Much has changed since my childhood: Father’s Day was nothing back in the 1960s. But it grew as I moved into adulthood. I’ve enjoyed getting the cards from my two children, but I never sent cards to my dad and over the years I’ve met many other abstainers like me. Many of us cite commercialization, while betraying hints of bitterness and hiding our true reasons including from ourselves.
Here’s a necessary quest
I’m offering a closer look at this phenomenon of fathers so that you’re not taken unawares in coming days by the sudden turn of a conversation. I don’t want to alarm you but, speaking honestly for the abstainers, we’re in constant danger of diving recklessly in, and dragging the rest of you into our dad stories. The destructiveness of some of our fathers will hit you hard. One story launches the next until you are bombarded from all directions by lurid accounts of these dark horses, the shagger, the walkout, the narcissist, the child-beater, wife-beater, rapist and many more, plus the shocking disasters that followed in their wake. The stories can engulf us all like lava from an erupting volcano.
I’m seeing fathers inflicting wounds on their children. It’s not a pretty sight and the effect passes down through the generations. This is why the psychologist in me is set on cauterizing the wounds. I want to stop the bleeding.
But how? Only through the particular can we arrive at some guiding principles. Seeking any sort of guideline, I’ve been writing down my own dad story, and telling it with care and in contained surroundings, where others will be kind enough to listen and add their perspectives. For example, when my friend Andy clarified: “So are you saying your Dad’s a twat?” I nodded with relief. Perversely, I felt pleased because Andy was acknowledging my Dad’s failings. This counted for a lot. It also ramped up my need to end my story once and for all.
This article is a progress report on that cauterizing quest with a hint towards answers and a practical next step.
The vast pool of dad stories we’re bursting to tell
Writers are drawn by the hard-to-describe complexity of their fathers to write accounts (see Blake Morrison) and to curate collections (see Margaret McMullan with stories from daughters and Andre Gerard on the “patremoir” sub-genre).
When I tell friends and colleagues I’ve written the book about my Dad’s secrets, they’re bursting to tell me their own dad stories. I’ll give two examples, the first from friend Andy, a journalist. He erupted with fiery indignation saying at fifteen he gave his dad a black-eye. I asked why. It was because his dad hit his mum when his mum accused his dad of flirting with the strippers who shared his stage as the singer in a working men’s club. By the way, after the black eye, Andy’s dad continued living at home but in silence, and otherwise he didn’t change: his “flirting” continued unabated. That’s why Andy decided his dad was a twat.
By comparison, my father-trouble seemed mild: instead of raising my fists, I became reserved and escaped to university to study psychology.
The second example, from Chris, an insurance underwriter, arrived during our beery chat at a party. In a small circle of men, he spoke excitedly and emotionally of his “father wound” inflicted the moment he was born and put up for adoption. Movingly, he told us: “My heart aches to see fathers are such absent figures in a family”.
The seething power in our secret dad stories is demonstrated when the teller reddens, pulls faces, brushes aside a tear and gesticulates as he or she often flounders dumbfounded, in hurt and angry attempts towards a truth that eludes them. The story goes in a loop like a record in a groove, because the teller has no ending. The next time we meet there’s a fair chance their story will be repeated all over again.
The particulars in a family photo
In this story, no babies no wives were beaten and no babies put up for adoption. My father in the photo is smiling and looks relaxed, standing with his family in front of a small canoe strapped to the roof of our Hillman Husky. I’m second from the left and frowning while my three siblings look down or away from the lens. Mum poses politely in a smart skirt suit with handbag, not dressed for the river because she is refusing to join in.
Dad was fun, creative, energetic and spontaneous. He laughed, lit up a room and helped other people. He was constantly seeking something beyond the status quo but failing to find it. With ants in his pants and a trademark naivety, Dad bought the second-hand boat and used it just three times before it was cast aside and the next adventure beckoned.
My rift with Dad happened in a dramatic few moments eight years after the boat outing, while he packed his possessions into a van before driving off into his new life. He told me fatherhood had never suited him. He said he shied away from the responsibility. As he flung those pathetic excuses at me, inwardly I panicked. I told him I no longer needed a father and I wanted him to be my friend instead. That was a lie.
When Dad left that day, I saw him as a madman pressing a red destruct button. You treat a madman politely, but deep down it’s a different story. The rifts that Andy, Chris and I described with such passion to one another began with an offense: our dads hurt us for inexplicable reasons and failed to acknowledge their crime. We blamed them, perhaps called them twats and although they retreated to a safe distance, we were never free of them: the enduring strength of our stories testified to that.
That day when Dad resigned as a father and consented to be my friend, he moved far away to the north and our friendship didn’t turn out well, although the experience did give me a few valuable lessons later on.
It’s not surprising that on Fathers’ Day I never bought a card for the man who no longer wanted to be my father. I hoped and craved for a change in him: for him to ask about my feelings and say sorry for hurting the family. I didn’t believe that giving him a card could bring this about.
Weaving a magic spell
One sunny Sunday, soon after Dad’s second marriage had broken down, Helen (my wife) and I paid him a rare visit. The three of us sat in deckchairs drinking squash in his garden at Tunbridge Wells. Our conversation was tense and sparse, until Helen in a kindly and curious manner began asking about the upbringing he’d never spoken of. For a few minutes we learned about where he was born, what he remembered of his parents, their life in Croydon and Egypt, his hobbies, and National Service in the RAF and where he met Mum. Dad was changing right in front of my eyes, opening up to Helen’s genuine and warm interest. I listened silently for fear of breaking the spell. After a few minutes, we had crossed a divide and there was an easier feeling amongst us.
The improvement was temporary and one-sided. I knew a little more about Dad and, although he had nothing extra from me, I felt encouraged that progress was possible. The next time I met him was in a Brighton hotel and I tried to go further, but he clammed up and shut me out. After this, the years slipped past with sour disappointments and the impossible desire to reconnect gnawing inside.
Three years ago, almost two decades after Dad’s death and still aching, I embarked on an exorcism. I planned to achieve this by piecing together Dad’s story from old photos, papers and diaries. The difficult of writing this required me to call on methods I’d learned at work including a role-play technique for helping a client deal with their opponent in the workplace. I’d ask the client to sit in an empty chair, like an actor they played their opponent and talked me through the critical moment of conflict. Inspired by this to sit in the chair and walk in the shoes of my father the writing was made easier with a healing effect.
While writing this story, Dad changed, I changed and our relationship changed. I gained insights, some of them specific to my Dad and others pertinent to all children and all fathers: principles to inform our dealings with difficult dads.
Three guiding principles
Principle One. Fathers matter more than we usually admit. They matter to their children, to their partners and to society. If anyone would bother to do the sums, the costs of our collective failures in fatherhood are staggering.
Principle Two. Every father is fated to fall short. We give them such a gigantic canvas (including the protector, the provider, the problem-solver, friend, guide, listener, coach, help, not to mention the God). Thus we set them up in hundreds of ways to fail, just as the fathers of my journalist and underwriter friends and my own father failed. Unless he’s Picasso, he can only make a few cursory squiggles on the canvas and the rest is a lot of blank space.
When a father falls short, their child senses danger and this kills off trust. Then it’s a normal human reflex to distance ourselves, to blame dad and to treat him as ‘other’. Silence ensues and, as the “him and me” rift widens, yet it’s bubbling and troublesome inside both to father and child, even if we don’t usually admit this.
Principle Three. When the troublesome father is physically dead or gone, the (grown-up) child can take charge. Obvious really. You’re real dad’s no longer with you, so it’s your internalized dad that’s being troublesome, the one who still lives inside your head and your heart. You’re the only one who can do something about him.
Buried beneath the particulars
If we want to finish these troublesome dad stories, we have a choice. To discover what we can do we must return to the particulars.
Both the fathers of my parents were absentees and neither parent ever talked about their past. Perhaps it was too painful. Dad’s father was a strict brigadier in the army, often abroad and hardly ever at home. Mum’s father, shipwrecked in World War I, returned traumatized and when Mum was five her father failed to return from work. His wife and young children never saw him again.
By 1964, in the photo with the boat, Dad was already deeply dissatisfied. He wanted fun and novelty but family life with four young children was tedious. He felt trapped in what he called a gilded cage. He came to loathe Mum’s serious caution and his children’s “clinging dependency”. He tried every possible escape with tennis, car repairs, choirs, church, born-again religion and local politics. Meanwhile Mum coped single-handedly with four kids, a husband and her mother at home. Each new adventure was thrilling to Dad, like a gambler he liked having the odds stacked against him. Occasionally he tried to hook his children into this thrilling life and put us in danger at times, and naturally we didn’t thank him.
When Mum challenged Dad about his absences and the family’s frequent moves of job, home and school, he offered up noble reasons that perhaps he believed: this is for all of us, we are doing God’s work, building a better society, reforming politics and fostering human growth. Perhaps just bogus excuses for his less agreeable behavior that Mum called stubborn, neglectful and cruel? When Mum managed to corner him into admitting a mistake, he hung his head in pretended shame and promised Mum he would change.
After almost 20 years of marriage Dad was approaching 40 and feeling rebellious, blaming a strict upbringing sandwiched between two tumultuous wars. He was so dissatisfied that he started to try to change, and his path became more erratic. He became a stumbling change junkie with top marks for effort and zero for achievement.
This was in the 1960s, when society was changing and he was missing out. Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers were inspiring everyone to break the bonds of social control, overturn tired old conventions (like marriage), express themselves fully, liberate their greater human potential. Dad leapt on this bandwagon and joined the new Human Potential Movement, believing it was The Answer To His Prayers.
Dad strenuously denied Mum’s accusations of selfishness. Eventually, Mum’s resentfulness and her fearful caution (on behalf of her children) drove Dad into the arms of another woman whose courage he admired. Once he leapt there was no way back.
After the leap, he refused to explain himself to me, leaving me lost in confusion amidst the contradictions of his selfishness and his social mission. I hoped psychology would provide the answers, but decades later my heart still ached to understand the man that everyone else had erased from their lives.
Choosing to make friends
How can a child heal their “father wound”? Or in other words, how can we deal with our troublesome internalized dads?
A professional colleague called Susan, whose PhD investigates the stories we tell ourselves, pointed to something that should have been obvious: “you and your dad were in this one story together”. I said: “No. Dad was selfish and he got that from the Human Potential Movement”. She told a different story: “Some stories take more than a lifetime to complete. Your dad’s changing as he’s drawn into humanistic psychology, he divorces and you depart to study psychology while your dad crashes and burns. Oddly your career brings you back into the identical work your father did: both of you developing leaders and teams in organizations and contributing to the Human Potential Movement. The difference is you arrive after him and do it differently because you’ve learned some difficult lessons”.
Susan believed Dad had started something he simply couldn’t finish. Caught angrily in the fallout I might have shut Dad out forever but I went on to complete the story. She challenged my ambivalence about the Human Potential Movement: “get over it! You’re part of it. Your work’s all about developing people”. As soon as she said that, I wanted clear up my position with Dad’s legacy. I made two lists: what I’m carrying forward and other stuff that I’m leaving behind.
I’m carrying on the work of human growth. This means increasing self-awareness, belief in the potential of people, generosity, fun, laughter, gently bringing people together in effective working relationships, partnerships and collaborations in teams.
I’m leaving behind my anger at Dad the needy narcissist, the megalomaniac who believes he is the one, the mayhem and hurt he caused, and his refusal to explain. Also I’m ditching my ambivalence and skepticism towards the Human Potential Movement.
With this clarification, a curious shift began to occur: I liked Dad again, his faults didn’t seem so terrible and I felt a good deal happier about myself.
This also sparked a different approach to Father’s Day.
When Father’s Day arrives…
To be concrete with Father’s Day approaching, assuming your dad’s still alive, and you want to be friends but it’s complicated, instead of simply glossing over with a card or ignoring the day, here’s another option.
Before Father’s Day I invite you to sit quietly for 10 minutes in an empty chair, remembering a critical moment when you and he fell out. Speak out or write down the story from his point of view: what did he see, hear and feel? After this simple preparation of empathy, you can arrange to visit him and bring him a gift of something he likes. I’d bring my dad something to laugh about, a game to play and we’d go out for fish and chips. I might ask him some of Helen’s questions about his own childhood, but I’d keep it light and focus on what he enjoyed.
But if like me your dad is dead, your aim on Father’s Dad will simply be to achieve peace with yourself, rather than lapse into bitter memories. You could look at his photo, make the two lists (what you’d like to carry forward from him and what you’d leave behind). Remind yourself of something he’d have enjoyed.
What I’m thinking of doing is baking a carrot cake with slices of fresh strawberry on top. This brings together a recipe that came from Mum with the strawberries that Dad once grew in the garden. I’ll be happy with this.
Tony Page is a facilitator, coach and writer. He lives with his wife Helen in South West London. Their children are grown up and planted out.