There is no way I can understand who I am as a father without understanding who I am as a son.
Few things have changed my life more than being a father and I am only three years into the journey! In keeping with the latest theme of articles, what does it mean to me to be a father in recovery from addiction and the son of an alcoholic? Seems like two strikes—certainly it is hard to see them as strengths. I did not have a loving and connected relationship with my father. I grew up as a child terrified of my father, then my home, and ultimately, the outside world. I do not mean I was scared. I felt terror and panic on a weekly if not daily basis into my thirties as a result of the trauma that I had experienced. That sickness calcified into anger and rage. That’s at least two more strikes against me. How could such a scared and angry man, haunted by countless ghosts from his past, ever be a good father?
For those exact reasons I did not want to have kids. My wife, Nancy, and I had many conversations about it. She had a deep yearning in her heart to be a mother and she loves me. She has always seen the best in me despite how many times I tried to push her away and convince her otherwise. I would get annoyed when a friend—or someone who didn’t even know me—would say, “You would be such a good dad, Dan!” The truth was it was not that I didn’t want to have kids or be a father. I was scared to death because I did not want to do to a child what was done to me. I did not trust myself not to hurt a child. I was not going to have a child because that’s just what you are supposed to do when you get married! I now know many men feel this way, whether they can articulate it or not.
The first time I held my daughter Grace, though it may sound melodramatic, something opened inside of me for the first time. It was not just my heart opening but it was my whole experience of life. All of those strikes against me seemed immaterial, as if some judge had ruled them to be inadmissible or at least only taken under advisement. Holding that tiny defenseless creature and realizing that she was going to be relying on me to keep her safe and guide her on the journey of her life meant that I had a chance. Nancy once told me that there could be some pain and experiences from my relationship with my father that I could only heal by being a father. It was as if the words were straight from God and even my father, though long dead, trying to right some of his wrongs.
There is no way I can understand who I am as a father without understanding who I am as a son. My friend, Allen Berger, and I were recording a CD for a book we will soon be releasing and were talking about being fathers. Allen and I had very different relationships with our fathers and as a result he could not wait to be a father. I told him my experience and he said something very profound as we were talking about men’s natural disposition toward being protectors as fathers: “You see, Dan, what you were doing in not having children and not wanting to have children was the greatest form of protection because you wanted to make sure ‘your’ children were safe.” I had never thought of it that way but he was absolutely right. It gave me a great sense of pride—before that, all I had connected to that experience was shame and even believing that at some level it was the truth.
The greatest gift of recovery has been beginning to become okay with the fact that I do not know how things are going to turn out. I do not know what is around the corner in my relationship with my daughter, Grace nor with Nancy. What I do know is that I have been given a chance to be a father where any and all of those strikes against me don’t matter. Grace doesn’t have to know any father other than the man I have become. The man I have worked so hard—with the incredible support of other men—to be. The only one she has to see. The man I was and the boy who felt so scared of the world have been the building blocks for the father and the husband I am today. But like the foundation of a house all she has to ever see is the structure I built on top of it.
This was previously published on Dan Griffin‘s blog.
Image credit: The Happy Aspie/Flickr