This is for those of us with fair weather fathers, the ones whose dads walked in and out of their lives like being a father was optional & everything else was more pressing than that. For the ones of us with dads who tried the best they could, but just don’t know how to be dads. Maybe your dad just wasn’t around. Or maybe your dad came in and out of your life like a yo-yo – sometimes staying up for a long time, but the drop just always follows afterwards. Or maybe your dad called you his niece, instead of his daughter, because it better fit the narrative he was crafting for his life. Whoever you are, this is a little bit for you – but mainly, this is for the Hannah I was ten years ago, and the Hannah I am today.
Dear 13 year old Hannah (very specifically, on the night of November 30th),
You have just found out some devastating news that sort of shattered your comfortable teenager world. You will spend the next few months – okay, more like the next number of years – trying to figure it all out, trying to come up with answers as to why this happened, trying to grapple with the fact that your dad – no matter how much you wish & pray – is never going to be the man you want him to be or need him to be, because he will always love money more than he loves you.
That sounds harsh to say to 13 year old Hannah, & I’m sorry, but man, at 23, I just want to warn you that you think the hurt will get better, you think that all the wounds have healed, you think you’ve developed all this resiliency and indifference to some of the crazy crap that has happened in your life.
Then you get a Facebook message, & your heart starts to feel tender, and then you get more Facebook messages that share all too familiar patterns you’ve seen in your dad, and you move through a cycle you know all too well – one where you’re angry, and then sad, and then a little devastated, and then back to angry, back to sad, circle around to disappointed, and you land on “why? why again?” a whole lot.
I want to fix it all for you, more than your mom wants to fix it all for you (& that’s saying something – you can’t see this at 13, and maybe you don’t really see it until 23, but your mom is the most protective of your heart), but I can’t. All of the scars on your heart – no matter how misery inducing they were, no matter how much you wished things would have played out different – made you into who you are today.
But here is a list of things you’ll learn over the next ten years. (Just so you know, your 23 year old self needs these reminders a whole bunch, which is a good reminder that you are forever, forever learning things – and sometimes, re-learning things.)
Hannah, you can’t be good enough to make your dad stay. You can try. You can try to be the best little girl in the whole world, with the best little report cards. You can get all the right jobs in the world. You can do great leadership things. You can literally be the model student, a model daughter, a model citizen. But unless he changes his mind about a whole lot of things, you’re never going to be able to make him stay. Unless he reprioritizes what he values, you’ll never be enough to make him stay. You can try your absolute hardest, and it will land you in your therapist’s office – at 20 years old, you end up in your childhood therapists office – where you will have a lump in your throat while you say, “& then I thought about why I wasn’t good enough to make my dad stay”, and she will say, “Hannah, you’ve been asking that same question since you were 10 years old.”
You will never be enough to make him stay. So you will look for love elsewhere, try to shove all those broken, raw, and open pieces of your heart shut with everything else. You will look for love in social media likes, or in boys, or in the validation of a large crowd. You will look to everyone else with childlike eyes, begging them to tell you that you are valuable & worthy of love – & then you will run away when they say it because you are scared that they will leave, and you’re really sick of people leaving.
You will look for answers, reasons, explanations as to why you got stuck with the shitty dad. You will feel roots of bitterness turn into plants with sharp thorns whenever someone complains about how their dad is late, or how their dad is embarrassing, or how their dad cares a little too much. As they stew and complain, you will run over everything your dad told you & play a fun game of, “What was true & what was not?” Most land in the “not true” category.
You will never be able to make others understand this unique scar on your heart – why, when you do have your dad back in your life, he is kept at arm’s length. Why your heart feels hard about certain issues. Why your flight instinct is so much stronger than your fight instinct.
You will blame your dad for a lot of things: why you feel incapable of being in a trusting, loving relationship. Why you want to run away from people who care. Why you are more enamoured with performing for people than being genuine and authentic with people.
You may have a fair-weather father, one who shifts in and out of your life like a cold, bitter wind – it’s comfortable when he’s gone & uncomfortable when he’s around. You may have a fair-weather father, one who picks and chooses when you’re his daughter when it is most convenient for him.
You may have a fair weather father, but you have a lot of other really great things in your life. It takes you years & years to see the great things. It takes a long time for some of those great things to come around. But eventually, you have more than a fair weather father – you will have a great step-father, who was more than your dad ever was. You’ll have a close knit family, because you are the only ones who understand these feelings of unique disappointment. You will have strength I don’t think you could have imagined at 13, and you will have families who instantly want to make you feel loved, even when you’re far away & hurting. Even when they don’t know everything. You will have a faith that is all you can cling to when you are shaking because you cannot freaking believe this is happening again, a faith that knows some pretty deep pain (which is why I think you’re able to rejoice so well).
You can roll your eyes at forgiveness for a little bit, because after 13 years of being lied to and manipulated, you’ll continue with 10 more years of lying & manipulation, which will end up at 23 years of sifting through complete and utter crap. So forgiveness feels a long way off. But eventually, you know your heart will soften and you will forgive him – not because he deserves it, but because you do not want that root of bitterness to grow into something that affects the people you actually care about. You’re sick of that root of bitterness turning into a thorny plant.
& one day, you will find a boy, and one night – after you find out all these things about your dad from a Facebook message, when you are subtly trying to get this wonderful boy to go, because you’re scared he’s just going to leave anyways & you would like to be in control of when people leave – he will say no to all your reminders about the emergency exits in this relationship, and then will say, “You are not your dad. Who your dad is does not define you.” & you will realize you cannot carry this chip on your shoulder for the rest of your life. You cannot forever be the girl with the shitty dad who loved money more than he loved you. Sure, it made you who you are. But someone who has treated you as poorly as he has, 13 year old Hannah, does not deserve to be the definition of who you are.
So, I know it will be hard, and I know this was more a letter to 23 year old Hannah than it was to 13 year old Hannah, & I know these lessons may seem a bit too big for you at 13. I know – better than anyone – that the next ten years will be hard. But man, Hannah, one day, you will realize how deeply loved you are, in a way that far surpasses any love your dad could have given you. The journey to get there is going to make you into who you are today.
(Ps. You don’t totally know who you are, but you know your heart is strong & believes in rejoicing in the midst of mourning.)
I love you.