By being his usual, insensitive self, he showed me what kind of man not to be.
I was moved by Danielle Campoamor’s recent reminder that we aren’t doomed to repeat our parents’ story if we discern the useful lessons we can draw from their example. She makes a beautiful case in favor of focusing on what can make us grow—in her case, being able to recognize dangerous behavior patterns before they ruin your life. In my case, the experience of having been raised by a violent, authoritarian, overprotective and misogynistic man incapable of self-examination or even saying sorry gave me a very clear picture of what manhood shouldn’t be. Campoamor argues that you don’t need a good father in order to find a good man; I only hope that’s also true when it comes to being one.
My father never took criticism well. In 1990, Venezuelan songwriter Franco de Vita released one of his most popular ballads, No Basta (“It’s Not Enough”), which broke away from his usual themes of romance and heartbreak. Translated from Spanish, one stanza says, It’s not enough / to believe you’re an excellent parent / just because everyone tells you so / and your children want for nothing. That would have been hard for my father to understand, even if you could have made him bear to hear it.
That’s the main difficulty when I try to explain what was wrong with my father: he did so many things right. He stopped drinking shortly before I was born, he was never arrested or jailed for anything, he was tremendously hardworking, and, even though the income from the home business he managed with my mother was unpredictable and precarious, we always had food. But his concept of good parenthood didn’t extend beyond that. Partly because having a home business meant that family life and work life were never really separate, he honestly thought he was fulfilling his duty because we never went to bed hungry. I cannot discuss his defects honestly with my siblings because they will only see that side of him. The times when he hit my mother or us, when he denied us our autonomy to make major life choices, when his budget gave my sisters’ education lesser priority, when he ridiculed our dreams, when broken objects around the house served as reminders of his moments of rage, or when he ruined every single Christmas dinner over some random disagreement are just ignored or excused.
(To be fair, my mother was a puritanical workaholic passive-aggressive micromanager, but that’s a story for another day.)
I have gender identity issues that I have never had the opportunity to examine completely, and my earliest memories of me having any objections to manhood came from just watching my father be himself, and my older brother taking after him. If that’s what it means to be a man, I used to tell myself, I want none of it. I don’t want my job to be my only redeeming feature, or my future spouse to be the punching bag of my frustrations, or my eventual children to live in fear of me. I don’t want to give manhood a bad name.
Three weeks ago, I took a vacation trip to his hometown, to finally meet my father’s sisters and get some expanded perspective. I only knew the parts of him he chose to show; I felt I needed the views of those who met him before I did. The answers I found were more varied than I expected. In his youth he had been restless, never contented, and cursed with the fatal combination of not enough skepticism and too much self-reliance. I already knew he had joined a superstitious cult for a while, but I didn’t know how deeply it had affected him. In his old age, he even ignored the signals of his advancing cancer because he believed his mental strength kept him safe.
Three years ago, when all my siblings and I visited him to take care of his illness, I was struck by how small he had become. While I never ceased to resent him, it was a shock to watch the cancer give him the pain I had for so long dreamed to inflict on him. All the things I wanted to scream at him, the faults I wanted to remind him of, the bad choices I wanted to rub in his face were left unsaid. I didn’t find it in me to expose my grievances to him. It was late for that to do any good. The final insult for me was the fact that whatever regrets he had were said in private, to a priest, instead of publicly, to us. For all I know, he went in peace, completely unaware that I won’t remember him for his hard work but for his blows.
I don’t have the least idea about how to be a good man; I had no one to teach me that. What I do know is what not to do. That’s all we can have anyway. Even a website that calls itself the Good Men Project is enlightened enough to know that categories like “good” and “bad” are too simplistic when referring to real people. But hearing my brother treat his wife like dirt, watching my younger sister endure crippling depression, I fear for my chances. I never know when I may make a fatal mistake and irrevocably fail any children I may have, and that terrifies me, because I know what it’s like to despise a father, and I don’t want to give any child reason to despise me. That’s an experience no child ought to have, and if I have to remain childless to make sure of that, so be it. That’s the best thing I can do for my children: spare them the life I had.
-Translation from No Basta (“It’s Not Enough”) by the author.
Photo: Andrij Bulba/Flickr