As a parent, it is very hard to watch one of your children struggle. You want to somehow fix whatever they are struggling with. While some struggles are good for children to experience and build character, other struggles can feel unnecessary and pull at your heart strings. It is especially hard to watch your child struggle when that struggle is with the relationship with their own dad.
My oldest had a difficult relationship with his dad long before his father and I separated. In fact, I’d say that their relationship began to strain around the time my oldest turned four. I can remember constantly warning my husband that he was going to ruin his relationship with our oldest from early on. He would expect too much of our oldest at an early age, far more than he was developmentally able to handle. My ex expected our son to somehow, be more mature and take on more responsibility because he was the older brother, even though he was only two when he first became an older brother. He was always harsher with our oldest and it was obvious to many who observed them together. It didn’t help that our oldest had behavioral issues and was a lot like his dad.
As my son got older, the relationship between him and his father became more strained. His dad could be very mean to him, yelled at him a lot, and on occasion, would get physically rough with our oldest. When our oldest was about 8 years old, he asked me to write a note to his dad to tell him that he was scared of him. My then husband had a lot of his own issues that spilled over into his relationship with our oldest, who took the brunt of his father’s anger and frustration.
After his dad left the house, my oldest seemed to be more relaxed at home and happy. One day, as we were cleaning out the car, prompted by something my son’s therapist said, I asked my oldest how he felt about his dad not living with us anymore. What my oldest son told me broke my heart in so many ways. He told me that he liked it better because everyone seemed happier and there was less fighting in general in the house. He said that he didn’t really miss his dad because he never really had a good relationship with him and that he really wanted a new, different dad, one who loved him and accepted him for who he is. I sat there next to him, listening stoically, wanting nothing more than to burst into tears at these words. My eleven-year-old son perceived his dad as someone who didn’t love him or support him. He told me he wanted a dad that would play with him and support him and treat him better. How did I ever let things between them get this bad? Why hadn’t these two managed to bond? Why did my son feel so unloved by his own father? I reassured him that his dad did indeed love him, but that sometimes he had a hard time showing it. That didn’t seem to easy my son’s mind.
Yesterday was Father’s Day, the first Father’s Day since my marriage completely fell apart. My children’s father wasn’t sure that he wanted to see them yesterday. I really wanted to hate him for it, but I knew why. Still, I was heartbroken for my boys and decided to not even tell them it was Father’s Day if they weren’t going to get to celebrate with their dad. After some tearful pleading, I convinced their dad to see them for a brief time, knowing my second and fourth child would really want to be with him on this day. What I hadn’t considered was how my oldest would feel about this day in which he was supposed to celebrate the father, who he had a very difficult relationship with. It wasn’t until we reached the restaurant, which we were meeting his dad at, that I realized just how hard it was on my oldest.
My oldest began acting out immediately. He was bothering his brothers and misbehaving, trying to make everyone miserable. Upon looking closer at his behavior, I realized he was feeling miserable and wanted everyone else to feel the way he did. He was angry and confused about his feelings. I asked him about how he was feeling, but he just didn’t know, nor did he know why he was feeling this way. He was visibly upset by the whole situation. After a bit, I pulled him outside to talk about what he might be feeling and why. I talked to him about how I was feeling and reassured him that, even if his dad didn’t know how to show it, he did really love him. I explained to him that, like him, his dad also struggled sometimes. I told him that it was ok to be mad at his dad, and even at me, because I was the one who asked his dad to leave, but what wasn’t ok was how he was dealing with that anger. I told him some ways that I deal with my anger and talked with him about ways that he might want to try to deal with his. In the end, I held him and told him that no matter what, I loved him and would always be there for him. When we were done, we returned to the rest of the family, my oldest son much calmer, but I felt far from calm. My outward appearance may have seemed fine, but inside I was dying. All I wanted to do was go home, lock myself in my room, and sob.
I had to hold back tears as I drove my boys home. I was so heartbroken by the pain that my oldest son was feeling. I was angry and sad and disappointed and was in mama bear mode. I couldn’t protect my son from these feelings or this struggle. I couldn’t take away his pain or change the circumstances. All I could do was be there for my son in his pain and it filled me with pain and sadness.
I don’t know how this story ends. I don’t know what happens from here. I hope and pray that the relationship between my oldest son and his father will be healed eventually, but I honestly don’t know if it will. The only thing that I do know is how painful it is to watch my son experience and navigate his tenuous relationship with his father. This is one struggle that I wish my son did not have.