Being a Father Doesn’t Make You a Dad

It was a wise man who once said, “You need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car – hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.” Okay, maybe it was Keanu Reeve’s character, Tod, in the 1989 Steve Martin vehicle Parenthood, but the point still stands.I don’t speak to my biological father; I haven’t in over five years. There are many reasons that went into the decision to cut off all contact, many ways in which he hurt me, many attempts to manipulate my emotions and life, many cruelties big and small committed by him over the course of my lifetime that cemented my resolve to remove him from my life.

A quick aside for clarification’s sake – My immediate family tree is a confusing jumble of marriages and siblings. Technically, I am an only child, the only child born to my mom and biological father before my mom’s good sense came back and she got the hell out of that marriage. However, my mom was married once before and had my oldest brother and married a wonderful man after my father and had my youngest brother and sister. My father was married once before, producing two more older brothers and an older sister. He married a horrid beast after my mother (well, technically, he was with her during their marriage, but didn’t marry her until many years later despite loud and vehement protestations not to do so on his children’s parts) who had a son. I also have an adopted sister. Confused yet? That’s seven siblings and one step-brother. For the purposes of this article, the brothers and sisters referred to will be the three from my father’s first marriage unless otherwise noted.

My father is not a good man. This fact is not open for debate. This is not to say he doesn’t have any redeeming qualities or that he never did nice things for me; I believe that even the most despicable of humans have a few good points. However, at his core he is a shallow, selfish and angry man and that manifested itself in a myriad of ways over the years. I remember going to Circus Circus in Reno when I was seven years old. My sister and I were getting ready with our evil stepmother to go to a show that evening with the whole family. My brothers had gone off exploring on their own – they were 10 and 12 at the time – and were to be back shortly. Unfortunately for them, they arrived with a security guard in tow who had caught them on the roof of the hotel throwing paper airplanes onto the buildings below. I wonder how the security guard would have felt to know what happened when the door was shut; it wasn’t his fault, my brothers shouldn’t have been doing what they had been, but I can’t help but feel if he had known what kind of monster would be awakened due to his involvement, he would have given my brothers a pass. I wish every day he had given them that pass. Instead, my father proceeded to beat them ceaselessly and mercilessly for over an hour, punching them, slapping them, throwing them into walls, kicking them off the beds as they tried to scramble to safety. I can still hear it in my head; I can’t stop the tears from running down my face as I write this now, remembering the sounds of their terrified cries for it to stop, their pleading with him, the dull thuds of their bodies hitting any surface in the path of his rage. I have never felt as helpless as I did that day, as small and insignificant, unable to do anything to stop him, to save my brothers.

I remember him punching my brother in the face in a Burger King for talking back to him. I remember watching my brother struggle to eat for the next few days around his fat, swollen lip. My father’s penchant for physical violence affected my brothers the most; unfairly for them, he never hit me, at least not that I can remember. It wasn’t that their weren’t plenty of times where I’m sure he wanted to, and it wasn’t that I was a girl because I watched him take enough swings at my sister. No, he never hit me because he didn’t have custody of me and knew if he did, he’d never see me again. My mom is not one to suffer that kind of bullshit and he knew it. Were there times my brothers or sister got hit because I had done something to piss him off? I’m sure there were plenty. I like to believe it was balanced out by the fact that if we knew we were in trouble, I always had to walk in the house first or sit in the front seat of the car in the hopes of deflecting his rage long enough that we might get away with a serious scolding and no physical injuries. But have no fear, dear readers: while he couldn’t hurt my body, he did a fine, fine job contaminating my mind and damaging my soul.

When I was eight years old, I was brought before a judge and asked if I wanted to be adopted by my step-dad, the man who had raised me since I was two and a half. Think of the 8-year-olds in your life right now, and imagine them being asked to weigh in on such a monumental decision. While I realize now that being asked was merely a formality in the process and my opinion mattered very little, at the time I was a mess. Did I say yes to please my mom and the man who did all the things my father should have been doing, or say no to please my father who had poisoned my young mind to think my step-dad was somehow the bad guy in all of this? There was also the fact that even then, I knew my father didn’t want me and his wife certainly would not allow me to live with them. She liked to tell me that I was worse than the dogs when I would wet the bed as a child, because we all know how well humiliating a child who is already embarrassed about her late bed wetting really helps solve the problem. She never bothered to conceal her contempt for me, and even her later attempts when I was older to treat me like a human being were futile if she was trying to atone for the mental damage she inflicted on me as a child. So I said yes and my father never, ever let me live it down. It is important to note that in order to this step in the adoption process, he had already had to sign papers giving up his parental rights, which he had willingly done because her owed my mom tens of thousands of dollars in back child support, which he had never bothered to pay, and my mom told him she would forget all of the debt if he would agree to the adoption. This was of no matter to him; no, as far as he told me, it was all my fault, I had made the decision to make him not my father anymore. The worst part? I believed it, and felt horrible about it for years.

As I got older, my father’s malice and manipulation became more apparent to me. I started to realize that my mom and step-dad never said anything negative about him to me, but all he did was fill my head with negative words about them. I started to understand what went into being a parent, started to get that it’s the day-to-day grind of school, meals, homework, and childhood maladies, not every-other-weekend trips to Great America and movie theaters. It began to dawn on me that my father was full of bullshit, that the picture of my mom and step-dad that he had cultivated for so many years in my impressionable mind was, in fact, nothing but lies. In my mid-teens, I didn’t speak to him for about a year after he attempted to blame me for something that wasn’t my fault, but his. Eventually, I let him back in. I would do this a few more times throughout the following years, becoming increasingly frustrated by his behavior and needing to take breaks from his bullying. I always let him back in, though, always let him guilt me into thinking I was a bad person for cutting off the man who gave me life, blood being thicker than water and all. Every time, somehow I let him convince me that it was actually my mom’s fault that he did the things he did, that she was scheming behind the scenes to make him behave in ways that hurt me. Even knowing in the back of my mind that it wasn’t true, knowing full well that if I petitioned the Catholic Church they would probably make my mother a saint (seriously, she is just that awesome), I let him plant a big enough seed of doubt that I would give him another chance.

Time marched on, and no, he never changed. In fact, his deeds only grew more dastardly. When two Thanksgivings in a row my sister burst into tears and left the room upon my arrival, I confronted her. My sister and I didn’t spend a lot of time together growing up because her mom had custody of her, but we were together enough for there to be a noticeable tension between us from a very young age. My sister had her first child at 15 and her second by 18. She lived in a rural part of Washington state and was bound by the restraints of single-motherhood and low-income life. The first Thanksgiving in question, I had a full-time job, was going to college and had bought myself a brand-new, reasonably priced car. I chalked up her behavior to simple jealousy and refused to kowtow to her infantile antics. If she wanted to cry in a corner because I worked hard and made certain choices in my life that allowed me luxuries her choices hadn’t, that was her problem, not mine. The second year, though, I had had enough. I refused to be made to feel guilty for my life being “better” than hers, so I pulled her aside to get to the bottom of her tears. She told me that it was always hard to see me with the things I had because our father had always told her he couldn’t help her out because he had just done something for me. She needed braces as a kid; nope, he told her he had just paid for mine. She needed to borrow money to buy a cheap used car to have transportation to a new job; nope, just let me borrow money for a new car. Everything she asked for, from the time she was a child, she was denied because he told her he spent all his extra money doing things for me. All of it, every single fucking thing he told her? Lies. He never did any of those things for me (and the list goes on, well beyond the few mentioned here), but instead of telling her he didn’t want to help her, he told her he couldn’t, and he couldn’t because of me. If I was her and had been fed that line for 20 years, I would hate me, too. I told her the truth that day, told her all the ways she had been misled, attempted to plead my case, and while I think she believed me, in the end, it didn’t really matter. My sister will always hate me, even if logic and facts point out the truth. It is almost impossible to change long-held beliefs like that, and even harder to convince people that their parents willingly and maliciously deceived them. She will never forgive me for the things she was denied; I will never have a relationship with my only big sister, because of my father. It is one of the many ways I feel cheated by him, but it is the one that hurts the most.

My family likes to joke that “guilt is not in my repertoire of emotions,” and to a large extent, that is true. I rarely feel guilty for my actions or words, because if they are harsh or hurtful, it is almost always because the offending party pushed me to that point. I rarely lose my temper and I work hard to refrain from lashing out in anger and saying things hurtful I can’t take back, so my need for guilt is rare. If I am hurtful, I apologize; if I do behave poorly, I will make amends. Guilt is a powerful motivator, but it is a terribly wasteful emotion, both mentally and physically, and I prefer to save my energy. If I can change it, I will, if I can’t, there is no reason to dwell on it. I move forward and try my hardest not to do it again. But I have guilt. I have quite a lot of guilt in my heart that I don’t really talk about, or haven’t before now. I feel guilty that I couldn’t save my brothers that day long ago. I feel guilty that my sister has so much anger that I can’t fix. I feel guilty for the way I treated my mom and step-dad growing up. I feel guilty that I have another father, my step-dad, my DAD dad, he did all the things a real father should for me my whole life, and my brothers and sisters don’t. I feel guilty for being worse than the dogs. These things, and many, many more, weigh on my heart and threaten to suffocate me when I allow myself too much quiet, and they are all there because of my father.

It wasn’t one specific event that led me to cut off all ties. It was a culmination of years of bad behavior by him and the realization that nothing about talking to him or being around him brought me any type of happiness, only stress and dread. It was the realization that him ejaculating in my mother does not make him my dad, it makes him my sperm donor. It was finally seeing that my “real” dad is the man who married my mother when I was three, the man who has fed me, clothed me, put a roof over my head, put me through college, held my hair back when I puked, taught me how to ride a bike, drive a car, and never once put a condition on his love for me. Through him and my mom I learned that I was a strong woman who could do anything I set my mind to. Keeping someone in my life that attempted at every turn to destroy that confidence went against all they strength they had instilled in me.

He still tries to make contact with me. He sends passive-aggressive emails about how horrible I am for hating him so much, how still the whole situation is my mom’s fault, my dad’s fault, my fault, anyone’s fault but his own. Unfortunately for him, I’m stronger and wiser now; I can see through his words down to their core where I realize they are being spouted by a coward unable and unwilling to recognize his own failings as a human being. Some people in my life have tried to make me feel guilty about cutting him off, telling me what I should do instead, how I will be sorry when he’s not around anymore or that I need to try to redefine a relationship with him on my terms. These attempts are in vain. I have felt enough guilt and regret because of him. I will not allow him or anyone else give me more to weigh me down ever again.

4 replies on “Being a Father Doesn’t Make You a Dad”

Bravo! I really have nothing constructive to add, but this was a very well-written, heartfelt piece. I would just like to take a second and second the idea of you never seeing him again. You don’t need that kind of crap in your life; I think he’s shown he has no interest in changing and even if he did there’s too much incredibly negative history there to even consider reforming a relationship! You go gal! Focus on your great actual-Dad and Mom and the rest of your family and enjoy your life without him!

Thank you so very much for sharing this. I’m currently having to decide if I want to main a relationship with my mother’s ex-husband, and this piece has given me some perspective. I admire your courage to move forward and to grow, and to not let the shit you had to deal with as a child hold you back from living a happy life.

I admire your strength and courage, and I hope that I can find the same qualities in myself. Thank you.

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