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How Do We Learn to Forgive Our Fathers?

Watching our dads grow older is painful, but it can be a step toward reconciliation

There is something special between fathers and daughters. The nature of the special thing is clearer, simpler when the daughters are children: There is gentleness in it, and nurture, and the protective feeling of any large being for a smaller one it loves. My dad taught me, strapped into six layers of padding, to rollerblade on the streets that slope through Central Park, letting me careen into him at top speed before I learned to stop gracefully. At home we built sculptural collages together, gluing odd bits of recycling onto a sheet of cardboard and spray-painting an American flag over top, like Jasper Johns meets Louise Nevelson. Every night at dinner I asked him to teach me how to spell the hardest words he knew. After, he made me “super secret desserts” consisting of fruit and ice cream tossed in a bowl under a skein of U-Bet chocolate syrup.

This is the unadulterated good I remember, the love given freely and bountifully. But it was not always that way. Whereas a mother’s love often seems automatic and perpetual, premised on the simple fact of her child’s existence, a father’s love must be won through feat and accomplishment, continually renewed over time. Herein lies its preciousness, and its potential for violence. My father was brilliant and hardworking, and expected great things of those around him. His approval was contingent, I perceived early on, on my academic success. Children quickly learn whether and how they can meet these implicit demands; I could.

But when my father and mother divorced, he had other demands: my absolute loyalty and compliance to him over my mother. These I could not meet. He reacted with lies, recriminations, and furious outbursts. He retracted promises, criticized my choices, my appearance. I tolerated his disappointment and impatience when I could; when I couldn’t, I shut him out. He, in turn, hardly knew how to reach me through my adolescent moods and passions — I yelling and raging, pacing around my bedroom in a fury, tearing out the pages of a book one by one. Trauma and anger colored the relationship, and we were both helpless to soothe the wound.

For years we hardly spoke. But as daughters — and fathers — age, the relationship between them, too, matures. Adults are not merely large children; they belong to another species entirely. Girl children and their grown counterparts, in particular, tend to resemble each other about as much as the caterpillar and the butterfly — the identities of women are forged by a hostile, exacting world. But this world, for all its prescriptions for how women should think and behave, remains relatively silent on the subject of how we relate to our dads after the relative idyll of early life has passed into memory.

As we grow, capacity for emotional nuance and complexity develops (we hope) to meet the world’s expanded offerings of love, friendship, work. Personal histories lengthen — our own, and those in which we’ve become entwined. Time softens our sharp edges and mellows our resentments. It becomes, more than anything else, exhausting to summon the energy required to maintain grudges founded long ago in quarrels only half-remembered. The fact of missing my dad came to eclipse the fact of my hating him; I wondered if the snag between us was quite as black and white as I had thought. I found myself waking up in a cold sweat from dreams in which I’d found him dead in the street, a crude subconscious threat from the ghost of Christmas future.

It isn’t simple, it turns out, to excommunicate a parent altogether. Logic dictates we should turn away those who treat us unkindly, but the usual rules do not apply where family drama is concerned. Daughters, for better or worse, want to heal the rupture, even as a small part of us may long to sunder it further. Every year I discover a new way in which my father and I are alike: a giddy laugh, a shared peeve. Despite our history, I compare others to him — friends, coworkers, lovers — and find them wanting. How is it that I continue to esteem someone who failed me in such fundamental ways?

In this matter, it may help to admit a strange truth: Fathers and daughters are a little in love with each other. Contra Freud, this love is not sexual, but it is romantic in its way. “Ordinary father-daughter love had a charge to it that generally was both permitted and indulged,” Meg Wolitzer writes in The Interestings. Normative gender dynamics do not stop at the door of the nuclear family home, nor even once its chicks have flown the coop. Recall the tradition of the father/daughter dance; think of which family member hands off the bride at her wedding, play-acting the role of defeated suitor. Think how many daughters still want this, even after a lifetime of difficulties with their fathers.

This is why, when women begin to date men (if they do date men), the dominant male connection thus far in their lives (if it has, indeed, been Dad) layers itself over subsequent romantic ventures. To be clear, this isn’t because women want to sleep with their fathers, or vice versa, but because every relationship we undertake is refracted through the lens of every other that came before it. When that preceding connection is so powerful, so foundational, it is bound to cast a long shadow.

Fortunately, our adult endeavors also color our view of our fathers. They help us paint him in gentler lines. We meet other men, and we realize, gradually and all at once, that Dad is one of them, not essentially different from the guy who tried a cheesy line at the bar last night. Our fathers begin to exist outside the bounds of childhood myopia, as full, multifaceted beings in the world.

The threat of incurring Dad’s disappointment fades out of view, while his frailty comes into focus. His anger looks less and less like malice, more and more like delicate human weakness. A few years ago, I detected a hobble in my dad’s gait after what would once have been an easy run. His cheeks were wetter than mine at family occasions; he held me closer and longer when saying goodbye at the end of a get-together. Dad’s love, once the manna of a strict and capricious God, transmutes into ordinary attachment, subject to failure and misstep. Gods do not deserve our forgiveness. People do.

My dad and I have lived on opposite coasts of the U.S. for the past half-decade or so. My mom lives near me; we moved across the country at about the same time. When I called my dad to tell him I was leaving for Seattle, he erupted in a rage that looks, in retrospect, a lot like heartbreak. You’re making a terrible mistake, he told me. Abandoning your family. Abandoning me, he meant. Choosing sides once and for all, and not in his favor. I didn’t know, until then, that I could be the one who did the abandoning. I am sorry now — not sorry I moved, but sorry that my move took me so far away from him. When we meet these days, a couple of times a year, the passage of time is etched into his face. I am the one prolonging the goodbye embrace.

Watching our fathers grow older is not only instructive. It is also painful, just as it is painful to watch anyone we love change from what they once were. It is different, I think, to witness the aging of men and women. Cracks corrupt the edifice of unimpeachable masculinity that used to suggest, in Dad, that he might live forever. Women, too, undergo these alterations, but it seems to me that the everyday hardships of female life prepare women better for the degradations of advanced age. Or perhaps it’s only that we harbor a grander delusion about Dad’s immortality.

But this illusion fades, and the finitude of our parents’ lives strikes us dumb. We begin, if we so choose, to slough off the offenses of childhood, which we used to cling to. A kind of tenderness different from that of childhood takes shape between us, hardier for having proven its longevity, and because it is chosen rather than given. We greet our fathers on equal footing, as people who have by this point made our own mistakes, and hurt people we loved, and perhaps had children whom we didn’t always treat exactly as we wished. Being right is supplanted in the hierarchy of values by being kind. Bridging divides comes to seem not only like good psychological medicine, but the true act of self-assertion.

Our fathers, of course, do not always meet us in the middle. As in many relationships between men and women, daughters tend to do the lion’s share of the emotional work. We empathize, forgive, explain, even when we feel we shouldn’t have to, because we are the child, damn it. But it doesn’t matter who “should” do what — only who will. Past transgressions never quite disappear, but with time, they fade into irrelevance.

I won’t fool myself by ignoring the wails of the girl child in me who wishes her dad had been a different person, a better one, so that she wouldn’t have wasted all those years hating him, not speaking to him. But this doesn’t matter either — only the years to come count. Perhaps we should not wear our scars so proudly, as badges of toughness. Toughness is overrated, and a scar, after all, is not just a wound healed, but a patch of inferior tissue. We’d be better off, I think, learning to live with the pain of hurt and the tenderness of affection nestled side by side within us. We might then be able to see that same joy and sorrow at war within our fathers — to know that they possess no special knowledge or insight, just the same imperfect urge to form human connections.