On Mother’s Day I Talked to My Father

May 22nd, 2018

On Mother’s Day I took a call from my father.

I typically don’t answer the phone, ever, never mind while out at a restaurant, but he had been trying to reach me all day. I had recently disabled my voicemail, and I was worried something was up. More likely, though, I figured he wanted to say Happy Mother’s Day. How sweet!

Do we ever stop expecting our parents to be different than they are?

My father is 70, and his hearing is not spectacular. It doesn’t help that he usually calls me from the bar he hangs out at most afternoons. So the conversation was full of friction, as we say in the tech world when user experience is not sublime. He was essentially calling to complain to me that my kids are not warm enough with him. 

Backing up, we had seen my dad and his girlfriend the weekend before, when we went down to Mill 180 Park, a very cool indoor park (for kids) that also happens to have a bar (for dads). We meet my dad here now and then because it’s an ideal spot where the kids can run around while I pretend to try to catch up with my dad and his girlfriend. 

My children are shy. Not just shy, but like, the kind of shy where they won’t acknowledge anyone they don’t see on a daily or at least weekly basis. We only see my dad about once every few months — for a bunch of reasons — so he is not in their inner circle yet.

It doesn’t help that he comes on very strong. Like cats, my daughters do best when you avoid eye contact and pretend you don’t care. Next thing you know, they’re in your lap. But my dad does this loud, in-your-face, OOGA-BOOGA-BOOGA thing that he thinks kids are into. It involves a menacing pointer finger poised for aggressive tickling, and bugged-out crazy eyes. Weirdly, my kids are not into it. They hide behind me or run away.

They are also three.

They have mercurial temperaments, and you really never know what will set them off. For instance, you’ve been at the play place for hours and it’s approaching dinnertime and you need to head home. They agree, and head toward the door. But they want to walk to the car. You say they can’t walk unless they hold your hand, since it’s a crowded parking lot, and they flip out and beeline straight into traffic. You end up carrying them, flailing loudly in protest, and force-strapping them into the car seats, sweating.

Imagine as you’re doing this that your dad’s really lovely, extremely gregarious girlfriend is simultaneously trying to give them a big hug and kiss. Do they take it? No. They angrily swipe away her kiss and continue to yell. Normal, right?

Not to my dad. He thinks they are “rude.” He was calling to ask me what is wrong with them, to tell me that “Jackie was really upset,” and to insist that he “hopes they will change their attitudes next time.”

This phone call made me furious. Not just that inappropriate timing of it and the fact that he was criticizing my kids for being perfectly normal toddlers. But, you know, all the stuff. All the baggage, the triggers, the memories, my childhood, the way he thinks about children in general — to be specific, girl children, who should be well-behaved and sweet, always available for affection at appropriate times, otherwise out of the way. I felt a deep, savage desire to protect my own daughters from ever experiencing the self-esteem deflating assholery he was so naturally good at when I was a child.

I spent most of the next day unable to concentrate at work as I composed, edited, and nitpicked a letter that I hoped would strike the right tone between “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt by my children” and “What the fuck is wrong with you; you’re a grown man; don’t you dare criticize my daughters; and by the way, you were a shitty parent.” I finessed it to the diplomatic point of friendly spin. “Perhaps,” the message benignly read, “We should spend more time together so the girls get more comfortable with you.

I decided to sleep on it.

Since my eruptive teenaged days I’ve worked very hard to keep the peace with my father, who for long stretches of time I did not even speak to when I was younger. Over decades of my adult life I worked hard on my relationship with him in an absolutely one-sided way. I began to see him as a human being, not a father. I saw someone who had a pretty desperate childhood, raised by a struggling single mom in the projects along with nine other siblings. I saw him as a person who, unlike me, really thrives on human company and positions himself as “the entertainer.” I once threw him a birthday party when he traveled across the country to visit me in California. It was a great party full of people he had just met that night, and he loved every minute of it.

Sure, he was not always an excellent father when I was a child. But thanks to my ability to forgive, forget, and move right along, we’ve gotten along charmingly as adults.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt deeply unsettled about my letter. It felt wrong to bend over backwards to placate him, to coddle his feelings and prioritize them over the feelings of my own children, who are three. 

When it comes down to it, do I really want them to spend more time with him? Do I want them to get to know him well enough that they’ll realize what a profound asshole he can be? Do I want them to hear things that will make them question their worth? Do I want them to hear that they are rude when they’re not, or worse, that they are brats, snobs, and even bitches?

These are things I heard. It was a different time. But not that different. And my children will not hear these things. Not from him, not from anyone.

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