What do you do when your stepdaughter turns to you in the car and asks you whether her father ever really loved her? My heart broke for her, but I knew I had to be as honest as possible while tailoring my answer to her age and ability to understand. I could see that, although she was desperately trying to look as if she didn’t care about the answer, she cared very deeply. Even given my troubled relationship with my own father, I don’t think I’ve ever really doubted that he loved me and probably wanted me. What do you say to a child who doesn’t know this, and isn’t sure about her own existence?
V and I have a lot of things in common, the main thing being that both our fathers suffered from mental illness. My dad suffered from depression and spent 50% of his time in black moods; stomping around, not speaking, for weeks at a time. V’s father suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder; a chaotic mix of narcissism, impulsivity, and instability of behaviors, interpersonal relationships, and self-image. There was also uncontrollable anger and depression. V literally never knew what she was going to get from him, and I remembered the feeling vividly from when I was little. Its like being surrounded by thorny branches, being afraid to move or speak in case you get scratched.
Living at the effect of someone’s mental illness at any age is highly difficult but when you are a child in your formative years, it shapes your view of yourself and other people, influences the unconscious decisions you make about the world and what you need to do to live in it, and causes a constant, physically altering cycle of stress and adrenaline. If you don’t know what you’re going to get from your loved one, you either: freeze and try to disappear; do nothing, hoping that will help, while becoming very watchful and careful; co-dependently try to fix the situation and/or take care of the loved one; or act out, more and more outrageously, possibly even violently, in an effort to break free and/or unconsciously mirror their bad behavior to the loved one.
I wish I had courageously gone for the last choice but I found comfort in codependency, which, of course, didn’t work even though I tried really, really hard. V, I feel, has chosen watchfulness as her path, and it breaks my heart to see how it has curbed her development and affected her emotionally, despite her natural spirit and intelligence, and my interventions. I have always admired that spirit, especially when, as a child, she withstood his blasts quietly and patiently, refusing to give him what he wanted.
V’s father is gone – he is not involved in her life. Contrary to popular expectation, we are not distressed by this. At all. This has caused a few problems, especially the fact that her mother isn’t getting any sort of child support from him, but on the whole, we remain happy that we neither know where he is, nor does he contact V or her mother. Perhaps that is a strange thing to be happy about, but it is clear that, at this time, he is not a healthy, or particularly safe, person for any of us to be around, especially not V.
During our conversation, I told her that I honestly believed that, in his own way, he did love her. He suffered through a horrific childhood of his own, as well as a perilous young adulthood, including a great deal of drugs and alcohol, before making his way to Washington, where he settled down. He had never been adequately parented, having been abandoned by his own father, and had suffered neglect and abuse from his mother and family members. He had been on his own for a long time and was damaged on many levels. He told me once that he had never intended to either get married, or have a child, and had not been happy about V’s mother being pregnant.
The whole time I knew him, C fought to be a father. Not a good father – he was aware enough to know that his own childhood probably made being a good dad beyond him – but a father who was at least there. He was constantly ambivalent and had one mental foot out the door at all times. However, some inner sense of honor or responsibility kept him around, instead of just going somewhere else and sending child support. He did love his daughter, but he found it hard to be responsible for her.
I think the five years we were together were the golden years of his relationship with V, during which we all celebrated holidays together, attended school functions, drove her to swimming and karate, and did the normal, family things. During the year after he and I broke up, he continued to see V on his own and they did a few activities together, but it became clear that, without my presence, he didn’t know how to relate to her, and, to make matters worse for him, she had outgrown her ability to be biddable. Almost a teenager, she started calling him on his shit, which he couldn’t abide.
Growing up with a father who has mental illness, is an alcoholic, or is just absent (even if he is, in fact, in the home) is living a mystery you may never fully solve. It’s a whodunit? in real life. There is a villain and a victim and a crime stretching over years. There are questions that never truly get answered: Did they love me? Was it my fault? Why didn’t they get help? Why couldn’t they do better? There is justifiable anger, doubt, resentment, and confusion. Unfortunately, though, Poirot will not pop up and reason through the clues, resolve the problems, and reveal the answer; that’s something you’ll have to do on your own. It’s something I’ve spent years doing.
V and I have talked about friendship and the ways that people betray you and support you, and what kind of friend – and person – she might want to be. We continue to talk about her father and what I remember of her childhood, so that she can maybe understand that people are complicated and it’s never black and white. This is a huge issue that, like me, she will probably work on for the rest of her life. Regardless of whether she believes she was loved by her father, though, I think – I hope – that she knows that she has been loved by me, and always will be.