Tricky Father Feelings

Written by: Emma Reedy from Evoke Therapy

Some years ago, at the very start of my career as a therapist, I went through a break-up with a long-term boyfriend and took a semester off at school to attend to my grief and to sort myself out. My parents offered to allow me to attend a therapeutic retreat center to learn more about myself and my issues.

As I arrived and settled into the week-long intensive, I learned that the program took the approach that by looking into my past, my childhood, I (and the about 80 other participants) might find some insight  into the struggles we might now be navigating. The invitation from the therapist was for us to look into our background, our relationship with our parents, to discover how those relationship patterns might be driving our current dilemmas and circumstances. 

As each member in the group went before me, I started to panic about sharing my own story about my father. While varied, many of the others had significant trauma stories from childhood to tell. I mean, my dad literally wrote a book on parenting, what did I have to complain about? Sure he didn’t always listen to me, he was away working for lots of my childhood, but he didn’t abuse me or anything like that.

When it was my turn to go, I broke down and shared that I didn’t feel I had the right to talk about any issues with my dad, especially after hearing some people share about true trauma with their fathers. I thought my story and its pain didn’t deserve to be told and certainly wouldn’t explain why I might be struggling.

As I shared my story (through the use of a technique called psychodrama where we acted out discussions in role plays with the parents of our childhood) my peers surrounded me with love and understanding; they assured me that my pain was valid even if it looked different from theirs. With trepidation, I decided to surrender and use the group space to explore the wounds I suffered at the feet of my father.

It was painful. I had never felt able to express my hurt to anyone because, afterall, my dad was a renowned person in the therapy community and I had so much to be grateful for. But as I shared my story, exhaustion gave way to relief as I unburdened myself through the telling of my story. My group members showered me with love and empathy for what I had shared, even though my story wasn’t as dramatic as some of theirs. They gave me a safe place and bore witness to my simple, personal story.

Shortly after my turn to share had ended, we took our scheduled break and wandered to the break room. As we were gathered around the snack area, the owner of the retreat program walked into the break room and approached me.

“Are you Brad Reedy’s daughter?” He asked.

“Yes” I replied.

“I thought so. I just wanted to make sure I came over to say hi and let you know that your dad is one of the most wonderful people I’ve met. I have the utmost respect for him and am glad to call him my friend and colleague.”

Surprised by this intrusion, shame started to flood over me and I dropped my eyes and thanked him. He patted my shoulder and made his exit.

But, I was humiliated – several of my group members were present for this exchange and I felt like a huge imposter. I know, of course, his words were meant as a compliment and were his attempt to connect to me, but the effect left me feeling completely invalidated as his sentiment contrasted the work I had just done in front of these same peers.

As I have revisited this story over the years since, I have come to one simple conclusion: the relationships many people have with their fathers is complicated. There is not one story, one motif, one set of feelings, that can properly explain the relationships we have with our fathers.

Two years ago, at the outset of the Covid pandemic. My grandfather, my father’s father, came down with Covid and died abruptly. My father told his colleagues at work about the passing and let them know that he was doing okay, that he didn’t need them to reach out or offer their condolences. My father too had a complicated relationship with his father; they hadn’t talked for many years. And the night before my grandfather died my father was able to talk to him and tell him that he loved him, and that he and his brothers would be okay.

A couple of days later a care package came from my father’s work. It had cards and gifts trying to console him. It even had a sapling that he could plant in the backyard in remembrance. My father told me that he was angry and frustrated with the care package; he had told his team at work that he didn’t need anything and asked them to honor his way of dealing with the loss. But each person at work had their own father story, and they projected their story, their feelings, onto him. Even though he asked them not to, several team members reached out to offer their condolences. They said things like, “I’m sure you regret the relationship with your father.” Or, “Maybe you feel guilty for not feeling guilty?”

My father explained to them, “My relationship with my father was complicated. It doesn’t quite fit into the way that you might see your father. Thank you for your concern and your care, but my story may not be the same as yours. The best gift you can give me is to honor my unique story by allowing me to go through it my way.”

This father’s day, I want to invite each person to consider the relationship with their father. He may have been absent; he may have been kind and nurturing; he may have been an abusive alcoholic; but no matter our specific story, one thing I have learned as a client in therapy and more recently as one who facilitates similar workshops to the one I spoke of above, most people have a complicated relationship with their fathers. It is some kind of mix of love, gratitude,, hurt, grief, and pride. The invitation I make to participants of the workshops I run is just to consider your father-story. And in the exploration of that story we will find ourselves. As the author Alice Miller suggested, the key to self-discovery is found in “the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood”

For some it may be a celebratory day, for others it may be a painful day filled with anger, confusion, or loss. Each part of your father-story deserves to be honored, not just the ones that are Instagram worthy.

In conclusion, I do not wish anyone a solely happy father’s day, but I wish you all a father’s day that honors your story. Instead of wishing you happiness and gratitude and celebration this Father’s Day, I wish you all of your feelings. I hope that this father’s day you can practice curiosity regarding your unique and personal father-story.

Once while working with an Orthodox Jewish woman at our therapeutic intensive program, I listened as she shared that she had asked for permission to do this work and tell the story of her childhood to a therapist and to a small group of strangers. (In the Jewish faith, it is often frowned upon to talk negatively, in any way, about your parents or ancestors). Her Rabbi offered his support and blessing. He has seen her do her work and find increasing peace in her journey and knew that she was on a healing path.

He told her,

“You are familiar with the commandant to honor your father and your mother. I think one of the best ways to honor them is to tell the truth about your childhood experiences.”

We honor our fathers (and any of our parents) by telling the truth about what we feel. If you need permission to remember and celebrate in the way that best honors your experience, no matter what you feel or what you decide to do this Fathers Day, consider this your doctor’s note.