There is a question that pops into my mind from time to time, which means once a week or so. It’s been bouncing around my head for about 30 years. This question has shaped who I am, the path I’ve walked, and how I view my place in the world. Throughout my adult life I spent a lot of time lying to myself, filling my own head with platitudes and half truths about how this one question no longer affected me, and how much better I am because of the strength it’s helped me build. Sometimes I’d tell myself that I knew the answer, and others I would convince myself that it plain didn’t matter.
I’m sure the question isn’t really a surprise, it’s the effing title of this post. “Why didn’t my father want me?” I tear up when I write it. It hurts, a lot, just to say it. I’m not really much of a writer, I lack the words to describe the pain, and emptiness those words make me feel. Here I sit, 36 years old, on a train from San Francisco to San Jose, tears welling, breath stuttering on the inhale as I write the simple question “why didn’t my father want me?” I’m a freaken mess.
“I will never be safe, I will never be sane, I will always be weird in side, I will always be lame. Now I’m a grown man, with a child of my own, and I swear I’m not gonna let him know all the pain that I’ve known.” ~Everclear “Father of Mine”
Before I can really unpack my deepest darkest pain for all of you complete strangers, and small group of friends who decide to read this, I need to go back to where this question was born. You have to meet Young Thadeous, an odd young, ugly duckling of about 9 years old. Sitting in the car with his mother pulled over to the side of a busy street in downtown Salem Oregon. Tears streaming down his mother’s cheeks as she tells him the truth about his absent father. He’s never heard his mother speak with so much pain and vitriol. He’s never seen so much hurt on her face. Every truth she tells him cut two ways, opening old deep wounds his father had left on her, and cutting just as deep into her young child, who was being forced into a new reality, one he could never have been ready for.
I shouldn’t have started there. I should have gone father back into my past. My father left before I could form real memories. He left before I could even know what it was like to have a father figure in my life. I never knew what it was like to have a dad to go to for advice. No one taught me how to shave. I had never used a real razor until I was 20 in college when the electric razor my mother bought me as a teen finally died. I cut the shit out of myself for weeks until another student gave me some pointers. But that was pretty much how everything I should have learned from my dad went. No football on Sundays, father son camping trips, no talks about girls, man was that awkward with my mom; she had a book with diagrams, and charts.
I can’t fathom the sacrifices the absence of my father caused my mother to make. She worked hard to make sure that my sister and I were taken care of. My sister’s father had also left; but he would take her away on weekends. My mother often worked two jobs, as a result we spent many nights at a friend’s house while she worked her night job. I still remember how smoke stained everything at their house smelled, and the creepy tree that sat right outside their bedroom window, knocking on the window as I tried to sleep, waiting for my mom to pick me up. We always had what we needed, and more. She tried everything she could to make our lives normal, and fill the holes our fathers had left. I remember during the holidays there would always be gifts under the tree from my father. They would always be big, always something I really wanted. It’s hard to not choke on the bitterness of the joy I remember when I would get them. My father loved me, he just couldn’t be there right now. I knew that someday he would come home. Some day he would come home and give me hugs, and take me places. I can’t imagine how much that had to hurt my mom to watch. Why didn’t my father want me?
Back in that car, where young Thadeous was learning the truth about his father, about how his mother had bought all the gifts from him. That she had given him everything that he thought had come from his father. A man who had never once tried to see him, or contact her since he left. A man who had had lied, taken everything from her, and left them destitute. A man who had felt little, if anything for him. You know what, forget back in the car with young Thadeous. Too hard to write about.
As I grew up, there were men who came into and out of my life on a pretty consistent basis. Men who wanted my mom, but didn’t really want the baggage of children. The men who would promise to take me camping, or to ball games. They would make promise they never intended to keep, and never did. I never did go to a ball game; my mom took us camping every year though. There was one man, we will call him Brad, his name is brad, I’m not changing that fucker’s name, he was always on the border line of abusive. He yelled, forced to me sit for hours staring at cold food when I wouldn’t eat, and was just a jerk to me. He yelled at me when I acted up, or when I talked too much. I got in trouble for any toe I ever put out of line. I loved him. I wanted to make him happy. I desperately wanted his approval. We moved in with him, and for the first time I ever I had a man to look up to, and I didn’t want to make him go away like my dad. Then he tried to convince my mom to give me up for adoption, not my sister, just me. She left him shortly after this.
In my post college years I worked hard to find my independence. I moved to South Africa to build orphanages for children whose families had been lost to the AIDS pandemic. I became the youngest manager in Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse history, and a pretty kick ass Sommelier, and started my own consulting company. I was driven to succeed at everything I did, often working nights, and weekends to make up for my lack of experience and training. I was driven to stand out in whatever I did. I masked my actions in arrogance, making people think I wanted success because I thought so highly of myself. The real reason behind my drive was simple, I wanted to be wanted. I needed to know that I was important and valuable to the people I worked for. I clamored for the recognition of the male figures in my life, often my bosses or clients. Their praise was a drug for me. It satiated the pain, and temporarily filled the hole that my father had left. I write in past tense as if I don’t do the same today. My life is filled with lofty goals I set for myself just to get another taste of that praise and recognition. To hear a man of authority tell me I’ve done well, that I’m valued, that I’m wanted. It’s fleeting, but it’s something.
There has always a longing in me to finally “get there.” Be a man, a man that any father would be proud of. A man that no one could denigrate. I had a secret plan, one that I desperately wanted to put into play, but was always too terrified to even take the first step. The plan was to get answers to all my questions. I wanted to track down my father. I wanted to confront him, show him what he had left behind, tell him how much I hated him for what he did to my mother, and to my family. I wanted to tell him how much he missed out on, and most of all I wanted to know why. Why didn’t my father want me?
At one point in my young adulthood I found out that my father had settled down, and had a family. He married, had a son who was in the military, and lived a normal life. I learned that I have a half-brother brother out there somewhere, living an ordinary life. He had a family. Was it normal for him? Were they loving? Did his father take him to ball games? Did they go camping together? Did he get bet time stories with voices? Did he raise him to go on to be a good father to his own kids? And most of all, why him? What was so special about him? Why did he get to be normal, why did he get to be loved? What the hell was so fucking wrong with me?
A few years ago I received a package from my mother. It had a bunch of my old grade school report cards, some medical records, and other things from my childhood she thought I might want. Nestled in it was a letter. On the letter was some pretty basic information, I think it was a medical record of mine from my child hood. The important part though, was a note written in my mother’s hand writing in the upper corner of the paper. It said “Died, age 56 of heart condition, CA 2010.” It didn’t take me but a few seconds to come to the conclusion that the note was about my father. I put the paper back in the box, and discussed it with my partner. I played it off, he never wanted me, and I never needed him. Why would I feel anything about the death of someone who meant less than nothing to me? On my way to work that day I called my mother to confirm. She told me it was true, and that she was sorry for not telling me, she’s always hated confrontation, and hated hurting me even more. I went into work and immediately broke into uncontrollable sobs. I had lost my chance to ever know why.
When my father died, when he died to me on the day I found that letter, I lost the focus of so much of my anger. I had always been so absolute about the fact that I am not him. I’ve never cheated in a relationship. I’ve never abandoned people who need me. I’ve always tried to be the man I knew he wasn’t. But deep down inside I always felt the need to find him, to compare, to prove that he was the devil, and that I had none of him in me. I had a motto that I had picked up in Latin class, though I’m sure I never quite conjugated it correctly “Et Non Estis Vestri Pater.” If my C- in Latin means anything my motto translates to “you are not your father.” Something I would utter to myself in the mirror constantly. After my morning shower, when I washed my hands in a public restroom, anywhere I had to look myself in the eye. But I’d never be able to solidify it, I’d never be able to know for sure that I was nothing like the man I had hated.
I’ve been told that my life has turned out great. I’ve told myself that I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t have this as part of my life. The pain has made me who I am, and I shouldn’t want to be different or I’d might have turned out unrecognizable and thus lose everything great about my life. I’m not sure if any of that is true. I’m not sure that the pain my family endured, the brokenness I’ve felt my entire life, the feelings of always being out of place, and all of the shit that came along with my father leaving was worth it. I don’t think it’s true.
This doesn’t have an end. I didn’t get better one day, I still carry all of this with me. I didn’t write this as a triumph story about how I overcame what I went through. I wrote this because I needed to put words to my pain. To put it in a frame, so there could be order. I want to publish it so I can talk more openly about what I deal with. Once it’s out in the world I can’t hide it behind a wall of toxic masculinity. Once the world knows no amount of bravado can hide it. I still carry my scars, I’m still weird, I’m still afraid, I still have no clue why I wasn’t loved, and why my father never wanted me. I never will.
There are thousands on thousands of children whose fathers have left them. Every one of them will deal with the loss in their own way. Some will grow up and continue the cycle, and others will vow to be better. I don’t know if I’ll ever have kids. Part of me fears that I have nothing to teach them. That I’ll finally come to the realization that I am my father’s son. That I’ll end up finding fatherhood to be too much, and run. I have one request for anyone who reads this. Please, please for the love of everything good in this world, please don’t ever abandon your child. Please do whatever it takes to be there, in whatever way you can. It might be a sacrifice for you, it may cost you time, money, or opportunity. But please, I beg you, never ever abandon your child. You can’t possibly know how it will destroy him or her, even if you’ve felt the sting of absence, every child inherits a personal hell when a parent leaves, and no one is like the other.