There must be a million ways to define a good father, and today, I count my father as one. He did the best he could to provide for me and my seven siblings, and I have memories of him, lots of them, that are good. He was not an angry man, nor was he mean. He loved me. He loved my siblings. He wanted us to be happy and successful.
At the same time, he wasn’t present to us in the ways that matter every day. It took me a long time to get over that. In college, I spent a year in therapy and even though it wasn’t what got me in the door, every single session went back to my dad. I was hurt, angry, upset by what he wasn’t, what he didn’t know how to be. My silly love affair with Little House on the Prairie is rooted deeply in fantasies of a father I wanted and did not have: one who was always engaged, alive to the riches of his children and eager to be a part of their world.
I was lucky; my father showed up to a lot of my track and cross-country events in high school because he liked running too, and I know that fact made it easier for me to forgive him for what he wasn’t. I have real images in my memory of him cheering for me, something some of my other siblings don’t have. I go back to them when I need to, and they let me love him and miss him.
As is often the case, the father I had shaped the husband I picked. Whatever else went wrong in my marriage, I picked a great father for my child. I count on it when things are bad between me and him; I know that he will show up for her and love her fiercely and unconditionally in the ways I wanted my father to love me. I know he will try to protect her at any cost, he will value all the tiny important things she brings to him, he will help her fulfill her dreams any way he can, and he will never belittle her or laugh at her expense.
I cannot say the same things about my father, yet I love him, and I know that despite his flaws, he was the best father he knew how to be. It is enough. I think of him on days when I am too preoccupied or flawed myself to be fully present to my own child. Yesterday was such a day. Although I kept trying to shake off the stress of my car breaking down and our ensuing fight, I was not up to the challenge, and I let it bleed into the rest of the day and night. I was not my best self; I was far from it, and I could not pull myself up. With Free, I was distracted and distant, and I rationalized it by telling her she had to occupy herself–that I was not always available to be her playmate. It’s true that children should learn to entertain themselves, but Free is already good at that, and I was leaning on it as an excuse to be absent when she needed me to be present.
Before I said goodbye to Free and handed her off to her father, I got down on her level, looked her in the eye, and apologized for not being better with her yesterday. I told her I loved her, that I had had a bad day, and that I wanted her to know how very, very important she was to me always. I told her I was going to work on being better. In an instant, her arms were around me, her face full of love and forgiveness. Such forgiveness is a gift, one that I want to hold tightly to so as to help me be better next time.
As humans, we can easily be generous and kind to others when it costs us nothing, but when our resources are limited or we are forced to make choices, it becomes much harder. My father was a man who wanted, no needed, solitude. He craved it, and when I revisit the scenes from my childhood where we children danced around him, trying to get his attention, I can see now how much he wanted a place where it was quiet, peaceful. I see the ways he ran away from us and our mother, and today, the moments where I find myself wanting the same escape are more painful because I know how they can affect the child who is trying to get into my space.
All would agree that your father was not a good father. Although I am sure he loved you and was proud of you, he did not take care of you. I see the ways you father your children and how necessary it is for you to be the opposite of what he was. I also see in you the same craving for solitude that my father had, and I see how hard it is for you sometimes to manage both of these things, which pull you with a magnetic force so strong it is nearly impossible to resist. I love both of these aspects of you, and I recognize them in myself in smaller degrees.
Here is what I want to say to you on Father’s Day as we slowly start to untangle the mess of yesterday’s fight.
First, and this is something we both know: this journey we are on with a second marriage (of sorts) and blended families is more difficult and more challenging than I ever would have expected it to be. There are days when I want to deny that, when I want to run from it, when I want to pretend that it doesn’t require my best self to show up again and again. There are lots of moments when my flaws prefer to rule: when anger and pettiness and rationalized self-pity and fear take over and make me crazy. On those occasions, I am not tough or talented enough to manage it all, and I make you pay. I acknowledge it, and I’m sorry for it.
Second, I thank you for starting to forgive me, for opening your arms to me again, and for seeing that there is more to me than the woman I showed you yesterday. I know you are trying to understand where I come from and how I see this partnership, and I thank you for your efforts to take care of me and love me the way I hope to be loved.
Third, we must both work to be more patient with each other. I will try to be ok with sharing you in the ways you need me to. Early in our courtship, you told me that I was your soul, and that your children were also your soul. I thought at the time that I knew what that meant since Free is the most important person to me in the world. I am starting to figure out how it is different for you, however, and I am going to work to support the father in you more as we move forward.
I love you, and I hope you have a great Father’s Day. You deserve it. Your kids are amazing, and they are a testament to you in every achievement and act of intelligence and love they put forth. I am glad to be a part of your journey with them, and I am glad you are now a part of Free’s journey too. Let’s hold hands as much as we can as we watch them grow and be. And when we can’t do that, let’s hold each other in our hearts and let our best selves be there in spirit, so that when our kids are parents themselves, they will remember us that way: together, holding hands, cheering them on.