Simply put, my relationship with my father is, well....complicated.
|(I Don’t Want To) Cry No More
I am always confused about my relationship with my parents—especially my father. Until I was about eleven or twelve I thought that my family must be normal. We had to be. We were middle class, always had enough money, even if my mom worried about it all the time. And my dad never hit us or anything, so I just figured that all the yelling, the tiptoeing, the anticipating, that all the getting mad was just normal and that you just weren’t supposed to talk about it. When kids did start talking about their parents—in the years when everyone disagreed with their parents, and knew exactly what they could get away with—I finally figured out that it wasn’t normal to know exactly what you could do—at any point in time—to make your father mad. Throughout middle school, I tried to stay in his good graces, to do anything so as to not make him mad.
But by ninth grade, I was tired of having to tiptoe around him when I had done nothing wrong. I think what I hated most was that whenever he yelled—or even spoke—in that particular, uncontrolled tone of voice, I would start crying. He never stopped when he saw that. I never saw him cry, either. I could never say how I felt because I was crying, and I started writing to him. Usually, they were poems, not very good, but I thought that he would try to change if he knew what he was doing. In some ways, I think I wanted to be as blunt as possible, to hurt him as much as I could—just to see if he cared. But I don’t remember him ever showing any emotion. I don’t remember ever really feeling like he meant it when he said he was sorry. So I stopped pretending to be sorry. I stopped crying “I’m sorry” when I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. I stopped submitting to his anger, started voicing, as calmly as possible, my own opinions, which only angered him more. But I didn’t really care. I was past the point of constantly needing his approval. Most of all, I wanted to stop crying. I hated that inexplicable power that he had over me, but he could always make me cry.
Around the middle of ninth grade, we started having family meetings. Basically, this meant that we all sat around the table on Sunday mornings and tried to solve our multiple problems. Together. Naturally, my younger brother (who was ten) and I were opposed to the whole idea. But we didn’t really have much choice in the matter. These meetings were a real problem for me. I dreaded them. I had kept my feelings about my father in the dark for so long—I had never really told him exactly what I thought about his anger, or our relationship—and I wasn’t a very aggressive person to begin with. I cried every Sunday morning for at least a month.
But I told him how I felt. The first time I brought up anger management, I saw my father go stiff. Looking down, I told him, choked up and through tears, how much he scared me, how easy it was for me to visualize him hitting me, and how much I hated it that his unpredictability had developed a kind of pattern. I remember my mother holding my hand, lending me her support for the first time. Later, she said that she was proud of me. I said, quite honestly, that I wanted my father to get real help. Take an anger management course, get therapy. You could feel the tension in that room.
My father wouldn’t look at me. His face was a hard mask. He didn’t cry, didn’t say that he had never realized how much he was hurting me, I can’t even remember if he said he was sorry. I know that I didn’t believe him if he did. I remember him looking at his hands. He said that he didn’t have the time to get therapy, that we didn’t have the money. My mother said that money wasn’t an object, that we could make time. He didn’t think his problem severe enough for therapy. My father was in denial.
I left the table then, and I remember asking him, just before I left the room, “Shouldn’t it be telling you something, when your fourteen year old daughter thinks that you have anger issues?”
My father sulked for the rest of the day, as he often does when he is mad, and he never followed through on anger management courses. So I decided to help him. I sent him links to several articles, groups, and I did extensive research on the subject. I still believed that he could change—that he would have to change if I did enough. Later, my mom told me that he called her and asked her what he should do about the email. She told him to read the articles.
I realize that my father isn’t the only problem in our relationship. I make mistakes, tell the truth far too often, am ungrateful, and sometimes downright mean. But, as I told my mother on several of our long walks, my father is the adult. Deep down, I didn’t want to grow up any more than I already had. At fourteen, I didn’t want the kind of responsibility—to admit my mistakes, to change first—that I thought my father had realized he would get when he fathered me and my brother. I wanted my father to change. I wanted him to be the bigger man.
Two incidents made me realize that if my father were to change, it would be a miracle. The first was my dad’s parent’s annual visit from Connecticut. I was dreading it. Neither my mother nor I liked them at all. My grandfather could bluntly be described as antagonizing, mean, and bigoted. My grandmother had no personality whatsoever. I was completely uncomfortable in their presence, and, therefore, didn’t talk at all. (Which only served as ammunition for my grandfather—“bump on a log” he called me.)The other problem was that they didn’t like to do anything, except play golf, so we just sat there, for a whole weekend, and talked.
My father always said that he didn’t want to be like his father, but what became clear, what is still so taboo in our house that I have not told him yet, is that they have the same characteristics. Thankfully, my father doesn’t pick fights like his yet, but he has the same way of teasing you about something until it feels like harassment, the same loudness that only he doesn’t recognize as yelling. It was a horrible weekend.
The second incident shouldn’t have been so consequential. But it came so out of the blue that I didn’t even see it coming. I remember that morning vividly, how my hands shook an hour afterwards, how much I hated that I cried.
My father is always possessive of the kitchen in the morning. We have a very small kitchen, and four people don’t really fit, but my father tends to act kind of huffy if there’s even one other person in there. My mom was in a bad mood that morning, being mean to everyone, which my dad was obviously not happy about. I told him, quite pointedly, that I was going to make my own lunch this morning, that I did not want him to make it. I ate my breakfast in the dining room, and returned to the kitchen to make my lunch—only to find that my father was making it.
“Am I allowed to make my own lunch?” My voice was quiet, a little scared; my father was still mad.
“What?” His voice was sharp and red. But I wasn’t going to back down now.
“I said, am I allowed to make my own lunch?” My father stared at me, daring me to go on. “I told you, this morning, that I was going to make my own lunch.” This wasn’t really about lunches; I knew that. This was about possession of the kitchen. About my father’s obsession with control.
My father exploded. He grabbed my lunchbox off the counter, threw its contents on the floor, and the lunchbox came sailing across the room.
“You want to make your own lunch?! Fine!” I was dumbfounded. Startled out of my wits. Shaken to the bone. I stared.
“Why are you yelling at me?” My voice was calm. I was in shock. My father wasn’t.
“Because your mother is being mean to me and I am sick and tired of it!” He threw the lunchbox back onto the counter for emphasis. Questions ran through my head—“again, why are you yelling at me?!” But I didn’t dare say anything. I don’t think I could have. Apparently calm, I made my lunch, but my hands shook on the refrigerator door. Tears threatened to leak from my eyes. I was furious with myself. Why was I crying? My father watched silently as I tried to get hold of myself. I wanted him to say that he was sorry. At that moment, I despised him and his power over me. I didn’t speak to my father for the rest of the day.
I realize now that my father is not going to change. But he will have to deal with that too. He recently confronted our family (at one of our faithful family meetings) about our need to do stuff and have fun together. My first excuse was that I am your typical teenager and so cannot possibly enjoy being with my parents, which he promptly dismissed. My second was that I couldn’t have fun with someone I didn’t respect. He asked me why I didn’t respect him, and I told him about the ‘lunchbox incident.’ Even when he is in a good mood, when we are happy, I can always remember what happens when he gets mad—how unpredictable it is. I told him that it was understandable for him to get mad, but that he acted like a child. I told him that I could not honestly respect someone as an adult, or a parent, when they cannot manage justified anger in a just manner. My father said nothing.
I do believe that I still love my father, though I don’t think I’d like him if he hadn’t helped give birth to me. I want to hope that my father could change, still want to believe that he will realize how much better our relationship could be. But for now, I live through weekends, waiting for school to start, playing sports for two hours after school until I can go to an out of state college.