I’m going to write about something I haven’t written about much, if at all, in this space. As I’ve gotten going, I realize that there’s no way everything is going to be in one post. This is part 1.
When I had just turned 35 years old, I decided it was time for me to go to counseling. What spurred me into the office of the Catholic Charities-subsidized therapist’s office is not the thing for which I ultimately sought counseling long-term. Like most things, a trigger of sorts brought me in there, but the unraveling of the layers was the real reason I believe God brought me there. The trigger was the death of my granddad. He died suddenly on New Year’s day of 2008, after being the picture of longevity for quite some time. My Nana had been ill, suffered heart problems, and various other things off and on for some years before that. So when Granddad died before she did, it took me by surprise. During the grief that followed, I realized that I didn’t know if I had another man in my life to whom I could look up to the way I did him. Because my parents had divorced when I was young and I had never lived in the same house as my dad since the age of 7, it occurred to me that I could not look up to my own father with that same sense of admiration and love. This troubled me because I wanted very much to believe my dad was at least half the man my granddad was, but I hadn’t contemplated where he stood with me for a long time. Therefore, I decided that it was high time I got myself into some counseling so that I could deal with the fallout of my grandfather’s death and move forward in life — I figured that no matter what, I needed to figure out where I stood with my dad and our relationship.
So “Daddy Issues” brought me into counseling. “Mommy Issues” kept me there far longer than I had ever anticipated. I had always known that I had “Mommy Issues” as well, but I had never truly thought about them because I figured the real issue was with my Dad. What I learned is that once I settled my “Daddy Issues” I uncovered far more “Mommy Issues” and a deeper level of complexity existed than I was ready for. Even today, in 2017, I believe I am still un-layering and learning to deal with those things. I also feel certain I have completely dealt with my “Daddy Issues” and my relationship with my dad has grown so much better than I would have thought possible before beginning counseling.
During counseling that year, I progressed through my issues surrounding my relationship with my father rather quickly. I began counseling in February 2008 and by June, I had arranged a solo trip to visit my dad and simply spend the weekend with him. Interestingly enough, it really only took one word and one sentence from my therapist to “click” for me — ABANDONMENT. I believe the statement was, “Michelle, your father abandoned you. That is what it’s called.” I had always chosen to block the black-and-white meaning of the term when thinking about what had happened when my dad left. There’s so much emotional baggage that comes with divorce, that throwing an emotionally-charged term like abandonment on top always felt like too much to handle. I couldn’t believe my dad had abandoned me — after all, he sent child support like clockwork. I knew we had it better than lots of kids with divorced parents — at least financially — because my dad never missed the payments. I have a sneaking suspicion he sent more than he was required to and I know on several occasions, he sent extras when the need arose. Because financially, our family was able to stay off welfare and my mom was able to feed us while also going to nursing school full-time, I was grateful to the point that I would never believe my father abandoned me — or at least, I couldn’t put that word to it.
While in counseling, however, the therapist said it one day as I was searching for the right way to name what I’d suffered when I was so young. I was a “Daddy’s Girl” through and through, you see. When my parents told us about the divorce, in my mind, I heard only a loud whooshing sound with what seemed like a muffled scream coupled with the fervent prayer, “Daddy, take me with you!” Divorce was a popular enough option by the time we went through it that I’d seen movies or TV shows (or at least I thought I had) where some of the kids stayed with the mom and some went with the dad — why would we be any different? And, when the moment came that the subject was broached, I can’t remember the words that were said, but I knew from the tone and sound of them that I had better not speak my honest-to-goodness mind about it. Based on the things said throughout my life, my memory pieces what might have been said together…something like, “I cannot live without my children!” or “Your dad thinks he can take you away from me!” and “You all HAVE to stay together, so if one of you wants to go live with him YOU ALL HAVE TO GO!” Whatever the accurate words were, they were emotionally charged enough to control the tongue of an 8-year-old girl with a huge sense of responsibility for her younger siblings and a need to be accepted by her parent (whichever one was in front of me).
Additionally, when my parents divorced, it wasn’t like they lived in the same city. My dad lived a good 2-days-drive away as he was in the military and stationed on the east coast and we lived in the middle of the country — the “bread basket” of the United States. I can think of more than one time that it was 2+ years that I didn’t see my dad. Back then, long distance phone calls cost 10-cents a minute only on Sundays (and only if you had Sprint!), so I didn’t get to talk on the phone to my dad much either. Therefore, in the truest sense of the word, yes, my father abandoned me and I was left to live with my mother and my siblings. He was not a part of my life growing up.
The other thing that was important that came to light in my counseling was that I realized my father had no choice but to abandon me if his mind was made up to divorce my mother. You see, it was the early 1980’s, my mom was a stay-at-home mom who had given birth to us and raised us all at home while my dad had attended and graduated from law school. To anyone on the outside of our immediate family (so that includes extended family, too, on both sides) my dad was doing the unthinkable — leaving his wife with five children, to fend for herself. My mom had no college education and no job. The kids were 13, 8, 6, 3 and 18 months. Two kids were still in (cloth) diapers. We lived in a rundown 100-year-old house in the inner city. But even though he was divorcing my mom, he couldn’t fight to keep us kids. I guess he could have tried, but it would have been a losing battle for that time. The courts would never have awarded full custody to a father who hadn’t been rearing the children all along (he spent so many hours away from home during law school). He would have had to prove my mother unfit, and by court standards of the definition of “unfit parent,” there’s just no way that would have ever happened.
So what I had to come to grips with during counseling was that my dad DID abandon me, but due to the nature of the decision he was making, there was no other way. He was leaving an abusive relationship (most definitely emotionally, if not at least somewhat physically abusive), but it was the kind of abuse that is invisible to anyone on the outside of the immediate family/relationship. It’s the kind of abuse that I only know about because I also grew up with it. It was the kind of abuse that you can’t name and deal with while you’re inside of it. Only when I finally moved out on my own and worked through many other things could I understand what it was…what it still is. I’m not going to lie, I’ve had my indignant moments when I think, “My dad took a vow to stay ‘for better or for worse’ and he didn’t do it.”
I don’t want to make it sound like my dad was a saint, here (though my mother will explain her martyr-sainthood to you any chance you give her). He gave up on the marriage long before he actually made the move to divorce my mom. That’s evident in the relationship he began before the whole thing was said and done. But, finally taking the time to understand the severity of the circumstances helped me accept that part of the situation and move past it. Over the years, I’ve been able to look at my dad’s marriage to his second wife and it’s been a healthy realization that my dad was not a “commitment-phobe” or anything like that. He’s been married to my step-mother for 30+ years, it’s clear to me that he believes marriage is something sacred and something worth fighting for. Over the years I have also been able to reflect on my mother’s behavior and my relationship with her and it is there that I’ve been able to see that the course of my life was set in motion by two broken people both playing their parts: my father was running away from that which was hurting him, most likely feeling as though he simply didn’t have a choice, he could not continue living that life; and my mother and her inability to relinquish any amount of control in every situation, manipulating the emotional atmosphere in such a way that no one knew which was was up or down, and providing the unspoken threat that she was not to be contradicted.
There were many hurtful statements said over and over during my formative years that I had to say out loud, analyze, name them and learn from them. The most definitive statement I hear over and over in my memories and one I needed to take a full grasp of and deal with: “Your dad didn’t JUST divorce me! He left you kids, too. He didn’t want you.” This statement was at the core of my “Daddy Issues.” I had nothing to counter with. I couldn’t tell my mom “You’re a liar, he does want me!” because why wouldn’t he have taken me with him if he wanted me? (pre-adolescent brain here). This wasn’t the only hurtful thing I heard about my dad growing up, but it’s the only one that I always remember word-for-word. Because the worst thing for a child to hear is that she is not wanted by one of the two human beings responsible for bringing her into the world. Even into our adult years, my siblings and I have heard this said to us on more than one occasion — “Your dad didn’t want you kids.” Often she would spit it at us, always with a tone of disgust. Sometimes, she slipped and said it like “he left me here with you kids!” as though it was the most horrible circumstance ever. And then we felt the full effect of having neither of our parents want us. That sentiment was the most hurtful thing ever, and even though I know now that it wasn’t true that my dad didn’t want me, the memory stings. Every time. I could try to remember the other hurtful words and actions I suffered at the hands of my mother, but I am not sure what good it does within the context of this post.
My “Mommy Issues” run far deeper than just the divorce anyway. There’s a level of abuse that is sometimes the byproduct of going through something like a divorce. Then there’s the level of abuse handed out by a person who never learned how to love her children at all, an abuser who only knew neglect and abuse in a dysfunctional family growing up and only knows how to abuse.
Even though it was my mother who said these hurtful things, it was these words that perpetuated my “Daddy Issues” and it was my ability to put these words in the proper perspective that healed my “Daddy Issues.” What’s unfortunate, however, is that putting the words in the proper perspective did nothing to help me move past my “Mommy Issues.” As a matter of fact, realizing that 1) these words were never true and 2) these words came from a dark place of anger, jealousy and bitterness and 3) my mother would never own the true spirit with which she said these words simply made the “Mommy Issues” into something that needed to be tended to and could not be avoided. And that is what kept me in counseling for another 1-2 years after I resolved what I thought I’d gone into therapy for in the first place.