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How My Complicated Dad Changed My Parenting

A mom strives to find her inner dad

Published on: May 25, 2018

mother and son

Mention Father’s Day, and I immediately think of burgers, beer and the first hints of summer in the sun-starved Northwest. For me, the holiday always revolves around food and family. Just not my own dad.  

I grew up with a complicated dad who abused alcohol and sometimes, his kids. Sometime in my early 20s, when keeping him in my life became more painful than keeping him out, we fell out of touch. He died seven years ago.

Growing up, the difference between my dad and those of my friends was painfully obvious. Their dads doled out advice, mowed the lawn and goofed around. To me, these dads were like zoo creatures — fascinatingly foreign curiosities. Fun to visit. Not part of real life.

Each June, people heap praise on their dads, and I look on. I don’t feel jealous or bereft. I’m more like an outsider invited to a friend’s family reunion. I’m cool with all the fuss being made, even if I can’t relate.

I'm learning to become my own inner dad.

Whatever my friends got from their dads, things they treasure and trot out on Father’s Day, I didn’t get. And while I think I turned out okay, these times make me think about what I missed by growing up without a close father figure.

Seeing my kids with their own father, and now with my partner, gives me a cherished window into the long list of things kids get from the good men in their lives. Security. Playfulness. Consistency. Unconditional love.

As I’m learning about what I missed, I’m also learning to mourn some of these losses. I’ve made peace with my past, mostly. And while I can’t change it, I can make up for a few things I didn’t get growing up.

That’s meant facing up to the most essential type of self-care: Parenting myself. In particular, learning to become my own inner dad. The kind of dad I think my dad wanted to be. The inner voice that sets limits. That gently prods me to file my taxes and save for retirement. The one questioning whether the person causing me pain is really worth my time. The one who tells me to take pride in my work, that it’s okay to be smarter than my date and to never sell myself short. All the wise, patient, steady stuff a dad might provide.

Of course, mothers can and do provide this type of parenting all the time. But those of us who grew up with missing or unavailable dads have to work hard to understand, and then fill, the space fathers occupy in their children’s heads and hearts. And we work at becoming the kind of adult capable of the fathering we needed, decades ago, and probably still need today.

This hasn’t been simple or speedy, especially since I’m also busy being a mom to my own kids. So, I’m not in the running for dad of the year yet. But I’m learning, finally, to be patient with myself, with the person my dad was and with my own inner dad.  

And this Father’s Day, I’m buying myself a beer.

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