Ok, so it’s not all light-hearted.
Raise your hand if you had a rejecting father! Oh, boy, I was afraid of that, there’s a lot of you out there.
I had one, have one still, actually, and I’m afraid that I in my turn became one as well. After my own fashion, and very different from the style adopted by my father, but I almost certainly qualify. From, you might say, the opposite point of origin: my father started with the feeling that he was better than everyone else; I started with the idea that everyone else was better than me. No matter, there’s more than one way to get from point “A” to point “B” in this bad-parent sweepstakes.
Total abandonment is the worst rejection, of course. My father did not actually abandon us, as in go out for cigarettes never to return, as in divorce my mom and become totally invisible, but it was close, and the effect was almost the same. He merely took a position with his job that kept him traveling all the time. We were lucky to see him once a week. He’d come home from somewhere late one night, make himself franks and beans, re-pack his suitcase and catch some sleep, then leave again in the morning for somewhere else. After my age of eight or ten, he was not really present in the house. It was harder on my sister, she’s four years younger than me and, well, that was her dad and maybe it’s harder for girls to be ignored by their dads.
Maybe he was right. Come to think of it, we lived in such a crazy house that I went home as infrequently as possible too. Again, my poor sister, I probably could have made a difference. I’m sorry about that, but teenage boys are notoriously oblivious after all, and I for one was living in a dream world.
My father also had that whole hyper-critical thing going on. I thought that it took a lot of nerve to come home once in a while and start bitching right away. As he got older he tried not to inflict it so generally, but as it is the scorpions nature to sting, he still works in those little zingers on a regular basis. I wondered, and I’m sure that my sister did too, what we had done to ruin our family, that’s a bad feeling right there.
My wife of almost forty years had a rejecting father too. In his case, he had a regular job and came home after work everyday. After that, though, after dinner, he’d go to the bar at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall and come home as the children were going to bed, or after. If he stayed at home, he’d stay in his basement workshop, drink some beers, and play with the short-wave radio. With both of our dads, there wasn’t any real communication going on, and the message to children is: you are not important . . . I reject you.
I got married young and had a child right away, and for the first eight or nine years I followed the “going out” pattern of my wife’s father. After dinner, it was “see you later.” The first few years, we lived in New York City and I’d just go out with my friends, get loaded, see a movie, watch a ball game, maybe play cards, mostly get loaded. I was happy to be married and have a family, I loved my wife and son, but I’m pretty sure that I didn’t show it.
At some point we moved to L.A. I felt like I needed a change of scene, maybe straighten up a little. In one of the great ironies of my life, I got a job with a chain of record stores and once again, everybody that I knew got loaded. I wasn’t complaining. We were in the main warehouse, forty people all together, so everybody came to us, it was a buyers-market. Plus, we got comped at the good rock clubs, with a couple of free drinks, no less. I didn’t mind. I liked hanging out.
Another few years and we had a second child. It occurred to me that I was a lucky man, I had a nice family, and I was better after that. For the next ten years or so I was an engaged, happy family man, not quite arrow-straight but close, an accessible, at home dad, helpful even. By that time, though, I’m pretty sure that it was too late to change the message for my first son, odds are the rejection message had been received loud and clear.
Then I complicated my life with a late stab at a career. Big mistake. The quantum leap in social interaction left me emotionally exhausted by the time I returned home. I stayed home, but I became like my wife’s father when he’d bunkered up in a corner of the house alone and uncommunicative. I never drank much before, but that changed. The weekends were even worse, after half a day’s work on Saturday I’d beg to be left alone. I think my younger son actually missed me and wanted to see me on the weekend, but I’d just bother him to go out with his friends. Boy, I wish I could buy back some of this bad behavior.
I offer no excuse for myself, but there is an explanation. In my boyhood family I developed the notion that they would be better off without me, they looked like such a nice family and I obviously screwed it up. I allowed this feeling to carry over to my adult family as well. I could not imagine that they profited from my attention. It’s hard even now.
I suppose that it’s good to realize these things before one dies. It gives one time to offer heartfelt apologies, which I do, as nine readers are my witnesses.