I am angry that I loved my father

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I love you Daddy! The words rushed out in happiness. I was about ten. I smiled waiting for the four word reply. Daddy nodded.

Don’t tell me you love me. Show me.”

I am angry that I loved my father. Angry that I was made to love so freely & and want such love in return. 

What his childhood may have looked like. Image from the movie Angela's Ashes.

What his childhood may have looked like. Image from the movie Angela’s Ashes.

Dad was almost silent about his story of growing up in Belfast. The few details that did emerge were raw and harsh. I imagine it as Angela’s Ashes except in Northern Ireland, and not Catholic, and Dad’s father was a mean drunk and a philanderer who ruled the family with his fists and a cat o’ nine tails

In his teens my father joined the church. His brothers taunted him and picked fights. What a sissy! But they could not throttle the faith out of him. Church people valued stability, education, and clean living — no smoking, no drinking. They proclaimed hope and offered certainty. With their encouragement Dad left Northern Ireland and completed college. He married. He gave his wife and children the home he had not known. He was, as he liked to say, Pretty good out of the stuff. He earned and owned his place as the spiritual leader and head of our family with unquestioned (and unshared) right to strong preferences, critical observations, impatience, and anger. And, I learned, the right to say Show me you love me.

Emotional Poverty

Dad escaped physical poverty but never shook off emotional poverty. Every relationship was an exchange, a transaction. Speaking of a new acquaintance, my father might say, He doesn’t have much to offer — meaning influence, ideas, humor, or clever conversation. He would observe, So and so brings little to the table — reason enough to let a relationship cool. To get something you must give something. Perform. Prove you are worthy. 

If I disappointed the parents, Dad would shake his head and say, After all we’ve done for you! What was fair exchange for all they had done for me? To do well and be good — preferably better than my peers. But way before puberty I figured out that somewhere in the world, in fact in my classroom, was another child who got higher grades, ran faster, played piano better, spoke with more confidence, and behaved more obediently and respectfully than I. My performance was shabby. I could not compete.

When life ran smoothly Dad laughed, whistled, joked. But when Dad was disappointed or displeased, harsh words were just the beginning. The climate in the house cooled. He withheld approval until the offender — my mother, one of my siblings, or I — felt sufficient chill to really, really apologize and know better in the future.

Dad’s transaction and performance expectations shifted over the years. But they didn’t go away.

In his eighties the burden to perform and prove continued. Dad stayed at a retirement community for a few months. On meeting another resident for the first time, Dad launched into a poetry recitation. After two verses of a long, lilting rhyme, pedestrian conversation pales. With a murmur of confused awe the new acquaintance stood silent.

I am angry that I loved my father.

my high school graduation with DadI am angry that I loved my father. Angry that my fierce, childish love was not enough to obliterate the prove-your-worth script he knew better than his own name. Angry that I breathed in the belief that I had to prove my worth — while certain I had nothing to offer. Angry that I believed I was unfriendable because of this. Occasionally, I am angry that my father didn’t feel the need to look for and learn new skills. On most days, I am simply sad he missed the freedom and delight of healthy emotional connections. We can only give what we’ve got.

I’m over fifty years old. I still do not know what Dad expected when he said, Don’t tell me you love me. Show me.

Unlike my dad, I am not so silent about my past. I see openly grappling with my story as an expression of love. [Thank you, Brené Brown.] Shining light into darkness. Staring down fear. Finding new ways to see.

Through the writing process, I realize that much of my personal anger is linked to not being seen. 

Dad, I see you. Your striving ended the physical poverty that your father, and his father, and his father before him handed to you. You broke that cycle so I can stand where I do. Thank you.

Standing right here, right now, my calling is to address the scars and patterns of emotional poverty. The wounds of family history and practices of a toxic culture go deep. The road is long. But I will show up as wholeheartedly as I can — to offer & receive acceptance freely, to give & get help without keeping score, and build and belong in relationships where authenticity is the best reward.

Because this is the love we are made for.

9 Responses to I am angry that I loved my father

  1. wilabea94 September 26, 2016 at 7:23 am #

    Thank you for sharing this. I actually do say, Show me, because as a writer I know words are cheap and as the child of abusers I know people lie. At the very least, we can make promises on a whim, but there needs to be an exchange of unconditional sacrificial love, and that comes by showing. Our kids have tried us – and we can say we love them, but they need to be shown – that no matter what they do, we will continue to love them. Our actions and not our words are proof.

  2. cathi September 27, 2016 at 7:55 am #

    Wow, Rebecca! You speak to my heart, story after story! And I think I know why you showed up in your adult life in wild, glorious, wacky and beautiful color! As always, thank you so much for sharing ‘you’ … you are awesome.

  3. Ginger September 28, 2016 at 5:47 am #

    “Emotional poverty.” I had not heard that phrase before, and it is a powerful one worth pondering. Thank you for the bravery you have shown in writing this series.

    • Rebecca Waring-Crane October 26, 2016 at 7:21 pm #

      Thank you for making this a safe place to share, Ginger.

  4. bridget tucker October 6, 2016 at 7:31 am #

    I am catching up on your posts after a long distracted period in my life. Your posts are so honest and meaningful. One statement in this post really clicked: “much of my personal anger is in not being seen” I am 78 years old and that is my “me too.” The reality of not being seen–for who we are–seems to be the air we breathe. Thanks for saying it is smog-filled, polluted, air. When a woman refuses to submit, she is punished and pilloried. Our current political climate certainly makes that dirty air visible.

    • Rebecca Waring-Crane October 26, 2016 at 7:24 pm #

      Dear Bridget,

      Alas, it is in the air we breathe. Finding our way to health and healing is a huge challenge in such a climate. But I believe we can do hard things together. This is a dark time in the political arena. Our work is to hold on to each other and to hope even in the darkness. Thank you for holding on with me.

  5. Kay Latonio October 8, 2016 at 5:56 pm #

    I am also catching up on your posts. I always find something in them that I relate to or which makes me consider something about my own life in a new way. I am “clawing” my way to my retirement in 2 years when I can spend time thinking and writing about my own life . . . and joining with others to talk, read and write together. In the meantime, I very much enjoy your posts.

    • Rebecca Waring-Crane October 26, 2016 at 7:29 pm #

      Kay, you found me!
      This season will pass and your time to reflect awaits you. I so appreciate your encouragement and company. Thank you for taking time to catch up on this difficult series. Your support means a lot.

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