If you’ve followed me on twitter for any length of time, you’ve probably caught a glimpse of my less than stellar relationship with my mom or my nearly nonexistent one with my dad. It’s sad no matter how you slice it. My mom kept me thinking it’d keep my dad around (note: that will either end in outright failure or incredibly toxic disaster). When I started the downward spiral into puberty, my mom’s mental illness kicked in and she dedicated all of her time spent around me to verbally (sometimes physically) abuse me. It was a nightmare. And though we share a birthday and more than a few personality traits and ears, my dad and I couldn’t be farther apart.
Mother’s Day is the one holiday that puts me into a mellow rage and makes my sense of balance do backflips until I’m in a hyperventilating puddle of tears. But Father’s Day strikes a different chord with me. My dad has always been there for me, but not the way a parent is to their kid. He’d help me out when I really needed it, but I never wanted to ask because I knew even as a kid he wouldn’t have to deal with me if he wasn’t legally obligated to pay child support. Turning 18 was tumultuous for me — I was terrified he’d stop talking to me because he was no longer required to pay that child support. So I initiated a weekly phone call schedule with him which fizzled out astonishingly fast. When I moved to San Francisco, I thought it’d be a great chance to establish an actual relationship. In reality we had dinner together once and grabbed coffee two, maybe three times. It always felt like I was eating up time in his life reserved for his wife and their smart, athletic, charming kids and their insanely adorable dog. I mean, I couldn’t even stop by his house without asking a week beforehand and waiting to find out if his wife was okay with it (she never was).
I found myself in a really heartbreaking place: the black sheep of the family who only got there by just…existing. I didn’t do drugs or drink. I worked. I tutored. I even taught Sunday School. But nothing ever flicked on the Interest Switch in my dad’s brain for him to even so much as text me unless I reached out to him first. I know for certain (because I’ve tried it more than a few times) if I called him because I was having a panic attack or texted him saying I need him to call me ASAP, he’d tell me he couldn’t talk or he wouldn’t respond to the text unless I sent him another text a few days later about something unrelated. I imagine once his kids move out and start their own lives and his life settles a little, maybe he’ll look back on all the ‘whoops, conveniently forgot about my firstborn’ moments and reach out. But that sure hasn’t happened yet, and I’m not certain it ever will. It just makes me think… what did I do wrong, you know? What is it about me that makes neither of my parents have the emotional capacity to want me in their lives? It’s an easy, unhealthy road to take. And yet, despite knowing how useless trying always is, don’t we always still push and hope maybe the next idea will finally make things click? Call it youthful naïveté. Or desperation. So we beat on, boats against the current…
Yesterday I called my dad to wish him a happy father’s day. The call lasted a minute and thirty seconds, half of which was awkward silence. He and his family were in the car, stuck in traffic and heading to dinner. At one point he thought one of his kids wanted to talk on the phone with me, but it turned out she was on her own phone and was talking to someone else. The call ended with a bitter taste in my mouth people in this situation know all too well. The taste of desperation and failure and a tinge of striking out but maybe I’ll think up something else — maybe I should start sending him funny cards just because? Maybe I could send his wife a fruit basket, so if she likes me, maybe it’ll rub off on him? I sent his kids books once, tailored to their interests and what little I know about their personalities (Infinite Jest and The Road, if you’re curious). I wasn’t invited to their home. I wasn’t even allowed to park my car outside their house when I needed somewhere to keep it for a few days until my grandparents drove from LA to pick it up. C’est ma vie!
Now, I know this is oversharing. Why would you care about the rocky nature of my personal life? Well, why do you think I’d care about how healthy your personal life is? Why would you think I’d enjoy seeing happy photos of you with your parents, outside of the fact that I might be happy you’re not curled up in a ball crying for six hours? Might be. I mean, I don’t know how it feels to share happy family photos or why. Do you do it because you know there’s people like me out there and a part of your happiness is in gloating about this one thing? Because standing next to your aging, wrinkly parents makes you look better in that Sunday brunch dress? Because you genuinely love them and want to share your passionate appreciation for their stardusty existence with all of your friends? Gross.
The fact of the matter is, unhealthy or nonexistent relationships with parents is needlessly stigmatized and only ever used as an excuse for some radical fault (perceived or otherwise). “Oh, she’s got daddy issues” writes off women who are comfortable with their sexuality. “He hates his mom” writes off psychopathic mass shooters who don’t deserve to have excuses for their murderous rage. Real, normal people (maybe not me, but others, sex workers included) have shitty parents. And it’s bogus that we (err, they) feel like we (they) have to just be quiet on days that are focused on parents. But that’s super bogus. Like how Christmas is used to highlight the massive capitalism and bigotry the holiday is used for, Mother’s and Father’s Days shouldn’t just be celebrated, but used as a platform to highlight the reality that the Rockwellian ideal of family life is just that: an ideal.
Sure, there are parents out there who work hard to care for their kids. Sure, there are kids out there who have no idea how much their parents love them and just grumble exasperatedly about petty nonsense. But the reality for a lot of people is they are bad parents or have bad parents and that shouldn’t be silenced or covered up with brunch selfies and old baby pics. It teaches us, as humans trying to grow and develop into better people, that if we’re not being an unattainable ideal, we shouldn’t even try. It teaches us that if our first kid was conceived under weird conditions with a woman we had already broken up with but who kept the child because that woman thought it’d force us to stick around, then there’s no point in noticing all the little things that kid has done trying to establish a relationship with us. It teaches us that anything outside of the happy marriage, 2 kids, and an adorable dog isn’t something worth investing in. It teaches us to hate perfectly harmless parents just because they had to work instead of make us dinner every night. It teaches us to examine all the bad things our parents did for our own good through a lens of what is or isn’t awesome. It teaches us to scream at our parents for getting us the iPhone 6 for Christmas instead of the iPhone 6S. And, more importantly, by scrubbing away all the dirty, real, hard aspects of a parent-child relationship with Hallmark cards and Vineyard Vines polos, we set a tone for people who don’t have a healthy relationship with their parents: you don’t deserve to be happy today unless your parents do everything they can all the time to make you happy. So just sit in the corner and keep quiet, you little bastard.
You don’t need a happy, loving relationship with your parents to be worthy of love. You don’t need to force-kindle friendship with your dad just because he’s your dad. You don’t need your parents unless they need you. Love is a tricky thing, but here’s a #MajorKeyAlert: put your love into people who try to one-up how much you love them with how much they love you. Love the people who you can come to and fall asleep on their couch any time, who will answer your calls and send you texts with kissy heart emojis just because. Who you want to give the world to and who you send even more kissy heart emojis to and make up “problems” you need their help with just because you know how much they like being able to help you. Who will drive you crazy because their love is always going to be too big for you to keep up with. And if you can’t find that in other people, hey man, you’ve always got you. And if you can’t trust yourself to do that, ya got me. Lucky us.