My mother has always been the doter, the coddler, the mother who would introduce me to friends, family and strangers on the street as “the perfect child,” a label she’d throw around without a shred of cynicism or irony. She would embarrass me by pointing out the many ways in which I was superior to my peers in looks, personality, intellect and talent, made worse by the fact that this was often done in front of my friends and their parents, her pride too big and bloated to leave room for social awareness.
When I was 22, my boyfriend of three years and I decided to introduce our parents to each other. His mother shook my mother’s hand and said something along the lines of, “your daughter is lovely.” You know, the sort of thing you’re supposed to say when you meet whomever raised the person your kid is dating, and instead of responding with a reciprocal compliment, my mother beamed, put a hand on her cheek and said, “yes, I know, she’s perfect,” and that’s where the conversation ended. It is at once totally charming and completely horrific, as parental blunders often are.
My father has taken a markedly different approach to parenting, which is approximately reason #11,349 why he and my mother divorced almost 14 years ago. He is constantly sarcastic, cynical, and blunt. He’s a Republican, because of course he is, though he isn’t voting for Trump, and he thinks rap music (with the exception of Kanye, Flava Flav and Eminem) is stupid, and that religion is even stupider. He is the kind of father that, if you woke up one morning and revealed to him that your dream was to become a movie star, he’d nod, tell you he believed in you, and then swiftly bring you back to earth by saying something like, “very few people succeed in that industry,” and “don’t become a loser like Tom Cruise.” He also hates Tom Cruise.
Because I loved compliments and hated facing reality, I grew up resenting my father’s negativity and basking in my mother’s unending praise. My father didn’t tell me I was perfect all the time, so I didn’t divulge much about my life to him, afraid that he’d point out things I had done wrong or could do better. It was much more fun to be with my mother who had no problem spending every dinner conversation listing my various accomplishments and accolades. If I did poorly on a school assignment or got into a fight with a friend, my father held me accountable, while my mother always found ways to blame other people. I was her perfect child and nothing could ever alter this narrative.
But, as I matured and reached the end of high school, entering that phase in life during which you spend more time envisioning yourself as an adult than you do actually growing up, I felt the gears shifting. When I was 17, I became intensely aware of my flaws as a human. I started noticing belly fat, prettier girls, funnier girls, girls who were better at sports. I looked at the list of colleges my advisor had given me – an impressive list, but all I could think about was that my best friend had more Ivy Leagues available to her for no reason other than she was better at math and standardized tests. Girls I had grown up taking musical theater classes with were going on Broadway auditions, while I was still at home singing along to soundtracks in my bedroom. I started suffering from what I now know is anxiety and depression, but at the time, just felt like nasty feelings that brewed inside of me and that I had no control over. That same year, I became a victim of sexual assault – an act that I, for years, blamed myself for. All of this lead me to a disappointing conclusion: I was not only imperfect, but I was falling apart.
I couldn’t tell my mother. It would break her heart. Once I had hinted that I wanted to see a therapist because I was feeling stressed, and she looked at me as if I’d told her I had a terminal disease. “But nothing’s wrong with you,” she said, heartbroken. I told her she was right and didn’t bring it up again. She thought she had this perfect kid, this certified all-star of a daughter who lived a charmed life, and here I was with the heavy truth that none of this was true. One night, after a dinner with my mother where I tried to be as bubbly and cheery as possible, I sat in my bedroom closet and wept for hours, not for myself or for my own pain, but for how disappointed she’d be if she knew the truth about her star child.
So here’s where my dad comes in. My mother may have put me on a pedestal my entire life, but my dad totally didn’t. He loved me unconditionally, but other than overusing the word “like,” he thinks vanity is the least attractive human quality, and always made an effort to keep his kids’ egos in check. He was always poking fun at me and delighting in all the stories he had of me making mistakes — the horrible boyfriends I brought home, the sports I failed to play, the times I embarrassed him in public. That night in my closet, it hit me that I couldn’t be a disappointment to my father, because he already knew I wasn’t perfect. The next morning, we went out to breakfast and I revealed I wanted to see a therapist. He didn’t miss a beat, No stigma, no heartbreak — he responded as if I had just suggested we go see a movie or go out to dinner. “Therapy’s great,” he said, and the next day I was calling people and making appointments.
Those two words encapsulate the most important lesson my father has ever taught me, which is not only am I not perfect, but it’s okay that I’m not. It’s more than okay. It’s normal. And, it doesn’t change how he feels about me. I’d never accuse my mother of not loving me, but her unending praise of me often felt more like a standard I had to set than anything else, whereas my father’s cynical approach turned into a reminder that my father knew of every mistake I’d ever made, and loved me for all of it.
To this day, my father is the first person I call when things go wrong — car accidents, bad days at work, after I’ve lost my keys, and countless other times I’ve messed up. He doesn’t coddle me or fix the situation for me, but he does serve as a reminder that these things happen. Life is full of mistakes, and the consequences of making one are rarely as grave as we think they are.
So, on this Father’s Day, my first as a semi-adult who is out of college and paying her own rent and constantly making mistakes, I am especially thankful for my father. I’m thankful for the dumb dad jokes that he used to make at my expense, once the bane of my existence, but have now become a lifeline of sorts. I’m thankful for the father who found a way to make the unfairness of life and the harshness of reality somehow comforting, and who was able to teach me that unconditional love is not loving someone in spite of all their flaws, but because of them.
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