"So, what did you come up with?" my therapist asks as I settle into the overstuffed armchair across from her. I've only met with her three times, but I already like her more than the other shrinks I visited over the past few years. I have a lot of issues; I didn't exactly grow up in the Brady Bunch. But every time I go to a new therapist, they zero in on my mom: how I was forced to grow up quickly because she wasn't always around; how I never felt like I was good enough for her; how she tried to buy my love with meaningless trinkets; how she called me "beast" as often as most moms call their children "sweetheart." This shrink is different, though. She wants to explore my daddy issues.
At the end of our previous session, Carol asked me to make a list with three columns. In the first column, she wanted me to write the characteristics I wished my father possessed. In the next column, how my dad actually behaved. Finally, she wanted me to figure out how I could change his behavior to match what I wanted. Easy-peasy, right?
"Well, I tried. I only have two lines, though."
"That's ok!" She waits in pleasant silence, beaming at me and waiting for me to begin.
I sigh deeply before diving in. "I wish he wouldn't break my heart. He does, though."
"How? Tell me more."
I was six. We were at the Minnesota State Fair, a miserable family tradition. A trip to the fair with anyone else is a delightful experience. As soon as you step on the grounds, your senses are overloaded: the cacophony of lazy pigs and cows from the barns mix with the sweet and salty smells of the deep-fried snack carts and you can't even begin to take in the sea of excited Minnesotans. It's enough to make your Midwestern heart burst with joy. The experience was something else entirely when we showed up. The crowded walkways made my parents short tempered, the smells put them in a sour mood, and the inflated prices made my dad vicious. On this particular trip, he clamped his big hand on my little arm while my mom was in line for some cheese curds.
"You better not ask for anything today," he growled into my ear. I was one of those kids who wanted everything - it's not that I was spoiled, really. I just genuinely loved everything I laid my big brown eyes on.
The pink drained out of my cheeks, and I nodded as I twisted out of his grasp. But I was a kid, and just moments later I forgot all about his demand. As we made our way through a packed intersection, I spotted a stuffed animal that made my heart flutter. It was a big, beautiful, stuffed unicorn. He was staring at me in all his majestic glory, begging me to take him home. I couldn't help myself from screaming out, "Daddy! Can I please, please have that unicorn? He needs me!" I shrunk back as flames exploded in my father's dark eyes; my mom heard my plea and so he would have to buy it.
While any other dad might have realized I was just an innocent six-year-old who got a little over excited about a fat unicorn, my father saw me as a conniving monster. He leaned over me and whispered "you little bitch" before shoving $30 towards the cashier.
I didn't really understand the gravity of his words, but his tone was clear. Looking back, I wonder how he could have said that to me. I was a good kid, a helpful kid, a loving kid. Why didn't he just tell me no? It would have caused a fight with my mom, who would have bought me anything to feel like she was a good mother for a moment, but a fight seems like small potatoes compared to the impact of those three words.
"You wish he wouldn't break your heart. What do you have on your second line?"
"I wish he wanted to spend time with me."
"Tell me more."
I was twenty. The sun bounced off the metallic curlers in my mother's honey-blonde hair as we drove from Minneapolis to the Duluth Federal Prison Camp. I was already exhausted. As soon as my flight from Salt Lake landed, my mom, brother, sister, and I began the long trip up north. I hadn't seen my dad since his prison sentence for drug-related charges had begun six months earlier.
You see, he thought it would be a good idea to start a marijuana enterprise with his business partner and keep his whole family in the dark by hiding behind a fake accounting firm. My mother always suspected he was up to something: he wouldn't let us visit his office, he took showers as soon as he arrived home from work, and he never liked to leave a paper trail. My mom assumed it was just a run-of-the-mill affair - it wouldn't have been his first. Imagine her shock when the DEA knocked on the door to search her lovely home while my dad was being arrested in his secret pot den.
My hands trembled as I handed my ID to the prison guard and he cross-checked my name with my father's approved visitor list. I couldn't shake the look of pity in his eyes as he handed my license back and motioned for me to step through the metal detector. When my little family entered the musty visitation room, my dad's eyes lit up. He wasn't looking at us, though. He was looking through us, beaming at the man with a biker vest and a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard walking through the metal detector.
Dad gave us each a quick, half-hearted hug before embracing the mysterious biker. I glanced at my mother, silently asking who this man was, and she whispered "they're in the same riding club" under her breath with a defeated sigh.
I guess it makes sense that my dad was more excited to see the biker than me. I came from his loins and had known him for twenty years; this man and my father had met within the last twelve months and shared an affinity for motorcycles. The biker was obviously the more important visitor.
The guards herded my family and the biker to a group of uncomfortable vinyl chairs in varying shades of copper. My dad sat next to the biker. They leaned towards each other and talked about their riding club and Harleys the way teenage girls might sit and talk about the football captain or lip gloss.
After an hour or so, I just couldn't handle it anymore. I burst into tears and announced I would just plan another trip across the country to visit my father at a more convenient time. The biker got the message and made a graceful exit, but my dad was annoyed with me for chasing off his buddy. He tersely asked about my studies at college and told me I needed to lose weight because "he was worried about me, that's all."
That was enough for me. I checked out of the conversation and watched the other prisoners visiting with their families. Was I really jealous of these kids and their convict fathers? Their warm smiles froze my heart, their playful laughter assaulted my ears, and their sweet affection left a bitter taste in my mouth. Why were those kids so lucky? Why didn't my dad act like those dads?
"We've talked about the way you expect your father to behave and about the way he chooses to behave. Now, how do you change him to match your expectations?" Carol asks, her eyes bright with mischief.
"Well, that's the thing. I thought about it all week, I really did. I don't know how to change him."
"That's because you can't change him, Ashley," Carol says, a gentle smile softening her round face. "Do you have anyone else in your life who fulfills those roles for you?"
My eyes grow wide as I begin to understand Carol's point. "Well... my husband wouldn't break my heart. He even likes having me around."
"Hmmm..." I try to think of other people who care about me the way I wish my father did. "Oh! My father-in-law. And my mother-in-law. They look after me. My boss even tries to protect me." I think for a moment longer. "My mom, too. She makes mistakes, but at least she tries. That's more than he does."
"Well, there you go! You have all these people in your life who fulfill the roles you wish your father would. You don't need him for those things. So, you can either accept him for who he is, even though it's not what you expect him to be, or you can continue to be disappointed when he lets you down. What's it going to be?"
I leave our session with a new lease on life. I call my dad, ready to start accepting him for who he is. It only rings once before I'm forwarded to voicemail. I don't leave a message, and I call my mom instead.
"Hey, Sis. How are you?" she says. Before I can respond, I hear her having a whispered conversation with my dad. "Mel, turn the TV down."
"But this is the best part."
"You already know what happens. You've seen Dune a million times."
"Just go in the other room."
I hang up, throw my phone across the car, and cry the whole ride home. I had been rejected again.
I'm twenty-five. My family is gathered around the Christmas tree, yawning and stretching in the early dawn. I'm nervous to give my dad his present. He's not the easiest person to shop for, but I spent weeks racking my brain for the perfect gift. I think I found the one that will make him like me just a little more. When he comes to the box I lovingly wrapped with red paper, he tears it open to reveal a personalized Harley-Davidson pin.
"That's great, Ash," he says with the feigned enthusiasm I've grown accustomed to hearing. He tosses it to the side before ripping into his next box.
I look to my husband for a reassuring smile, but he's not looking back at me. His eyes are beaming, transfixed on the gift bag in front of him; the gift bag I filled with little Superman action figures, Hot Wheels, and Reese's Pieces. It's not even his real present; it's just a fun starter present. The look on his face is all the reassurance I need. That look isn't insincere enthusiasm - it's the real deal.
I'm twenty-nine. My mom just called and told me my brother passed away. I'm in a ball on the floor, clutching my heart and trying to remember how to breathe. Searching for comfort, I call my dad. Surely he will be able to provide an ounce of fatherly love today.
"Hey, kiddo. How are you?" His voice sounds off - it sounds normal.
"I can't believe Todd's gone. I'm just trying to figure out how I'm going to afford a flight to Minnesota for the funeral."
"Listen, don't even worry about that. You don't need to be there, we'll take care of everything. You should stay in Utah and start moving on with your life."
I don't know what to say. Of course, I'm going to my brother's funeral; I don't care if I have to hitch-hike. "I'll figure it out. How are you holding up?"
"Oh, I got great news today!" I sit in silence, hoping I didn't hear him right. "Yeah, great news. I had a health scare, but I got my test results back and I'm healthy as a horse!"
I make up an excuse to get off the phone, unsure of my capability to remain civil if I stay on the line. He says "talk to you later" and then he's gone. No fatherly shoulder to cry on, not even an "I love you." I wish I hadn't called him at all. Shattered, I call my in-laws; they leave their holiday party and drive an hour just to give me a hug.
I'm thirty-one. Lounging in the pool at my parents' house, I'm visiting them for the first time in more than a year. My mom is sitting with me, telling me about her latest battle with fibromyalgia as I mindlessly glide my arms through the warm water. The door opens and my father emerges, decked out in his biker gear.
"I'm going for a ride with the boys. I'll be back in a few hours."
Time freezes as I figure out what to say. Even after my breakthrough with Carol, the past six years have been a roller coaster of my hopes rising and then crashing down when he doesn't treat me the way I wish he would. I think back to Christmas, to the day my brother died—even though he couldn't give me what I needed, someone else was always there waiting to step in.
I know I have to make a choice: I can let him hurt me again, or I can adjust my expectations, let him go, and enjoy the sunny day in the pool with my mom. What's it going to be?
"Sounds good. See ya," I say without even opening my eyes.
He shuts the door, choosing his biker family over me.
"I'm sorry, Ashley," my mom says.
"He made his choice; I can't change him. It's his loss, really."
For the very first time, I mean it.