Reflections is a series of essays embracing the power of introspection, taking on personal topics and rooting out what is just below the surface.
“I felt stupid for allowing myself to be disappointed so many times. So I stopped answering the few sporadic calls I’d receive each year, ignored the odd Facebook message and got on with my life for a long time.”
Just over 10 years ago, Frank Ocean released his debut mixtape, nostalgia ULTRA. I wouldn’t listen to the work in its entirety until a few years later, but nestled amongst the recognisable cult classics – the atmospheric Novacane, boppy Songs For Women and the final swan song that is Swim Good – is a less celebrated pop collab whose vulnerable verses spoke directly to my teenage years growing up without consistent contact from my dad.
Before Ocean slips effortlessly into the chorus (and yes I am a Frank stan), he sings: “My friend said it wasn’t so bad/You can’t miss what you ain’t had/Well, I can/I’m sad”.
The first time I heard those lyrics, I was engaged in the kind of passive listening that permits words to wash over you without recognition, a kind of hearing but not listening. I paused the track, wound it back and listened again. Without seeking out the explicit meaning, I understood instantly that this was a song about a father who wasn’t around. And I’ve stored those few, fleeting lines in my mind ever since, unintentionally wrapping them around the hole in my life that stood empty for nearly 8 years.
A little context for you: my parents separated when I was 6, and in erratic bursts of fervent enthusiasm followed by prolonged, unexplained silence, I would have contact with my Dad until I was about 17. I very distinctly remember walking down the steep steps of his shared flat on the final day I went to see him; upset again, and resolute that this was the end.
A sense of filial obligation and almost abstract pity steered me into these situations time and time again, and not only did I feel disappointed, I felt stupid for allowing myself to be disappointed so many times. So I stopped answering the few sporadic calls I’d receive each year, ignored the odd Facebook message and got on with my life for a long time.
When I think back to this period of my life, it only makes me sad. What started as a furious and stubborn bid for self-preservation grew into nothing more than subtraction, the taking away of something and then reckoning with what is left behind. It makes me most sad because I recognise that even without this period of no contact, I still can’t ever remember having a relationship with my Dad that was uninterrupted. The ten year span that preceded our “breakup” was fractured at best, and even though we were technically “in touch”, I can barely recall anything other than the milestones that were missed.
“It’s only now that I’m older … that I look back with a kind of living grief.”
Birthdays, Christmases, exams, prom, my first job, my first partner, trying and failing to learn how to drive, my second partner, my first home: I can’t say I actively missed his presence at the foothills of my life’s big moments because I’d grown up without its guarantee, and in the way children often do, I adapted. It’s only now that I’m older – and possibly because the conversation of whether I want to become a parent at some point is looming more relevantly in my consciousness – that I look back with a kind of living grief.
The missed milestones hurt less than the very ordinary events which made up the fabric of daily life. I remember some of age mates in high school talking about their family phone contracts, and me realising that we’d never be able to join one because there was only three of us. It was a nothing conversation, a stream of words rolling around Sony Ericssons and Blackberrys, but it was precisely in the midst of these otherwise safe exchanges that I’d be reminded of what was missing, and consequently what I’d miss.
I learned to either brace myself for the sting of certain topics or avoid them completely, like Father’s Day or the grand tradition of being walked down the aisle. And oftentimes the sting was steered by the quiet humiliation of being the odd one out, of everybody else in the group knowing I might feel awkward and that, in turn, making me feel nothing else.
“I wanted a Dad who would tell me off for being an hour late home, who would teach me how to park a car and impart a friendly warning to my prom date.”
I understand now that I was envious of my peers’ normality. I wanted a Dad who would tell me off for being an hour late home, who would teach me how to park a car and impart a friendly warning to my prom date. A Dad who would give me sensible advice about money and jobs and put up shelves for me while we listened to an amalgamated blend of our respective music tastes.
I wanted a very typical, run-of-the-mill, father-daughter relationship, and it’s here, the in germ of never knowing when Father’s Day was because I didn’t need to, that those Frank Ocean lines resonate with me most keenly. Because I’d never experienced a normality to miss, but I still recognised the outline of it and the expanse of absence that pooled within.
Writing about my relationship with my Dad is inherently difficult because it isn’t only my story to tell, and I respect his right as a person to privacy. I also love him, very much, because he’s my Dad, and even after all this time, I don’t want to upset him. I know the story from my side and for a very long time I’ve only ever seen our relationship through the lens of the vulnerable child.
“Having sat on this complex bundle of emotions for so much of my life, I want to grant myself the grace of acknowledging it.”
Now I’m a little older, and the haze of youth has lifted to reveal my parents as complex and flawed individuals rather than extensions of my own existence, I don’t blame him for not being around. I don’t have his lived experience but I know it hasn’t been an easy one, and I know, having inherited the sensitivity and fragility that he masks so deftly with humour, that his pain at having missed so much is a burden in itself to bear. I have no desire to punish him, and in a way I feel responsible for protecting him from himself, to make sure that he’s okay and staying afloat.
But equally, having sat on this complex bundle of emotions for so much of my life, I want to grant myself the grace of acknowledging it. Partly for selfish reasons, to squeeze it out like a toothbrush tube, but also because I know what it’s like to be estranged from your parent and to continue with blinkers because you rarely accept that you’re entitled to be hurt.
Being estranged from a parent isn’t a unique experience but the experience is always unique to you, and for anybody else existing in the limbo between not wanting to lose the relationship but not knowing how to fit someone into a life that grew without them: I see you. I’m still trying to figure it out too, one day at a time. Mistakes will continue to be made on both sides but I have to believe that at the middle of it all there’s something worth saving. At least I hope so, anyway.
Illustrated by Anna Jane Houghton, a Liverpool based researcher and artist. Drawing influence from the ‘motel’ aesthetic and beatnik literature; her illustrative style combines florals and fruit, amongst plant-life and mid-century interiors, to reimagine the classic still life.
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