In different ways, DAVID HILL was let down by two fathers. In the Year of the Dad he writes frankly about the hardship and healing he has found in becoming a better father himself.
I VIVIDLY remember a moment in my childhood when my father came to visit the house where I lived with my stepfather and my mother.
My father was a musician and not particularly wealthy; my stepfather was a pretty successful writer and we lived in a sizeable house. I was coming down the stairs and was suddenly gripped with an internal paralysis: how was I supposed to deal with this situation?
Should I be loyal to my biological father, who lived elsewhere and didn’t seem to want to father me? Or should I side with my stepfather, who although a provider, was an aggressive, unfriendly, critical, authoritarian presence in my life?
I stood on those steps for some time, unable to square those two positions: in truth I probably stayed on those steps for the next 25 years.
There have now been countless research projects looking at the effect of absent fathers and emotionally absent fathers and none of it looks good. The majority of young offenders in US prisons come from fatherless homes, and there is a strong link between higher levels of delinquency, poverty, self-destructive behaviour and mental illness and the absence of an engaged father. If it were a virus, there would be a world outcry to deal with its devastating effects.
So how did it affect me? In truth I struggle and have struggled all my adult life with the issue of fatherhood. When friends speak lovingly of their relationships with their fathers, or even their heartbreak at their passing, I am filled with longing and sadness for a corner of human experience which I am forever denied. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
My father is an easy man to get along with, but an impossible man to get to know. This is not an issue of blame, because my father lost his father when he was 3 months old during the Second World War. He never knew parenting from his own father. His stepfather died only a few years after the war, and my father was sent off to a masonic boarding school.
I have been told he hated it, but institutions became the place that offered the most security to him. He went from boarding school to army, which he also hated, to working in an orchestra, which finally suited him. He expressed his creativity and was maintained by the large web of social relations that a preeminent symphony orchestra provides. But that didn’t provide any basis for a happy home.
Suffice to say that by the age of seven, in the midst of marital breakdown, I had no bedroom of my own. At my dad’s I slept on a foldout single bed in the living room that doubled up as a soft furnishing. At my stepfather’s I slept on a sofa. Often I would have to wait up until midnight for my father to pick me up, and he would often arrive drunk, ready to drive me back. I would fall into bed by 1am, ready to get up at 7am for school – which I hated, as I was bullied there. I suffered constant headaches and regularly suffered sinus flare-ups. Looking back I realise I was a deeply depressed child at that point.
A FRIGHTENING PRESENCE
On the one hand I grew up without knowing my father in any meaningful sense, wondering why he didn’t want to parent me. On the other, the man who supposedly stepped in to fulfil that function shortly before that paralysing moment on the staircase, seemed like it was the most onerous imposition on his time.
My relationship with my stepfather growing up was one of almost constant abrasive conflict. He was a fierce and somewhat frightening presence. The measure of my personal worth was how much I could emulate him - share the same interests, follow the same moral code, accept his every argument. But I am not wired for such a submissive role and I fought tooth and nail every inch of the way, filled with a burning rage and sense of injustice.
A COSMIC MISTAKE?
He never played, only worked – and demanded that my brother and I worked for him in our spare time. Perhaps not surprisingly, I became an early fan of fantasy and science fiction, with its promise of alternative worlds, worlds that made more sense than the one I inhabited. My stepfather derided for this and other personal interests.
My mother and stepfather also fought constantly, and I lived in a constant state of anxiety over what would set them off next. They shouted and yelled and screamed and my mother would cry. Then afterwards she then treated me as her support, told me I was special, incredible and amazing. I was utterly confused and bewildered about my entire existence, I thought it must have been some cosmological mistake.
CLOSE TO BREAKDOWN
As I entered adolesence, I did what most other unfathered boys do – started my sex life early. was an intense relationship that lasted four years, until as happens my girlfriend wanted to go off and try new things. I was devastated, it was another rejection on top of my perceived rejections from my parents. Add to that the death of my best friend from brain cancer, and it was a trigger for a breakdown. I could no longer feel my emotions, I could no longer self-analyse, I was lost to myself.
I was at this point in my first year at university, and in truth I only just clung on. However when I changed subjects at University and started studying archaeology, I found a very special group of people. They became my tribe, in many ways my saviours at that point in my life. Not only that but we had lecturers who cared about us, and in some ways I got my first small taste of fathering from my teachers at University.
Then a few years later I became a father myself. Through all the chaos of my childhood I had always had it in mind that one day I would have my own family and it would be a happy one. I guess this might not be so unusual – it is the chance for redemption, a chance to show that life does not have to be the way you experienced it as a child.
Yet my dysfunctional parental relations inevitably meant that my ability to choose a happy life mate at age 26 was fundamentally impaired, and my first marriage failed.
What did not fail however, was my relationships with my sons. I have always been very close to them and we have very strong relationships now. These are the most important relationships in my life, along with that with my new partner. I retain a determination, but it is a more enlightened one now. I will always be the best dad I can be. I talk to my boys about their problems, I guide them and they ask me advice. It has not been easy because I have had to make this relationship up from scratch – I have no template to work from.
I hope it will be of encouragement to others to know that you don’t actually need the template, you only need the love and the desire to make it work. Having found myself stuck on that childhood staircase, trapped between the demands and inadequacies of my two fathers, I have finally shifted off those steps by learning loyalty to my own wellbeing – and the realisation that none of us will get it completely right.
Through learning how to be a father, I have found some measure of redemption from never finding the fathering I craved. I have moved beyond anger to understanding and forgiveness.
What more could a father want?
David Hill is a pseudonym