paying for colleage at K's first birthday party (and I disabused him of that notion - my father paid for nothing of my education, and his pride in it has consistently pissed me off, since he never supported it), but we were in a "good place" then. Sure, I couldn't count on my father for shit, but things were fine, right? Sure, I felt like he didn't really know me and I consistently felt like I was crappy in relation to him, but that was all my mom's fault, right?

And then my dad "confessed" when my stepmom was pregnant with my youngest and most-favoritest half-brother C. that he was cheating on her. Over lunch. At a Ruby Tuesday's or Houlihan's or something. It was horrifying. I don't even know what I said, though I suspect it was something along the lines of, "What the fuck is wrong with you? Why are you telling me this? Do you expect me to tell you that this is ok?" I've done my best to repress this, and continued to try to have a relationship with my dad and his family. It sort of worked. Sort of.

And then grad school. This is when we became more distant again. My dad drove through Ph.D. Town when he went on vacation with his "real" family, and didn't bother to stop and see me. That was one clue that I sucked. And then I asked him to do something for me (a rare thing, that I would make a request) and he said yes at first, but then renegged. This was my last straw, and this was when I intentionally cut him off for over a year. I then started feeling like a "bad daughter" after about 8 months, and I wrote him a letter. He never responded. My stepmother got in touch with me, and this led to me visiting with them in the summer of 2004 for a few hours. My dad never even mentioned the thing that had caused the rift. He just acted like it never happened. From that point, he'd sent random emails to me, and I respond excitedly and extensively, and then he'd never reply. And then I feel like an idiot and like a shitty daughter, even though I know that I'm not. I'm the best daughter in the world to my parents who love me - my mom and G. - but apparently I suck for my father. Whatever. Fuck off, right?

And I make my peace with it. I think to myself that maybe things will be different with my dad if I get married, or if I have a kid. I think to myself that maybe when my brothers are grown up, or when I have a family of my own, that things will change with me and my dad. But then he gets cancer. Pancreatic cancer. Terminal cancer, right? All of what might happen once some time passes and some things change? Yeah, time's up for us! It's over! This is our relationship! Period.

And so I go see him in January, because I know that it's important. And I think I'll see him soon again. And he sends me an email and I send him an email back, but he doesn't reply. Which I figure is par for the course, because that's him, right? And I figure no news is good news. Except no news is actually that nobody is telling me fucking anything. I find out last week that he's in hospice, for once and for all, and apparently this isn't new news - this is news that came via my very persistent Great Aunt. And then my Favorite Aunt (my dad's sister) told me.

And I'd have gone up this weekend if it weren't for the fact that I didn't want to kill him with my horrifying cold. So I called my dad, and told him that I'd come this coming weekend if I wasn't feeling better. In the meantime, I got a report from Favorite Aunt about her visit (awful, though she said that my dad was very alert mentally, though ravaged physically). I then tried to call my dad. On his cell, which is HIS phone. I got my stepmother, who's apparently taken his phone from him ("he's too sick to talk on the phone anymore"). According to my stepmother, I shouldn't bother coming because he doesn't know who he sees anymore. According to my aunt (who I trust a hell of a lot more) he'd like to see me. Fuck.

So am I a "bad daughter" for not going up this weekend? I don't think so. I think I did the best I could. And I did go to see him in January even though it wasn't convenient, and I have done my best as his daughter since I was a kid. As I said to my stepmother, I'm planning to come visit him on Friday. Period. I think I should. I want to. If something changes (i.e., he dies) then I'd like to be informed. I know it's fucked up, but I have little faith she'd tell me that. Whatever. I plan to drive up on Friday. Am I a "bad daughter" for having done less than that? Given the father he's been over the past 22 years? I don't think so.

But is he a "bad father"? In a lot of ways, yeah. Was he there when I needed him to be? No. Was he what a father should be in all sorts of ways? No. But it struck me... my aunt said he was a good brother, when he was. Not always, but historically. She said that to him. He said to her, he tried. I believe he did. And historically, I believe he tried to be a good father to me. That's not to say he succeeded for a good bit of time. But I do believe that he meant to be a good father to me, and that he tried, when he could, when he was able. Was it enough? No. Is he lucky that I had G. as a surrogate? Without a doubt. But my father did try. He just failed a whole lot of the time.

And yeah, that sucks. Who wants to be a father who fails most of time? Nobody. But he also did love me. And he tried as hard as he knew how to try - it just wasn't enough.

So am I a bad daughter? I don't think I really am. I think I did the best I could with the dad that I had. Sure, I sucked in a lot of ways. But I tried. The truth is probably that my dad wasn't a "bad father" either. I think he did try to be as good as he could try to be. Sure, he wasn't everything I'd want him to be, nor everything he should have been. But he did try, when he did. I think a lot of times he just didn't believe that he could ever be what he should be, as a father, to me. I think he did better with his sons, though I won't really know that until I can talk to them as grown-ups, if I ever can do that anyway.

Bur my father is dying. And I don't know what I'm supposed to do, given all of this history. All I know is that it's horrible, and that I don't know what to do. And I know that I'm entirely alone in this, and that makes it more horrible.


Susan said...

Really, I just wanted to acknowledge this. You know, you're very smart. And grown up. I wish for your sake that you were not so alone in this, that your step-brothers were older, etc. But anyway, just to affirm what you are doing, at this point, you do what you do for yourself. So you go on Friday mostly because it matters to YOU to have gone, and it may matter to him that you went.

I'm also a stepmother,though, and while my guess is that your stepmother was just insecure, it really blows my mind that she has worked so hard to keep you away. As if your father's love for his children was a zero sum game... I also realize how fortunate I am in my stepmother.

My word is misting, which is what my eyes did while reading this.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

I think you should do whatever gives you the most peace. And I'm sorry that you're feeling so alone in all of this. I hope you are able to find some peace with the situation.

exwool said...

All I can say is that I am so very sorry, and I think you are doing as well as you can.

BrightStar (B*) said...

I relate to some parts of this.

I know that you are not a bad daughter. His choices do not reflect badly on you.

A friend of mine's therapist says that the main obligation in a family is parent to child -- not child to parent, not sibling to sibling... So, the state of your relationship with a parent is primarily up to that parent.

I think it's generous of you to interpret your father that way. I don't have the energy to interpret my father generously.

I hope you find a way to do what you need to do in a way that's right for you. Situations in which there are no "right" answers are difficult.

grumpyabdadjunct said...

I can also relate to this; I was estranged from my dad before he died and I have two stepmothers who at times did their best to keep me away from my dad (although he did the best job of it by becoming an alcoholic). It is tough to reconcile all of the past, especially the shitty stuff that you can only feel partly responsible for because you weren't an adult.

My mother (who would never win a 'parent of the year' award herself) was a teacher and got to see a lot of parents and kids struggle with life. She said to me at once point when I was wondering aloud how to be a parent: "parents do the best they can." And I think she's right, and I think it applies to kids too; most of the time we do the best we can, there is no real 'failure' or 'success', no 'bad' or 'good' - there is just life.

You are going through some extremely rough stuff right now. Hang in there, but let go when you need to. Take care of yourself, and let others care for you.

Kate said...

You are not actually alone. I don't mean this in a, yay, we're all a bloggy family way, but that you do have family who loves you and probably think you're a more than spectacular daughter, especially given the circumstances. They feel for you right now too, I imagine.

In any case, lots of hugs to you right now. If you're having trouble deciding what to do, choose the option that seems most interesting, rather than the one that you think is "right."

Belle said...


As suggested above, do what you need to for you, not for him/them. Rant where/when you can, grieve for what he gave up, mistakes on both sides, be angry... all for you. For him? I have no clue. The words are easy; the doing is the hard part.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

You're alone as far as dealing with your family, but there are a lot of us who understand the bad-kid, bad-parent, have-I-done-enough, etc. situation. People do the best they can, and some "bests" aren't actually very good, or at least not what's needed, and some people might do fine with different children (parents, spouses, whatever) but are a bad fit with the ones they have. Death really underscores the tragedy of what, in better times, is just the way things are. Clear communication helps, and I'm sorry you're not getting better (less conflicted) information.

Comet Jo said...

My first reaction is to say "No you are not alone, WE care" even if we are just names out here in blogland, but I think a lot of us really do, which has something to do with how much someone human and caring and deeply committed comes through in your blog. Luckily Kate is right and you do have folks in your real life who also care.

But I do want to say you are SO, SO not a bad daughter, you've done a lot to make possible what relationship you do have, and not gotten tons of help. I'd go on Friday, 'cause wtf, your not going to regret it.

But mostly, (((((vibes)))))

Ann said...

Crazy--what Susan and everyone else said. I'm sorry.

life_of_a_fool said...

It sounds like you've done a good job putting your relationships with your parents into perspective and accepting everyone, and their faults, weaknesses, and mistakes. It's really too bad that your mother and step-mother can't be better supports for you. How about your aunt? She might be a good person to spend time and talk with and make you feel a bit less alone. It sounds like your visit will be incredibly difficult, but it also sounds like a good thing to do.

Robert said...

Reality is successive instances of "now". History is not involved. Be with your father near the end of his days and he will be with you for the rest of yours.

Robert (arkaye)

Anonymous said...

I so relate to this because I've gone back and forth on the good/bad daughter/father thing in my own experience. I think my dad would admit to being not swell, but he's also spent a lot of time when I was younger blaming me for not calling him etc. That used to upset me until I realized one day that, dude, I was nine.

point being, I really relate and it sounds like you have a healthy perspective on your own failings and his without demonizing yourself or him. at the same time, I agree with dame eleanor that some people's bests aren't very good and not nearly good enough. and for that I am sorry, I'm glad you had G., and I wish your stepmother's best were a little better at the moment.

Bobba Lynx said...

Go. It doesn't matter who "for" at this point. It doesn't matter if it makes you the "bad" or "good" duaghter. It just matters, so go. If people who don't know you but follow your blog and are honored by your willingness to share this count, you are, at least, less alone.

Terri said...

i must delurk. your blog has always resonated with me, at times so much so that i worried my friends would suspect i was the author! : ) but today is almost too much: my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a month ago (stage IV), and i have the same ambivalence about how on earth to put a bow on our tumultuous, uneven, often horrifying relationship. i will be thinking about you in the coming weeks and reading carefully.

Sisyphus said...

Ah, Crazy. I feel for you, I send you hugs.

And have you, perchance, seen _The Wrestler_? Cool Scientist Friend almost had to walk out at one point. But if, sometime later, you want to see a character portrait of how someone could totally mess things up but never mean to, watch it.

Horace said...

More hugs from our corner. I've been thinking of you.

I don't want to presume here, but when you talk about how at this moment, you are finding some resting point on the idea that your father tried and failed, I recognize that--as a father, actually.

Parenthood, I think, makes it really quite easy to believe you've ever succeeded at it. I never kiss the kids goodnight, and think: "Ah! Today I was a successful father!" Instead, I think of all the tiny failures, , this sharp word, or that moment of discipline or that time when I wasn't up to playing, and how I may have let one of the kids down in a big or a small or a snowballing, cumulative kind of way.

Even though I think I'm doing ok so far, I also know that many times I'll look at a stretch of time when I'll be wearing the dad hat for a while, and see nothing but a stretch of possible failures. It's hard to understand any way to succeed as a parent when all you can see are opportunities to screw it up, or worse, ways that you have screwed it up.

I'd imagine that for fathers who believe that they've already screwed up (maybe often, or maybe in a big way), it may be hard to understand that simply being a parent is a large quotient of being a good parent. and that failing as a parent is impossible to avoid.

And for you, "failing" as a "good daughter" is no easier to avoid. I hope that you can continue on a path to forgiving yourself for those moments. Because you're a good friend and teacher and kitty owner, and daughter, too...

AAYOR said...

I've spent a LOT of energy dwelling on what a shitty father mine is, and virtually none worrying about whether or not I've been a good daughter. I wonder if it is because my parents never divorced. Or maybe I'm just a dick.

{{{Crazy}}} And to paraphrase the wise pg, do what will bring you comfort.

Maude Lebowski said...

crazy, i have no advice.

i will say that you are not alone.


and i will be thinking of you.

Professor Zero said...

These things are so complicated. I realized from reading your post several layers of things about my own vexed relationship with parents - esp. the parent for whom I do not want to make excuses, but whom I understand.

Pat said...

I'm sorry you are going through this situation, it really sucks. I have had a similar kind of falling out with my father although for me it happened much later in life after my mom died. I typed up the whole long story but I think I won't post it: the highlights include him cutting off my mom's family entirely, ignoring me and my brother in favor of his new wife's grandkids, stolen inheritance, borrowed money not paid back, refusal to keep in touch at all. I gave up on him but then he emailed me on my birthday and I called him to talk. He was disappointed I hadn't invited him to my much-belated college graduation (I think like you I wanted to punish him), but he handled it better than he has any other time I did something he didn't like. That made me think it might be ok to try to have a relationship with him. So I started calling him but after the first couple of calls, he stopped picking up, never returned my calls, and now he's changed both his phone numbers. So, that's that. I dread having to deal with a situation like yours. It sounds like you are navigating it in a way you can be at peace with, so that's really good. It's all you can do, really. I wish you the best and I hope you can have a good visit.

rwellor said...

What Bobba Lynx said. This situation is beyond the Manichean good/bad thing.

Time is short. Visit when you can. Sort it out later.

Psycgirl said...

I'm sorry you feel so alone Dr. Crazy. You definitely do not sound like a bad daughter, you sound like a good one. Do whatever will give you peace and not give you any regrets

ct said...

This is messed up...I found your blog because I had literally Googled "my father is dying and I don't even know him". The day you posted this my father had a massive heart attack and blew a hole in his heart and had emergency open heart surgery. He also has prostate cancer and is diabetic to boot. It's been a very hard week for me, mostly deling with my mother and her incessant nagging of him.

They've been divorced for almost 25 years and she's still bitter. I take the same stance as you as far as their divorce went, but now feel like my mother is butting in and not acknowledging that he's a human being and has made some mistakes and God forbid if she ever did anything wrong...blah, blah, blah.

I say go if you feel like you need to. I couldn't handle the thought of possibly never seeing my father again and I told him I loved him (something that has never happened) and I feel immensly better now. Along the same lines of your thoughts, we've never had a "good" relationship, but I don't care about the past anymore. I don't want to be angry anymore. I just want a chance to get to know him as a person and not just a father who has been in and out of the picture.

Sorry for the novel and I hope things are getting easier for you to handle. I also have a new blog on my faves. :O)