Father’s Day: Making peace with Dad

betty ming liu Relationships 23 Comments

The war is over. Even though my father was a tyrant who made me miserable, I’ve fought hard to reclaim my life and get to happiness. So after all the years of weeping and blowing my nose at the shrink’s office, letting go is possible. This Sunday, I will celebrate. Finally.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

I love you, Dad.

To be honest, part of me can’t believe I just typed those words. But what a relief! This moment has been a long time coming. My father died 37 years ago when I was 19 and he was 70. It was 1976 and we had reached a tense truce in our constant arguing. To cope, I was a few weeks into a new tactic: Instead of talking back, I shut up and silently obeyed his orders. After all, I lived under his roof and had no money or means to survive on my own. (Or at least, that’s how I viewed the situation.)

It was soul-killing to be in college and have Dad insist on choosing my courses (heavy on business and economics, no English lit or art). By ceasing my back-talk, I sat through his lectures until he stopped and I could go to my room. Who knows how long I could’ve endured under this new strategy — probably not long. Still, I’m forever glad that I submitted because when he suddenly died one morning of a heart attack, my conscious was clear. No guilt about angry, unresolved episodes. There was enough closure to start the process of letting go.

By my 30s, I found my way to a shrink’s office. Thank God for therapy! When Dad died, I barely cried. But more than a decade after his death, I was at last in a safe place to mourn our relationship. The trouble between us started once I was able to hold a crayon and started drawing. Dad was mortified that I was expressing myself as a lefty, a sign of bad luck. With that, he went on a mission to change my handedness, which bewildered me with his sudden frowning and yelling. Ultimately, he crushed me into being a righty in most tasks. Yet, I am lefty in my heart of hearts. I write, draw and paint with my left hand.

Getting through the fury has made it possible to mourn lost moments with quiet tenderness. Dad wasn’t around to meet the boyfriend who became my husband (even though Mom said it would’ve killed him to see me marry a black man). My father never kissed his granddaughter or saw me through the divorce. As a man who read English-language and Chinese newspapers every day of his life, I’ve often wondered what he would’ve thought about me becoming a journalist. Once or twice, I remember watching him doodle cartoon-y sketches; maybe that’s where I get it from…

The other night, I was looking at some of my baby pictures. The early photos tell the story of a head-over-heels-in-love relationship. Although, in looking more closely, the signs of trouble ahead were already there. Check out the shot on the far right. Even then, Dad had me on a leash, haha.

Dad & me, the best years

I can laugh! That’s progress. These photos remind me of the best times with Dad. I might be old now but I can still remember being a toddler in his arms. When he held me, I was safe. Of course, everything that happened since those earliest days left me on a endless quest for a man who could offer safe arms. Then again, Dad himself spent most of his life looking for someone to hug him too.

After all, Mom and Dad both came to this country with  big dreams. They ended up in a suffocating marriage that had them sleeping in separate rooms. With their constant fighting, they couldn’t turn to each other. Instead, they leaned on their kids to fulfill them. As the first-born (I have a younger sister), I was supposed to be the piano-playing medical doctor or, at least, become an accountant like my father. Not!

Dad and me, teen years.

By the time Mom died in 2011 at age 92, she was in such a state of dementia that she couldn’t remember what Dad looked like. At the very end, she asked me if she had ever been married. Well, like my mother, I have forgotten a lot, too. When is Dad’s birthday? How tall was he? Did he even have a favorite color? I don’t know, I don’t know!

Lately, I’ve been glad that, no matter what, at least I knew him in a good way for at least a little while. There are, sadly, too many of us that grow up without a father in the house (including Dad, who was a young boy when his own father died). Around the world, about 15.9 percent of children live in single-parent households, more often than not, headed by women, according to a recent New York Times article. In the U.S., the percentage is much higher: 25.8 percent.

Dad and me

Oh, well. You know what I say now? The real power in celebrating Father’s Day is knowing that I can — and must — nurture myself. I have benefited from the love of many other good men in my life — my current shrink who offers such a helpful male perspective, good friends and colleagues that are men, guy teachers and professors who are mentors.

And all of that is the real reason to celebrate. Happy Father’s Day! xo

 

Comments 23

  1. I’m glad for you, that you have found a way to make peace with your memory of your father. Personally, I can not imagine being able to do so as regards such a controlling and egocentric person as your description of him indicates.My own father’s advice about raising children was simple “just give them love, no matter what – always give them love and help them become whatever it is they want to be.” I was very fortunate but in my volunteer work with homeless LGBT youth in NY, I have seen so many who have not been fortunate.
    I do not believe parents are entitled to love and respect without earning it. I have seen far too many cases of abusive, uncaring or ideologically rigid parents who have damaged or even destroyed their own children. In such cases, my advice has been “write them out of your life as you would a toxic substance. Find a substitute if you can. Come to grips with the fact that none of us is given a perfect life. There are those who have physical handicaps for example. They must learn to live with them and, if they can, triumph over them. Thus it is with toxic families – a handicap that must be surmounted. Meanwhile, count your blessings. Find the good things in your life to concentrate on.” I don’t know if your therapist would agree with this or not – it is a rather stern philosophy but I’ve seen it work for young people who have little other choice.

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    Toby, I totally agree with you! That’s why it’s taken so long to make peace with my dad. He was awful. But let’s not forget, my mom was a nightmare too (maybe I should’ve written about her this past Mother’s Day, just to give her equal time!).

    As a reporter and as a college prof, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to wounded people and students who suffer at the hands of brutal fathers. It’s not fair! But it’s important to get to a place to love somehow. You know why? I don’t want to waste another second of my precious life on being mad. I want to remember the good times — in perspective.

    Thank you for dropping us this comment. We need to have your points reinforced! xo

  3. The posts you write about your parents tend to have quite an effect on me. In a good way. I remember scrolling down the laptop screen to find them the very Christmas Day that my Father’s Day. Your posts gave me something to relate to, when I just wanted to find the right words that made sense of what was going on in my heart.

    Thanks again :-)
    You deserve a left handed high-five :-)

    I hope others can make peace with their parents, their past, and whoever may have hurt them. That’s something that will free you to write, draw, paint, like you have done. I have yet to take certain risks because I still have to set somethings free. Some people, myself included.

    In reference to The Times article you mentioned, that hits home. I was raised by my mom in a single-parent household and am now raising my child as a single parent. My situation is quite different from my mother’s, but we’ve both shared some of the same results.

    I watched an indie film over the weekend called “Yelling to the Sky.” Zoe Kravitz plays the lead. In one scene, she yells at her father that she’s over wanting to get to know him. Those words stung. I think I feel that way, sometimes. But I am not over, however, wanting him to get to know me.

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      Skye, you and I are into multi-generational single motherhood. My dad was raised by a single mom. I view my mom as a single mom in many ways especially to my sister, who was only 17 when our father died. But while we all do the best we can, I know how hard you struggle to break the cycle of love deprivation. Me too! And you know what? Now that you mention it, we need to CELEBRATE OURSELVES ON FATHER’S DAY. Yes.

      Also, I am rooting for you with my left-handed high-five. Keep on knowing yourself. There is always a need for healing time after the end of an important love affair — especially one with destructive qualities. I feel that’s what we struggle with in coping as daughters.Quite frankly, I had given up on feeling any sort of real affection for my dad. But enough years and personal growth have proved to be a great buffer! So forget about him. This life is all about you! :)

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    Thanks, Hillary! And don’t you love that shot of him and the tween me? Both of us so unhappy. Interestingly, I don’t have any photos of us together from my teen years. But they probably would’ve been quite grim. Hope you have a happy Father’s Day!

  5. Pingback: Father's Day Post: Betty Ming Liu on Living with an Authoritarian Father - Hillary Rettig

  6. Thanks Betty :-)

    This past Mother’s Day, I allowed myself to fully enjoy it for the first time. Now, I have a thoughtful and creative son who does his best to make the day special. He’s made breakfast (with my brother’s help), made lovely cards or gifts or taken me out to lunch. I appreciate it all, but still am usually in a funk come Mother’s Day. Instead of finding the joy in my experiences as a parent, I would find and exalt the pressure, pain, loneliness and hardships of being a single parent. I would enjoy parenting on any other day but Mother’s Day. Have you ever heard of such a thing? I’ve heard of people who get down in the dumps on a holiday like Valentine’s Day, for example. But Mother’s Day? How could I hate Mother’s Day when I love being a mom?

    Well, my decision to let go of that hatred was one of the best things I have ever done. I actually prayed foe courage to face the day and enjoy it. I celebrated myself, so all of the effort my child put out just made everything better. I allowed myself to be in the moment without giving thought to any guilt, frustration or disappointments. What a gift to myself! I may just have to do that on Father’s Day, too.

  7. Nice to know, you are making peace with your dad. I can imagine how being under tiger dad must have been. Sometimes, we need to leanr that our parents did they best they could with the best knowledge they had. At least, after this, we would not be doing the same things to our kids right?

    I often meditate forgiving and loving people who hurt me and it makes me feel better, whatever it makes them feel but I am glad I have the power to send them good vibes :)

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    Yes, sos, exactly! There were things that my mom and dad never got. They can’t give what they never had. But if we get what we need — through others and the things we do for ourselves — it’s possible to break bad cycles. Thanks for sharing your good vibes with us here!

  9. Such a beautiful tribute to your dad, even though you didn’t see eye to eye with him but I can feel your love for him in every word.

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  10. -Oops, I meant when my father died on Christmas Day, not Father’s Day.

    I agree with Karen M. Your love comes out as you write. Even in getting therapy, it’s like you didn’t want to stay angry at your father (or yourself) because you love him. Hmmm.

    To love the easygoing, easy. To love the unlovable, yup, that’s love alright.

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      Skye, I LOATHED my dad while he was alive. He killed most of the joy I should’ve had during those all-important teen years, which are full of hormones and discovery. Therapy gave me permission to stop feeling guilty about the rage. Right after my divorce, I had a framed picture of him and me from the toddler days. I used to stand there in my post-divorce house and talk to the picture, telling him, “It’s your fault that I’m alone.” Took a long time to make peace. So personally? I think it’s totally all right that you want to close the door on dealing with your dad. When you’re ready, you will crack that door open.

  11. Betty,

    You write, “Ultimately, he crushed me into being a righty in most tasks. Yet, I am lefty in my heart of hearts. I write, draw and paint with my left hand.”

    I’m left-handed too.

    You are, once again, such an inspiration! Making peace with your father seems like it’s been a labor of love for you….you have earned it, Betty! Enjoy your celebration!

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    Kristine, another southpaw! I hope you are happily lefty. Thank you for the letting me know that we connect on this issue. And FYI — I’ve also been working on regaining my lefty-ness. I’m now quite good at holding a fork in my left hand but chopsticks are still tough. :)

  13. We are the sunflower seed I that somehow finds the crack in the asphalt and struggles through the crevices to obtain enough nourishment to blossom.
    Every holiday since my dad is gone I have been grateful to be free…even though he was a pretty ‘nice’ guy to everyone else.
    I completely related to what you wrote about looking for strong arms, and was bowled over by your point that some of the people we want that of are wanting it themselves.

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      Denise, totally relate! The rest of the world saw my parents as absolutely charming people. Just goes to show, once again, that we never really know what goes on behind closed doors. And very happy that you vibe with the strong arms point. I got that one from my first shrink. When I’d sit there bawling about my childhood deprivations, she’d always say that my parents couldn’t give what they never had. They just didn’t know! Isn’t that sad for them? At least we know — and hopefully, we know how to find the healing to comfort ourselves.

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