Another preface: This post is really hard to write, as the one about Mama was. For a long time, while my relationship with Mama has been often volatile, my relationship with Daddy has been a dormant volcano, burning and bubbling under the surface. I know the safe subjects with him, things we have in common: baking, being weather geeks, our struggles with our weight, jokes we find funny.
Talking about those “safe” subjects for the past few years has often been sufficient for me, but what I am coming to realize is how much I’ve avoided as it pops up in my marriage.
None of this post, like my post about Mama, is meant to demean my dad or show any lack of appreciation towards him doing the best he has been capable of doing as a father. There is so much I understand now that I didn’t as a child and teenager, but I am not trying to rationalize anything here as much as I desperately want to.
This is about figuring out their role in the critical thoughts that plague me, as many of them came from how they reacted towards me and my brothers and each other as we grew up together.
The John (again, another John, I’m surrounded by them) Steinbeck quote above is like a release for me. Someone finally telling me I’m not perfect and that is okay. That I can finally be myself, good, fucked up, and still trying to figure shit out.
Growing up with Daddy, my brothers and I were expected to be statues. Quiet, calm, and well-behaved. This was especially the case with Adam and I, who are 22 months apart and who were the only children for the first seven years of my life and five of his. If we had so much as an uncontrollable giggle fit in the backseat of the car, we were threatened with a spanking.
We were expected to just know how to behave and to do it without any direction from Daddy. He often preferred to ignore us – or, in his words, “not disturb us” – when we got along well, which bothered me. I wanted his affection so deeply, and it hurt so much to be brushed away whenever I went to hug him or tried to get him to dance with me. I wanted him to listen to me. I wanted him to tell me he loved me and that I was “Daddy’s little girl.”
But since it took misbehaving to get his attention, that became my specialty, which, at its worst, was picking a fight with Adam, hurting him, then lying about it, being a smartass at the worst times, or using Mama’s lipstick to write all over the walls, Adam, and June’s clothes with. (That was a horrible spanking I very much deserved, but I felt more horrified and betrayed that June “tattled” on me.)
I don’t remember him telling me he loved me until I was 17 and about to drive over to my high school best friend Samantha’s house for the first sleepover he ever allowed me to go to.
And when he helped chaperone a mission trip to Texas with the church youth group Adam and I were involved in a few weeks before Mama filed for divorce from him, I watched Daddy treat the other girls my age like I had always wanted him to treat me. I watched him compliment them and listen to them and help them.
I listened to those girls, specifically one named Michelle, tell me how I had the best father ever. I wanted to tell them it was all a show, that he always made himself seem greater than he was. I wanted to tell them they could have him as their dad because he never seemed to want to be mine.
Daddy was never wrong. If he did something that hurt or angered me, it was my fault. Either I was being too sensitive or “on my period” or I got what was coming to me for whatever I said or did that garnered the reaction I got from him.
In the same driveway I remember him telling me he loved me at 17, he slapped me so hard across my face it left a giant red handprint because of something that had happened between Adam and me. When I burst into tears and yelled at him for hitting me, he said that he had meant to jokingly slap my arm and I “stepped into it.”
When I told him I had to move out two weeks after returning from college because he and I were fighting so much, he said, “Everything would be fine if you would just behave yourself.”
Again, he’s Teflon when it comes to taking responsibility for his actions. I am to blame. I am too much.
Behave yourself, Amy, behave yourself. That’s all I heard growing up. Well, that, and his classic “I didn’t ask you what you wanted” response whenever I suggested a way that was not in line with his.
Daddy being so emotionally closed off made him hard to relate to. I never felt like I could fully relax and be myself with him because to do so would to be met with judgment, condemnation, and criticism.
Curiosity or critical thinking often felt dismissed.
When I once suggested that maybe God didn’t create the universe in literally seven days as written in the Bible, he shut off the conversation with “If you believe that, then we don’t believe in the same God,” a comment of condemnation and isolation to me. I was not allowed to question anything about the Christian faith I was raised in. This is something I often still feel alone in.
I loved listening to him sing growing up and so often, I wanted to sing with him. I couldn’t because there was always some assessment of my vocal abilities or lack thereof, in his opinion. I wanted to have something with my father where it was not met with any sort of criticism and we just enjoyed doing something together.
There was always something I couldn’t do quite right or everything about me became the subject of some “joke” fueled by anger, disappointment, and/or shame.
If I made all As and one B, it was, “Why did you get a B?”
When teachers told him how sweet, well-behaved, and smart I was in class and how much they loved having me as a student, he always looked shocked and turned to me to say, “Why don’t you act like this at home?” (I always joked that I behaved in school because I didn’t want to get spanked there and then get extra spanked at home, but a lot of it was because I had amazing teachers who encouraged and believed in me.)
When I hit the softball to the fence consistently in practice but struck out at every at-bat during games, there was no sympathy or empathy around my desire to be the best and help my team win to the point it overwhelmed me. It was “Why do you suck when it matters most?” It felt like I had not only let my softball team down but had once again proven what a loser I was to my own father.
When I wanted him to teach me how to make his homemade buttermilk biscuits as a kid, he pushed me out of the kitchen after about five minutes because I wasn’t moving fast enough and he “didn’t have all day.” I never asked him to teach me to bake again after that and instead figured it out on my own.
When Daddy, Ben, and Caleb went with me to the Toyota dealership to help me find the first car I bought, Daddy joked to my brothers that I wouldn’t be able to buy a car because “they don’t sell cars to fat, ugly chicks.” He got mad at Caleb for telling me what he said.
I was very afraid of Daddy growing up, and this extended to when I moved away for college and as an adult. I was never the delinquent he seemed to think I was. This fear kept me from drinking until I was 21 (and even then, I didn’t get drunk), smoking, experimenting with drugs, or even having anything close to sex until I met John when I was 28.
I nearly flunked out of college due to severe depression, but he was angry that I wasted June’s money and made a bad example for Ben and Caleb. I’ve never told him how I contemplated suicide just before graduation and how his criticism of what he saw as me being lazy and apathetic was more of an unheard cry for help.
The most deeply wounding thing Daddy did to me growing up was ignore me. With three brothers and Daddy working overtime and also taking care of Grandma, who has Parkinson’s, as she got older, it was nearly impossible to get any undivided attention from him. The few times I got anything close to it, I couldn’t shut up.
If I tried to talk to him when the TV was on, he drowned me out with the sound of whatever show he watched. If I asked him any questions or for a response, he snapped at me or didn’t even notice I was talking.
I remember one time being at Walmart and he walked away from me in the middle of me talking. He used to tell Caleb when he got off the phone with me that I had talked his ear off and no one could talk as much as me, but I so often did it because otherwise, there was nothing but awkward silence.
This is a wound that threatens to exsanguinate whenever John walks into another room while I am talking to him or when he does not respond to me or snaps at me if I ask him a question.
Even if I know he is actually listening to me, unlike Daddy, it all goes back to how I talk too much and am not interesting enough to give full attention to or respond to. This fuels the critical voice that tells me I am burden and a bother and might as well shut up because nothing I say is worth hearing and my thoughts and feelings do not matter.
In 2010, in either a birthday or Father’s Day card, I wrote Daddy a letter telling him how much I struggled to feel loved and accepted by him, how much I wanted to know him, unlike his relationship with his father who died when I was a kid.
Three weeks later, he called me and said he got my letter. His response to the whole thing was that it was long and my handwriting was hard to read. He started calling me more often after that, but only to discuss the “safe” subjects mentioned above. I’ve learned a little more about his life growing up and I can understand why he doesn’t mention it much. But in all of this, I pretty much accepted what I’ve gotten from Daddy is all I will ever get and I cannot expect more.
When John and I lived near Atlanta, I worked as an administrative assistant for a consulting HR company. Nearly all of the inadequacies I struggled with in my relationship with my dad showed their face in working with the manager I had for the 4 of 6 years I worked for this company.
I never felt comfortable talking to him. I forever felt rushed, like I was wasting his time, so I fumbled over the words I tried to spill out as quickly as possible in order not to bother him. I never intuited which questions to ask and when to ask them or annoyed him with the questions I had.
Once, when I broke down in his office after making a huge mistake with a client, he said, “I’m glad to see you upset. I was starting to feel like you didn’t give a shit.”
Sadly, by that point, I had stopped giving a shit about a lot of things because I was tired of the daily panic attacks and crying jags in the bathroom at work. I couldn’t care anymore because it hurt to be told nothing I did was right or enough.
No matter how much praise I received from others, clients and coworkers, all my boss could focus on were the errors I made when it came time for my annual review. Lots of “does not meet expectations.”
Welcome to my fucking life, buddy.
Forget me ever being creative or innovative. Those require curiosity, which my overanalyzing obliterates.
The passions I do have, I mostly keep on a “tell, don’t show” basis. I don’t dare to sing or dance in front of John, and I get so flustered when I bake because I want it to impress him.
Even in our “safe” conversations, I constantly try to impress my dad. And like with him, I veer to the “safe” subjects whenever things get tense or emotional in my conversations with John. All I seem to know how to do well is change the subject to something non-confrontational and without need for depth or vulnerability or blame myself to make my feelings easier for them both to swallow.
When my “father wounds” bleed into my marriage to John and I try to accept the limitations presented to me, I often find myself pissed off and resentful that I do this in both of the most important male relationships in my life. Like how in the hell did I wind up marrying into this struggle? Most would tell me this was bound to happen.
In the past year and a half, after leaving the job with the toxic manager and putting myself in new environments and new jobs and going through nine months of marriage counseling with John, I am starting to offer myself a little more of the grace I did not receive growing up.
I tend to put up this “I wish a motherfucker would…” tough girl front, like I can handle anything. I can take care of myself. I am just fine left alone. I don’t need anyone. Not even close to true.
My writing seems deeply vulnerable and in a lot of ways it is, but I can do this all day long. Vocalizing my vulnerability, however, is an entirely different story. I’d almost prefer to stand on stage in front of millions in only my underwear.
I am tired of feeling the constant need to protect myself and the inability to trust anyone, including myself.
Even my asshole of a boss once reminded me, “It is not you versus us, Amy. We are all a team and we, meaning the team, want to see you grow and develop and succeed. You are not on your own here.”
Why is this still so hard for me to understand and even harder to believe?
It’s exhausting to constantly feel like there’s some yardstick out there I need to measure up to in order to be worth loving and accepting, especially when that yardstick constantly moves in a society that no one actually measures up to. Why should I even care so damn much about an impossible measuring stick?
Hopefully I will figure this out as I continue writing.
Because you matter to me
Simple and plain and not much to ask from somebody
You matter to me
I promise you do, you, you matter too
I promise you do, you see?
You matter to me
“You Matter to Me,” from the Waitress Broadway soundtrack