The little girl aisle at the store slays me. Particularly the sun dresses on tiny hangers. Red and white cotton. Ruffles. They don’t make clothes for boys the same way. Flounces and skirts, pink and pastels. They also sell striped and polka dot leggings and pairs of socks that are matched but mismatched. One will have bright stripes and stars and the other hearts. They break my heart.
The little girl aisle has headbands with flowers and tiny pink sandals. In the winter there are purple jackets with soft lined leopard print hoods. I don’t go into that section of the store anymore unless I have too. I avoid lingering when I do.
As a mother of two children already, I know that clothes have little to do with parenting. Parenting is about up all night, love you so much, stinky socks, homework, bath time and wet kisses. I know that neither pink socks nor a daughter is a guarantee of happiness. My muse George Sand (this was her masculine penname – her real name was Aurore Dupin) had a heart-breaking relationship with her own daughter Solange. Her son, however, lived with her his whole life, marrying a woman who told him frankly that she was wedding him mostly to be able to spend more time with his mother. They all lived together at her estate in Nohant, staging elaborate puppet shows, for which George herself sewed the costumes.
Winston Churchill was another famously doting son. He is said to have taken tea with his mother every day until her death. Lizzie Borden, meanwhile, is famous for being a daughter who murdered her parents. But really, I don’t have to delve that far back into human history to find examples of bad daughters. You see, I’ve never been a particularly good one myself. In fact, after my sons were born, I ran out of room for my own father in my life. When I added “good mother” to my job description, I crossed “good daughter” off the resume.
I was a Jane Eyre of a child – stubborn and intractable, passionate and moody, often holding aloft defiantly the placard where my sins were written, while sobbing privately in shame. I wasn’t a child who pleased. I preferred to be alone in my room reading, rather than playing games or making friends. Part of it was hiding out, but part of it was calculated rejection. My father drank – heavily and often. And my mother, well she lived with it.
I was never sure as a child what was worse – his drinking or her reaction to it. Something was missing. Something was wrong with our family; I knew that from an early age. Her anger, her tears, her wailing sobs often woke me from my sleep. She would hyperventilate with grief and the ambulance would come. He at least, drank himself insensible quietly. Cruelly, I blamed her more than him. She was the only wall between three small children and his blackout fueled abuse or depravity. She held firm. She protected us. But back then, as a young daughter, I only saw the wall. She was so large in her grief and anger, overwhelming in her hurt that I felt swallowed whole.
By fifteen, I was numb - all thought and no feeling. Except sad, I clung to sad. It was the only emotion I had left. I held it. I cradled and cleaved to it, hidden alone in school bathrooms during classes, sobbing myself empty. Around the age of seventeen I no longer felt present in my own body. I had detached entirely, simply floating above myself.
Only school saved me, with its regimented, easy steps. I progressed from grade to grade. I followed the path – first to a public boarding school at fifteen and then to college. It was easy to achieve. To work. In college I took extra classes, even auditing them for no grades when I maxed out my credits per quarter. I worked three jobs and picked up seasonal work that came my way. I painted and wrote and wrote - poetry, hundreds of papers, most of two novels. I translated a French novella by George Sand over two years for my senior thesis. I completed enough classes for three majors – but didn’t even bother to fill out the paperwork for the last one.
But I was limited emotionally. I had few friends. On my days off from work at a bookstore near my college, I would still walk to the bookstore to eat lunch. I didn’t want to be alone, though I don’t remember talking to anyone. A boy fell in love with me – a tender, gentle, sincere boy. He would visit my apartment and I would hide in the bathroom until he left. We never made it work. My father, now divorced from my mother, came and went from the same apartment, often drunk and falling down the stairs.
My memory could be wrong, but I don’t remember seeing much of my father during college. My sister and I spent awkward holidays with him. A few times he picked me up for company to his regular bar. Once my car broke down in a bad neighborhood and he was the closest man to call. That’s about all I remember. Mainly he would call, long rambling conversations when he was lonely and intoxicated. They consumed hours of my time. In the morning, he would call again and berate me for never calling. He’d forgotten the call from just the night before. He was lonely. He was alone. He was abandoned and loveless. It was a little like pouring my own blood down the drain. Each call left me numb and empty. Of the two of us, I was the only one burdened with memory.
The end of my relationship with my father was abrupt. I was living in Washington, DC at the time. He was far away, still in Minnesota. The baby and I were sleeping – it was close to midnight when the phone rang. I had law school class in the morning and my son was still nursing every two hours. My father was drunk and weeping. He wanted to tell me how much he loved my son, whom he had seen only once. I knew he wouldn’t remember the conversation in the morning. I didn’t want to spend days after the call feeling numb and sad. Instead, I wanted to wake up happy the next day and take my son to the zoo or the park. I wanted to giggle through lunch with my new friend Christina and debate cases with my law school classmates. There was no argument, no confrontation with my father that night. I just simply hung up and stopped taking his calls. I needed to take care of my son. Never before had being happy seemed like such an easy choice.
New parents - and I'm at the age, where I meet a lot of them - often tell me that they are surprised by how much work parenting is. They weren’t ready for the demands. The sleepless nights. To have every moment seems seized by this tiny, helpless being. I was a young mother. Single and alone. I should have failed. How did I manage the work of parenting alone, they ask. To me, though, my son was such a light burden – a joyous, sweet, fulfilling burden – compared to everything I left behind to parent him fully. Because of him – for him - for the first time in my life, I was free.
I wouldn’t lay eyes on my father again until I was thirty-two and he was in a coma in a hospital bed. He was unclean and almost unrecognizable behind a matted beard. He had almost drank himself to death. The vessels in his throat collapsed from so many years of abuse. He bled himself into shock and then a coma. When my mother called me with the news, the weight of the burdens of my past came crashing back on to me. I hyperventilated in the car as my husband drove me to the hospital.
Dad was in a coma for weeks. He wasn’t expected to survive. When my father woke, he told my sister that he’d won the lottery. He told us not to worry; he could finally take care of everything. He sent my sister to his house to find his pants. He specified his newer jeans – the ones hanging on the bathroom door. The ticket was there. She went, terrified and bewildered. She found nothing of course. When we tried to gently tell him that it was a delusion from his coma, he grew teary-eyed like a child. His large, brown eyes looked wounded, confused. My oldest son has the same eyes. I felt cruel. He begged us to call our Aunt Frances – who he hadn’t seen in years – because he had just seen her. She would verify his story. Frances was living in California then. Seeing our doubtful faces, he sank back into his bed, tired, sick and ill. The next day we would repeat the same scene.
My father needed a lot of things after his hospitalization. My sister managed his hospital care and his bills alone, she worked with his caseworker. She attended his commitment hearing, where he was ruled incompetent and made a ward of the state. At the door of the hearing, the State attorney told her he thought we could avoid commitment with outpatient therapy. This is less expensive, and commitment is a hard sell – almost impossible - unless you’re strung out and also pregnant. My sister told him calmly that my father would be dead in six months and his death would be on his conscience. The judge agreed to the commitment. I visited him there only once.
For the first time in his life, my father was scared enough to follow the program. He’s been sober for at least three years now. At first, after he got out of treatment, my sister would call me to talk about his progress. She would go over to his house and help him fix things and pay his bills. His sight is limited and his memory is poor. He needs her help. Despite his helplessness, I’m still terrified of him. When she first started doing this, I would ask her – my voice cracking with emotion – to make sure she brought her husband with. I didn’t want her alone with him. Eventually she just stopped bringing Dad up.
In the last few years, Dad has left a few messages with my mom and asked for my phone number. He sends cards. I send cards in return for his birthday and Christmas. Several months ago he sent me a game for my oldest son. He wrote in the card that his therapist suggested family therapy for us – so that my oldest son and I could reconcile with him and be integrated back into his life. The card made me cry, but I never called and I hid the game. When my oldest son found it, I started to cry again. My husband finally threw it away for me. Dad sent a check for twenty dollars and a card to my oldest son for his birthday. I never told him about the youngest being born.
I’m not angry with my father anymore, though I can’t shake my fear of him – even in my thirties and safe in my marriage. Still, losing the anger is a big step. Parenting can teach you things. One of the things that being a mother to my sons has taught me is a semblance of peace with my own childhood. I realize now – having been through it myself – how young my parents were when they married. How they must have been scared and overwhelmed by three children. I give them more credit for how well they did, because I know providing is a struggle. I know now how many diaper changes go into raising a child. How many bumps and bruises and tears. I know how it feels to be tired. To not have the answers. I know how it feels to want just one minute to yourself to go to the bathroom – and not get it. How angry a toddler refusing to nap can make you.
So I give him credit for that. He drank. He made my mother cry. He wasted years of our lives. But he was there. He still went to work every day and fixed the car and made dinner sometimes. He coached little league and basketball. He took us camping and drove us across county on vacation. He called. He sent cards. I wish him well. I hope that he isn’t alone. I hope someone is there to answer when he calls. I hope that he is happy and well and has someone to share a life with. I just no longer think that person needs to be me simply because I’m his daughter.