I had a very strange and strained relationship with my father. In his defense, he was 59 when I was born and newly married, for the first time. He had been a confirmed bachelor, living alone, for a long, long time.
Then suddenly he had a young wife of 33 and a child. Culture shock on all fronts. To his discredit, he never really tried to become more child-oriented and he never reached out to me at the various stages of my life. My Dad and Mom adored each other and had a wonderful relationship. But Mom could never get him to change his ways with me.
Dad was a practicing psychoanalyst, a teacher and a published writer in his field. He lived in an intellectual ivory tower and was totally absorbed in his intellectual pursuits. That left little room for me. He would often walk by me in the hallway and not see me or acknowledge me. On other days, the only thing he would say to me was, “Where’s your mother?”
He also yelled a lot. He yelled out of anxiety rather than anger and was never mean or demeaning to anyone. Nevertheless, because of his aloofness combined with his yelling, I was scared of him. I usually didn’t want to be alone with him so my Mom had to be an intermediary between us. This made Dad feel hurt and rejected by me and created a vicious circle.
Me and my parents when I was 11
When I was about nine, my mom finally decided that we had to confront one another. She insisted that I tell my dad, to his face, that I didn’t like it when he yelled. I was frightened, but I did it. I’ll never forget my dad’s response: “Do I yell?” Dad then proposed that whenever he yelled, I should tell him he was yelling and then tell him to stop. It didn’t really reduce the yelling, but it reduced the tension between us and banished my fear of him. After that, whenever he yelled, I just yelled back.
Our relationship was epitomized by our dinnertime ritual. Both parents worked at home, as therapists. Dad always got out of work for dinner before my mom did. So we would sit at the dinner table, each at opposite ends, waiting for my mom. In silence. As soon as Mom arrived, we would all begin talking. Our conversations were lively, interesting and often filled with laughter. Both parents were interested in what I was doing and what I thought about whatever we were discussing. But the conversation was rarely between just me and my dad.
When I got old enough to have serious intellectual conversations about history, current events, anthropology, etc., my dad and I had many on-on-one exchanges. One summer during high school, I read books on ancient Egypt and Dad and I shared many conversations on that topic. In high school, I started helping my Mom edit Dad’s writing. That provoked some heated discussions,
When I moved away from home, our phone conversations were short and stilted. We’d say, “Hello. How are you?” and then usually Dad would say “Here’s your mother” and turn the phone over to her.
My dad cared about me and worried about me a lot. He just shared all this with my mother, not with me directly. Mom would report to me about what my father thought about what was going on in my life. We would have three-way conversations when I had serious issues and Dad would be attentive and insightful. This only made it more painful to me that we could only have these conversations when my mother was present.
I realize now that in many ways, my dad was more in tune with me than my mom was. He was also usually more likely to say, “Let her do it her way. Don’t push her.” My mom was more controlling and had a fixed idea of what my life should be.
The last thing my dad said to me before he died, was, “What did I do to deserve a daughter like you? I didn’t deserve you.” I replied, “You’re right. But I love you anyway.” I guess for us, that was a form of closure.