Living With Daddy Issues

A girl friend of mine was recently spilling to me her dating woes, her choice of matchmaker being OkCupid. The conversation eventually led to her asking me if I participated in any online dating, and I told her I did, but that I refused to join OkCupid. These days, it seems that making such a statement is the equivalent to not owning a smart phone of some kind or lacking a second ear, so she asked me why.

“It’s just not a site I want to be a part of,” I plainly answered. “Too much of a meat market.”

This seemed to be an acceptable enough answer, so she didn’t press me further. The truth is, a very specific memory comes up whenever I think of that site. Toward what would be the end of my previous long-term relationship, I caught my ex boyfriend with an OkCupid account. When I noticed the email welcoming to the site on his iPad, I became incensed. I was nauseous, and I immediately asked what was going on.

“Nothing,” he said. “I’m just looking. I didn’t wink at anyone, I haven’t sent out any emails. It’s nothing.”

Of course I didn’t buy it; this was a major red flag. My mind began racing and I was overwhelmed with a sickening feeling that our breakup was inevitable. “Delete it,” I told him. “And I want to watch you do it.”

Naturally, this demand led to a fight, where he refused to let me watch him delete his profile. “I’m going to delete it,” he told me. “You’re just going to have to trust me.”

“I don’t,” I said. “Not after this.”

The fight continued hours later. “I told you it’s nothing,” he continued to argue. “You need to trust me.” And then, the zinger: “You have abandonment issues because your father left you. You need to trust me.”

No matter how right I knew I was, this low blow shut me up. I couldn’t look at him in the eye after that, knowing the argument was over, and somehow I had lost. We broke up weeks later, after what was left of our relationship became abusive. Of course, in hindsight, more or less of what transpired was the best turnout for me. But even in the shadow of this case of obvious cheating, I did not feel exonerated. Was my ex partly right? Did I react so intensely because of trust issues? By even second-guessing myself and having these questioning thoughts in the first place, am I really that little girl lost?

Moments like these invoke many personal glimpses into my familial past. My parents divorced in the fall of 1991, a few weeks shy of my fifth birthday and when my brother was only an infant. My father went on to marry my stepmother within a few months of the divorce from my mother, and their marriage lasted only a few years.

My father is an alcoholic. He went from job to job, relationship to relationship, and his presence in my life became smaller and smaller as the years went on. After his divorce from my stepmother, he lived with my grandparents for a few months. My father became a figure of constant failure, a man who let everyone around him down, and one who planted seeds of growing resentment within our family. I was too young to know how to resent, but I remember that when he did hug me, I felt only awkwardness and repulsion. Growing up, I remember my friends would ask me what my father did, where he lived, what he was like, and my answers were never the same. I would say my parents were divorced, that my dad lived somewhere where I couldn’t visit. To this day, I have no idea whether or not he was drunk or sober whenever I did see him. He wasn’t an abusive drunk, just one that became lazy and didn’t do anything—hold a job, keep appointments, spend time with his children, nothing.

The last time I saw him was when I was eleven years old, in July 1998, at my grandfather’s funeral. He came to the church dressed in a black t-shirt, worn black jeans, and a leather jacket. This was the first death I had experienced, and my memories of the service were scattershot. Although I have no recollection of it, my stepmother told me later, when I was an adult, that as I stood crying at my grandfather’s open casket, my father yelled at me. He asked me why I was upset, and told me I had no reason to cry, that I should stop. My stepmother told me she rushed to my side and cut him off. He was probably intoxicated.

As I grew older, the image of my father became less and less clear to me. My mother remarried in 2001 and we moved to another state. Rarely did any of my friends ask where he was: it didn’t matter because he no longer existed for me. A few friends, when getting to know more about who I was and from where I came, would briefly inquire about my father’s whereabouts and how, if at all, he figured in my life. My answer has been the same for years: “I don’t know where he is. He’s not in my life, and I’m OK with that.”

It was only until I began “real-adult” dating after college that I realized I had a past that had a strong potential for haunting me. The cycle of things became so formulaic after a time: I would go on a few dates with a guy, all seemingly going well, and then once the topic of family came up these men would wince when I mentioned I’m the child of a severe alcoholic, he hasn’t been in my life for nearly two decades, and I have no idea as to where he is today. I felt marked, like I bore scars that wouldn’t heal. It was as if alarms went off around me that said: Run! Girl with daddy issues ahead! If the dates slowed down after that and I never saw the guy again, I berated myself for spilling the “daddy facts.” I was convinced it was all my fault, like I was fighting a war with no cease-fire in sight.

Once healed from my previous bad breakup and moving on in the dating world, my mind sometimes wanders back to that exchange with my ex over the OkCupid site. I would grapple with myself, my head fighting against my heart, one side telling me that there is absolutely no excuse for cheating, the other making all kinds of second-guesses about my own hang-ups about abandonment.

But I was never abandoned. My mother raised my brother and me alone, with no child support or any other financial help, for a decade before she married my stepfather. Some single parents aren’t so lucky. My stepfather was more of a father to me in those first few months of my parents being married than my biological father ever was for the years I lived with him. Today I feel no void, though when it has been suggested by close friends that my reticence about a serious long term relationship, not to mention marriage, all has to do “with my father leaving me,” I feel defensive. This kind nudging always feels trite to me, like the easy way out of an uncomfortable conversation. My constant answer: “That’s a little easy, don’t you think?”

I am uncomfortable with the idea that this person who helped bring me into the world but has done little to shape me into the woman I am now has so much power over my future love life. Still, sometimes my father will sit with me. I wonder about him every year on his birthday. It’s like a timer goes off every time that day comes and I can’t help but think of him. This April, on the day in question, I sent my brother a text asking him if he ever thinks of our father on that day.

“Why would I,” he asked.

“It’s his birthday today,” I said.

“Oh, I had no idea. How long do you think it’ll be before he kicks the bucket,” he asked.

“I have no idea. The way he drinks, he can’t have that many years left.”

“Well, when it happens, I’ll drink a Budweiser tall can in his honor.”

Though I am amused at my brother’s snarky detachment, I am jealous of it. I wish I could write it all off as easily. But, I do think of my father more than once a year, and I wonder. I wonder anything: What he looks like now, how much he still drinks, if my brother and I every cross his mind. I ask myself if I would be sad if I received a phone call from my uncle, his brother, telling me one day that he’s died. Would I show up for the funeral? It’s these thoughts that seem to stick with me, that emanate from me on these dates and potential lovers are only too sensitive to the signs.

But that’s not me! I want to yell. I am not a little girl lost, and I remind myself of this whenever a relationship fails, or another date doesn’t happen. Six years ago, I moved to New York alone, a transfer student at a new university with friends not yet made and skin still not yet toughened. I am here pursuing careers in both acting and writing, two careers that couldn’t be harder in which to succeed.

I do not think of my father on a daily basis; he won’t exist for me when I go to sleep tonight, nor when I wake up tomorrow morning. But, I look like him. I’m tall, like him. We have the same face shape, the same hair, probably the same walk and most likely the same mannerisms. I’ll never know. The only thing for which I hope is to quiet the curiosity about him. Right now, it’s too loud. TC mark

image – Jochen Spalding

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