Couples, Fatherhood, Mothers

Tips for Supporting a Spouse Whose Parent has Passed Away

funeral“I still feel betrayed that he wasn’t there for me when my mother died. I really needed him, and he abandoned me. I don’t know if I can forget that.” My client was explaining why she felt so disconnected from her husband. She acknowledged that they had created a pattern of increasing emotional distance throughout their marriage, but when her mother died and she really needed his support, he stayed emotionally distant. She felt more alone. “I mean, if he can’t even comfort me when I just lost my mother, why am I even married?”

Losing a parent to death is one of the most common loss transitions people experience, which is partly why it is often minimized by a spouse or the population at large. Though common, the loss still engenders increased risk for substance use, and various physical and mental health challenges. Because the marital relationship is so proximal to the intergenerational relationship, the marriage is almost always somehow impacted by the death of a parent.

The good news is that a marital relationship is an ideal context for a partner to support another during this difficult time, and is an opportunity for deepened emotional responsiveness and bonding.

However, it’s not uncommon for me to hear a spouse identify a parent’s death as a time point at which he/she felt abandoned and unsupported by a spouse. In my experience, this usually happens because the marriage is already distressed and disconnected to begin with, or the spouse doesn’t know how to help and can be confused by the intensity of emotion or feel helpless about how to be supportive.

Losing a parent commonly creates a time of high emotional need. The emotional need may be exacerbated by collateral stressors, such as caring for a remaining parent or dealing with a parent’s estate.

The high emotional need combined with a partner’s confusion about how to help can turn into withdrawal, which can leave the bereaved spouse feeling alone. It’s the perfect storm for an attachment injury, in which a spouse expects a partner to be supportive, but feels betrayed by absence or seeming nonchalance. The withdrawal is not always intentional but may be a PERCEIVED lack of support simply because the support partner is clueless about how intense the emotional need is. Bereaved partners aren’t always clear and explicit in their needs. In these events, a parent’s death can directly generate marital strain. The result may be diminished trust and marital quality.

In short, the death of a parent can elicit responses that either facilitate stronger emotional connection or trigger disappointment in empathic support.

If you haven’t lost a parent, you may not realize how devastating it can feel.

 I lost my mother very unexpectedly almost a decade ago. I was unprepared for the emotional upheaval. Even though I was in my early 40’s and knew my parents were aging, the stroke which led to her death took me completely by surprise. Sure, she had some health problems, but she looked great for her age, kept weight off easier than I did, and her mother had lived to age 90 with seemingly worse health issues. Besides that, my mother was fairly feisty—the type that you imagine putting up a fight with death, which in a way I guess she did via her 6-week coma.

I took it hard. The world felt dark. Everywhere I went, I would think, “How can these people just carry on normally when my world has fallen apart?” I felt sick. My mother was my most important support person next to my husband. I talked to her on the phone frequently. After she died, I kept reaching for the phone to process my emotional pain with the person with whom I usually processed it, only to realize she wasn’t there, sending me into another crying jag. Then, I would hear her pragmatic voice ringing in my head, “Well, don’t cry about it—you’re just going to give yourself a headache.” I really felt like I had nowhere to turn. My husband was as supportive as a husband could be, but he wasn’t my mom. Research indicates that an adult daughter losing a mother is often the most devastating loss when it comes to adults losing parents; of course, this would be expectedly moderated by the relationship quality of the parent/child relationship.

I had never experienced that combination of emotions before. It was any loss I ever had on steroids, and in fact, it seemed as if the loss rubbed the raw spots of any previous significant losses, so my sadness exponentially increased.

I had these textbook reactions for months:

  1. Disorientation and confusion. I felt scattered, like I couldn’t make sense out of anything. I kept feeling like I was in a dream. I had incoherent thoughts.
  2. Inability to focus. This was so interesting to me because I’m a pianist and an organist—I know how to achieve singular focus; but, my thoughts just raced and I was unusually distractible.
  3. Intense sadness and teariness, which could be triggered at any time.
  4. Depression and social withdrawal. I had no desire to do anything. I had to drag myself to work and hosting play group at my house when it was my turn felt—HARD.
  5. Fatigue. With the depression was a physical AND mental fatigue.
  6. Heaviness. Some people might think this should go with depression and/or fatigue, but it was different—I just felt smothering physical heaviness and emotional heaviness.
  7. Guilt and regret. In my case, I felt terrible because I didn’t talk to my mom on the phone right after she had a stroke before she slipped into a coma, because I thought the doctors would fix it since she got to the hospital early. I didn’t want to bug her until she felt better. Except, she slid into her coma and never came back. People self-flagellate over what they “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” done.
  8. Anger. This was also surprising because I usually feel collaborative with physicians and could reason myself through emotions. I was angry at the doctors who prescribed a medication that facilitated her death; I felt uncommon rage in the hospital when the neurosurgeon seemed cold and cavalier. I can’t remember wanting to punch someone in the face before. I knew it was irrational; I knew he was just doing his job and that we were just one more family with someone in a coma, but it felt cruel to me that to him we were just another number, and his explanation for the likely outcome was so callous and emotionless. I felt dismissed and unseen and insignificant. I said nothing, but I smoldered inside. I mentally rehearsed what I wanted to say, which was, “With some of the money you’re making profiting from my lifetime tragedy, why don’t you register for a course on gaining some #$%#@ compassion, you arrogant, insensitive #$%@?!” (Sorry if that sounds harsh, but that’s how strong the emotions were).
  9. Physical pain in my chest. I felt like an elephant was standing on my chest, making it hard for me to breathe. I would try to run and end up walking because I couldn’t get enough air—and I was a runner, so this was unusual. I can remember struggling to take deep breaths, like when I was 9 months pregnant.
  10. Loss of appetite. I had to force myself to eat. I had no appetite for months.
  11. Sleep disruption. I had difficulty with ruminating when I went to bed at night.

Most of my clients have reported experiencing some or all of these reactions. I don’t generally love using the stages of grief as a guideline for grieving because it’s so unpredictable. People expect grieving to follow a linear path through the stages when grief is actually complex and unique to each individual, so it can look like anything. At times, partners using these grief stages as a guideline ineffectively judge their spouses for not grieving in the “expected” pattern.

Things for non-bereaved spouses to understand are:

  1. Intense and shifting emotions are the norm. As described above, people routinely have an unprecedented mixture of emotions, varying in intensity.
  2. Pain. Pain. Pain. I felt diffuse pain emotionally and physically. The only relief I could get was when I was working or running. I started running for 2-3 hours a day, because running pain felt better than grieving pain. I lost so much weight that people started asking if I was sick or had cancer.
  3. Triggers can be anywhere at any time. I remember bursting into tears while cleaning out my daughter’s closet and finding a blessing dress my mother made using leftover fabric from making my wedding dress. Ditto on the Halloween costumes she had sewn for her and sweaters she had knit for me.
  4. Holidays and seasons can be especially hard. My mom descended into a coma on Easter and was buried the day before Mother’s Day. Every year, those holidays are laced with the pain of her highlighted absence.
  5. The living but bereaved parent may also be less accessible. My father, a man I had never seen depressed, became a shell of himself. I would call him to talk and hang up and cry to my husband, “That’s not my father. I’ve lost them both. Both my parents are gone.” He just wanted to be with her and was trying to cope himself.
  6. Parents usually fill a unique role that can’t be replaced by another individual. Research shows that a daughter losing a mother can be particularly painful. I only had one mother, and no one else filled that role, including my beloved father.
  7. The loss can trigger other loss issues. It seemed like every relational or personal loss of mine came bubbling to the surface. I had a chain reaction of grief-related memories, catapulting me deeper into despair. The best way to explain it is that I felt like I was drowning in a sea of grief and had no way to come up for air.
  8. Fear and anxiety can increase. In essence, the world can feel like a scarier place with more uncertainty. Security is diminished.
  9. If the relationship was strained, grief can be more complex and difficult. After my mom died, I attended a training with marriage expert, John Gottman, who explained that he was crying after his father’s death and his friend said, “My father died and I didn’t shed a tear.” His point was that crying is one sign that the relationship was cherished, and if the relationship is damaged, grieving is more challenging.
  10. The relationship with the living parent may change. This can heighten unpredictability.
  11. The loss can elicit new feelings about one’s mortality and life’s meaning. This change may affect behaviors.
  12. If the loss is the second of two parents, feelings of loneliness can be unprecedented. I don’t know how to explain the feeling when my father also died because I hadn’t experienced it before, but it was definitely tinged with existential dread and an awareness that the only two people who really loved me unconditionally were gone.
  13. Positive events can have triggers. Any time something good happened in my life, like my son going to India on a church mission, a son giving the valedictory address at graduation, a son being the all-state musician in his category, a son gaining admittance to dental school, my PhD graduation, etc. those events were all negatively colored with the sadness of my parents’ absences. Any time something good happened to me, I would think, “The only two people who might really care about this are gone, so who cares?”
  14. Gender can have an impact. Fathers and mothers often serve separate functions and can impact different gendered children in different ways.
  15. Wives may be more emotionally responsive to husbands than vice versa and wives more frequently turn to others for support. In other words, husbands can usually get support from spouses, but wives often don’t, creating emotional injury in the marriage.
  16. Everyone experiences loss differently. Don’t have expectations nor compare. EVER.
  17. A spouse who hasn’t lost parents to death or who experienced grieving differently may be very confused (and scared) at how deep the emotions can be for the bereaved.
  18. If a parent died unexpectedly, it can be experienced more intensely than a situation in which the death was expected or unsurprising. I felt far worse when my mom died unexpectedly than when I knew my father had 9 days to live, even though that was still painful. I could plan and prepare.
  19. It’s a myth that grieving ends. Most of the time, grieving decreases in intensity over time but doesn’t disappear completely. There can be lifetime sporadic triggers. 
  20. In general, the world at large doesn’t support grieving people. The repeated message is, “Stop doing that around me–you’re making me uncomfortable.” That’s another reason it’s so important to have a spouse’s support.

How to help—what does empathic support look like?

  1. Focus on comfort, not on fixing it. Just being with a partner matters, and comfort doesn’t require words.
  2. Reassure your spouse that you are there for them REPEATEDLY for as long as they need.
  3. Share your own positive memories about your spouse’s parent. My husband’s favorite memory of my mom was watching her march out to the street (all 110 pounds of her) to singlehandedly take on a construction crew for the way they were managing the project just beyond her driveway. His laughing about it cheered me momentarily. He continually brought up positive memories of her, which felt validating, like he was on my team.
  4. Ask your spouse about their favorite memories and what they learned from the deceased parent.
  5. Ask your spouse how they would like to honor the parent’s memory.
  6. Be aware that if you haven’t lost a parent, it is likely that you are underestimating the loss. As supportive as my own husband is, I still don’t think he has a clue what it feels like to lose a parent.
  7. Expect repetition. Your spouse may need to talk about the same things over and over to gain new meaning and integrate the loss.
  8. Suggest and support grieving rituals. Small, predictable ways to honor a deceased parent can be helpful–visiting gravesites, having a certain time of the day to share memories–really anything with predictable space for expressing grief.

What does empathic support NOT look like?

  1. Avoidance. Some partners keep their distance from the emotions.
  2. Walking away from tears or strong expressions of sadness.
  3. Preaching doctrines of the after-life to discourage grief. Even if I believed that my parents existed beyond mortality, I still missed their presence and felt the absence palpably.
  4. Criticizing your partner for not grieving fast enough or for not being functional fast enough, like “Everyone goes through this—shouldn’t you be feeling better by now?”
  5. Minimizing or telling your partner why he/she shouldn’t be that upset, like “You didn’t even get along with your dad most of the time. Why are you so upset?”
  6. Comparing, like, “I wasn’t this upset when my mom died, what is wrong with you?” Every loss is different.
  7. Getting angry or frustrated that a spouse is having a grieving episode AGAIN.

Over all, supporting a spouse whose parent has passed away can be a way to achieve more emotional security in a marriage. In fact, with the death of parents comes the opportunity to attach more enduringly to a spouse.

The last conversation I had with my father was one in which I believe he intentionally turned me toward my husband. My father knew I had a mercurial tendency toward brooding and discontent. “What am I going to do without you, dad?” I sobbed. The last thing he said to me was, “I want you to remember that you have everything you need to be happy. You have a husband who loves you. You have a beautiful family. Be happy. You’re so beautiful when you smile.” Hearing those last six words, which he had repeated to me hundreds of times in my lifetime, made me cry harder. Even as I read this, the memory is bringing up tears. I have tried so hard to be more appreciative of my relationships, which can be one way of honoring my father’s legacy.

When I’m flooded with this now familiar sadness, I can approach my husband with a quaking voice, “I miss my dad,” and my husband will give me a hug and say, “I’m sorry, honey. I miss your dad, too. He was a uniquely great man.” He’ll be responsive even though I’ve approached him a myriad of times.

And that kind of predictability in comfort is how it’s done.

References:

The Dance of Closeness-Distance in Couple Relationships After the Death of a Parent (2006) by Rosenblatt, P. C. & Barner, J. R. in Omega, 53(4), 277-293.

The Influence of Intergenerational Relationships on Marital Quality Following the Death of a Parent in Adulthood (2014) by Stokes, J. E. in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(1), 3-22.

Photo credit: Copyright: kzenon / 123RF Stock Photo

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Family, Fatherhood

Lessons my Father Taught Me (That I Wish I had Learned Better)

daddy

As a mother of five sons, I am troubled by the trend to disparage fathers’ roles in the family and to treat men as dispensable.  Some of the most important lessons that were modeled for me came from my father.  I can say the same about my mother, but despite the fact that my father was extremely busy running a business and serving for most of my life in an unpaid ecclesiastical position at church as well as participating in community organizations, he had a profound influence on me.  My feelings about my dad may be viewed by many as exaggerations, but my husband can vouch for the veracity of my sentiments.  Ever since we were engaged, he frequently remarked, “There are very few men like your dad.  He is awesome.”  I agree.  Now that he is gone, there is so much that I miss, but his memory definitely lives on.  He taught me:

  1. Practice Discipline.  My father was a paragon of discipline.  I could set my watch by my dad arising at 5:30 a.m. every day to get ready for work and coming home at 6:30 p.m. every night before leaving to volunteer in church service.  On Saturday, he still arose at 5:30 and worked until 12:30 that afternoon.  He was entirely reliable and predictable.
  2. Things don’t buy happiness. Even though he could have afforded to purchase more material possessions, trips and leisure for himself, he did not.  He once said that one of his goals in life was to, “make as much money as I can and not spend it on myself.”  That’s exactly what he did.  He helped family members in need frequently, but he was never the first person to buy the latest technology and he was entirely modest in his appearance, and thought buying things to impress others or “keep up with the Joneses,” was “foolishness.”
  3. You can be happy even if bad things happen to you. I never knew my paternal grandparents because my grandmother died when my father was 14 and his father was murdered by a Los Angeles street gang when he was around 30.  It was a case that made the front page of the L.A. Times when it occurred, as well as coverage of the trial in which the murderers were freed instead of being held accountable for their actions.  My father never mentioned this to me, but after my mother told me when I was a teenager, and I asked my father how he kept from being bitter, he said, “It was very difficult, but you can make a choice about your future despite what happens to you in the past.”  He had no patience for a victim mentality.  He came home every night from work smiling and as he entered the house, shouted, “Is everybody happy?”  (see previous blog post https://drlorischade.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/tribute-to-my-dad/)  His happiness was contagious.
  4. The best things in life are the simple things. Even though we lived 20 minutes from the nearest beach, I spent far more time with my father in the mountains.  Every year we took a 2-3 week vacation visiting national parks, and my father made it magical.  He would invite me on hikes to go “exploring,” and our family was often the only one in the freezing swimming holes in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  My father would jump in first and start barking like a seal, in reference to the cold water, and we would follow his lead until our bodies were red and numb.  He made pineapple upside cake in the Dutch oven and played his harmonica while he was driving.  As we drove long distances, he made up stories for us.  One of his ongoing themes was that he was half Navajo, and he spun sagas about his days growing up on the reservation (he had grown up near Native American reservations in the shadow of Mt. Graham in Arizona).  While we hiked, he remarked that if I wanted to be a good Navajo, I would make far less noise so as not to upset the animals.  When teaching me to build a fire, he remarked that a Navajo would wisely build a fire which smoldered without large flames so you could get close to it to be warm, but that the “foolish white man,” builds a large fire which you can’t get close to without risk of injury.  Because my father had dark hair, I completely believed that he was half Navajo, which absolutely thrilled me.  I was so disappointed when I found out at age 10 that I really wasn’t part Navajo.
  5. Reach out to people. This one is hard for me.  I’m an introvert by nature.  My father, however, made people feel important wherever we went.  If we were being waited on in a store or restaurant, he would enthusiastically ask the service personnel how their days were going, and he was genuinely concerned about their welfare.  In California, we had neighbors representing various ethnicities and religions, and he frequently took our Jewish, Egyptian, and Asian neighbors, etc., bags of citrus fruit from our trees or vegetables from our garden.  He introduced himself to new neighbors and came home telling us about them—not just to be nice, but because he was truly interested in others.
  6. You can’t control other people. My father wasn’t afraid to dispense advice, but he also recognized that people need to carve out their own lives.  When I said I wanted to get married, he was less than thrilled, but he said it was my choice.  The night before my wedding, he counseled, “I just want you to be happy.  I want you to know that even though the invitations are out, you can still change your mind.”  Even though he ended up loving my husband and often remarked that, “Your husband loves you as much as anyone I’ve ever seen love his wife,” he had genuine concerns about my age at marriage, but was supportive.  When I said I wanted to be a therapist, he was confused about why I would choose that instead of computer science, but again, supported me.
  7. Anger should be used sparingly. For the most part, my father was a thermostat.  He raised his voice rarely, and was direct but calm in his communication.  I remember one time in particular in which he was expressing a concern he had about me, and I reacted with typical adolescent defensiveness, and I wasn’t nice about it.  He stayed very calm, and looked me in the eye and said, “Lori, you are not being honest with yourself.”  I knew he was right, and I had no response.  His incisive observations, followed up occasionally with, “I’m very disappointed,” earned more of my respect than if he had been harsh.
  8. Work and productivity are valuable. My father was a very hard worker.  After working all week and part of Saturday, instead of using his time in leisure, except for the occasional golf match, he routinely came home and we worked alongside him.  He scrubbed our kitchen floor because he knew it hurt my mother’s back.  He grafted fruit trees and tended them to grow various citrus fruits and avocados.  He planted a large vegetable garden which yielded frequent dinners entirely composed of the seasonal harvest, and he took great pleasure in eating one of his homegrown tangerines or tomatoes…and the thing is, for lack of leisure time, I remember my dad as being very energetic and fun.
  9. Women are just as valuable as men. For my whole life, my father encouraged scholastic achievement, because he saw education as “your best insurance policy.”  He talked to me frequently about the importance of being educated.  Being pragmatic, he was not as encouraging of the arts as he was of math and science, but he took a lot of interest in me and I never felt like a second-class citizen because of my gender.  He loved and respected my mother a great deal, and intervened if we were sassy toward her.  He did chores around the house to make her life easier and was sensitive to her ongoing back pain.  In turn, I knew my mother thought my father was amazing and she admired and respected him.
  10. Do what makes sense. In the world today, this seems somewhat controversial, but my father was a practical man.  When I was taking both piano and gymnastics/dance lessons he pointed our regularly that, “By the time you’re 30, you’re not likely to be putting on a dance recital or doing back flips, but you will be able to play the piano into your old age.”  He said this whenever I wanted to quit piano lessons because it wasn’t nearly as fun as dance and gymnastics (mastering the piano is much harder than most people who haven’t done it think it is).  However, I was never ever required to learn the piano–it was my choice.  I puzzle over parents who try to force their children to learn musical instruments, which often robs the process of independence and fun.  I owe my proficiency on the piano and organ almost entirely to my father’s encouragement without coercion.
  11. Don’t take yourself too seriously. My dad was funny without being mean-spirited and without drawing a lot of attention to himself.  He had a quick wit and was just basically pleasant to be around most of the time.  I still marvel that after running a sizeable business in L.A. and San Francisco, volunteering his time in the leadership of his professional organization, and volunteering LOTS of time in our church, he was as engaged and fun as he was.  I honestly don’t know how he did it.

This is a small snapshot.  My father made me feel like the luckiest girl in daddy-dom.  I truly wish I were more like him.  I asked my husband to read it and see if I left anything out, and in his words, “You could add that his life reflected that true joy comes from loving God and family first—and then, maybe work, country and USC football (his alma mater).”  He was the king of balance, and somehow managed to leave a legacy of work success and fun.  I know nobody’s perfect, but I am 100% convinced my dad was as close as one can get.  I’m still hoping someday more of his training will stick.

Family, Fatherhood

Tribute to my Dad

mom's flowers

This is the anniversary of my dad passing away.  I can’t overstate what a wonderful dad I think I had.  He was full of integrity, I never heard him use a four-letter word, he had a lot of interest in preparing me for the future and communicated with me often about it, and he told me constantly that I was amazing and could do anything I wanted.  He had a great sense of humor and he was truly brilliant.  While I was growing up, I remember feeling sorry for everyone else who didn’t have my dad.  I wrote this story of one of my favorite memories a few years ago for a magazine and posted it last year.  I’m reposting as a tribute:

My garage door provided a predominant fanfare of my childhood, announcing my father’s spirited nightly arrival home from work in predictable fashion.  It was a rather ordinary door:  wooden slats painted white, visible with years of wear and tear, paint chipping from slightly warped slabs.

Tortured groans echoed from its springs in protest any time someone entered its dark quarters. Though loud and often obnoxious, the sounds emanating from any garage door quickly becomes a backdrop, unnoticed by household members distracted by incessant demands of daily living.

However, the sound of a garage door rising on its lift mechanism triggers physical warmth swelling up inside me.  It starts in my stomach and spreads upward, manifesting in a quiet smile on my lips, likely undetectable to others; every single time.

I smile and I think of my father, who passed away two years ago, leaving me grieving but also with a substantial sense of feeling loved and with the confidence to believe that I could accomplish anything I chose to pursue.  I still feel a unique comfort deep inside when anyone in my home pushes the garage door button, transporting me immediately to my 1970’s kitchen from decades ago when I was 6 years old.

Anyone with listening ears could hear our loud door from virtually any room in the house.  Like clockwork every evening, as my mother cooked dinner, signaling my dad’s imminent arrival, I listened carefully in anticipation of the appointed time, waiting for the garage door to trumpet his homecoming.

As if on command, the instant the sound reached my ears, I ran screaming through the house, and positioned myself with spring-loaded action, preparing to use my gymnast legs to hurl myself into my father’s arms.  Breathless from screaming, “Daddy’s home, daddy’s home, DADDY’S HOME,” I lurked behind the door from the laundry room, listening for his nearing footsteps in order to time my launch accurately.

The instant he stepped through the door, I leapt up, simultaneous with his lifting me toward him in one well-choreographed motion, entwining my arms around his neck.  This was all prelude to his nightly query, delivered in his typical energetic style, as it had been the night before and the night before that and every night before that.  “Is EEVERYBODY HAPPY??!!!!” he shouted, drawing out the first syllable as if to coax any reluctant bystanders into his exuberant mood.  Walking toward my mother at the stove to kiss her cheek, his contagious tone sparked a smile on her face.  It was pure magic.  “YES, YES, YES, I’m happy!!!!!”  I would shout, and giggle as he rubbed his burnt toast cheeks on my face and commented on my scratchy five o’clock shadow, eliciting more laughter.

When my father died, my brother spoke at his funeral.  One of the first things he mentioned was that my dad woke us up daily by vigorously singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” somewhat intrusively for the early hour, and that he returned nightly from long days at work running his own company to announce his arrivals with a zesty, “Is everybody happy?”  In fact, all six of us children had the same endearing memory of our father’s nightly entrance and enthusiastic inquiry.   If you weren’t happy before he arrived, then you certainly were after he swept into the room with suggestive elation.  The predictable arrival ritual generated similar feelings of safety and warmth and unconditional love in all of us.

Now that I am a mother of seven and fully appreciate the fatigue that accompanies long days, I am even more grateful for what must have been a sacrifice on his part.  I realize that, tired or not, it was important to him to contribute an encouraging influence in the household when he came home.  It worked.  Those three words became a powerful utterance reaching us beyond his mortal absence.  He successfully created a solid positive energy that is woven into our lives, demonstrating a father’s ability to influence his children despite working outside the home in a demanding career.

Now, when my husband wants to cheer me up, he walks through the door, and attempting to imitate my father’s intonations, bellows, “Is EEVERYBODY HAPPY?!!!”

And every single time……I feel like, in life and in love, I have arrived.

Family, Fatherhood, Marriage and Family Therapy

The Best Message a Father can Give his Daughter

daddy-daughter (2)
Photo courtesy of Gray Wren Photography, http://www.graywrenphotography.com

I can recall a particular moment in my adolescent years like it was yesterday.  I couldn’t wait for my dad to come home so I could tell him that I had won some kind of designation in my junior high school yearbook based on my appearance (save the commentary, people…I got plenty of feedback from the clique of mean girls, walking behind me, whispering just loud enough for me to hear, “She’s not even that cute….”).  It was one of those strange American public school traditions that should probably be banned, and hopefully is by now.  No one was more surprised than I.

I thought my dad would be happy.  When I told him, his lips went tight and he looked more concerned than pleased.  I remember asking, “What’s wrong, dad?  Don’t you think I’m pretty?”  He said, “Of course I think you’re pretty.  I just really want you to understand that your appearance is not the important part of who you are.”

He proceeded to explain that the world was going to constantly send me messages that my appearance would be what mattered, but that it was in fact transitory.  I remember him saying, “You have a sound intellect.  You need to develop your mind and your character.  Those are the things that matter.”

As I proceeded through high school, he took a great deal of interest in my academic endeavors.   He was delighted when I decided to take an AP Computer Programming class at the neighboring high school, but somewhat lukewarm about the cheerleading outfit I brought home.  He had what I decided was an unhealthy interest in my math grade.  He constantly emphasized education and called it my “best insurance policy.”  By the time I was ready to leave home, I really did believe internally that the best part of me was not my appearance, despite the cacophony of messages to the contrary.

We live in an incredibly toxic culture as women.  We need more dads who are actively counter culture.  We need louder messages that, “Your appearance is not the important part of who you are.”

I am really saddened by the amount of women continually surgically altering their appearances to meet a certain standard, and to fight natural aging processes.  There is so much time and energy, not to mention self-hatred and anxiety that accompanies these endeavors.  Even though I understand it, I am still sad, and worry about the next female generation.  I am always trying to be cognizant about the messages I might be sending to my daughters.

The proliferation of pornography in the last few decades has further increased female anxiety over appearance.  I have lost count of how many women I have had sitting in front of me expressing self-loathing because they feel that they cannot match up to the images on the screen, which also distances them further from their spouses.  Here is a typical exchange…..

Woman (despairingly):  I can’t compete with the images my husband has been looking at on the computer.  I can’t be enough.

Me (therapist):  The women in the images aren’t enough either…..that’s why men look at more than one image. Who are you besides your appearance?  What is your value besides how you look?

Too many women are struggling to answer these questions.

There are two potential benefits to this conversation.  The first is the facilitation of identity development independent of appearance.  I really want women to learn to manage toxic cultural messages by realizing in fact that they are multi-dimensional and as such can continually develop more meaningful qualities.  Secondly, if a woman can identify a broader identity, and her husband really is in recovery and is not actively viewing porn, he can voice to his wife what he respects about her besides just her appearance, and can affirm that as a three-dimensional relationship partner, really connecting with her is superior to the pseudo-connection of a screen, and she might be able to start healing.  Again, this only happens if a husband really is in recovery, and if the marriage feels safe enough to disclose those types of feelings.

A great way to identify aspects of self that matter outside of appearance is to think in terms of relationship context.  I often ask women, “What kind of mother, sister, grandmother or neighbor, etc. do you want to be?”  My Swedish grandmother was widowed at a relatively young age, but she made herself relevant by driving most of her widowed friends to their doctor’s appointments and visiting them often.  She had a profound influence on me through her kindness and service.

I attended an eating disorder conference a few years ago, and was extremely impressed with one of the presenters, Cynthia Bulik, who authored a book entitled, The Woman in the Mirror: Stop Confusing What you Look Like with Who You Are.  She spoke about the nature of body image problems with women across the life cycle, from early childhood to late adulthood.  Something she said stuck with me.  She pointed out that with so many unhealthy socially transmitted messages about image and who we are, the question shouldn’t be, “Why are so many women developing eating disorders?” but “Why are so many women NOT developing eating disorders?”  She proceeded to describe the necessity of identifying the moderating agents which prevent women from falling prey to the toxic culture.  This implies hope that we can mitigate the contaminating broad cultural messages.  In large part, I think it starts at home.

Women, if you really want your daughter to grow up believing that she is more than her appearance, I propose that you really need to believe it for yourself.  That’s why it’s so important to have a solid identity.  Including fathers in the dialogue is imperative.  I have a conviction that one of the most powerful messages a father can give his daughter out loud and often is that she is more than her appearance.  I believe it will make a difference.

For more information on Dr. Bulik’s work, visit www.cynthiabulik.com

Family, Fatherhood, Marriage and Family Therapy

Arrivals: Is Everybody Happy?

mom's flowers
A photo of my mom’s beautiful flowers

This month is the third year anniversary of my father dying.  I miss him and my mom.  A lot. My parents created a lot of safety in predictable rituals.  This is a story I wrote a year ago that was published in an edition of http://seeingtheeveryday.com/  , a publication which I adore, which centers around prosaic family process.  I think this story shows how much influence dads can have through simple means:

My garage door provided a predominant fanfare of my childhood, announcing my father’s spirited nightly arrival home from work in predictable fashion.  It was a rather ordinary door:  wooden slats painted white, visible with years of wear and tear, paint chipping from slightly warped slabs.

Tortured groans echoed from its springs in protest any time someone entered its dark quarters. Though loud and often obnoxious, the sounds emanating from any garage door quickly becomes a backdrop, unnoticed by household members distracted by incessant demands of daily living.

However, the sound of a garage door rising on its lift mechanism triggers physical warmth swelling up inside me.  It starts in my stomach and spreads upward, manifesting in a quiet smile on my lips, likely undetectable to others; every single time.

I smile and I think of my father, who passed away two years ago, leaving me grieving but also with a substantial sense of feeling loved and with the confidence to believe that I could accomplish anything I chose to pursue.  I still feel a unique comfort deep inside when anyone in my home pushes the garage door button, transporting me immediately to my 1970’s kitchen from decades ago when I was 6 years old.

Anyone with listening ears could hear our loud door from virtually any room in the house.  Like clockwork every evening, as my mother cooked dinner, signaling my dad’s imminent arrival, I listened carefully in anticipation of the appointed time, waiting for the garage door to trumpet his homecoming.

As if on command, the instant the sound reached my ears, I ran screaming through the house, and positioned myself with spring-loaded action, preparing to use my gymnast legs to hurl myself into my father’s arms.  Breathless from screaming, “Daddy’s home, daddy’s home, DADDY’S HOME,” I lurked behind the door from the laundry room, listening for his nearing footsteps in order to time my launch accurately.

The instant he stepped through the door, I leapt up, simultaneous with his lifting me toward him in one well-choreographed motion, entwining my arms around his neck.  This was all prelude to his nightly query, delivered in his typical energetic style, as it had been the night before and the night before that and every night before that.  “Is EEVERYBODY HAPPY??!!!!” he shouted, drawing out the first syllable as if to coax any reluctant bystanders into his exuberant mood.  Walking toward my mother at the stove to kiss her cheek, his contagious tone sparked a smile on her face.  It was pure magic.  “YES, YES, YES, I’m happy!!!!!”  I would shout, and giggle as he rubbed his burnt toast cheeks on my face and commented on my scratchy five o’clock shadow, eliciting more laughter.

When my father died, my brother spoke at his funeral.  One of the first things he mentioned was that my dad woke us up daily by vigorously singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” somewhat intrusively for the early hour, and that he returned nightly from long days at work running his own company to announce his arrivals with a zesty, “Is everybody happy?”  In fact, all six of us children had the same endearing memory of our father’s nightly entrance and enthusiastic inquiry.   If you weren’t happy before he arrived, then you certainly were after he swept into the room with suggestive elation.  The predictable arrival ritual generated similar feelings of safety and warmth and unconditional love in all of us.

Now that I am a mother of seven and fully appreciate the fatigue that accompanies long days, I am even more grateful for what must have been a sacrifice on his part.  I realize that, tired or not, it was important to him to contribute an encouraging influence in the household when he came home.  It worked.  Those three words became a powerful utterance reaching us beyond his mortal absence.  He successfully created a solid positive energy that is woven into our lives, demonstrating a father’s ability to influence his children despite working outside the home in a demanding career.

Now, when my husband wants to cheer me up, he walks through the door, and attempting to imitate my father’s intonations, bellows, “Is EEVERYBODY HAPPY?!!!”

And every single time……I feel like, in life and in love, I have arrived.