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Breaking up with my father

Essay | 16 minute read
A writer - and son - reflects on why it sometimes feels right to separate from a parent

A little over a month ago, I found myself writing a Dear John letter in which the general thrust of my delicately-worded missive was: ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’

The letter’s recipient was my father. It wasn’t an actual letter, of course, because this isn’t 1974. No, it was an email, long our established form of contact anyway, and his response, also electronic, was swift. He took the rejection much as I had mostly expected him to, with acceptance, dignity and stoicism. Any other reaction happened offscreen, and I was not privy to it. My hope was that it didn’t cause too much hurt, though I would be surprised if he hadn’t seen it coming. Our relationship by this stage, such as it was, had been winding down for some considerable time, so the arrival of a message from me into his inbox would have been unexpected, and consequently freighted with an ominous significance. I was never going to be writing to him simply to say hello.

In composing it, I learned that it is not nice to be in a position to cause upset to another human being. Indeed, I had been trying hard not to send the email for the better part of ten years, a decade in which I had tacitly agreed to try and foster something between us largely for his sake, because I sensed that he wanted it. For my part, I at first wasn’t sure if I did, and later felt certain I didn’t. The longer we continued to stay in touch, the greater the gnawing irritation that, not only did it not feel right, but it felt in some fundamental way wrong.

If I had discovered that I could no longer find space for him in my life, it was likely because for a good portion of it, he hadn’t been in it. He and my mother had separated when I was ten, and he only re-entered it – at my largely mercenary invitation – when I was in my late thirties, and he his mid-sixties. Our reunion, on a bright winter’s day that required coats and scarves (and, for him, a flat cap), took place in an empty restaurant opposite Victoria Station.

Had Mike Leigh been loitering with intent in one corner, eavesdropping, I imagine he would have been disappointed. There were no dramatics, no revelations or recriminations, no exposure of secrets and lies, just a rather disappointing plate of pasta pesto, and perfectly polite conversation. I asked him lots of questions about the past, and he answered them diligently and diplomatically, and frequently expressed his distress at the manner in which he left, explaining why he felt it necessary to do so. ‘The biggest regret of my life,’ he said.

But the emotional watershed that TV family reunion shows like to suggest is unavoidable in such situations did not occur here, at least not on my part. My insides were not roiling. This man, to me, was a stranger. For the duration of our lunch, I felt that our meeting up was a fascinating thing, and I was glad that I had come. But I wasn’t sure it signified anything beyond that, nor did I think it threw open the doors to some kind of happily-ever-after reconnection.

He took care of the bill. ‘The least I could do.’ He emailed a day later, keen to meet up again. He wanted to introduce me to his wife and grown-up daughter, and for me to introduce him to my wife and his granddaughter, keenly aware – and excited already – that another granddaughter was imminent. ‘When’s a good time for you?’ he wrote.

I had spent my life without a father, and now here I was, dreadfully close to forty, and I had one. What on earth was I supposed to do with him?

Reuniting with lost family members is invariably a complicated business. When we grow up without a parent, says Jed Diamond, an American psychologist and writer who has spent much of his career writing on men’s issues, it constitutes what is known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs can lead to problems in later life, casting much in its looming shadow whether we realise it or not.

‘It has become so common to lose fathers from the family unit – maybe because they were working too much, they divorced from their wives, they died – that we have come to think that this is just the way it is, and that it doesn’t really affect us,’ Diamond tells me. ‘But it does affect us. When you put the pieces together, you might realise that, actually, you are not fine, that there is a deep wound that is often buried and not understood, not recognised, or dealt with.’

Photo by Liane Metzler/Unsplash

Not dealing with it, he says, often represents ‘typical male behaviour . . . Men tend to put their feelings in a box. We are generally trained to be stiff-upper-lipped. It’s a part of being male: you do what has to be done, you cope. Again, speaking generally, men tend not to be as in touch with their feelings as women, but when you go through these Adverse Childhood Experiences – and there have been studies going on for the last twenty years to validate the connection between such early losses and later stresses – a lot of people do in fact struggle: with violence, with drug abuse, with personal relationships. We can become disconnected in all sorts of different ways. If we learned to face that, it might help us process it.’

He tells me about the correlations between adult illness, and marital and paternal issues that can be traced right back to the fact of having grown up without a parent. Reuniting later in life will hardly make everything right again, but it might provide that key psychological goal: closure.

‘We’ve all got to come to closure in some way,’ he says, ‘but, no, the connection doesn’t always work out. And if it doesn’t? That’s fine. Reconnecting with someone who hasn’t been in your life for a long time, with someone who you may not hold very many fond memories of, isn’t easy.’

I have few memories of my father from childhood. He was out a lot, at work, and then not at work, when he was out somewhere else. I know that memory can be unreliable and easily re-imagined, but I seem to recall that on those occasions when he was home, he wasn’t content. His marriage was an unhappy one. Arguments and slammed doors were a fairly regular nighttime soundtrack. I took to going to bed with a tiny transistor radio pressed up to my ear.

When he left, he did so emphatically. I was ten. It’s jumbled in my mind, but I neatly coincide his departure with the end of primary school, and the beginning of secondary, one chapter closing, another opening. I have no memory of missing him, and in many ways felt relieved to see him go. The arguments stopped, and though my mother continued to cry, it was of a different timbre now. I felt she needed my protection, and so, not yet eleven, I tried to protect her. If I was coping with this all rather suspiciously well, my younger brother wasn’t. Managing his own perfectly understandable moodswings would prove difficult.

When I speak to Dr Jessamy Hibberd, a London-based clinical psychologist, she suggests that I learned to control and conceal my emotions because I had to, because the situation demanded it. Children don’t ordinarily cope particularly well in such matters, she points out, because how on earth could they? They’re children . . . ‘If you were to walk out on your daughters’ lives now,’ Dr Hibberd asks me, ‘do you think they would manage it without any emotional fallout?’

My daughters are thirteen and ten. I am a pretty constant presence in their lives – too present, they might tell you – so I like to imagine that, yes, if I did suddenly disappear, they might just look up from their screens, notice my absence, and experience at least some emotional fallout.

‘Well then, it’s likely that you did, too. You think you coped because of the coping strategies you had developed. You had a lot of responsibility put on you, and you behaved in this way because you felt it required of you. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t affect you.’

My mother, who never remarried, became acutely sensitive to the fact that I was growing up without a male figure in my life. There was my maternal grandfather, of course, but he lived with my grandmother in Italy, a lovely but quiet man so clumsy when dealing with matters on an emotional level that he mostly avoided them. When I visited in the school holidays, he tried to teach me Men Things: the simple pleasures of DIY; the ability to mend the washing machine; how to tell a claw hammer from its ball-peen equivalent. I managed to feign interest for as long as I possibly could, sometimes for several minutes at a time. Accepting defeat, he retreated to the living room, and his crossword magazines.

At fifteen, I got a job in a record shop, and struck up a friendship with the deputy manager, an artful dodger type who filled my head with lurid stories, and who often gave me a lift home after work. My mother decided that I had connected with him, this bloke twice my age, because I needed a man in my life. She seemed happy for me, and only started to show concern about his influence when he began taking me to the pub after work, where he wanted me to meet one of the many barmaids of his casual acquaintance. The barmaids terrified me.

With my ACEs up my sleeve, I stumbled into grown-up relationships, and struggled accordingly. I proved a standoffish boyfriend, sometimes cold, my initial enthusiasm turning to stone the moment I didn’t feel that enthusiasm reciprocated. No way was I going to show my cards before she did. This was clever of me, I thought back then, my skewed logic assuring me that this was the only way to prevent heartbreak. I had seen what heartbreak did to my mother, and I wasn’t having it for myself. This way I’d remain ‘safe’. I walked around in this clanking body armour convinced nobody could see it but me.

Such dysfunction, however, somehow didn’t prevent all the normal things from ultimately happening to me. I met someone, trusted her implicitly, fell in love, and we didn’t get married and have children until, many years later, we did. It was only at that moment did my inner wobble rush outwards into the world, a chicken separated from its head. I panicked. First I was terrified that having a baby would ruin our relationship, then I was terrified that I had absolutely no idea how to be a father, and was fated to fail. This is how genes works, right? It was my wife who gently and ably steered me through the whole process, and ultimately forgave me (I hope) for not remaining calm in the storm, but being the cause of the storm itself.

I had contacted my father on the eve of my fortieth year, twenty-seven years after I had last seen him, because I was writing on the subject of fatherhood. I decided that, if I wrote about it, I might understand it better, and might come to it better prepared – like revision before an exam. I spoke to other fathers for the project, and several explained to me that we tend to reassess our relationships with our fathers when we become parents ourselves. I responded that I wouldn’t know; I hadn’t seen my own in decades. They suggested I remedy this fact. So I did. I wrote to him, explaining the reasons for my reaching out, and he readily agreed to meet.

If that first meeting fulfilled my strictly professional expectations, the second quickly unravelled. It was a few weeks later, coffee and cake in Costa, but conversation soon faltered, and a silence settled around us which conspired to make every other noise in the cafe seem amplified. I’m awkward around silence, but couldn’t think how to fill it. I’d asked all my questions. A waitress looked over at us and smiled, perhaps in sympathy. When I told him that he should feel free to ask me anything, that there must be plenty about my life he was ignorant of, he suggested that there was time for that later. ‘When?’ I wanted to ask, but didn’t.

I wondered later whether this was how fathers and sons normally interacted, contentedly non-verbal in one another’s company, broaching conversation only when the weather turned nasty, or when United lost again. With my mother, we had talked about everything, and rarely stopped. This non-talking with my father, this looking-out-of-the-window-seeking-conversational-inspiration, was alien to me. I didn’t like it.

I quickly decided that we wouldn’t be meeting again like this, not one-to-one. Which also meant no future trips to the pub for us, or to the football. No Saturday morning fly fishing, no caravanning weekends. Never would we tear through the post-Christmas sales at John Lewis looking for jumpers; we would not chat for amiable hours on the phone.

Diamond tells me that I perhaps should have considered my father’s relationship with his own father here. ‘If he struggled to engage with you, then that’s perhaps because his own father didn’t engage with him?’ It’s a reasonable suggestion, of course, and entirely plausible, but what do I do with it? Being with him reminded me I was my mother’s son, and that the man who had seemed to me a stranger was a stranger still.

We needed protection, I realised, protection from one another lest we realise just how thin the thread that connected us really was. We needed other people. So, sporadically over the next ten years, we had Sunday lunches en famille, first at his place, then at mine, roasts with all the trimmings. His wife was nice, chatty. We passed the time, shot the breeze, checked our watches, left. We met up about four times a year, then three, then two, then once. Each of us, I was sure, knew where this was heading.

I speak to Jess Tholmer, a thirty-one-year-old writer who lives in Seattle, and who has written about her own efforts of reconnecting with her father. With great honesty, she details the invisible complexities that abounded, and how she too felt underwhelmed by her reunion, lamenting the absence of an instinctive connection.

Her father had left home when she was three. She barely had any contact with him for many years but knew, via the grapevine, that he had become an alcoholic. His life was problematic. When she turned eighteen, her father’s sister reached out. It was the two of them that first forged a relationship; a couple of years into it, her aunt suggested that Jess might like to connect with her father, too. ‘But I was angry at first and said no,’ Jess says. ‘So she suggested that we build things up slowly, and perhaps take it from there.’

Photo by Rawpixel/Unsplash

This she duly did, but what really resonated for Jess was the fact that she now suddenly had an extended family, an African-American family. Inserting herself into this tight-knit unit helped her come to terms with her own identity in a way she hadn’t been able to before. ‘Being raised by a white woman in a very white part of the country – and Seattle is extremely white – I found that it meant a lot to me to suddenly have this large family,’ she says. ‘The being black part, for me, was huge. So, yes, there was my dad in all this, but to be honest the connection still didn’t feel that strong. Even now he feels more like a distant uncle than anything else. But to be around other people I’m related to, through him – I’ve enjoyed that a lot.’

Sober for eight years, her father started drinking again recently. ‘I don’t know if I want to deal with everything he is going through, and everything he will put me through as a result,’ she says. Like me, she has thought about writing a letter. ‘I’m not sure I want to be a part of what comes next. He is old now, seventy-one. Do I acquiesce and humour him for the last few months or years of his life? Because, you know, if he died tomorrow, I would feel bad that I hadn’t reached out to him. But then if he has another fifteen or twenty years . . . well, that would be a very different thing.’ She laughs dryly. ‘If I could see the future, it would make it much easier to make my decision.’

After my mother died at fifty-six from cancer, I became increasingly close to my maternal grandparents. She is Slovenian, he was Italian, and they lived most of their lives together in Milan. They didn’t speak English, and I saw them only during school holidays as a child, and then a couple of times a year, long weekends mostly, throughout adulthood. We have precious little in common, but they remained a constant peripheral presence in my life, and I have always felt their love. This is a connection that feels instinctive, and real. They were my family, my only family; I treasured them.

When I became a father, I felt an urgency to introduce them to their great-grandchildren, to have them around one another. I cannot say I felt similarly towards my father. Being a grandparent is something one has to earn, no? And while I don’t blame him for the past (I think), there are consequences to his leaving, and this, I suppose, is it: my letter to him, my farewell, my goodbye.

Dr Hibberd reassures me that my children will not unduly suffer because of my actions. ‘Children don’t actually need everybody to love them, they just need one person to love them, to pay attention to them, and they’ll be fine.’ Whichever way we choose to live our lives, she adds, there will be gains and costs. ‘And so ultimately you have to do what feels right for you.’

I have no regrets. I’m glad I met up with him. He turned out to be a nice man, and that’s why we continued for as long as we did. I wanted to accommodate him, to be gentle with him, to give him what I could see in his eyes that he wanted the most. When I ended it, I didn’t do so rashly or, I hope, thoughtlessly: he has a daughter, my brother, other grandchildren. He is not alone. I ended things because it was time to do what felt right for me, to be true to myself. Because at some point we all have to, no?

The Smallest Things: On the Enduring Power of Family by Nick Duerden is published by Elliott & Thompson. Buy here

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