I was little. Dad worked long hours and traveled some, and mom was home with us. The details are unimportant, really, and I don’t know many of them, but I know enough.
In fact, I always knew. They kept it a “secret” for a long time, but I always knew that something was off. I knew that something triggered all the yelling and slamming doors and lying and tears: it was an affair. I don’t know how long it lasted on paper, but emotionally it has lasted a lifetime.
Things could have been very different. Mom could have left. She could have divorced him. She could have remarried, or stayed single. But she didn’t do any of those things. She kept the man she committed to for better or worse – and that choice is certainly not for everyone. The cost of that choice was high for all of us – it meant decades of arguing and broken trust that seemed to crumble every time it began to be rebuilt. Fifteen minutes late from work? Maybe he’s having an affair. Overnight travel for clients out of state? Maybe he’s having an affair. Big gift for the holidays? Maybe he’s having an affair. Call from an unknown number? Maybe he’s having an affair. I lived a lot of years under the disillusion that my mom was crazy (or maybe even bipolar), but I know now that she was neither of those things – she was grieving and alone. The affair is long over, but the impact is as deep today as ever – especially as I raise my own children alongside my husband.
So how do we celebrate him? They don’t make cards that say “You broke us. Happy Father’s Day!” or “Thanks for the therapy, Dad.”
For many years, I compartmentalized it. I put it in a drawer and kept it closed. It was a thing that happened in the past – something that only hurt to bring up, so why bother? For another bunch of years I avoided it (and him) as best I could. The trouble with that approach is that untreated wounds become infected – they cannot heal on their own. My sister and I were chatting the other day and it came up again – just how hard it is to trust him, just how hard it is not to question him, just how hard it is to believe him. It’s been decades, and it’s still hard. So, I’m dealing with it. I talk about it with my counselor, regularly. I pray about my perspective and for my heart to be soft toward him, even when it seems impossible. At some point, I’ll have to deal with him, too. It will likely mean a super uncomfortable conversation (probably more than one, over a long period of time), but I’m not there yet.
For now, celebrating him isn’t so much in what we do on this one day, it’s more about the 364 others. We could grill out, buy cards, make his favorite dessert, etc. and those would all be good things, but that’s just once a year, and when you are dealing (which I am), one day out of the year just won’t cut it. Pulling it all together to fake it for a day just isn’t my style, so here’s what it looks like for me:
I am honest. If I don’t believe him – I tell him, nicely. I don’t pretend everything is perfect, but I also don’t intentionally choose to be mean or hateful to him. There have been instances where I have even said, “I’m having a hard time believing that based on what I know to be true. I want to believe you, but ___ isn’t adding up. Can you help me understand by giving me some more information?” It’s awkward – really awkward sometimes – but that’s the cost of broken trust and that’s the hard work of rebuilding (which takes all of us walking around in the rubble).
I do better than he did. I think about the things I’ve learned from his mistakes and how they impacted our family and I choose more wisely. I share with my husband when I am feeling disconnected from him. We talk regularly about the boundaries that work for us to help protect our marriage. I am clear with my children that their dad and I are both flawed and imperfect and that we require a lot of grace. I ask them for forgiveness regularly and model what it looks like to build trust and explain how easy it is to break it.
I choose a lifestyle of forgiveness. That means it wasn’t a one-time deal for me, but something I do repeatedly. I’m fortunate that my dad sought forgiveness, but it was decades before he did so, and had he never asked, I would have worked to forgive him anyway – for ME, not for him. I just can’t live in the place of holding onto that – it’s more than I can carry, and in order to let it go, I had to forgive him, as many times as it takes.
I tell him that I love him. Because it’s true. I love all sorts of broken, imperfect people, and he is included in that. There are times when it’s easier to say than others, but I don’t withhold that truth from him, because as hard as it’s been on us, it’s been hard on him, too.
Friends, if your dad is imperfect – if he wasn’t there or if he stayed and did damage on-site, I am so sorry. My heart hurts with you this weekend (and all weekends). There’s not a clear plan here. There’s no perfect map for how you navigate the wreckage, but we have to. We owe it to ourselves and to our children. I encourage you to seek help and to find what works for you and your family to move forward. All my love, friends. You are not alone.