What I Learned from My Father

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I saw a headline on one of the pages I follow on Facebook, asking folks to share what they’d learned from their Dads.
It’s probably a nice Father’s Day exercise for many.

As I’ve made clear in the past, my relationship with my father was always complicated, and tumultuous.
We haven’t spoken in years. 
After much therapy, I am completely okay with that situation.

My father is not a nice person.
He was never expressive, except in his anger.
He was hypercritical and inflexible.

I don’t share this for sympathy; it's to give some context.

What did I learn from my father?

Initially, I was put off by the question.
Then, I gave it some thought, and it occurred to me that even though he was…is…a miserable person, he did manage to teach me some important, lasting life lessons—both destructive and valuable.
None were intentional.
Some were derivative.
But all shaped who I am today.

1. I learned shame. 
From the time I was about six years old, it was clear my father was uncomfortable with some of the traits he apparently saw in me. He would regularly tease me and call me names: sissy, queer, fairy.
I can only assume he thought those names would make me…be different.
What they did was make me hate who I was and what I was feeling.
It would be this shame that eventually drove me to try and change my sexual orientation

Because he must have thought I was too feminine, he decided I should be involved in sports. He was gonna "butch me up" by forcing me to play baseball.
For hours, he would make me practice with him in the backyard, all the while making fun of the way I threw the ball (‘”like a girl”), the way I ran, and my fear of getting hit by the ball.

But eventually, I did play baseball, and I made All-Stars. 
If he was proud of me, he didn't tell me. 
That was the pattern of our relationship.
(To this day, I loathe the game! Same with fishing.)

Shame is a powerful and harmful emotion.
I can attest: name-calling and bullying don't lead to positive change.
Because I've lived with shame, it's something I would never want to intentionally inflict on another. 

2. I learned the frustration of conditional approval.
He was very demanding.
(I’ve detailed some of this in that earlier post.)
No matter what I did, it was never good enough. If I got a “B” on a report card, he wanted to know why I didn’t get an “A.” When I did accomplish something noteworthy (winning an award for writing a play, induction into an honor society, appointed editor of the school newspaper), he never acknowledged it.

Throughout my life, I endeavored to get his approval.
That never happened. 

Today, I'm quick to tell others they've done a good job, or how much I value them. I think it's important to acknowledge accomplishments, and even more important to show gratitude to those around us.  

3. I learned deception.
Because I knew I couldn’t express the things inside me, I became very good at hiding, suppressing, and lying.
I built walls, covering up my identity. 

In reality, I was a shy, sensitive kid who loved to read and write stories. I knew I had feelings for other boys that could not be made public. So, I developed a persona of someone who was outgoing and jovial. I would joke my way out of uncomfortable situations, and use humor to keep people from getting too close.
I worked relentlessly to "pass" as someone I wasn't—a straight guy. 

The “me” that most people met was not the real “me.”
I was paranoid someone would see through my façade.

4. I learned tolerance for those who are different.
When you live with a bigot who rivals Archie Bunker, it would be easy to adopt and emulate that attitude. Fortunately, I'd made a decision early in life never to be like my father. At the jobs I had as a high school student, I got to know people of different background, and befriended people of others races. In school, I did the same.
I found that such encounters and interactions were interesting and educational.
It's still the way I approach those who are deemed "different."
I honor, respect and advocate for diversity. 

5. I learned to admit my mistakes.
I have never heard my father say “I was wrong.” I’ve also never heard him say “I’m sorry.” (That is not an exaggeration!)
He would get angry—he had a temper—and take it out on me. He'd use his belt, his hand or whatever was close and hit me way too hard. Or he’d issue some irrational, unjust  punishment. (“You’re grounded for six months, and I’m selling your car.”)
Later, I guess he’d feel bad (or need me to run an errand) and it was all over. Usually, he would buy me a gift or give me money.
Mom assured me it was "his way" of apologizing.

Again, it was a paternal characteristic I did not want in my life, so I went the other direction. I think owning our mistakes is a sign of strength, and an attribute that helps with relationship. (Though to be honest, at times, combined with my insecurities/low self-esteem issues, I feel I'm too quick to capitulate, assuming I must be wrong.)  

6. I learned the value of expressing love. 
My father didn't hug. He didn't show affection. In fact, I was in my mid-thirties before I ever heard him say “I love you.” You’d think that by then, such a declaration would be meaningless, but it wrecked me. I was so overwhelmed. And for years afterwards, when we would disagree and passionately argue, I would return to that statement in my mind as comfort. Or consolation. 

When my kids came along, I vowed they would never doubt my love for them.
It wouldn't be merely in the way I provided for them, but they would hear it from me. Often!
And to this day, I hug them we I see them. 

Many will say they’d rather someone show love than say it.
I understand the sentiment, but I want both!
Show me, and tell me.

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For all who have wonderful memories of their Dad, and can point to the constructive lessons they learned from him, I say: count your blessings.
Express your appreciation.
Tell your Dad that you love him.

But for those of us who didn’t have an ideal father-child relationship, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still important lessons for us as well.
We just might have to put in a little extra effort to uncover them.

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