My parents divorced when I was 3. My brother, sister, and I lived with our dad after the divorce. You see, my mom had tried to kill herself by sitting in the garage with the car running and was thus judged mentally incompetent to care for her children.
Growing up, I unwittingly found myself in the lonely and mysterious club of children who had a crazy mother. In my house, it was easy to be ashamed of sadness and depression. Those afflictions had nearly ruined us. For a long time, I thought that I was not enough to make my mother to want to stay alive, and that made me wonder if there was something inherently wrong with me.
If I worked for you, I would have written in response to Dads being the most embarrassing parent. Articles about fathers almost never seem to focus on them as a primary caregiver, and instead we just pick on dads for having bad taste in footwear (support your arches, you idiot), ugly eyeglasses and unsightly cars.
Let me tell you about embarrassing.
My formative years are full of moments of personal shame strung together. Recollection is painful, and I can tell you that the worst kind of embarrassment is much more than having a dad who wears mom jeans. No: The worst kind is having a dad who has to take care of you and your siblings because your mom is too suicidal and clinically depressed to do it herself, and maybe she doesn’t even want to anyway.
The fact that my dad was super smart, was able to work a demanding full-time job as an estate banker/lawyer, and was somehow always present at my softball games and piano recitals, my sister’s track meets, and my brother’s baseball games and then later, his court proceedings, did not stop me from being embarrassed of this incredibly odd creature with whom I had to share a home.
When I was in the eighth grade, I started my period one morning before school. This was not something I wanted to tell my dad, but I couldn’t think of any other option.
I walked into the kitchen, held on to the chair in front of me, and told him I needed some pads. I thought I sounded very grown-up but also kind of idiotic (which is oftentimes how grown-ups sound). He asked if I meant I needed writing tablets. I told him no, I meant sanitary napkins. I actually said: “You know, feminine products.”
He went to the store and came back with overnight pads with wings, pads without wings, panty liners and regular pads with wings. A bouquet of maxi-pads. I saw the receipt, too: $17. For the longest time, telling my dad that I needed sanitary napkins, not writing tablets, was my most embarrassing memory.
The moment, I think, is a whole story, though it might be one that I tell wrong. There is love in it, but it is defiled by shame. It is a dumb story because it’s about bodies and their needs. But by dumb, maybe I mean painful. I think I really mean lonely.
A year or so prior to starting my period, I had decided I wanted to start wearing a bra. Maybe dads have gotten better with this topic. I sure as hell hope so.
Admittedly, I was a tomboy, so maybe this is why my dad was not thrilled when I told him I needed/wanted a bra. Know how I told him? I wrote him a goddamn letter.
No, it wasn’t enough for me to have to talk to my dad about shaving and bras -- I had to make it doubly strange by writing him a letter detailing my requests. I love my dad and he loves me, but my letter-writing campaign during my pre- and pubescent years certainly set a more formal tone to our relationship.
When we went bra shopping, my dad told my brother and sister that the two of us were going to the store. He could have told them why, and even though it would have been embarrassing and even though he would have called it a brassiere, at least it would have brought it out in the open. We would have seemed like a normal family, laughing with each other, poking fun and whatever it is normal families do.
When we got to JC Penney, we made a beeline for the bra and underwear section and picked up the kind in the box that was marked “training bra.” It was a size small. I probably didn’t need a bra, but I thought it would give me some type of junior high school street cred.
We were at the cash register at JC Penney, and the woman said she had to open the box because they’d had a theft problem recently. It was store policy and she seemed apologetic. She wasn’t accusing us of anything, but as she dangled that bright white training bra in front of us, I felt like she was calling my dad and me out for being awkward, mismatched and too uncomfortable with each other.
So, are dads the most embarrassing parent? Yes, but for all the reasons this article doesn’t mention. Maybe I am just being dramatic or remembering my teenage years in a bad light. Maybe my experience is not unique and the club of children with crazy mothers isn’t as lonely and mysterious as I think it is. But for me, the worst kind of embarrassment is long lasting, slightly shameful and not at all as superficial as ugly shoes or a bad haircut.