Growing up I had a romanticized perspective on fatherhood.
Not because of my own father.
He was less than ideal and because of this, I spent a great deal of time painting pictures in my mind of what a father should be. I took copious notes from my observations of the other fathers I was around and believed that if I worked hard at it, I could do one or all of the following:
- Teach my father how to be a father.
- Make up for the lack in my father by taking the helm in the family as much as possible.
- Cultivate relationships with father-figures to try to fill the father void in my life.
I have a ridiculously strong work ethic but, friends, these were impossible expectations.
First of all, clearly a daughter cannot teach her father how to father. I can say this with confidence since I spent much of my life attempting to do this. It does not work.
Second, a daughter cannot be the father of a family. Neither can a son, for that matter. I have some experience in this area as well since more than once I have nearly destroyed myself in my attempts to accomplish this impossible task.
Third, father figure relationships can be a good and healthy thing – I know – but they cannot undo the pain of an absent and disconnected father. And they cannot erase the shame that is a by-product of abuse. Father figures can sometimes help soothe and heal parts of us, but the impossible ask is that they might erase the reality that the bad father existed. Plus, often those of us who have not experienced the faithfulness of a good father don’t really know how to pick trustworthy father figures. Again, speaking from experience here. Some of the greatest devastation in my life has come as a result of the expectations I put upon someone who was as human as we all are, and so I was deeply disappointed when he was unable to live his life any more successfully than my father.
But I didn’t know these things as a child. And, truthfully, I haven’t known them very long as an adult.
It’s crazy how the things we know and believe as children can be so hard-wired into us that it takes a lifetime of intention and hard work to disconnect from them.
And you have to become aware of them in order to do the work necessary to be free of them. That is in itself a great challenge. Hence, #allthetherapy
For my part, awareness has only come after periods of great desolation and devastation. Which sucks.
I guess I’m just super stubborn.
A few months before he died, I took my father to MD Anderson in Houston, TX so he could be considered for an extensive surgery to remove a tumor from his neck as well as the source of the tumor – metastatic melanoma of the ear. These were the days when I was still embracing those beliefs listed above, so I was extra irritated and exhausted by the ongoing challenges of life with dad.
It’s much harder to be present with someone when still stuck in the muck and mire of the pain they cause.
Thankfully, my people know this about me, so Keek, my best friend from college, traveled to Houston with dad and me.
I have the best friends ever.
We spent a full week in Houston as my dad went through test after test (and Keek and I learned to crochet). Finally, in a meeting with the surgeon’s PA to go over some of his medical history, my father was caught in a lie that threatened to change the course of the medical care he believed would extend his life (it did not, btw). When asked by the PA whether or not he consumed alcohol, my dad – without batting an eye – looked that doctor right in the eyes and said, “Oh no. I haven’t had alcohol in a very long time.”
This happened while I – the daughter who had talked him out of another drunken, suicidal mood swing just two days earlier – was SITTING RIGHT THERE NEXT TO HIM.
I looked at him with incredulity. He caught my eye, and though his cheeks flushed a bit, he remained quiet when I blurted out a “Oh hell, no. Seriously, Dad?”
That poor PA.
His eyes darted from me to my dad and then back to me. Bless him. But I didn’t allow silence to linger long before I followed up with, “Dad, seriously? You were drunk two days ago! You drink every day and all day.”
Then I looked at the PA and said, “My father is an alcoholic. It’s a problem.”
What followed was a string of questions and a full psych eval… before the team there still approved dad for the surgery. Honestly, I think they were jazzed to experiment on a willing subject and weren’t all that concerned about the wealth of addictions contributing in no small way to his overall health.
But what do I know? #eyeroll
After that particular appointment, as we stood in the lobby of the hospital waiting to hear what we were to do next, my father hung his head before me and said, “I’ve been a horrible father.”
I didn’t try to talk him out of this. Sometimes it’s necessary to let the truth – however ugly – just be there.
And somehow letting that truth just be there allowed me to loosen my grip on whatever remained of my hope that I could change my father… or that he would ever really father me.
Growing up I wasn’t taught about God as Father.
At least not as a Father to me.
I knew him as the Father of Jesus – the One who sent His Son to save me from my sinful state; the One who sent His Son to die to make sure I had access to heaven; the One who loved me but was mostly unapproachable from this broken planet; the One who wouldn’t fully embrace me until we see each other face-to-face… because that is when He will make me whole and worthy of His embrace; the One I should turn to for help in my times of need, but also the One who didn’t seem to show up in those times much more than my dad did.
Harsh, I know.
I’m not saying I was right. It’s just what I knew and believed as a child. These beliefs then did their work of shaping my way in the world.
And they have set me up to be endlessly disappointed and devastated.
But here’s the thing: It’s taken devastation to do the work of stripping away the mistaken beliefs and the faulty wiring before truth is able to make its way into my heart and mind.
And maybe what actually happens is that the strength of these mistaken beliefs is diminished rather than that they totally go away, while the truth gets louder and drowns out the noise of brokenness.
Because I don’t really think those deep-seated beliefs ever fully disappear when they were established at such a young age.
Yes, this is discouraging.
But then there are the moments where truth breaks in and gives me the strength to keep going. And the more I lean in to truth, the more Father-like God becomes to me.
He is present.
He is faithful.
He is kind and compassionate.
He is love.
My earthly father died less than six months after that trip to Houston.
And honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more fathered than I did during those last brutal hours caring for my dad.
Not by him.
Instead, by the One who has always been present for me as Father even when I was unaware of it.
And now when God fathers me and shows me the truth of who He is, I try to sit with this awareness – to tell my broken beliefs that they are just that… broken – and then to just let the truth be there with us.
To let Him love me. To let Him father me.