Every year on Father’s Day an old familiar pain creeps up on me. That sharp stab felt by every fatherless daughter, I am just another girl with cliché daddy issues. My father left when I was two. For years the sting of that slap has resounded, becoming increasingly louder and more distracting as he moved on, made a new family for himself and eventually decided that I did not fit into his life. The bumps and bruises of every insult, every manipulation and every other hurt inflicted during my twice monthly visitation weekends changed the child I was and chiseled the person I was to become.
My father has not spoken to me in over a decade, has not responded to my phone calls or e-mails, did not come to my wedding and has never acknowledged the existence of my children who are his only grandchildren. I am in touch with his second wife, her family and her daughters, who are my half-sisters. I am in touch with my uncles, his brothers, and their children even though I haven’t seen them in twenty years. But my father remains elusive, like a recurrent dream from my childhood that now exists only in the most fleeting of memories. Only one thing is vivid and sharp: the pain of a parent’s rejection.
The divorce was not pleasant, full of custody and money battles and lawyers and mediators and child psychologists and hiding under my bed while my parents fought. It made me dark and lonely. It made me angry and hard. Often it made me mean. My mother bore the brunt of all that angst, suffered every tongue lashing and sarcastic jab, and held on to me tight when I started to sink too deep into sadness and pain. This piece is about her.
My mom once spoke to me about the sense of loss she felt when her marriage fell apart. She described it not just as losing her spouse and the love she had placed all of her trust in, but as losing the dream of their future life together. It was the loss of the picket fence, the porch swings and lazy Sundays mowing the lawn and going to the zoo. It was the loss of the siblings she wanted to give me and the family reunions we would have had. From one day to the next, that life was gone and she was left alone with me.
When they married each other they had been high school sweethearts. They moved across the country so my father could go to school, and my mother put her education on hold to support him and soon enough to be home with me. After they split up, my mom had the courage and foresight to go back to school. Even though it meant living on a shoestring, buying day old bread and vegetables two shades past ripe, she got her BSc in Biology and her MSc in Molecular Genetics. My mom is smart, driven and dedicated. She got me into private Jewish schools on scholarship and into all of the extracurricular activities that we could not afford. She took me to the ballet and the opera and on vacation. For a decade she did not go out for lunch with her lab friends, she didn’t buy new clothes or even a coffee. For a decade she calculated every penny to make sure that she could give me the best life even though the rug had been pulled out from under her. And all I did was complain.
I never had the same clothes as the cool girls. We lived in the wrong neighborhood in a small apartment on the third floor and drove a fifteen year old Oldsmobile. My mom never wore makeup or got a manicure or played tennis like the other moms. I didn’t have a housekeeper, I had to do chores. I retreated into the shadowy aisles of the local library and into my own writing.
I never fit in, so being a misanthropic punk seemed to be a good role for me. Without getting into specifics, by the time I finally graduated high school I had turned my mother’s hair grey and shaved years off her life with my misadventures and offensively sour attitude. But I always felt safe. I always had a home. It never mattered what color I had dyed my hair or how high my Doc Martens were, if I needed a cuddle and a cup of tea I knew I could go to my mom.
All those years of my mother raising me alone, I never thought about how lonely and isolated she was, how excluded she felt from the botoxed trophy wife social circle, how hard she had to work just to keep us afloat and how much she sacrificed to get an education that would enable her to become the strong, brilliant and independent woman she was born to be. I never wondered how she lived without the companionship and comfort of a relationship. I never wondered why she didn’t kill me in my sleep for being such a huge pain in the bum. Now that I am a mother, I can’t imagine the financial strain and loneliness, the deadlines at school and the never ending challenge of raising a mouthy rebellious daughter in the 90’s. I really don’t know how she survived it intact.
When my mom did remarry I was nineteen. She chose a man who was kind, accepting, supportive and generous. My step-father has taught me about marriage what my own father never could, and I know that lesson led me to marry a kind, accepting, supportive and generous man.
My mother’s happiness and success, as well as my own, were built on years of struggle and pain. While she shouldered the heaviest burden, some of its unbearable weight slid off onto me. As much as she tried to shelter me, cold winds whistled through the cracks. And so on Father’s Day I ache… but in the end my mother has taught me to bend but never break. That ache has been dulled by years of being loved, and even though there is still a small empty space in me where my father’s love was meant to be, that space shrinks smaller with every year that my step-father and mother parent me with love and respect, and with every day that my children’s father shows what it means to be a good man.
So to all the single mommies out there on Father’s Day, this is what you are teaching your child:
- A mother always puts her children first, always.
- A woman can do anything she sets her mind to, even alone and with no support.
- The right partner can change everything, and if they’re not right it’s better to wait.
- No amount of poison or pain can take away the bond between a mother and child.
You are doing a great job and your children will wake up one day and thank you for being so amazing. You are raising kids who will be well-adjusted and who will succeed because they are learning tenacity and dedication from you. They may scream and cry and whine that they hate you and want to go live with their father, but what they are actually saying is: “I am safe here, you are my home, I can scream and cry and you will still hold me and love me”. And you will.