Dear Fathers: What I wish my dad had known before he left

Until recently I used to always roll my eyes when I heard the term ‘daddy issues.’

To me it was just an excuse girls used to wear dresses that are too short and sleep with men they knew didn’t care about them. After all, my dad moved out after my parents got divorced and I didn’t go around in skimpy dresses hooking up with guys I barely knew.

I was convinced that I had been unaffected; that ‘daddy issues’ was just a made up term by Hollywood or a misguided psychologist.

In fact, it wasn’t until over ten years afterward that I started to suspect that maybe, possibly I was wrong (there’s a first time for everything!).

I had always been anxious around men and very distrustful of them, something I never questioned. To me that was normal. Why would you think a guy was good? They might be cute, or funny, or charming, or talented…but not trustworthy. And I was more than okay with that. To me thinking any differently was just being naive.

I watched as my friends got hurt over the years while patting myself on the back for not making their same mistakes. I knew better than to try ‘putting myself out there.’ ‘Miss Independent’ was my theme song and I was proud of it (Kelly Clarkson’s version, not Ne-Yo’s).

Of course I did get hurt – heartbroken- in fact. I liked guys and was disappointed by them; but I mostly kept this to myself. It never got far enough that many others knew or that I was particularly invested. When it finally did go wrong, I felt oddly satisfied that I had been right about them all along. Guys couldn’t be trusted, not even the ‘good’ ones. Not even the ones that said ‘I love you.’

That is what I believed. Until I actually met and really liked a good guy, and then I was in trouble.

Big time.

The problem wasn’t him. The problem was that I treated him like every other guy I had known (or thought I had known). Suspicious, questioning, doubting, accusing, undeserving of my trust or the benefit of the doubt…not at first, obviously; but the more I got to known him the more I felt comfortable expressing anger toward him, even when he most definitely did not deserve it.

I became more and more frustrated with myself as I tried to trust and failed repeatedly. Why couldn’t I just have a little faith? Why was I sabotaging this relationship that was so precious to me? Why was I hurting the man I loved so much?

The answer that kept coming up and that I persistently dismissed was this: maybe it was because dad left.

Fathers teach their daughters how to be loved. They are meant to cherish and dote on us. They tell us we’re beautiful and smart and set the standard of how we are meant to be treated by men. They are our rock, a figure of strength and stability amidst the chaos that is growing up in today’s world.

But that’s not what I learned.

What I learned was that men leave, and that it might be my fault. Something about me could be innately unlovable. Because if I was lovable, he would have loved me; and if he loved me, he would have stayed.

Cognitively, at the age of 23 I understand that his leaving had little to nothing to do with me. I also understand that my dad had his own demons that were instrumental in his decision to leave, and that he did not mean to hurt me. But the damage was done. To undo 10 years of deep hurt that was pushed down and strong defenses that were built up is a monumental task. I had to become something unnatural to survive, tough and angry, something not compatible with my naturally sensitive demeanor.

Experience is the most powerful teacher and my parents’ divorce and my father moving back overseas afterward is probably the most defining moment of my life so far. As much as we try to tell ourselves it’s not, divorce is traumatizing and destroys families and the individuals within them.

I’m lucky enough that my dad calls me almost every day. He cares about me, certainly. But unfortunately, phone calls will never replace the presence of a strong, loving father, day in and day out.

‘Daddy issues’ are real (even though I still hate that term). I say all this, not to evoke sympathy, but as a plea to any men out there. If you are married, or thinking about marriage – especially if you are a father – understand that your role is irreplaceable and that you are needed more than you will ever truly know. Your marriage is not just about you, if you have children, regardless of whether or not they are aware of it, they want to be loved by you; and your leaving will affect them for the rest of their lives.

I suffered a lot at the age of 12 when my parents separated. 10 years later it continues to haunt me as I attempt to navigate my way back to trust with someone who actually deserves it. It has been immensely difficult for both of us and not something I would wish on my worst enemy. No one should have to deal with this, but I know many do. Two Christmases, Thanksgivings, weekends shuffling back and forth between houses, step-parents…it’s not normal. As a culture we’ve convinced ourselves that it is, and twelve-year-old girls everywhere are being completely heartbroken by the one man that is supposed to love them the most, by the one man that was supposed to know better.

I wish dad had known that before he left.

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