Walk With Me (#39): Daddy Issues

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do

Dear Asha,

I live with my elderly father as his primary caregiver. Given his behavior with our mother, and subsequently with his other wives, none of my siblings were interested. So, after Wife #4 died he moved in with me. And I have been trying on the daily not to stick a fork in his thoracic cavity ever since.

I very much want to believe in the inherent value of people, and to be a compassionate, dutiful daughter, but he makes it so hard. He acts like he was raised by wolves. Or maybe like a man who has had wives to clean up after him his whole life, after his mother stopped cleaning up after him, of course. The unconscious entitlement is killing me. And the incredible defensiveness when I ask him to take responsibility for himself, like I am victimizing him horribly.

I don’t want to be his mother or his wife. I want to be his daughter. I want to survive this experience, and for him to survive this experience without me being the one to kill him. How do I deal with a man unloving to his family and exalted by the patriarchy without losing my integrity or making his life a nagging hell?

BTB

Dear BTB,

I know there are plenty of people in the world who aren’t disappointed and injured by their relationship with their fathers, but I am not one of those. Though my father stayed faithfully married to my mother for over 50 years, so he was different from your dad in that regard, he was incredibly damaged and deeply entitled in similar ways.

I don’t actually know how we survived my adolescence without him dead and me in jail for the crime, because the rage was real. When I was in high school my dad got diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes due to being morbidly obese. He had the chance at that early stage of the disease to take control of his life with diet and exercise. My mom was right there, ready to help. I remember one night she made this really lovely shrimp salad for dinner — light, delicious, healthy. He reared back in his chair, looked derisively at the table, and insisted, “Well, we could have had steak.”

He would gorge himself daily, and then insist that his disease was because of his benign brain tumor. Nothing to do with his choices. Nothing for him to do about it. We’re all going to die, he’d insist. Might as well enjoy yourself.

He would sit down at the table, look around, and say into the air, “There’s no butter on the table.” And then he would just wait for someone to fix that reality for him, which my mother would, every time. Because if you were to say something like, “It’s in the refrigerator if you want it” or “So, go get it” he would get angry and indignant. If you, like me, just couldn’t keep your mouth shut about the ridiculous level of his entitlement, you were incredibly ungrateful. How dare you ask him to be a self-maintaining adult? That’s just mean!

In retrospect, I also didn’t have the emotional ability at that point in my life to say the thing that was really at the heart of my rage: You are making me sit here and watch you kill yourself. I need you to step up and be strong. I need you. I love you. Please stop killing yourself. Please be strong and take some responsibility for yourself. Please don’t make me do this.

It didn’t get any easier as he got older and his various ailments made it harder and harder for him to take care of himself, and easier and easier for him to feel flummoxed and victimized by life. Not that he would ever have seen that about himself clearly, or admitted it to anyone. He just settled deeper and deeper into letting other people, primarily my mother, clean up his emotional and physical messes, as if that was just the inevitable, right order of the world.

Now, don’t get me wrong, and don’t let me misrepresent my father as only one thing, or only who he was to me. He was a complicated person, as we all are. He had talents and care for the world. He could be terribly sweet unexpectedly. His love for my mother was real and true, and he loved me deeply in his own kind of wonky, stunted way. And I loved him, even though there were times when I would have happily run him over with my car. Even though he was incredibly disappointing — over, and over, and over again.

When he died it was a relief as much as anything, to be honest with you. To no longer have an actual, living father to project my hopes and dreams for a father onto, to be done with the space between my needs from a father and the capacity of my father to actually meet those needs released me. It allowed me to take that part of myself back, to sit with my own father needs and figure out how to meet them myself. Or to just let them go because those needs aren’t getting met this go-around.

The story I tell myself is that I’m not the forgiving sort, but I don’t think that’s really true. It is nearly impossible to forgive in the absence of atonement, when the hits just keep coming. I recently heard someone say, “We must love everyone. But some people have to be loved at a distance.”

For me, there was not enough distance between my dad and me while he was alive for me to simply love him, or to forgive him for being the incredibly imperfect person he was. The irony is not lost upon me that through loving him after he was gone I came to love my own imperfect self more. As my mother would say, “So, don’t say I never gave you nothing.”

I don’t think there is an easy answer for how to survive this task of caring for your father without losing your integrity or sticking a fork in him. Other than prayer, if you are of that sort, or a lot of deep breathing if you’re not. He is the one he is, and stubbornly resistant to being different, better, more self-aware or self-sustaining, or whole. He is not the dad you needed. He’s just the dad you got.

Pick your battles, and before you pick one think long and hard about what you actually need most from it. If you need a specific behavior from him most of all, and whatever other shit you have to withstand in order to get that behavior from him is less of a concern, then you might be able to get that need met. If what you actually want is for him to truly understand his impact and take responsibility for it, that might be the time to just stick with prayer. That need is not getting met this lifetime. Which is heartbreaking. I’m so sorry.

Take whatever time and space you can to care for yourself. You’re running a marathon, not a sprint. Are there any state or county-sponsored elder care options where you live, where someone could come in and help with some basic stuff periodically? Or could stay with him for a day or two so you could get the distance you require to love him in a way that doesn’t hurt so much?

I realize your siblings weren’t interested in signing up to do daily maintenance care, but that doesn’t mean they can’t come and spend a weekend with him so that you can get the hell out of Dodge for a breather as necessary. That is not asking too much of them. It’s barely asking anything. Ask for their help, please.

Stop beating yourself up for finding this experience hellish, or for not being more loving or compassionate about it. What you are doing is hard — the work itself, and the fact that you’re doing it on behalf of someone who will never understand how much it’s costing you. Any day you don’t stick a fork in him, or you manage not to be actively unkind, is a good day. Small victories, my friend. Sometimes we survive this life on small victories.

He won’t live forever. None of us do. Do the best you can. Forgive yourself for being human. Eventually, probably after he’s gone, you will be able to forgive and love him, too.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

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