He opens the door for me into a bright room full of the sounds of espresso machines and people’s musical chatter. About halfway through our date, we usually lament the noise, swear that the coffee is too expensive and the baristas too pretentious. But it actually feels just right—unfamiliar and familiar, small and big. I am out on a date with my dad.
One of the most healing things I have done as an adult is to go out with my dad. These times of real conversation—sometimes over breakfast or lunch, but coffee dates, mostly—have helped me to know and appreciate who my father is as a person and to forgive him for the pain I experienced in our relationship when I was a child. Mostly, they have shown me that although my childhood perceptions of my parents were not wrong, they were not complete. Only the passing of time and being open to friendship with my dad could restore our understanding of and love for each other.
Dealing with father issues
Although my dad was around when I was a child, moments with him are blurry in my memory. He is not naturally a “kid person” and traveled for his job, so most of my memories of childhood are of my mom and older siblings. Earlier images of my dad, unfortunately, center around his correcting me for poor behavior. Because of these negative memories and a sense that my dad didn’t really care about me when I was young, I thought to myself and shared with others that I had father issues.
But from my friendships with other women over the years, I have realized that pretty much all of us have some sort of “daddy problem.” Even if we had dads who were interested in us as children, who made an effort to be present at home, who talked to us about boys and our interests, and so on, none of our fathers were or are perfect. Most of us are left unsatisfied by the first male figure in our lives—and our relationships with our mothers tend to be similar—because of a basic truth of life: no parent is perfect. No human is perfect. Those of us whose fathers have died or whose fathers were not a part of family life have an immensely deeper sense of lack.
Many people carry this pain and grief with them throughout their lives, whether it was caused willfully or was the result of a tragedy. At certain points in my adolescence, I despaired of ever feeling close to my dad. I desired to feel cared for and protected, but my heart was taken up with disappointment.
Understanding where our parents are coming from
With time, however, and a sincere and vulnerable effort, it’s possible for even these wounds of abandonment and missing male guidance to be healed. As we grow up, it can become easier to recognize our parents as equals—with their own shares of childhood pain, their own strengths, and weaknesses.
My dad gave me the gift of pursuing a relationship with me himself. For others, developing a friendship with their dads as adults will mean initiating this themselves. But once we befriend our fathers, we can begin to see what they were going through during our childhoods, the factors that led to their behavior, why they felt they needed to be constantly working, why they became so angry at our mistakes.
Around the time that I left for college and began to grow into adulthood, I began to recognize that my dad had his own problems with his father. I began to see his own experience of abandonment as a boy. It came into focus while we were watching Field of Dreams together. When Kevin Costner’s character watches a young, dark-haired baseball player walk slowly out of the cornfield, realizes it is his father, and the two play catch late into the night, my dad started to tear up. “My dad never played catch with me,” he said. It was then that I realized he was still grieving over a lost connection with his own father. It would be difficult for him to give to me what he did not receive himself.
A new beginning
But, somewhat miraculously, he has. After I left home for college and returned only periodically, he became increasingly intentional about going out with me for coffee. At first, I was uncomfortable with his interest, embarrassed by the attention he gave me as we sat across the table from each other. I didn’t know how to talk about the things I had always hoped to share with him. I struggled to receive his advice.
With each trip back home and each coffee date, it became easier to make conversation. And I realized that there was a lot to learn about him as well. Asking him questions—about himself, his struggles and joys, about marriage, about masculinity—all increased my understanding of him as a unique human being. My respect for him grew as I saw his attempts at growth and self-understanding. Over time, he had realized his shortcomings and their origins and chosen to be more present to his children, to reconcile those wounds, even if only in our adulthood.
We are both just people, doing what we can with what we have been given. He is still responsible for the ways he fell short as a father, but I am finding it easier to forgive him and love him in his shortcomings, just as I know that I will need forgiveness from my children one day. Without the honest conversations we have had on our coffee dates, I’m not sure that I would know and appreciate him as I do now. I wouldn’t know about his career, his difficulties with anxiety, his childhood, his life before meeting my mom, the surprising hardships of retirement. I wouldn’t know how much he actually cared for me those many years ago when he didn’t know how to express his love and I couldn’t see it.
I’m grateful for my own remarkable situation—to have a father who initiated our friendship after those years of disconnectedness. To women whose fathers are not in the picture, I will not pretend to truly understand your heartache; I can only encourage you to be open to a new understanding of those early years. For those of you whose fathers are still within reach, I’m sharing my story of hope—there might be more to your relationship with your dad than meets the eye.