From an early age on it seemed I was magnetically programmed to draw criticism from my dad. I was just being me, yet he was continually finding fault.
When I was five he reprimanded me for playing with dolls. He expected me to take care of my baby brother. Willing girls helped their mother.
When I was eight, he pulled me out of school in the middle of the morning two months shy of the end of the term. When I cried because I didn’t even get a chance to say ‘goodbye’ to my friends and my teacher, he reprimanded me for my tears. Big girls don’t cry.
When I was eleven and got mad at my younger brother for tormenting me about my bodily changes, my dad reprimanded me for my anger. Good girls never raise their voice.
During my adolescent years the list of criticisms grew extensively. I wore my hair too long and my skirts too short. I didn’t try to please enough and had too many opinions. The list went on and on. Somewhere during those years, he declared me demon possessed.
By my early twenties I self-mockingly described myself as the unredeemable black sheep of the family. Then the day I married in my mid twenties the criticism stopped.
One Christmas Eve, during my mid thirties, my husband and I hosted the extended family Christmas gathering. Everyone came bearing something for the buffet table. Initially we gathered in the kitchen, while the offerings were added to the table and Christmas greetings exchanged. Then people filled their plates and moved on to the family room. My father lingered in the kitchen as I refilled the serving trays.
“Well you’ve surprised me. I didn’t know you were capable of this.” My dad’s gesture encompassed the laden table.
It was not a comment I expected, nor really understood, but I kept my response light. “Everybody brought something Dad. I didn’t do this myself.”
He persisted. “You organized it.”
At this point I was lost for a response. I suspected it was intended as a compliment, yet believing myself relatively capable of running a household, I could have been insulted.
In the pause he continued. “I always worried about you. I didn’t think you’d ever make it in this world. Of my four children, you were the one that caused me the greatest concern. Yet, look at you now. You have done really well and I am proud.”
I heard his words with mixed emotions, wondering how he had perceived me during my growing years. I was also puzzled by his revelation, unable to identify what may have changed his perceptions. I simply acknowledged his sentiment. “Thank you, Dad.”
Now that my own children are almost grown, I can look back at my years at home from a new perspective. In light of my dad’s surprising revelation and a recognition of my own paradoxical ways of expressing my love to my sons, I try to see myself as he saw me when I was young. I imagine I must have been an anomaly to him – a mystery child. My quiet, introspective moments were interpreted as pouting. My emotional sensitivity was immaturity. My expressive creativity was rebellion. My love of reading was laziness. And the choices I made that he did not understand were signs of disloyalty, an abandonment of the only way of life that was familiar to him.
After all these years, I have come to understand that my dad’s critical words veiled his love – his deep concern for my well-being and his desire that I find the right way through this world.
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