Accepting my dad for who he is

betty ming liu Relationships 6 Comments

This year, I’m giving my dad a very special Father’s Day gift: unconditional love. So what if he’s been dead for 41 years. Remember, parents never really die. Besides, it’s never too late, right?

My father crushed his family — Mom, my kid sister, me — with tough love. As a cranky Vietnamese-Chinese immigrant struggling with survival issues in America, he functioned on two switches. Either he bullied or didn’t bully. Unconditional love was beyond my father’s personal experience. He couldn’t give me what he never had.

I’ve spent most of my life being mad at him for making my childhood miserable with his rules to study, study, study. Obey, obey, obey. Between that and working after school in his Chinatown accounting office, I grew up rarely using words like “happy” and “fun.”

Even during our best years together, my dad kept me on a tight leash, literally:

Dad & me, the best years

But four decades of holding a grudge is enough, already. Quite frankly, I might finally be running out of bile. After all, I’m nearly 60, just 10 years shy of my father’s age when he died of a sudden heart attack.

DAD photoGetting older gives me a fresh view on his pain. It takes courage to start life over as an adult in a new country. Plus, he carried the burden of being the #1 son among six siblings. His widowed mom expected a lot of him.

My father was the first to come to the U.S. During the Vietnam War, he saved many of his relatives. He filed tons of immigration-related paperwork on their behalf, making it possible for them to flee Saigon and resettle in New York, New Jersey and Texas as refugees.

Locked inside the hard, isolating shell of family obligation, my father never had time for belly laughs, hanging out or random silliness. His idea of stress management was to yell at me for almost anything — from the way I washed dishes in our kitchen to bringing home B’s (or worse) in math.

While he was verbally abusive, I feel more compassion these days because I’m raising a daughter, too.

Quite frankly, becoming a parent myself shows me just how easy it is to be clueless or even stupid. But unlike my dad, who died when I was 19, I am a living parent of a 21-year-old adult child — which means I sometimes hear about the repercussions of my own craven acts of unacceptable parental behavior.

I’m tempted to share details of regrettable moments with my daughter. But she wants her privacy so let’s just say that I wish I could take back certain things I said when she was younger.

Thankfully, we’ve reached the point in our relationship where we can talk about the past, which teaches me it’s never too late to learn or change. It humbles me even further when she reassures me that I’m a “wonderful mom.” Her exact words.

Having a father with a my-way-or-the-highway mentality made this type of genuine conversation impossible. Yet, because I’m his recovering daughter and a writer, he and I continue to have daily exchanges that go on inside my head.

From there, blogging offers a release that marks our growing affection for each other. For this, I must thank you, dear reader. Your presence validates me as I work out feelings about:

Throwing light on the dark stuff makes positivity possible. Last summer, I blogged about my first vegetable garden. Planting and harvesting made me feel connected to my dad, the son of farmers. Hey, one upbeat blog post is a start! I suspect more bright moments await me – us.

I’m starting to focus more on fond childhood memories, like ones that surface when I look at this photo on my desk:

Dad and me

Take charge of your Father’s Day experience

Even though I’ve let go of many regrets and expectations, there’s four things I wish I could’ve said to my dad, face-to-face:

Please forgive me.

I forgive you.

Thank you.

I love you.

I learned about saying these four things from a medical expert. For more on how this works, check out my blog post about four things to say to change a relationship.

Today, I’m saying these four things to my dad, in my head. Yes, this is awkward. Asking for forgiveness was especially hard because in my mind, I am the victim. But I asked him to forgive me for not being more helpful to him in his times of need. Saying the four things leaves me peaceful.

Happy Father's Day

The four things lift me out of the cycle of wishing my father was different or pining for alternative father figures. These longings were both forms of emotional masochism for me because I kept wanting a perfect dad. As we all know, perfection is the enemy of love.

And my dad took care of me the best he could. I’ve come to accept that.

With acceptance, I’ve turned elsewhere for unconditional love. Caring friends and family — and even pets — stepped in to fill the void. They’ve embraced me for who I am, with all my quirks, talents and yes, even flaws. Now, I can give what I have to others, including my dad.

So I’m here to celebrate my dad for who he was: the most influential man in my life. He got me here, gave me survival tools. The rest is up to me. Thanks, Dad.

How are things going with your dad? Feel free to share. And if you want to let loose anonymously, you can use a fake name. :)

 

Comments 6

  1. Post
    Author

    Writing this post was so hard! After publishing it on Saturday, I went back Sunday afternoon to rework certain parts. Mostly importantly, I said the four things to my dad. It helped settle my feelings. The conversation inside my head with my late father continues. :)

  2. I can’t comment right now, because I might not be so willing to take charge of Father’s Day. I don’t know that I understand how to.
    I needed this today, and I’m glad it’s here because I can look at it tomorrow or a time when I can understand or ready myself.
    Thank you. Thank you.
    Happy for you and your Dad:)

    1. Post
      Author

      Skye, I totally relate. It’s taken me SIXTY YEARS to reach this point of compassion. You have plenty of time to heal yourself. And I’m still working on it. Every day, I feel the battle between me and my father — am I my own vision of me? Or was he right about me being a failure? We just have to keep on loving ourselves!

  3. Dear Betty,

    A Happy Father’s day to you!

    I have commented on your Blog once before, but that was a long time ago. I always felt a strange sense of peace and warmth in me whenever I read you blog. This post did something in me I can only feel, but cannot express in words.

    My father and I had a very strange relationship as well, much like yours, rule, study, play a sport, don’t fool around the neighbourhood etc. etc. It was torture, it was hell. Now I see it was all from a place of concern and well-wishing. I am glad some of it happened the way it did because I am in law school now with a decent future looking up at me.

    What I regret is the methods and the seed of spite that was sown in me as a child. After he saw me battling a terrible depression and some other identity issues, my father has turned around and showered me with compassion and unconditional love. I have almost forgiven him for all the bad days and bad words and crude disciplining (typical Indian parenting).

    Your post gives me hope that I still should look forward to a better relationship with my father in time. If you can forgive your old man with no expectations whatsoever, I can forgive my old man with the hope that we will have what I wanted as a child in the near future.

    Thanks for your post!

    1. Post
      Author

      Welcome back! I remember your user name from your past comment. It’s nice to hear from you. And, Average Guy, you are far from average! Each of us is special. Your dad discovered it the hard way. I’m sorry for your pain but you finally made him pay attention to your needs. It says something about him, that he could rebound and embrace you.

      So playing sports was torture too? The average girl in an immigrant family is kept close to home. I might envy the fact that you got out of the house — unless you were criticized for your performance. That’s behind us now, right?

      Thank you for making me feel good about blogging this post. Honestly, blogging helps me resolve so much. Only when I blogged did I get around to saying the four things to my father. It never occurred to me before. Thank you for validating my experience! I’m sending best wishes your way, to you and your dad. Love rules!

  4. Pingback: Dads never really die - betty ming liu

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