I was 18 years old when I found out my dad used to hit my mom.
I didn’t know before then, because I am the child of what is commonly known as a “deadbeat dad” -- one who isn’t around, who doesn’t send birthday cards, who doesn’t pay child support. A dad who doesn’t know anything about me, and doesn’t seem to care about knowing.
All I knew about my dad was the following: He had been in prison for armed robbery when I was young, and he was a dishonest guy who had skipped town with his new wife when I was about eight years old, after selling off all the household appliances (that he had borrowed from his family) and allegedly stealing money from his job at an auto parts store.
When my mom told me that he had been physically abusive as well, I remembered something that my mind had suppressed for 10 years: the last time I saw my dad, he was beating the shit out of his wife in the middle of the night, as I cowered in the guest room and wished I was at home with my mom.
I don’t remember much about my father. I remember visiting him a few times when I was in second grade. I remember feeling uncomfortable with him, and not wanting to go to his house. I remember the musty smell of his house -- cigarettes and dirty litter boxes, and some other smell that I’ve never been able to place. I remember him taking me to his workplace and introducing me to everyone as “the apple of my eye.”
Even at eight years old, I knew something was off about this statement.
As an adult, I can recognize that I was a prop for him to illustrate to everyone that he was a trustworthy guy. He was not a trustworthy guy.
My mom told me how he used to lie about things for no discernible reason. Just to lie about them. She told me how he was never sorry for lying -- he was only sorry to be caught.
They divorced when I was less than two years old. Removing me from that kind of environment is the greatest gift my mom has ever given me.
After he left town, his family didn’t hear from him, or know where he had gone. He never paid my mother a dime of child support. Eventually we heard from his now-ex-wife, who reported that he was a monster who had beat her up, and she had managed to escape. They had been living in San Diego.
I never heard from him again, and I was glad.
So imagine my surprise when he contacted me 15 years later. It was early 2000, and I was living in California. The Y2K scare had passed without incident, and my maternal grandfather (the closest thing to a father I had ever known) had just died of lung cancer. I got an e-mail from a man who had found me online, and wondered if I might be his daughter. He had the right person.
Even knowing what I knew about him, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. People can change, right?
I asked questions about his family history, and whether there were any family health issues I should know about. I still don’t know if what he told me was true, or a fabrication.
We exchanged a few e-mails before I caught him in some pretty obvious lies. I looked at the website for a “credit” business he said he owned, and it appeared to be a site that collected personal information under the guise of helping consumers procure credit cards.
And when I confronted him about the night he beat his wife while I was at his house, he claimed that he “had nightmares,” and that he didn’t know what he was doing. I called him on it, and he disappeared once again.
I had the phone number of one of his stepbrothers, who still lived in their hometown in Iowa. My mom suggested I talk to him, because he was always a nice guy, and nothing like my father.
When I finally did talk to him, he revealed what I suspected: that my dad was a violent, pathological liar who used people. He also said that my dad had claimed that we had reunited and had been hanging out together (lie) and that I would be accompanying him to his upcoming high school reunion (lie). A lie for the sake of lying.
Several years later, my dad contacted a member of my mom’s family and claimed he had pancreatic cancer, and that he needed my social security number so that he could list me as the beneficiary on his life insurance.
It was obvious to even my nice, forgiving family members that this was a ploy to gain my information and steal my identity.
And it was not the last time he tried to get my personal information. The next time was several years after that, when he called my mom and pulled the same stunt -- apparently, the pancreatic cancer went away and this time he was having spinal surgery.
Knowing all this, you could say I have “daddy issues.” My life is a country song. Here are some common perceptions about the fatherless: that we become drug addicts, that we engage in “risky sexual behavior,” that we are always looking for a father figure.
None of that happens to be true in my case, but I didn’t come out of a fatherless childhood completely unscathed: I have some serious trust and control issues, the feeling that I don’t belong anywhere, and latent abandonment issues which I didn’t even think I had until the past few years. All these issues, cumulatively, are less a scar than a wound that is in the process of healing, one year of new history at a time.
Some studies say that having a strong father figure is essential to a girl’s self-esteem, and that girls with good dads are less likely to become pregnant too young or to have problems with alcohol or drugs.
Clearly, love is the number one thing that heals the soul and helps a child to grow into the person he or she is meant to be. I’m fortunate. I may not have had the love of a father, but I had the love of all the women in my family, and a few positive male role models in my life -- namely, my grandpa and my uncle. A bad or absent dad doesn’t always dictate how someone will spend her teenage years.
Aside from the fact that I did not grow up in an abusive home, the true gift my particular brand of fatherlessness has given me is a deep appreciation for the good dads of the world -- of which there are many. Just not mine.
Tell me about your dad? I hope you had/have a good dad, and I’m sorry if you didn’t/don’t.