Yesterday was a day to celebrate the men who raised us, who support us, who love us.
My own dad did all of these things, and I am his grateful daughter. But yesterday, I was especially proud of him, and I want to talk about that here, even though it might be too fresh, and I might not have the right words yet. Because yesterday my dad did something for me that he hasn’t done in a long time – he fought for me.
Anyone who reads my blog knows that I have a downright contentious relationship with my dad’s family. And when I say my dad’s family, I’m actually referring to four of his five sisters.
My aunts. The Tias.
One of the things I’ve realized as I’ve opened up more about my own struggles with my family is that I’m not alone – almost everyone I meet has a story to tell about the family members who make them feel like shit. I could fill an entire blog with the details of the psychological warfare my aunts have waged on me over my lifetime, but that’s not what this post is about. Suffice to say that my aunts have often — especially in the past few years — made me feel like the most unlovable person, ever.
I’ve been asked a lot during this time what my dad has to say. And the answer has always been … nothing.
This has been a tough truth to face – my dad is not generally the kind of man who sits back and does nothing when someone makes one of his girls upset. In fact, I still remember vividly having to talk my dad down after a particularly bad waitressing shift in college, where the cooks had yelled at me (anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant knows this is par for the course). As I walked to my car, feeling like the dam was about to burst at any second, my cell phone rang – it was my dad and he could tell right away I was upset. When I ‘fessed up the reason why he wanted to know the names of the cooks and I knew he was getting ready to drive over to that restaurant and give them a piece of his
My dad is not a man to be trifled with.
But when it comes to his sisters, he goes mysteriously silent. At first this made me angry. And then, it made me sad. And then I just accepted it. Because my relationship with my dad is more important to me than his mean sisters.
Throughout the past seven years that I’ve butted heads with my dad’s family, the script has remained the same: we’re family. Family is the most important thing. That’s just the way we are. Deep down we love you. If you really needed us, we would be there.
Translation: we’re going to treat you like crap, until you’re a helpless pile of low self-esteem, and then when you get hit by a bus, we’ll show up at the hospital.
You know, when I was a kid I used to read stories about cults and think to myself how do people not see how crazy it all is? But now I kind of get it – when everyone around you is saying the same thing, it starts to become the truth. And if you dare to have doubts about whether or not this is the right way to live, something must be wrong with you.
It took becoming a mom for me to realize that the ugly cycle of emotional abuse in my family had to stop. I took one look at my son, and realized that I could not allow him to feel the way I had felt for so many years. So I started to fight back, hoping that I could carve out a new place within my family.
No, it’s not okay for you to tell me something’s wrong with me for not being married. Mind your own business.
No, you don’t get to pick and choose who I love. That’s my choice.
No, you don’t get to make me feel bad because I’m succeeding in life, in spite of you. Positive thinking goes a long way – you should look into it.
You can imagine how well all of this went over.
Eventually, I realized that this just wasn’t going to work. That the only way I was going to be happy was if I emotionally and physically distanced myself. That the solution was not to carve out a new place IN my family – it was to carve out a new kind of family.
It’s been a struggle, and a balancing act — because I wasn’t about to leave behind the man who raised me, and loved me. Or, for that matter, the grandparents and cousins that are truly the redeeming members of my family.
And so began the tricky maneuvering of maintaining my relationship with my dad, grandparents, and cousins, while simultaneously trying to leave behind my relationship with my aunts. This has been a particularly painful process for my dad because he’s still in it – he still believes in those archaic notions of family that tell you no matter how bad it gets, you never turn your back on blood.
And so we tread carefully, my little family and I. We show up when it really matters to my dad, and we try our best to be polite, without compromising the limits of what makes us comfortable. No I’m not going to hug and kiss you when you just got through spewing the most awful lies about me to the rest of our family – I’ll politely say hello, from a comfortable distance.
Yesterday was such a day, and we showed up. We said our polite hellos to everyone sitting outside eating, and then we sat down to eat inside, by ourselves.
A few minutes into our meal, we heard shouting. And then the kitchen door burst open and my dad stormed in, followed by various family members, trying to talk him down. And somewhere in between all the shouting, I heard it – my dad, yelling I’m tired of this, this has to change.
He was talking about me. He was fighting for me. And he was really, really mad.
My own instincts to protect my dad kicked in, and I joined the family members begging him to calm down. Papi, I told him. They’re not going to change. Getting mad doesn’t do anybody any good. You should just ignore them, ignore whatever they say. Because I’m not here for them anyway, I’m here for YOU.
No, he shook his head. This has to change. This isn’t right. We’re family.
My dad spent the rest of the afternoon avoiding my aunts, and everything eventually calmed down. And believe me, I don’t have any illusions of this being some kind of permanent game changer – my dad loves his sisters, and that will never change.
But I was proud of him nonetheless. Because my dad finally saw, if only briefly, what I see – that family is not supposed to behave this way.
Family is supposed to pull each other up, not tear each other down.
Family is supposed to cheer you on, not hold you back.
Family should remind you that you are loved, not that you are tolerated.
This is the family that I’m in the process of building, from the ground up. This is the kind of family that I will fight for, until my very last breath. This is the kind of family that my dad fought for, yesterday.
Yesterday, our war cries were the same.
Best … Father’s Day … Ever.