Sins of the father: Making peace with my dad's anger
By TrishSammerJohnston on September 20, 2012
I recently read an article in The New York Times that blew my mind. It shed light on the often tumultuous relationship my dad had with his children -- and the relationship that I currently have with my children.
The article was about how environmental factors in fathers’ lives — nutrition, stress, chemical exposure, emotional trauma (whoa!) — can activate or de-activate genetic information in their offspring.
The kicker: These environmental exposures can happen long before child-bearing years and still affect offspring — for generations.
For example, if your dad or your grandfather was ever in a war zone, you might be overly sensitive to loud noises.
Got me thinking about my own family history and some traits that I’ve always associated with my dad — traits that I’m not exactly proud of.
What it means to me
My dad — born behind Polish lines during WWII — cried the entire first year of his life because he was malnourished. His oldest brother was blown up after coming across a grenade while out playing. His father (my grandfather) was missing for I don’t even know how long, because he was in a Russian prison camp.
The family moved to America when my dad was 7. They were still unbelievably poor. My dad got his ass kicked at school pretty often because he didn’t speak the language at all — and being German anywhere in the world on the heels of WWII wasn’t really cool. One time, in a story I’ve only ever heard bits and pieces of, he was pulverized to the point of near death. A classmate came along and saw what was happening and got help. My dad always said that man saved his life (although he didn’t say that to me, because I’ve only heard this story from other people — dad rarely told his stories to his daughters).
Dad was a volatile man. When he was in a good mood, he could be downright silly. But most of the time (at home anyway), he was a brooder. Quiet. Much of the time he was in his own world, a world I was never quite able to find.
He had little patience for the stupid questions kids ask. He had little patience for the antics of three daughters he didn’t understand. We confused him and he bore us in silence — until one of us pushed him too far. Until one of us challenged him on something or dared to argue a command.
Then he would explode. That booming voice would have me and my sisters running like we’d just set off a forgotten land mine.
To a small kid, it could be terrifying.
As I got older, I started to see these displays as a loss of control. I’d roll my eyes. Mouth off. Sometimes (I hate to admit) I’d even toy with him a bit — like poking a stick at a big dog behind a fence.
The other side
My mom certainly had her own traumas from her childhood. Dirt poor — as in, sometimes they didn’t even have indoor plumbing. She spent much of her teenage years caring for a dying father — a father who had abandoned the family when my mom small, only to return years later when his mistress refused to care for him after he became ill.
But mom somehow ended up the opposite of volatile. Steady. Calm. She yelled occasionally but it took a lot to set her off. When she did yell at me, I knew that I probably farking deserved it.
The sins of myself
Me? I’m a yeller.
I hate it.
Man, I try. I try to be patient. I start off that way.
But my daughter, especially, knows how to push my buttons. She’s relentless when she thinks I’m wrong about something — which is often. She’s stubborn. She says all the things that make me NUTS. It probably doesn’t help that she’s a lot like her father and that sometimes arguing with her feels like arguing with him. (Yes, I clearly need therapy to work on that issue. Believe me, I know.)
I can only take so much. Then I BLOW.
I yell. I haul out my soapbox. I take the situation and apply larger life lessons to it (“If that’s how you’re going to act, you’re going to make a pretty hard life for yourself!”).
Certainly, these are all the things a parent isn’t supposed to do.
I’m reading the wrong handbook here. And I know it.
I see it coming. I see that switch get flipped and even as I feel it clicking into place I’m aware of what’s happening.
I sound just like my father, all the time wishing I sounded just like my mother.
Now, perhaps, I can be a little kinder to myself about it.
Dad grew up in a world where death and unbelievable trauma weren’t abstract concepts. They were as real and as close as the box of Rice Krispies sitting casually on my kitchen table. Little mistakes — such as picking up the wrong thing while you were out playing — could get you killed. There probably wasn’t much room for trivialities in his life.
Parenting in middle-class, peaceful America confounded him. He used the tools he had to deal with it. I always say, and I still believe, that he did the best he knew how to do at the time.
Parenting confounds me too sometimes.
But I can try to do better. Understanding why I am the way I am might help. Maybe I can remind myself that my dad’s traumas aren’t my traumas — even if my genes are firing off that something is a Really Big Deal. Maybe I can try to learn how to make my own switch a little harder to flip.
After all, no one is dying here. No one is starving.
Dad left us a complicated legacy. I may spend the rest of my life trying to figure it out.
He was my father, the only one I’ll ever have. I may never totally understand him, but I will always have a fierce love for the man, despite the flaws and tears in our relationship.
I know he loves me too. Still.