I feel like a half-ass daughter every Father's Day because I can never muster enough disingenuousness to call, email, or send my dad a card. Birthdays, sure. Christmas is a given. But on Father's Day – a day devoted to awesome dads – my honest soul just can't pretend to have a functional relationship.
I'm genuinely happy to read other people's celebrations of their dads on Facebook. They don't make me sad or even feel left out or unseen. But they do make me think of the many half-ass (or big-ass dreadful) fathers in the world whose absences or manipulative presences have inflicted lasting trauma on their kids.
They make me think about fatherhood and the many years I've spent traumatized in the wake of poor fatherhood. They make me wonder what myths about 'fatherhood' I've been living in.
I've carried an inconsolable longing for as long as I can remember: a mournful ache at the passing of all things, the grief-filled delight that pierces you when your eye lights for a split second on a single immanent presence. That moment when that which is near actually feels near. The deep, sorrowful joy generated by the inevitable loss of what is before you right now, the transmutation of all things.
I hold this longing with me always, though most often it stays buried inside until I pause (or am paused) and let my gaze be caught up in the beauty of a passing someone or something.
But I grew up having this feeling 'gendered' because I was born into a gendered world. In my patriarchal evangelical community, male and female roles were an unquestioned given, and also strictly defined. The 'father' was a very distinct role, which he could play well or poorly (or somewhere in between).
Without even knowing it was happening, I began to associate the sense of loss – the impending absence of everything present to me in its current form – with my own workaholic father's emotional absence.
I had been told by Christian dating and marriage books that good dads did specific things for their daughters. Dads were protectors, providers, and affirmers. Dads told their little girls that they were beautiful. This positive dad behavior was preparation for the time when their little girls grew up and got married to a godly man who would take on the masculine role of affirming her beauty and protecting her fragile ego.
Over time, I imbued that parental absence with specific, gendered qualities, which left me with a sense of perpetual woundedness and lack. It's left me always reaching out for masculine presences, and perpetually vulnerable to them as I seek external affirmation and approval. The space between the very real relational absence of one person estranged from another (me and my father) became filled with gendered ideas about what I needed from that relationship, prompting me to seek its type in other places.
It taught me to be forever unfulfilled, to be afraid of satisfaction.
It hasn't been until just recently that I've started to sift through how this 'gendering' of absence has weakened me and made me needy in particular, unhealthy ways.
I remember reading John Eldridge's books – Wild At Heart (about men) and Captivating (about women) – as a teenager and being enthralled by his description of "the Wound" that many women carry because of poor fathers. It resonated with me at the time because I felt that deep pain of parental estrangement.
The problem was that the book framed the ache with roles in view, with a very specific vision of what men and women are like and what they need. It cast women as needing certain things from husbands and fathers – things they couldn't get anywhere else. This set me up for a disposition of perpetual reliance on men for affirmation.
Instead of saying, "These are things all humans need and you can get them from a variety of different relationships of different kinds," it made women always dependent on men by saying to them, "You will always feel wounded until a man sees you and loves you."
The event that made me question this gendered need was getting to know the man who would become my husband.
Prior to meeting Josh, all my love interests (as varied as they were) had one thing in common: they scared me. I hung on their every word. I knew I couldn't rely on them for affirmation – they wouldn't always come through – but I always wanted it and mentally prepared myself for them to reject me or fail to affirm.
In this framework, God became the foil to my love interests. I identified God as the eternal Lover, the heavenly Father, the only Person who would see and accept me and think I was worthy. My love interests might fail me as my father had, but God would remain true.
But then I met Josh. And Josh...well...he wasn't 'masculine' in the way I'd understood it and we didn't relate to each other with the husband/wife dynamic I'd been taught to expect. We didn't do any of the typical male/female dances. He didn't scare me–I felt completely at ease. He was my friend before anything else. We liked many of the same things and we just kept talking about them and pursuing them. He thought I was beautiful, but that didn't really come into play until later.
I do feel strengthened and affirmed by his friendship and love (more than I ever could have imagined or hoped for). But the more we've talked about it and get deeper into our marriage, the more I realize that he has never filled any of those masculine roles I was fashioned to long for.
And the contrast between the gendered absences and Josh's presence couldn't be more stark. I feel healthy and whole with Josh. When I think of the person I am when I live in light of the gendered absence (who patriarchy fashioned me to be), I feel shamed. Because that schema, that myth of fatherhood, was always designed to keep me dependent. It never envisioned me as a woman who was as strong and autonomous as her partner. It never imagined I could find other wells from which to drink.
But in my real life – in my actual marriage – my partner and I are equals. We need each other (and others, too), but neither of us wants the other to be in an unending cycle of need. The more we grow together, the more we feel we must each strike out on our own as individuals – to know our own selves and interests. The things we share are important, but the things we don't share are equally important. We each want the other to grow strong and confident. My husband doesn't want me to be always wounded so that he can be my balm or healer. He wants us both to be in a process of healing and helping others heal, a mutual relationship.
I'm not sure how to end this post, and I suspect that's because dispelling fatherhood myths is an ongoing process. How do I extricate myself from the story without destroying my sense of self? I've been so shaped and defined by these stories – how can I maintain any form without them?
Maybe I can't.
Maybe the transmutation of all things – the constant movement that brightens my eyes and sets my chest aching – isn't the terror we make it out to be. Maybe we're better off always moving into ourselves.