Fathers Week concludes today at Clutch, with reflections about dads who aren’t exactly the Cliff Huxtable type.
It’s a safe bet that this Sunday will have a significant portion of the black community all up in its feelings. While it’s been wonderful, affirming, and inspiring to hear our readers’ fond feelings about their fathers, we also promised to allot space to those whose relationships with their dads are more complicated.
We get it. It’s one thing when fathers fall short of their children’s expectations; it’s another entirely when they barely claim them, don’t support them, can’t remember their birthdays, and/or denigrate them or their mothers. When a father wishes he weren’t one, his attitude toward his children can cause them lifelong emotional and psychological harm.
Sometimes, things are even grayer than that. Maybe Dad isn’t a full-on villain, but his inconsistency, his absence, or his selfishness impede his ability to be an effective parent. Maybe he feels little obligation to do more than the minimum, because he’s got a case of the At Leasts: at least he’s not a deadbeat; at least he isn’t denying his kids; at least he’s staying in his loveless marriage for the sake of the kids; at least he’s on time with his child support payments; at least he’s doing more than his own father did for him.
Dads with the At Leasts can be just as damaging as dads who are entirely absent–sometimes more so. When black fathers are even marginally involved with their children, their cases of the At Leasts become contagious. If the child intimates a desire for more involvement, those closest to her may be quick to remind her that she should be grateful for what she has. When he’s gone altogether, you’ve never met him, and he’s unlikely to ever return, the permanence of a father’s absence can be a blessing in disguise. For better or worse, consistency is consistency. It’s the inconsistencies that drag us onto all the emotional rollercoasters we’d rather not ride.
Surviving childhood with an entirely or sporadically absent dad is a hard-earned success. But now that you’re grown and responsible for the management of your own actions and emotions, your complicated feelings toward your father might be even less tolerated among those you love. It becomes your fault for still expecting more from him “after all these years.” Your family could be quick to remind you that your father has “always been this way” and is unlikely to change very much. Even if you intellectually agree, emotional acceptance of your father’s failings is a lot harder to reconcile.
But here’s the thing: acceptance of a father–just as he is, whether mildly disappointing or patently awful–is often necessary for your own peace. Mind you, acceptance here doesn’t mean welcoming mistreatment. It doesn’t mean opening yourself to a relationship with him, when he’s hurt you too much for such an interaction to be healthy. It doesn’t mean not prosecuting him if he’s physically harmed you. It doesn’t mean a tearful soul-baring conversation needs to be had. All it means is that, until you are able–once and for all–to say: “This is the man who is, in part, biologically responsible for my being here. And he is who he is, whether that benefits me or not,” you will always have wounds that can’t fully heal. Expecting more than he’s ever shown evidence that he’s able or willing to provide will lead to prolonged disappointment and compounded anger. Each dashed hope or expectation that he will make good on a promise, though he’s rarely done so before, will feed an ulcer of unhappiness.
This Sunday, instead of taking to social media or calling fellow friends-without-fathers to vent (if that’s been your go-to Father’s Day tradition in the past), try adopting a new mantra: “I will not expect what I know I won’t receive. I will not nurse anger that I know I have the power to release. I will not allow my father’s absence or estrangement to dictate my adult life.”
And then hit a club, a bookstore, a movie, an ice cream parlor, a gym, a church, or a friend’s place and go get your (new) life.
Here’s your opportunity to discuss your difficult relationship with your dad. Since we know that the above-mentioned suggestions aren’t the only way to deal with a complicated paternal relationship, feel free to discuss other ways in which you’ve coped. We’d also love to hear from you if your relationship with your father has improved, as a result of either you or him taking a different approach to it.