“I don’t know whether it is my fault that my father doesn’t seem to respect or like me. We were close when I was a child (I’m 23 now) and I drifted away from him during adolescence. I cannot put my finger on why, except perhaps I became more girly and less relatable to him. I am an only child and am very close to my mum. I am often a disappointment to him, but I cannot see my mistakes coming. I’m envious when my friends’ dads say they look lovely or when I see how tenderly the fathers of the children I babysit treat their wives and kids. Dad refers to my mum as bonkers, hopeless, waste of bloody space, mad bat, bloody useless, or just “ya mum” (“Where’s ya mum gone now?!”) or often just “woman”…”
This letter first appeared in the Observer
Though this letter must have been massively cut, and that’s a real shame, it is such a sad one. It’s tempting, as I’m sure your friends and probably the columnist you wrote to have already done, to say he probably loves you really and that you should talk to him about it or something ridiculous like that. The fascinating thing here is that you answer your own question. You make it pretty clear that your father is an angry misogynist who doesn’t like women. You have become a woman.
Obviously, he will have his own painful history around this and, if you did somehow attempt a direct conversation (often advised by advisors but rarely – ever? – productive as these kinds of confrontations put the blame with and beg resolutions from the other, when all we can ever really do is look at ourselves), he’d very probably deny any antipathy towards the opposite sex and tell you how proud of you he is.
It’s interesting that you say you want him to ‘respect’ and ‘like’ you. That leaves him free to say the empty thing, that he loves you, but you are aware that that isn’t enough, or isn’t what you want. You want a real relationship with him like the one you had before you became an adult woman. [It might be interesting to know about his relationship with his mother, but I don’t suppose it would help you at this point. It might eventually help him.]
You say you became ‘girly’ and this is an obviously denigrating word that suggests silliness, empty and vacuous preoccupations and all sorts of other things that we are generally invited to despise. It sounds as though he’s taught you that being feminine (female, actually) is a bad thing, so it’s no surprise that you blame yourself for being unlikeable now and that you are ashamed of the things in yourself that you consider to be ‘girly’ (perhaps simply enjoying being feminine).
You suggest obliquely that he might be jealous of your relationship with your mum and, given that he is so abusive towards her, he presumably does see your offering her any respect whatsoever as taking sides against him. Bullies (and you make it pretty clear that he is a bully) tend to perceive adversaries where there might be potential partners. There seem to be Oedipal issues here too, though I’m not sure if knowing this will be especially helpful. Instead of working through a process in which you fought your mother for your father and finally accepted them as a couple, you seem to have won your father from your mother in early childhood and then later rejected him for your mother. He senses this, but in fact he is probably responsible for it.
What is interesting about your letter is that you know the answers to your own questions on some level. You see other men who are not verbally abusive towards their wives. But the heartbreaking thing is that you wonder if your father’s attitude to you is your fault. If you were married to him I would wonder what it is that makes you stay, why you chose him, about sadomasochism, guilt and, of course, your relationship with your father. But you didn’t choose him.
As it is, you are talking about the problem at source. It can be the hardest thing to accept – in fact, people go to incredible lengths to deny to themselves that a parent doesn’t like them. I once knew someone whose mother was very cruel to her but not to her sister. She took with her into adulthood the belief that her mother actually preferred her, but overcompensated by being extra nice to her sister and cruel to her so that her preference wouldn’t show. The years during which she confronted her mother’s real hatred of her were, of course, stupendously painful.
With your very sad and painful story, I would just be very, very careful about the men with whom you form romantic and sexual relationships. Make sure you don’t unconsciously go for an abusive misogynist like your father. They can be very, very hard to spot, especially when you have a hardwired, unconscious pull towards them – a desire to make this next one really respect you. etc. ad infinitum.
Also, I should think your mum might need some outside help with her self-esteem.
Proper Advice for Real Change via Skype or email: firstname.lastname@example.org