They say that the way your parents raise you has a huge impact on the person you grow up to be. About this at least, they’re right. I’m twenty something and in a serious relationship with a woman who has a very young daughter. I love them both very much and think a lot about the kind of father my dad was and the kind of partner and father that I want to be.
Most of my childhood memories of my dad are of a man who was angry, impatient, and quick to implement physical punishment. I remember being spanked and not having any clear idea why. I remember my dad arguing with my mom and leaving to go to a bar, which happened often.
The memory that sticks with me most is just of feeling like I wasn’t good enough. Often, some task was expected of me that I had no idea how to perform, and anxiety would take hold of me as I awaited my dad’s gritted teeth, criticism, and hostile grip around my arm. This had a lasting effect on me. Much of what I try to accomplish is made more challenging by a fear of failure; I still feel that same childhood anxiety as a pang in the pit of my stomach.
I had a genuine fear of my father, not a fear that is produced by profound respect, which usually leads a child to avoid poor choices. No, this was the fear of a powerful anger that smites without rhyme or reason.
My younger sister craved approval from my dad even more than I did, and has been far more devastated by his anger (in earlier years) and absence (in later years) than I’ve been. For a time, she ignored him altogether because the fear of disappointment became too much for her. Unfortunately, the impact of her relationship with our dad has helped to encourage all kinds of self-destructive behavior in her, and this has been a constant source of worry in our family.
Unfortunately, my childhood relationship with my dad has mostly served as an example of what not to do. Instead of being quick to argue with my girlfriend, I try to be understanding. Instead of letting my anger flow, I take time to calm down and reflect before speaking. I want to be a man who provides a secure environment for my partner. I want to help raise a girl who feels confident and accepted. I don’t want her to seek approval in unhealthy places or live a life filled with constant anxiety about whether she’ll be good enough. I want to be the dad that she needs in order to grow up healthy and secure.
My relationship with my dad has improved in recent years, as has my sister’s relationship with him. His personality as well as his drinking has mellowed considerably and he’s been a lot more involved in our lives. The consequences from his past parenting mistakes remain, but there’s been some degree of healing. For my sister, her relationship with our dad is less of a stressor than it once was. As for me, I’ve faced some of the negative associations I have with my dad and have started to let go of my anger towards him so I can move on with my life
So, if there are any dads out there who’ve been poor fathers, it might not be too late to make a change and find healing despite past mistakes. If there are any sons or daughters out there who’ve been damaged by an absent father, you don’t have to perpetuate the cycle. You can be the mom or dad that you wished you once had.
This article is part of a series on how parenthood changes us, and how children are changed by their parents. Each article explores themes raised in the new report, Mother Bodies, Father Bodies: How Parenthood Changes Us From the Inside Out.
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