My Complicated & Controlling Father

It Took An Extended, Deliberate Silence To See If He Fit In My Life

My childhood probably looked like a dream to the people around me. The second of five kids, I grew up on 24 acres of countryside in Ontario. My siblings and I trekked across our fields to the forest at the back of our property. We packed backpacks full of fruit snacks and juice boxes and built shelters from fallen trees. We ate our packed snacks on beds of leaves and twigs. There were always different animals cycling through our barn—chickens, horses, kittens. Adventure was plentiful. Creation was everywhere.

Our dad was the head of our household, a position affirmed for him by our twice weekly trips to church. There, we listened to Bible verses that ordered wives to submit to their husbands just as the church should submit to Christ. The message was not subtle.

Dad casually joked that our house was a dictatorship, not a democracy. He said it with a laugh, but he repeated it so often we knew he was serious. He approved our outfits—he knew “how men’s minds worked”—and potential boyfriends had to talk to him before they were allowed to date us. We did all the things we were told to, regardless of whether we wanted to or not. These forced activities included attending weekly theology classes, joining anti-abortion protests, and memorizing scripture I had no interest in.

His maxim was and still is: My house, my rules.

My dad was raised with a strong, Protestant work ethic. I thought he was indestructible. He did, too. He liked to joke that he was made of steel. “And you can’t hurt steel,” he’d say with a smirk.

   Watching him parent my three younger siblings felt like torture. I tried to protect them, all the while judging him and resenting his wild expressions of anger.

He worked long hours at his construction company, and then again when he got home. Whether he was digging out a pool for us or building an epic treehouse, he was always going hard. Other than his Sunday afternoon nap, relaxation was never really a thing I saw him do. When one person was working, we all had to be working. Sometimes this was nice; it had a certain sense of camaraderie. Other times, it felt downright oppressive.

His non-stop work ethic left him drained. Self-care was not a thing then, and if it was, he would have scoffed at it. He became irritable. Angry. He lashed out inappropriately. Printers were thrown, holes punched in walls. We were kicked and sworn at.

Watching him parent my three younger siblings felt like torture. I tried to protect them, all the while judging him and resenting his wild expressions of anger. He was particularly hard on my little brother. When my brother would misbehave, my dad ordered him to pick out the stick he would hit him with. A sense of injustice simmered inside of me for a very long time; it grew as I watched my little brother become an eerily similar version of my father.

One night, he picked me and my sister up from our tap dance lesson. This was my usually my mom’s job, and he didn’t know that she always came inside to get us. He waited outside in the car for what felt like forever while we waited inside, wondering where our ride was.

He finally came in, plowing through the soft pink carpet with his shoes on, his frustrated exhales audible. The other girls waiting for their rides looked up at him with concern. My sister and I scrambled up as fast as we could. My cheeks were hot with embarrassment. When we were finally in the car, he lost it. He called us bitches and whores, a week’s worth of pent-up anger and frustration raining down on our little, concerned selves.

   His non-stop work ethic left him drained. Self-care was not a thing then, and if it was, he would have scoffed at it. He became irritable. Angry. He lashed out inappropriately.

Every year, my dad went away for a week or two on mission trips. He helped build schools or churches or helped out at my aunt’s orphanage in Haiti. I think those trips were a real blessing for my him; he got to be really valued by people who were grateful for him.

Over on our end, we had a reprieve from the constant tension. A blanket of peace covered our house. Mom would take us to McDonalds, and we would talk about how nice it was to have some space from him. Our house was quieter without all the moodiness. Once, I remember my mom telling me that sometimes she wished he would die and never come back.

I left my childhood house when I was 18. I travelled, I stopped going to church. I went to university. I moved. Again and again. In with a boyfriend. Lots of things that my dad did not agree with. Yet, he kept showing up the best he knew how, helping me move my stuff around, changing my oil, coming up for my birthday. We would usually get into some confrontational debate about feminism or religion.

   He doesn’t understand why I can’t focus on those moments. Why I can’t see how much he loves me. Sometimes I don’t know why I can’t just focus on those moments, too. Then I remember young me, always bracing for the next blow.

They say practice makes perfect. I used to take that approach to my relationship with my dad, thinking that if I kept showing up, over and over again, eventually it would get better and that time would heal all things. It didn’t work. It bred more of the same. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.

So I did something different. I took time apart. For months. Declined calls. Offered polite texts back about important things. Declined visits. Almost six months without talking. I had to stop being constantly triggered by him in order to see him clearly.

I know my dad loves me. Our relationship hasn’t all been ugly or intense. There have been hilarious and touching moments, too. I remember getting my dad high for the first time on the beach; he couldn’t stop laughing. We built the dance floor for my wedding together, and I have sweet Christmas presents he’s made for me by hand, ones I know he worked on for hours.

He doesn’t understand why I can’t focus on those moments. Why I can’t see how much he loves me. Sometimes I don’t know why I can’t just focus on those moments, too. Then I remember young me, always bracing for the next blow. My nervous system, in protecting me, has blocked me from seeing so much of what makes my dad a beautiful person. I’m learning to heal my nervous system so I can see him fully, and hold space for him without reacting from pain myself.

When I was little, we never talked about my dad’s outbursts. He’d storm off to his room and we’d look at each other, exasperated, muttering about how intense it had been. Then we’d scatter like ants, off to decompress in our own silent ways. My mom would go do what I assume was some version of consoling him. Eventually, he would emerge as if nothing had happened.

   They say practice makes perfect. I used to take that approach to my relationship with my dad, thinking that if I kept showing up, over and over again, eventually it would get better and that time would heal all things. It didn’t work. It bred more of the same. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.

I needed space to stop this cycle, to stop faking intimacy and, in its place, demand healthy boundaries. I hope my father can learn to express his sadness and listen to others. I hope the rest of us can stand up for ourselves and speak our truth. 

I have wanted my pain to be seen and understood by him for so long. But I had to go first. I had find my way into forgiveness for someone who isn’t aware he needs to be forgiven. 

I’ve learned not to feel bad about what I need or about speaking honestly about my feelings and wants. Love is nice. But understanding is profound. It is healing.

Sometimes I feel like a bad daughter for not wanting to spend time with my dad. But I realize now that love doesn’t always look the same. Sometimes it means taking a whole lot of space until you’re ready.

 

Photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

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Author: Katrina Marie

Katrina is a sex educator and coach from Ontario, Canada. She believes that turned-on women will change the world, and that we all have the power to alchemize our pain into purpose. She enjoys moonlit walks with her dog and anything made of sugar.

 hello@katrinamarie.com | https://www.katrinamarie.com/