I have been wrestling with how to write this entry for some time. This is not so much as an update on how I’m loving being Ben’s daddy (another post will do), but more on why I am so inspired to be the best father I can be.
Note: This is going to be a long post, as it’s going to be more about my history and what shaped me to be the person I am today.
I grew up in a home with very traditional gender roles. My mother was the full time stay-at-home mom, while my father worked to provide for the family. This has always been the case, and has been my example of what a father should do for his family. As a result, I can remember more interactions with my mother than with my father, especially when we lived outside of Concord, New Hampshire between the ages of three and six. Unknown to me at the time, my father had a job in Vermont at a publishing company, where he would stay at an apartment during the week, then be home on the weekends, avoiding the long commute. I guess I had assumed that he got home past when I had gone to sleep and left before I woke up.
Looking back now, having a father who was not only not present physically, but emotionally as well, really made it difficult for us to bond.
After living in New Hampshire, my family moved to Connecticut, as my father had gotten a job in New York City at another publishing company. We had moved to Fairfield, one of the wealthiest counties in the country. I say this not to boast, but to make the point that materials things are no substitute for love. Once again, my father worked long hours while my mother stayed at home while we were out school. While we would see him later in the evening, after dinnertime, he would still not be “present”.
You could say that my “daddy issues” began around middle school. I had developed an aptitude for computers, and I really enjoyed learning all I could about them, as well as playing videogames. My father spent little effort to engage me in my interests, instead trying to foster other hobbies that I was not interested in.
There was one instance, which I remember quite vividly, where we had been playing a computer strategy game together, where I was one army and he was the opposing side. We had said that we would only play together, for it to be fair to the other person so that they could have their turn (sort of like if you were playing chess and one person had 3 extra turns between each of yours). I walked past the study, seeing him play our game. I say to him, “I thought we were going to play together.”
I don’t remember how it happened, but the next thing I knew, he had lifted me by the arm pits and shoved me into a wall, holding me there. I can’t remember exactly what he had said to me, but just the gist of it was that I always had an attitude and that he deserved my respect.
A few seconds later, he released me, and resumed what he was doing on the computer. I retreated to my room, and cried for most of the night.
We’ll have to fast forward to continue my story, not only for relevance, but because I can’t remember much from my childhood. As someone with a Social Work degree and a good understanding of mental health, I can tell you that that is not normal. I know that it is because I have chosen to block out part of my childhood, either to protect myself from it or just so that I don’t remember bad things that occurred.
Caroline sometimes asks me to tell her something about myself that she doesn’t already know. I reply to her honestly that I can’t remember anything. I look at pictures of myself as a kid and have no recollection of birthdays, holidays, vacations, etc. I simply cannot recall what had occurred. After looking at pictures of myself, I feel like my brain tries to generate the story that goes with the picture, rather than the picture reminding me of the story.
Back to the story. As well as I can remember (due to my unconscious decision to block out living with my parents) my father continued to be a bystander in my life, instead of being an active participant. This was not the case with my sister, who was (read: is) the star child of the family. I was not an overachiever in school, earning a B+ average overall in school. When report cards came home, my grades were instantly compared to my sister’s, especially when we were both in the same calculus class together. I effectively became the “black sheep” of my family, which took me a long time to realize is not a bad thing!
Another key parenting moment: For one of my birthdays (I think sometime in middle school) I came home from school to find an exercise bike in my room. Confused I went downstairs to ask my father what that was. He said, “It’s an exercise bike so you can lose weight. You’re looking pretty chubby these days. Don’t want you to pork out too much”. I promptly went upstairs and avoided him for a while. I remember that I would ride that bike for hours and hours until my legs hurt because I didn’t want to “pork out too much” any more.
If we fast forward a little more, right up to before Caroline and I got married, my parents came up to help with wedding preparations (or, my mother helped while my father grudgingly came along). Not wanting to go shopping for last minute wedding decorations, my father and I went for a walk in Portsmouth. I can probably count the times that the two of us actually did anything together on one hand, especially after the incident in middle school. I had high hopes that this interaction would go well, that he would tell me that he was proud of me for finding such a great girl to marry, etc.
Once again, I gave him too much credit.
Our conversation, if you could call it that, consisted of the weather and other petty things. Somehow, he got onto talking about how I was so difficult growing up, that I had a huge chip on my shoulder. (Mind you, the worst thing that I ever did growing up was getting a lunch detention for not having a textbook covered for school. So, pretty manageable stuff). The next words out of his mouth were, “I gave up on you in middle school”. I asked him what he meant, and he said, “I just couldn’t deal with you anymore, so I stopped trying”.
Even as I sit here writing this, I couldn’t fathom me ever saying to my beautiful son, “I give up on you” and “I stopped trying”. What kind of parent does that?!
For some reason, I continued to give this man chances to improve our relationship. Fast forwarding to last Christmas…
Carrie was three months pregnant with Benjamin, and we had just found out what his sex was on Christmas day. We usually spent Christmas Eve and day with Carrie’s family, then would schlep down to Connecticut to see my family. We had left New Hampshire on Christmas day to be down in Connecticut that night, to tell my family what the baby’s sex was. We revealed that we were having a boy, to which my father replied, “Great! I hope he’s just like you, Jamie.”
I realize that text can be interpreted several ways without hearing the inflection in someone’s voice. Read that sentence again with the underlying message of “I hope your kid puts you through hell like you put me through”. Again, I was not a bad kid growing up, and was quiet out of fearful obedience.
The following day, out at dinner, my parents were asking me about my then new job at Community Partners. I was telling them that I had some difficult cases, and that some of my clients lived in some squalor conditions. My father asked if any of them lived in mobile homes or trailers. I said that I had a few that lived in mobile homes, but they were in nice condition. My father then says, “So you work with trailer trash then, since they all live in mobile homes?”
I was very quick to remind him that his daughter in law, who was sitting next to me clenching her fist, grew up in a mobile home and that it was horrible of him to imply that my wife is trailer trash. I spent the next several minutes ripping him a new one. We left Connecticut a day earlier than we had planned.
I didn’t speak with my father very much after that. They had planned to come up in January to visit, which turned out to be an excuse for my dad to go shopping at some outlets in Manchester. When I found this out, I left him a voicemail explaining my displeasure that we were an after thought after his shopping spree and to not bother to see us.
February came around and my father called me and said that he wanted to talk to me. I said that he could talk to me on the phone, but he insisted that we talked in person. I said that I would meet him halfway between Connecticut and New Hampshire. We ended up meeting at a restaurant. He wanted to know why I left my angry voicemail on his phone. I told him that I didn’t feel like he liked me as a person, and that I did not feel loved or appreciated by him. Our conversation went something like this:
Him: “Why do you not respect me?”
Me: “I feel like you don’t like me as a person, and you don’t appreciate what I’m doing with my life and always seem to want me to change who I am to be more of what you want me to be”
Him: “No, you’re wrong”.
Me: “I didn’t realize you could tell someone that their feelings were wrong”.
After citing several other instances why I have difficulty interacting with him, and receiving the same, “no, you’re wrong” statements, I ended our lunch and left.
Fast forwarding a more recently this year, prior to Ben being born, my father called me saying that he wanted to talk about our conversation from February. I said that I was disappointed in his inability to listen to my feelings, and that he cannot disprove the way I feel about our “relationship” as they are my feelings. He told me that, if things would not improve, that he would write me and my family out of the will.
I simply said to him, “I am sad for you, father, that you feel like money is more important than a relationship with your son, daughter-in-law, and future grandson”.
He replied, “Well, I hope that you’re financially ready for this baby, because I don’t think you are as a social worker. Hopefully you two don’t fail at being parents”.
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Jim.
When it was time for Benjamin to be born, I gave my parents a call on May 24 to let them know of Ben’s imminent arrival. My mother answered the phone, much to my relief. (We didn’t know that Carrie still had another 12 hours + to go for labor at this point). My parents arrived from Connecticut around 9pm that night, and checked into a local hotel in Dover. Carrie’s family had been with us pretty much since she came to the hospital, around 7am on the 24th. I called my parents to see if they wanted to come to visit while Carrie was still in labor, and that they were welcome to be out in the waiting area with the Brewers.
My mom ended up coming to the hospital around 10:30pm to visit. I was very happy to see her, but puzzled as to why she was by herself. She told me that my father wanted to, and I quote, “stay in the hotel and read the newspaper”.
Because world news is more exciting than your grandson being born, amirite?
The next morning, after Ben had been born, my father must’ve exhausted the hotel’s newspapers since both of my parents came over to visit. Benjamin was all swaddled up with a little hat on, fast asleep. I passed my father Benjamin to hold, as I figured he may want to have some interaction with his grandson. My father held Benjamin out as far as his arms could hold him, as to keep him as far away from himself as he could. It was like my father was holding something disgusting, something that he didn’t want to have too close to him.
Thankfully, more friends and family (my chosen family here in NH) arrived, and my parents ended up leaving.
My mother has come to see Benjamin several times since his birth. My father has only seen Benjamin on the day he was born.
And that pretty much brings us to today. I have spoken to my father for perhaps a grand total of three times this year, once being our blowout of a “conversation” in February.
You may be wondering to yourself, “Jamie, why is the post called, ‘Why it’s hard being a dad'”? A valid question! It’s actually the one of the easiest things I have ever done, and one of the most enjoyable. I love being Benjamin’s daddy, and I love my son more than anything in the world. I would do anything I could to make him happy.
The reason I find it so hard to be a good dad is that I have had such a negative example of what it means to be a dad. I didn’t have a positive male role model growing up. I have been very specific with my terminology for my father, and not calling him “dad”. Anyone can be a father; it simply takes a few bodily fluids and any Joe Schmoe off the street can be a father. It is something entirely else to be a dad. A dad implies that you are invested in your child’s life, and that you care about their well being.
Maybe my father did care about me in his own way. Maybe he worked so hard to provide for my sister and I that we didn’t have to want for anything growing up and that was his way of showing his love. It simply does not translate to me, though. My love languages are Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, and Quality Time. I did not receive these growing up, especially from him.
Like I said, I love being Ben’s dad. I would love to be a stay at home dad, if it was an option financially one day. I know that my father would never understand that, and would probably look down on my life more than he already does.
I am currently in therapy to work through some of these issues, especially being able to cope with the absence of my father in my life. It’s sad, really, that he has chosen and continues to choose to miss out on my life and my family’s life, as well as the excitement of being a grandparent.
I am choosing to not repeat what my father has done to me and to be the polar opposite of him. Benjamin deserves a dad who loves him and is proud of him, no matter who he grows up to be. Fathers are such a crucial part of a child’s life, and I can tell you, from my experience, that without a father’s presence, there is a big opening that is left unfulfilled, like a part of your childhood is missing. For me, my brain has chosen to block out most of my memories from my childhood. I don’t want Ben growing up to say to me one day, “I feel like you don’t like me as a person”. That would crush me as a parent.
No, I will not give Benjamin any reason to say something like that. My words and actions will prove to him otherwise.