My dad’s approval finally arrived one recent spring, when I called to let him know about my tenure track job offer. I’d spent a brutal year on the job market while finishing my dissertation, and the feeling wasn’t pride so much as relieved exhaustion. I told him the salary and the course load and all the perks. My dad congratulated me and said, “I’m proud of you.” I’m embarrassed to admit that I cried a little after we hung up. That day was the first time he’d ever said those words.
That day showed me that no matter what we think or do, our parents’ approval matters to most of us, at least a little. For a long time, I thought I’d overcome the need for it, only to earn that approval by accident. I never knew how good his admiration would feel. Maybe the affirmation felt so good because it was so hard won.
Some people may think this is the prelude to a sob story about how much my dad hated me. No, this story is more complicated. I’m 90 percent sure I turned out tougher and stronger than most girls whose dads doted on them and gave them everything they wanted. I’ve met those girls many times and continue to meet them. A student of mine even recently wrote an essay complaining about her parents not getting her the wedding dress she wanted. It was the most boring essay I’ve ever read in my life. While I try to avoid judging anyone, in my most honest moments I don’t envy people like this in the slightest. I like who I am, and I’m that person because of my dad.
My relationships with my dad has always been difficult. I tried hard to impress him as a teenager. I made All-State orchestra in high school (cello). I also ran varsity cross country and track, worked hard to maintain a 4.1 GPA with a class rank of 15, and managed to avoid embarrassing my family by getting pregnant or winding up nude on the Internet. Luckily, smartphones and social media were yet to come.
Nonetheless, my dad always treated news of my accomplishments with mild disinterest, bordering on scorn.
To be fair, we were often preoccupied. My mom spent half the year in mental health facilities after my twelfth birthday. Meanwhile, my younger brother took advantage of the chaos and skipped so much school that calls home and threats about him repeating a grade soon became part of the status quo.
The stress frayed my dad’s nerves, and he enlisted me in the mission to save my brother’s future. At first, his request for my help struck me as a compliment. I had my stuff sewn up so tight that I could afford to become a surrogate mom of sorts, tutoring my brother every afternoon in addition to cooking and buying groceries and helping with laundry.
Some of my friends were astounded whenever I casually mentioned my duties at home, usually when explaining why I couldn’t come to their party that weekend.
One friend asked me, “Why don’t you run away?”
I replied bluntly, “Because that wouldn’t improve anything.”
Somehow my extra duties slowly subsumed my identity, though, at least as far as my dad was concerned. The help I provided became less appreciated and more expected each passing year. If my dad was feeling good after a long day at work, he might make wise cracks about my cooking. I just couldn’t master salmon. When feeling less than great, he would launch straight into serious talks with my brother that bordered on verbal abuse, then retreat to his bedroom. Usually he said something to me over his shoulder like, “I hope you have better luck.”
My dad came from that kind of family, and truly thought that berating your children was the best motivation. I have to admit, it worked on me. Meanwhile, my brother shut down and seemed to do even worse. There was no shaming him into success.
I’m still bitter about my transition to college, probably because my mom somehow lost our entire life savings one year. Did she spend it on cocaine, or just guitars and music and clothes for my brother? We’ll never find out. I just know that my aspirations of going to Cornell or Hopkins fizzled quickly. My dad explained to me that I might as well not even bother applying anywhere but state schools. I couldn’t broach the possibility without soliciting his ire.
One time, he enjoyed roasting me for not cracking 1400 on the SAT. I had managed a 1390, and at that point didn’t care to spend any more of my money or Saturday mornings on such a piece of torture. “Your verbal was 750,” he sighed. “If you’d studied your math, you’d have a 1500.”
My first year in college, I began to change in ways my dad didn’t like. He referred to my clothes, music, and makeup collectively as Garbage. He didn’t quite understand why that insult failed on such a spectacular level. One time I tried to explain to him, “Yeah, that’s the whole point. Garbage is a band, Dad.”
My first two years at state, I stayed home to help care for my mom and continue tutoring my brother, meanwhile continuing as many chores as I could. Of course, I was starting to go to parties and warming up to the interest of boys, something I’d always avoided in high school. My family responsibilities had trumped my social life, until I decided I’d sacrificed enough.
My dad didn’t react well to losing his Cinderella. One night, he caught me getting ready for a night out and called me a slut, indirectly of course. He said something like, “If you want to go out and act like a slut, that’s your business.”
A few days later, he tried to “make up for it” by taking me shopping. That afternoon ended badly. I kept declining to visit the shops he wanted. I’m not kidding when I tell you he asked me why I didn’t wear more floral colors instead of black and red all the time.
We wound up shouting at each other in front of strangers, left the mall with nothing, and rode home in silence. In the driveway, I slipped into my car and drove straight to campus and spent the night with a friend.
My second year in college was even worse. I became president of my college’s outdoor sporting club after serving dutifully as the budget “secretary.” When I told my dad, he scoffed until I assured him it wouldn’t interfere with my shifts waiting tables.
That Christmas, we argued over my decision to major in English instead of something practical like Economics or Business. Finally, I told him to go fuck himself. I was on a full scholarship, and he didn’t even have to pay for my textbooks or meals. So where did he get off guilt-tripping me over my own education?
Here’s the thing about winning an argument with your dad, especially on Christmas. After an hour gloating to a friend over lattes, you feel like shit. I remember looking around the bar that night, Christmas Eve, and watching all the people like me who didn’t know if they loved their family, or even liked them, or was loved by them. Half of me wanted to jump in a TARDIS and travel back to when I was 17.
A friend let me crash in her dorm while she spent the holidays with her family. She invited me to join her, but I declined. I spent Christmas by myself, working on term papers and studying.
The new me was born then, the one who didn’t feel a need to rebel in the form of punk attire or Shirley Manson makeup. I was going to major in English and somehow succeed as a writer. If that was truly going to happen, I couldn’t afford even one holiday feeling sorry for myself. I also probably needed to start looking more professional.
For a while, my dad and I hardly spoke. I moved out and subsisted on scholarship leftovers and restaurant jobs. His disapproval slowly turned into a mix of confusion and helplessness at my career choices: newspapers, graduate school, all risky moves to him. Gradually, he became more accepting. He saw how tenacious I was and had no choice but to see himself in his daughter—nothing if not dedicated. Like me, he worked all through high school and college. When family life went to hell, he didn’t abandon us but kept working and did the best he could for my mom and brother. He could’ve made his own life much easier. But he chose to ride himself and everyone else almost to our breaking points.
My dad and I are fine these days. Sometimes I resent his disinterest in me from earlier in life. On the other hand, I’ve internalized a set of expectations so high that I never pat myself on the back too much. No matter what I accomplish, I’m always looking ahead to the next article, the next project. Over time, I’ve realized I owe that restlessness to my dad. In terms of fathers, I could’ve done much worse. I’ll take the parent whose respect you have to earn any day of the week.