I remember being five years old. I swam into the river Rine with my sister on a warm day in Germany. We were relatively far from the shore when an empty freight ship came by and caused a massive surge that pulled me under and took my breath away. It suddenly went black and cold, and I was so afraid. I was sure I would die then and there. Then I felt a hand. My sister pulled me up and brought me to the shore, where my father pulled me out of the cold water and held me. I felt so incredibly safe in his arms...
My father is my hero!
I was convinced my father was the most brilliant man alive when I was a little boy. My father knew everything, could do and fix everything, and he seemed to be always there for me. If I were in trouble, my father would bale me out. When I wanted something, my father would make it happen or help me realize it. He had the most heroic job, working on a gas rig in the North Sea. He would read me a story before I went to sleep and chase the monsters away if he saw the fear in my eyes. My father was my hero!
When I grew a little older, things started to change. I needed more support and when I had some bad grades, instead of bringing the focus to the lowest figures on my chart. If the world felt big and dangerous, I needed to be received in my fear and anxiety. If I came home and was beaten by bigger boys in the neighborhood, I wanted to be comforted and held. I did not need to hear in what way I should have defended myself.
The more I developed as a boy and young man, the more different the things I needed from my father were, and the more I realized that my father wasn't always able to give me what I needed. I also realized that my father wasn't always present and emotionally available when I needed him to be.
I was often afraid. The world felt like a massive unreliable place, and I needed guidance to navigate the obstacles I encountered going to school, sports, exploring relationships and friendships, and just experiencing life.
My father was the most important man in my life, and I needed him to show me how the world worked and how I should show up as a man. And I needed him to be my safety net and to catch me if I fell. I needed him to tell me it was alright to fall, lose, make mistakes, and fail.
I didn't feel his hands on my back, which made me feel lonely and inadequate.
I am not ok
Often when I made a mistake, my father would tell me how I should have handled it. I would listen to him, trying to learn. Still, internally, I translated all his advice to 'I am dumb, I am not ok'.
If home felt tense because my parents were in a bad place emotionally, my father would withdraw, leaving me in that tension with my mother. I became the focus of my mother's anger and frustration.
My father was working on a gas rig, and being away from home almost half the time put me in a situation of being often alone with my mother and taking on my father's emotional responsibilities. I tried to be there for my mother in receiving all her frustrations and grief. I cared for my mother like a partner should and was terrible at it. So the feeling of not being ok grew. See the post 'Freedom in connection'.
Slowly anger grew in me towards my father. Fed by the things my mother brought to me, but also by the fact that I didn't feel my father was present in the family, physically and emotionally (when he would be at home).
This is where my image of who my father was started to change...
I put my father in jail
My image of my father was getting more explicit as time passed. My father is unavailable, unsafe, and can't deal with emotions. This was the jail I built in my head and heart for my father. I held him captured in that jail for most of my life.
From this image of my father, I had a particular behavior toward my dad. I was a particular son to him from that place of anger. A son that was closed to him, that didn't share his emotions. A son that only showed up half, and it was not my better half, I can tell you.
This has caused a lot of grief and friction in our relationship, there was a loneliness in me, and later I learned, also in my dad.
About 15 years ago, I started to see what I had done and connect to the longing to have a different relationship with my father. I missed the feeling of coming home when visiting him, and I wanted to discover who he was behind what I made him be.
I went through several processes, where I saw what kind of man I was in his vicinity. But interesting enough, also in relationships with others. I closed my heart for my father, fearing being hurt or let down again. I also used this defense, so familiar to me with others, as a common defense, triggering the same fear.
Taking responsibility for that defense, for my behavior, opened something in me and made me curious. This curiosity was the key to a deeper connection to myself and my dad.
Slowly I began to see him as a different person and started to understand what he went through when he was a child and in the marriage with my mother, how he must have struggled to be a responsible father, a caring husband, and a man in a demanding world. I started to see that he also missed the hands on his back from his dad when he went into the world and did the best he could with the energy that was left from doing this all alone.
Gradually but consistently, my anger made space for gratitude and love for this man. For the way he always worked to give us the best we could get, how he took me away from the tension at home to the beach or to a place we both liked, for the care in his advice, for the way he wanted the best for me.
I feel compassion for his inability always to know how to bring his love, to choose for himself without dissociating, for not being seen in what he did for me, my sister, and my mother. He always found ways to improve our lives, to make them fuller and more comfortable.
I feel a lot of empathy when I hear him speak about his emotions and pain during the most challenging parts of his life. His telling me he felt lonely during the separation from my mother touched and hurt me profoundly.
And yes, I missed important things when I grew up. I missed his hands on my back when I needed them most and his ability to fully receive me with my deepest pain and fear. But it does not make him wrong or mean he does not love me. The anger and grief around that in me are not directed at him anymore; it is just there. It is something I can and have to be and deal with.
I love my relationship with my father. I love him, and I am proud to be his son. I am grateful for what shifted in me to make that relationship possible. I enjoy spending time with him and feeling him in whatever he experiences. And you know what? I don't even believe he changed a bit!
The impact of our family dynamics
This process made me aware of how significant our relationship with our parents is and how big the impact is on our lives. No matter if it is a father/daughter, mother/son, father/son, mother/daughter, or even any (non-)gender parent/child relationship.
This blog is about my relationship with my father, but my relationship with my mother is equally (or maybe even more) significant. Perhaps more about that in another blog.
I wonder how your relationship with your parents is and if you notice any impact.