I was nervous on the day of my year 10 formal. It was important that I looked perfect. Unlike most other fifteen year olds, my jitters extended beyond the desire for peer acceptance and getting kissed by a cute boy. I was meeting my father for the first time, and I desperately needed it to go well. I wanted him to take one look at me and immediately regret his lifelong absence.
I had only known his name for a year before we met. My mum didn’t talk about him and I never asked. The context of my birth was a perpetual mystery. I didn’t even known if he was alive. I can’t recall what finally inspired me to broach the subject, but it was an enlightening conversation.
Mum was 31 and living with endometriosis in the 80s. She had been told that under no circumstances would she ever have a successful pregnancy. Her brother had died in a horrific car accident the previous year so her life was turbulent, to say the least.
It was during this time that she met “R” — a local footy legend in a small coastal town. He seemed to like mum’s disinterest in his small-time notoriety and a whirlwind affair ensued. Being careful was evidently not a priority.
In a tale as old as time. R didn’t want to be a father, especially when he came from such a prominent local family. What would the townsfolk say to a baby-shaped skeleton in the closet? Mum didn’t particularly care – she was financially comfortable and refused the pressure to seek child support.
She offered visits if he was ever interested. He wasn’t. His position was further solidified when he ran out of a store they both found themselves in during her eighth month.
Our first meeting went well and we arranged to have dinner. He pulled a picture from his wallet during the meal and I was thrilled to learn that I had three younger siblings. He waxed rhapsodic about them and I listened intently to his stories. He was clearly a proud father. Approval was my singular focus – I craved every scrap of attention I could get.
I wanted to be in the next photograph in his wallet.
The day that I met his wife and kids was surreal. I only remember snapshots – marvelling at their large house by the ocean, the picture one of my little brothers had drawn for me, the home movie of a recent trip to Bali. There was a barrage of family photos that documented various holidays and celebrations — A veritable tirade of stories and memories I wasn’t a part of.
Jealousy was a prominent emotion that first day – I didn’t get to go on many holidays growing up. I don’t think I was envious of the trips themselves, but rather what they represented.
Feelings of exclusion were bubbling beneath my smile and adolescent cooing, but they still weren’t enough for me to question anything. Repression served as an exceptional coping mechanism.
Over the next couple of years I spent more time with my father’s family. R considered adding me to his Will but demanded a paternity test first. I was devastated by the implication — I didn’t care about money and I considered compliance to be an insult to my mother. The subject wasn’t brought up again.
Once I started uni the visits became less frequent and I started to become more disillusioned with the entire situation. I didn’t feel unwelcome, but I certainly didn’t fit the family mould. I was an oddball book worm and they were sports obsessed models of small town perfection. R would often shake his head and laugh at what he deemed to be my ‘quirky’ qualities.
Invitations to extended family gatherings began to dry up and my grandparents declined their invitation to my 21st birthday party. R even got my birthday wrong one year.
By my early twenties I barely saw them at all, and it hurt. I know that I could have reached out, but I was labouring under the stubborn notion that he should be the one making the effort.
In hindsight, I’ve learned that even estranged parental relationships need to be a two way street. You can’t expect one person to do all of the work, even if it doesn’t seem particularly fair. The distance did however afford me the opportunity to reflect. I started to think about the stories mum had told me about him. I began asking myself questions.
Everything culminated during my Masters degree when I was working as a waitress. One busy Saturday night my step mum and R walked into the restaurant — they were there for a church function. I had no idea that they would be coming in, but I was excited to see them.
R was talking with a group of men when I walked up to give him a hug and kiss on the cheek. My enthusiasm was met with an awkward ‘hello’ followed by stark silence. The men stared at me. A second or two passed before realisation set in. He wasn’t going to say anything.
I felt compelled to fill the deafening quiet so I blurted, “Hi, I’m Tegan,” to the still relatively unresponsive men. “… I’m R’s daughter.”
Looking back I can’t be surprised, really. It was a group of conservative Christians being confronted by a daughter they’d never heard of. Regardless, this encounter served as my breaking point. Consequently, I sent him a colourfully worded text that detailed exactly why I never wanted to see him again.
We had one final phone conversation where I asked him all of the questions I had suppressed for years. I told him what it feels like to know that one of the people responsible for your existence never wanted you.
I explained how it impacted my ability to trust men. I asked why he never even said sorry. He had counterpoints of course, and took issue with all the blame I placed on him. He was a fount of excuses and defensiveness.
There was a lot of tears and yelling, but it was cathartic. I had finally confronted my father and I felt like I was past it. That wasn’t true of course. Years later I wanted him to find out that I became a writer. It was important that he knew that I was a success without him.
The journey that I have taken with my father has ultimately been a lesson in honesty, self-worth and reflection. Until recently I didn’t truly grasp how much his absence continued to impact my life, particularly in regards to my relationships with men.
As a young teenager I embarked on sexual exploration as a form of seeking male approval and acceptance. As an adult I engaged in serial monogamy and consistently ran away from healthy and fulfilling relationships, or from anyone I actually wanted to be with. They couldn’t abandon me if nothing ever began. They couldn’t hurt me if I hurt them first.
Fortunately, I have finally allowed myself to recognise these behavioural patterns. Ultimately, I have been able to let go of the toxic impact of my father by taking personal responsibility for my life. Yes, his actions have left parts of me broken — but only because I have let them. Letting go of him has been synonymous with letting go of the excuses.
My only current regret involves my siblings. R was simultaneously an absent father to me but a really great dad for them. These days I’m grateful for that, rather than jealous. Ironically, my disappearance from their lives may make them see me in a similar light to how I see him. There was never any explanation — I just faded away. The cycle of neglect continues.
This is where some part of me can understand why it took R so many years to get in contact — even if I may never forgive him. Taking that first step is hard, especially when you’ve consciously done a shitty thing to the people who should mean the most.
It was easy to blame my father for my past behaviour and failed relationships — but is it really okay to spend a lifetime rejecting any form of personal accountability? Negative experiences in our lives may profoundly affect us, but does it continue to be someone else’s fault when you find yourself in a cycle of self-sabotage, especially when it hurts other people?
In the end the road to freedom can be a turbulent one, wrought with guilt, empathy and self-examination. I’m finally making the right choices for me, but I don’t speak for everyone. Sadly, there isn’t an easy “life hack” for everything. But if you have the courage to face your demons and yourself, there is always hope.
This post was originally published on September 2nd 2016.