Not everyone grows up in a situation where they are close to their parents. I was never close to my dad growing up. The older I got the more volatile our relationship became. However, just because we couldn’t get along doesn’t mean that I didn’t learn anything from him. In fact, I learned a lot. Here are five things I learned from my dad that have made me a better mom.
1. Self-medication is harmful to more than just you. My dad was an alcoholic. When he wasn’t passed out cold, he was violent and mean. The level of anger he could reach while sober was scary, but drunk? Nearly all of my memories of him are colored by alcohol. Some part of me thinks he was depressed and self-medicating. That’s why, at 28 years old, when depression took its final stranglehold on me and started affecting the way I was raising my kids that I got help. The right kind of help. And that’s helped make the difference for me.
2. I don’t break easily. There’s a lot of animosity between us. Whether it’s because of my personality or if I was molded this way, I don’t know. But I was feisty enough not to back down. I stood up for myself regardless of the consequence I had to face. Sometimes that meant facing violence and intimidation, having my head slammed into a wall and being cursed at. I left home knowing that I could protect myself, because if that situation didn’t break me, not much could. It has helped me keep my head on straight through some of the toughest parenting days. It has helped remind me, on days when I truly have lost all patience, that if I can look a man in the eye who is three times bigger than me, and stand tall, there isn’t much I can’t handle. I’ve got this, no matter what.
3. How to tolerate others’ opinions. My dad was the Archie Bunker of the Midwest. There was no end to the bigotry and hatred that flowed from his mouth, the “N” word being something I was accustomed to hearing. It wasn’t until I went to high school that I discovered what I knew of my friends was a stark contrast to what I’d been taught at home. In this way he taught me several valuable lessons. First, opinions are not fact. Second, I can choose to believe what someone tells me is the truth or I can seek out the truth on my own. And third, it isn’t my job to change someone else’s mind. It’s my job to not perpetuate ignorance.
4. The value of words. There are countless occasions where my father’s words hurt, but there were times when they were taken to an even deeper level of mean than I ever knew possible. Nothing hurt worse than the shame I felt after an incident with my cousin. Without oversharing the details, clearly an adult had sexually abused my cousin and he passed that along to me. When my father found out, instead of wanting to protect me or get me counseling, he shamed me and called me a filthy pig. Weeks of being called “Miss Piggy” taught me the impact words can have. Words can wound. I keep that in mind when dealing with my own children and teach them the power of words.
5. Sometimes people play tough, because they are vulnerable and frightened. It took me until I was well into adulthood to figure this out. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in therapy that it occurred to me that my father was an incredibly vulnerable person. The huge man who helped raise me, that fostered fear in me for years, was actually hurting. When my parents divorced after 18 years of marriage he cried. I thought then that it was an act, a means to manipulate a situation. I’d seen him cry only once before in my life and his recovery from that episode had been so swift that I didn’t trust his tears. Now, I see them for what they were, the pain made palpable. As an adult I look back with pity for him at that time. I look back and see a man who lived his life broken, never able to be his true self. That he could be so vulnerable, and loom so large in life, was a dichotomy that still sends me reeling. This man who carried himself like a tank, coming off as tough and hard, had an underbelly that was soft as Jell-O. His tears at that time, even though it took ten extra years to sink in, taught me to dig a little deeper where people are concerned. What we see isn’t what we get. People are complex and there are reasons they behave the way they do. I can pass that knowledge down to my kids in hopes that they may be more compassionate, even when people clearly don’t deserve it.
While the route to good parenting for me was most circuitous, it wasn’t without reward. This Father’s Day, as my children celebrate the men in their lives who teach them valuable lessons about the kind of men they will become, I will be on the sidelines thinking my own sort of thank yous. I can’t have my father in my life because I haven’t grown so much as to make room for forgiveness where he is concerned. However, I can still be thankful that he helped raise a pretty tough girl whose head is screwed on right. I can only hope that my sons reap the rewards of the hard-earned lessons my father taught me about being a mom.