I recently wrote a piece for Huffington Post and was stunned by the reaction it received. I think the title, “Why I Could Still Kill Him,” is probably at the root of the vitriol. I wanted something that would grab the attention of a potential reader, and boy did I get it. I stopped reading the responses after two days when one particularly vigilant commenter had me wondering if I’d dumped him in high school.
The comments often reflected a gender pattern. The bulk of the negative ones came from men and those that either praised or empathized were usually women. I never thought men would personalize it—especially if they were good fathers. This wasn’t a generalization about all chromosome XYers just an example of the impact that one negligent parent can have on his child—even when she’s an adult.
I know a little about that.
My mother was the sort of woman who probably shouldn’t have had children. I always felt like an afterthought–invisible in her world. She had lots of interests and her career was the priority. The small place in her life for me was very low on her totem pole.
The person who showed me how to be a mother was my father.
My parents both sought custody of my brother and me when they divorced, but it was 1976 and children always went with the mother. My father was without question the main caregiver, but that was the way it went in family court 36 years ago. He left our home with nothing–not wanting anything to change in our environment. My mother frequently laughed and said, “Your dad got the Toyota and the Fry Baby (deep fryer she loathed).”
Every Wednesday he would pick us up for dinner, every weekend we’d be with him and he had us for a month in the summer. He wasn’t a Disneyland Dad–money was tight–but we sat down each night to the meal he’d prepared and he was genuinely interested in the details of our lives. We always took a road trip in the summer—he was a school principal and had a great vacation schedule. I never went on a vacation with my mother.
It couldn’t have been easy for him, but we never knew it. My mother often pointed out his shortcomings. “I know you think your father is perfect, but…” and she’d go into a litany of criticisms. I never understood why I felt shame. When I went through my divorce and attended the required parenting class, I learned that when a parent bashes the other parent to the children it is the same as saying those things about that child. My father didn’t waste time denigrating my mom.
Eventually both of my parents figured out a way to put their animosity aside and it was a fairly healthy divorce—as healthy as that can be. My dad would come over for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, and my brother and I had both parents and extended family together on the holidays. Even after they each remarried this arrangement continued.
They co-parented, and I dreaded hearing, “Your father and I would like to speak to you.” They were a united front when I messed up.
I figured that was how things would work after my divorce. We’d put the bitterness behind us and find a way to raise our two daughters as a team. We were equally to blame for our failed marriage—two people who were much too young and were never a good fit—but I thought we could have a civil post-divorce relationship and focus on the two best things that came out of our union.
There were lots of great qualities my former spouse possessed (athletic ability, brainpower, flawless skin, an irreverent sense of humor), and when I’d see them in our daughters, I’d point them out. He took the opposite road. When the girls returned from infrequent visits they’d share what he said. I’d ask, “Do you think that’s true?” They’d say they didn’t. “How do you feel when he says those things?” They’d talk about their anger, how they felt like defending me and it almost always made them cry. I told them I understood since my mother said those same sorts of things about my dad. Don’t think for a moment that my Zen exterior was the same inside. My blood boiled and my internal dialog would’ve made a longshoreman blush. Behind my poker face I set a new record for how many times motherf#&*$r could be used in a sentence.
The contact with their father was sporadic and the girls were devastated by his lack of involvement. Counseling helped; but they’d begin to make progress and something would happen that set them back. One of the most hurtful experiences was when he didn’t tell them that he’d remarried and had a baby. They had a stepmother and brother and didn’t even know it.
I assumed that once he’d found happiness with someone else his anger towards me would subside. It didn’t. I also hoped that the girls could spend more time with their dad especially since he’d settled down–that their fractured relationship could heal. If I’m being completely honest I wanted this for me too. I never thought I’d be raising them alone after the divorce. It was exhausting being the sole parent 24/7 for years. I needed and deserved a break. I wanted to have some small slice of a life where I wasn’t a mother first. Unfortunately, that never happened and I had to accept that I’d be doing it on my own as I tried to figure out a way to compensate for both his absence and lack of interest–a ridiculous goal.
I finally learned to let go of the dream that my mom was going to have an epiphany and become the mother I always wanted her to be. It took me 40 years. I see my daughters, now adults, struggling with those same hopeless hopes, and my wish is that they’ll be much faster students than I was. I think they’ll eventually reach the conclusion I did– which is to accept that having one loving parent is better than many people get. I’m sure they’ll bring their own experiences into the mix when they start a family and I know they’ll be great mothers. I’m also confident they’ll choose a life partner much more wisely than their father and I did.
I recently asked my 79-year-old dad why we’d never talked about my mother’s indifference towards me. He took a deep breath and a look of pain crossed his face. “It just wasn’t natural. I kept thinking I was mistaken. Then I figured she’d come to her senses. Maybe someday she will, but it has nothing to do with you. It’s something lacking inside her.”
That’s the same sort of answer I give my daughters when the subject comes up.
Once again, even at this late stage, my father continues to be the person I try to emulate in my role as a mother.
Melani’s blog: www.1yearofonlinedatingat50.com documents her recent foray into online dating at the tender age of 50.
You can also learn more about Melani on her website: www.melanirobinson.com.
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