Who’s your Dada?
Gus is almost one, and he has transformed from a colicky newborn into a rollicking baby in search of a good belly laugh. Simon is spending the summer at day camp, Gus has a wonderful babysitter, and I have 4 days a week to work on my writing.
So things are great. Except.
My sister is getting married.
Don’t get me wrong; I love my sister, and her fiancée. It’s great that she’s getting married.
It’s just that my father is invited.
I am nine, and I want to marry my dad. He is the smartest, most handsome man I know. At the Milwaukee Art Museum, we stand in front of Le Père Jacques (Wood Gatherer), an 1881 oil on canvas by Jules Bastien-LePage. A handsome man with a strong back carries a load of lumber balanced on his shoulders. His little girl plays in the tall grasses in the foreground. Her blue frock is the only hint of a world outside. The man and forest blend together, the earth tones surround her, protecting her lively form. It reminds me of our walks at a local nature preserve. “I love it Daddy, it’s my favorite. Looking at it, I can smell the forest.”
“That’s wonderful! And there’s so much more to learn…”
We walk through the museum, my dad and I, stopping at each painting. He describes color schemes, the history of perspective, and the details of different schools of art. He is an artist himself, keeping books full of charcoal sketches.
It is early morning when my sister Naomi and I sneak down to the playroom. I am wearing my favorite nightgown, pale blue with little white animal shapes. I love it because it’s like a long T-shirt, with snug, soft material that hangs just below my knees. I sleep in it every night. Naomi and I always come downstairs to play in the morning before getting dressed, naked under our “nighties”. Mom has turned our dining room into a playroom. She moved the dining table against the wall and put a plastic play structure in the middle of the carpeted floor. It has panels in primary colors that fit together like a box with a hole in the side to climb into. A slide with rails is attached to the top. I want to sit at the top of the slide and read my Archie comic book. I perch myself up there, ignoring that Naomi wants to play. At this moment it’s the best place in the house.
She’s sidling up to my spot. “I’m up here now. Don’t bother me while I’m reading.” I sit. I read. I giggle at a joke in the book.
“Can I see?” Naomi asked.
“No. I’m busy. Find your own thing to do.”
She climbs into the compartment underneath me and keeps popping out of the hole, giving me a pinch on the leg and then the wrist, shouting: “My turn. My turn. MY. TURN. MYTURNMYTURNMYTURN!” Each time she pops up, she pinches harder. I remain silent. Finally, she pops up and digs her nails so hard into the soft underside of my
wrist that when I twist away I see little half-moons of blood. I shriek in pain and reach down and throw my comic into the hole, hard. She lets out a high-pitched scream.
The floor shaking is my warning, a quick thud with each stomp that carries him in. He is wearing a t-shirt and pajama bottoms.
“What the fuck is going on in here? What is wrong with you guys? Shut
the fuck up you little assholes!”
His six-foot frame looms godlike, filling up the entryway. My body clicks–the fight or flight response turns on and has nowhere to go. I am cornered. I know this feeling, it’s totally familiar, but my body is so pumped with adrenaline that this feeling–and the accompanying familiarity–only happens now. But now is all I know. Now I’m scared. Now I hate. Now I want it to stop.
Naomi says, “She started it!” before I can. Maybe she thinks he’ll stop if he knows what happened. He takes a step forward and I scoot under the slide, in the little box with Naomi.
“SHUT UP! I don’t have to listen to this crap. Do you think I need you? I don’t. I don’t need you kids and I don’t need your mother. You are just chattel to me. Like cows. Pieces of shit.”
Each curse word punctuates my skin; cutting through the epidermis and worming it’s way into my bloodstream. I wonder if “chattel” is another word for “cattle.”
My mom appears suddenly from upstairs, her voice soft and shaky. “What’s going on?”
Dad kicks the slide with the ball of his bare foot, hard, as Naomi and I cower underneath.
“Fuck you! Shut the fuck up!” The kick makes a loud thud, like an exclamation point. The toy creaks at the joints, red connecting to yellow, but holds. I put my arm around Naomi. We are crying quietly so he won’t hear. He stomps up the stairs to his room and slams the door. I climb out of the slide and sit on the rug. I can’t walk because my knees are shaking so hard my whole body is moving. I can’t control it. I don’t try to stand because I don’t want Mom to see. I don’t want to marry my dad. I want him to drop dead.
My dad has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). At least we think he does. As he is never willing to admit to any problems, any diagnoses have been foisted upon him indirectly by the shrinks of family members left in the wake of his destructive path. Said shrinks mostly agree on the NPD, with perhaps a smattering of Depression or Bipolar disorder thrown in. A huge part of my recovery from my post partum depression is accepting the fact that he is still abusive, unbalanced, blissfully unaware and uninterested in changing. In accepting that fact, I’ve decided it’s okay for me not to be in contact with him. It’s okay that I haven’t been in contact with him for some time. That is one way that I take care of myself.
But, there is no way I can miss my sister’s wedding. So. I am going to have to see my father for the first time in several years.
I can live with that. I’ll have to.
The big question has become: Should I bring my kids?
Simon is approaching his fifth birthday and at least twice in the past months he has wondered: “Mama, I know Poppa is Dada’s daddy, but who is your dada?”
My answer has always been very curt and informational. “My father is Grandpa Jon.”
The next questions always follow: “Where is he? Do I know him?” And I answer “You met him a long time ago.”
Finally this last time Simon prods further: “Why don’t I see him now, like I see grandma? And why isn’t he with grandma?”
I take a deep breath. I have prepared for this question with an answer, but I’m not prepared for the shock of anxiety I am feeling now that he has asked. I answer: “He has a hard time being around people. So we don’t see him very much.”
Silence. Then a satisfied “Okay!” and he picks up his red ball and moves on.
I can’t bear to imagine an encounter between my father and my son. What if my father says “I’ve wanted to see you all this time-” or worse: “Your mom wouldn’t let me see you?”
I don’t think my kids would be in any danger in the public setting of the wedding. His M.O. has always been to act out in private, and maintain a smooth public façade. You have to talk to him awhile before you start to notice something is off.
But I’m figuring out that this decision is not about a fear for my children’s physical safety, or even for their emotional well-being. I am confident about that. It’s not even really about my children.
It’s about me. Me watching my Dad through my innocent child’s eyes. Me feeling that most dangerous nostalgia. The thought of being there while my son–who thinks all daddies are good–looks into the eyes of my father scares the hell out of me.
Mother-me can’t go to this wedding. It needs to be Independent-me. Mother-me is in danger of overlap. Of cracking under nostalgia. Of looking into his eyes, a mirror image of mine, and getting too close to the dad I wanted to marry. Because when that dad gets close, so does the one I wanted to drop dead all those years ago.
So it is clear to me. My boys won’t be at the wedding. I just hope it’s okay for me to make this decision. That my confidence in my motherhood will hold. That I can see it through despite the pressure I’ll get to let Simon be the ring-bearer and put all that other stuff
aside for This One Moment.
Is it okay to decide this even though it is really more about me than my kids? More about me than my sister, The Bride? I am beginning to realize that this person I’m becoming, the one who has overcome depression to meet her strong, mama-bear self, is going to need constant reinforcement. And the reinforcer is going to have to be me.
8 replies on “Who’s your Dada?”
This was beautiful. Thank you.
Boy, can I relate. My step father and I have not had a relationship for many years, which is the way I want it. Since my mother finally divorced him a few years back, I would cut ties to that family altogether if it weren’t for my relationship with his 89-year-old mother, my Granny.
I’ve told myself that I could possibly resume moderate communication with him if he made amends to me for the horrendous things he did when I was growing up. But since such amends are unlikely to happen, here we are. I never call him. When I go back to my homestate, I don’t let him know that I’m there. I don’t send birthday cards, or Christmas cards, and certainly not Father’s Day cards.
But he keeps sending presents for my kids. Predictably, on their birthdays and at Christmas, packages arrive. My only direct communication to him is through thank you notes, which reveal little.
So it surprised me when, on a recent trip to my home state, I decided that I’d kept the children from that family for too long. And I took time away from my stay with my best friend to take one child, my oldest, for a visit to the old house. I knew the step dad would never cause a scene in front of my little boy. He loves to charm children.
I made sure other relatives were around a lot. I remained neutral the whole time and stayed totally in control of my surroundings.
Now I feel I’ve done my duty, and I hope never to have to see him again except at Granny’s funeral. When she dies, we’re done.
It’s interesting to note that his own sister didn’t speak with their father for 20 years at least. The same pattern of mailed packages and cards to the grandchildren developed. I hope I am not like her, though, because she seemed to be grasping at her old hurts. When he finally died, she was escorted by her siblings to his house, where she broke down on the porch and couldn’t go inside.
I don’t want that to happen to me. I really try not to give the situation much juice.
Thanks for illustrating a healthy way to deal with monsters from the past with strength and self-preservation.
I really relate to your story. My father has some emotional & mental issues that he can’t or won’t deal with. He cut ties with most of his family, including his children, after my mom left him. I have conflicted feelings about it, but honestly for the most part, I think it’s better if my son doesn’t know him.
My husband never saw him at his worst, and doesn’t really understand why I don’t want my father to meet our son.
I know where you’re coming from.
Thanks for the kind words Vicki! And Susie, I’m glad you could relate–good luck with your situation!
I never met my Mom’s Dad for similar reasons. I don’t regret it.
I have never met any of my late mother-in-law’s family. She died before I met my husband. He talks to his grandmother maybe once a year over the phone. She will never know me or our children because she is a bad person. It is that simple. He is the gatekeeper to his extended family and that is what he has decided. I trust him completely in this.
You have to decide what and who you allow into your family’s life. You are the gatekeeper, for yourself and your children. Don’t just be the mama-bear, be the dragon at the gate.
You’re making the right decision! My maternal grandfather was, according to all my relatives, charming in public but abusive to his wife and kids in private. I wouldn’t know, because my mother protected my siblings and me from ever meeting him (it helped that grandma had divorced him years before I was born). I was occasionally curious about why I had two grandmas and only one grandpa, but it wasn’t at all important in my day-to-day life. Mom protected me, and my sibs, from the heartbreak of getting attached to an abusive relative. You’re doing the right thing for your children.
i am sorry you have had so many bad experiences and that your father didn’t understand how unhappy you were because of him. you are entitled to your current personal analysis, but communication with your father may change the impressions you had as a child and renew your confidence to communicate. if you talked you might find another response to the problems you pose to the world in your public blog.