Today is Father’s Day. There is so much hoopla and Hallmark sentimentality. But all that purple prose cannot make up for the heart-stinging pain this holiday brings to some of us. For those of us who have lost fathers, who are estranged from our fathers, who have dysfunctional or downright monsters for fathers, Father’s Day is a day that sends up spiraling into depression or rage or resentment.
Father’s Day is a day that gives us pause because it forces us to think about how “normal” our nuclear family really is/was. The Disney sitcom version of the American family seems like a myth. The Facebook Happy Father’s Day messages from those who have been lucky enough to have a real Dad in their life only deepens the pain and loss of having grown up without a “normal” Dad. Father’s Day for many of us is a day of grief. In the picture perfect snapshot of the nuclear family, it is the Dad that is likely to be missing or imperfect.
According to the US Census, over one-third of children in the US grow up without their biological father (www.growingupwithoutafather.org) When you consider how many children are growing up as products of divorce, it is Daddy who is far away. How many African American children are thinking about their daddy locked up away in jail right now? How many immigrant children are missing their father slaving away in some hell’s kitchen? How many girls who have become women cringe at the memories of abuse, incest, molestation and neglect when they think of “Happy Father’s Day” today? The truth is it is anything but a happy day for many.
Although my father passed away four years ago, I am almost relieved he did. Baba suffered with bipolar disorder his entire life. He was a rapid changer; a raving, raging lunatic. He would roar and yell at the top of his lungs criticizing us for minute details—“Why the hell did you leave the bag on the floor?” “Where the fuck is the salt shaker? Why is my napkin so far away on the table?” We were in mortal fear of his rages. He was huge and had such a booming voice that he’d punctuate by slamming his fist on the tables or walls that the window sills shook. And when he started talking, he couldn’t stop. He could talk for hours, literally in long non-stop verbal marathons. And when he pendulumed to the other side of the polar extreme, he would sleep, more like hibernate like a big grizzly bear, for what seemed the entire weekend.
We had to grow up in the spaces that he wasn’t at home: before he came home from work, when he went out to run errands, when he did overtime. I grew up in a war-zone never knowing when another of his bombs would go off. Sometimes he’d wake us up in the middle of a school night when his rapid mood cycle started. In our pyjamas, with sleep gunk in our eyes, we’d be lined up firing squad style in size order along the living room wall. Then he’d lecture us about “life.” “You have to wash the dishes every time you eat. And wash your hands every time you finish going to the bathroom. Keeping yourself clean is so important to success . . .” And on and on for hours. We had to stand blinking into the cold light bulb listening to the importance of ridiculousness. This was mild. Then there was the emotional berating. And the paranoia around preserving virginity. He would follow my sister and I all the way up to the entrance of the ladies’ restroom in public places just to “protect” us. The control over every decision. There would be entire weekends I would be jailed in the apartment doing housework, not allowed to even leave the apartment for a walk. The time he slashed into pieces my prized collection of Led Zeppelin posters. The ones I had scrapped and saved to buy from my measly earnings at an undercover job because he did not trust me to work in the “big bad world.” The time he killed my chance to attend an Ivy League college because it would mean I would have to live in a dorm “that’s something the putanes (whores) did.”
Sometimes we felt sorry for him. He knew that most of his behavior was out of his control. Saturday nights at around 8 pm he would sit and watch “The Incredible Hulk.” He identified with the protagonist, the mild-mannered scientist who when provoked or under extreme stress, would start bulging green, ripping sleeves and trousers to become a raging green monster. “I’m a little bit like that guy,” he confessed once. “When I get angry, I become like the Hulk” and then he would grit his teeth and flex his arms together bulging his muscles just like the superhero. Most of the time when his moods would kill any joy, any hope we had, we wanted him dead. We were the only kids on the block who actually prayed that our parents would divorce. That way we would be rid of him. We were the only kids who hated going home on Fridays or a long vacation; that would mean we would be stuck at home with the Incredible Hulk waiting to go off at the slightest provocation.
I contrast my father experience with my daughter’s. She never knew her father. I left him when she was just shy of six months of age. I made the decision for her that it was better to grow up without a father at all than grow up with a bad one.
It’s no wonder I did my best to escape from home very young. I got myself a one-way ticket to Europe and ran like hell. With so much unresolved trauma, so much emotional damage, it’s no wonder I repeated the same pattern. I hitched up with a young man who I thought was light years’ away from being like my father; turned out he was a mentally ill emotionally unstable substance abuser. I knew I had to escape from him and his illness when things in the apartment started disappearing: the DVD player, the stereo system, the baby’s savings fund, and then finally him. He would disappear for days on end. He claimed he had gotten a job with a cruise ship and would be coming back when the boat docked. Probably he had gone back to his heroine suppliers. I was alone with a newborn calling teenage girls to babysit so I could go to my teaching job.
One night when the neighbors called the police on a domestic abuse charge, I found myself propping up the baby next to me in the station car. She was wearing a hand-crocheted brown suit. Her round eyes wide in the revolving red and blue light of the police siren revolving through the window. She was looking at me innocently as if asking with her soul, “What’s going on?” That’s when I decided I couldn’t let her grow up with such drama. No drama was better than too much.
I raised her as a single mom along with the support of my mother and her uncle and aunt. She seemed alright. Except when the teacher expressed concern during open-school night that she would make up stories about her father. That he knew how to play the guitar. That he was a sailor who was going on a journey around the world. As a teen, she kept getting in trouble in school. She was suspended three times, arrested twice. Her grades plummeted; she would get involved with the worst low-lives. Her self-esteem was shot. Yet she is beautiful and so smart; the math teacher called me out of the blue and talked to me for a whole half hour about her mathematical mind and how she should go to Columbia University as she was Ivy League material. She has still to apply to college a year after graduating high school.
As her mother, watching her slowly destroy her life and her chances at self-fulfillment, I cannot but agonize over my decision. Perhaps I made the best choice for me, but not for her. Perhaps it would be better to have a relationship with a father, even a shitty one, instead of none. Instead of having her run after any man to validate her feelings as a girl. She confesses to me when she gets into the occasional pause of out her rage and her bitchiness and her constant lashing out at me, “There is an emptiness that goes so deep in me, I cannot even describe it.”
Perhaps the wise lady in our church is right. “Don’t put her down,” she says, “we can never judge what the effects of growing up without a father can have on a soul.”
For her, Father’s Day brings up the void. The hopeless bottomless abyss that cannot be described. That dark side that keeps her weeping softly in her room at night. That void that keeps her chasing after guys that beat her and bite her. That spirals her in a path of self-destruction she is not conscious of because she has no reference point or boundaries of what is acceptable and inacceptable. I overcompensated for the lack of father in her life by being supermom. But even I have failed. As super a supermom I can be, I am not a father. And never can be.
The research is clear: lack of a father in a girl’s life can be even more devastating than lack of a father in a boy’s. Study after study finds correlation to early sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, behavior problems for girls who grow up without a father. Growing up without a father changes your brain chemistry forever, researchers at McGill University found. An Oprah episode about “Daddyless Daughters” turned Huffington Post article makes it clear, “Women who grow up without fathers often struggle with feelings of low self-esteem and unworthiness”.
Most of the kids I work with in the inner-city schools don’t have fathers. The girls all flock to the only vestige they have of a father: Mr A, the science teacher, the paternal, protective, funny living environment teacher who feeds them his lunch, loans them money, and drives them to the dance. Every time I walk into the lab, he has a groupie convention going on. And then there’s Antonio who confessed to me in his essay about father/son conflicts in the play Fences, the monster his father is: a felon who raped and murdered a young college girl when she refused to have sex with him. He never wants to visit him upstate in the federal prison.
So, it’s hard to have a happy father’s day for some. For those who don’t have one because he’s dead. For those who don’t know him because he walked out before they were born. For those who know him only through a check in the mail or a long-distance phone call. or who never knew their father. For those whose fathers are locked up or working in some industrial city the other side of the equator. For us, Father’s Day is a day of trauma. It is a day that never goes by without us mourning about what the father we should have had. It is a day we can’t wait to be over with. It is a day to remind you of how fatherless you really are.