12 Things I Want My Kid To Know About My Estranged Parent
I recently saw my estranged father for the first time in 20 years. My sister and I had reconnected with our Vietnamese family and were invited to celebrate Lunar New Year. As we walked in the door, my sister clutched my daughter like a shield. I was left vulnerable as my dad pulled me in for an awkward embrace. He reached his arms out for my little girl, and she went right to him. As the family oohed and aahed over grandpa, I was left thinking of all the things I want my child to know about my estranged parent.
My parents were divorced before I was born. I don't really remember my father being present, but childhood photos of birthday parties and picnics show that my father was part of my young life. When he remarried, however, things changed. His wife wanted nothing to do with us. Visits dwindled to every other Friday. My mom is an exceedingly good person, and she never said a bad word about my dad. She let us draw our own conclusions, and draw them we did. My breaking point was when we were uninvited to my cousin's wedding because my stepmother didn't want us there.
By high school, I only saw my biological father twice a year. The last communication I had from him was a birthday email to my sister that he copied me on during college. Years later, shortly after the birth of my daughter, my cousin reached out to us on Facebook. It opened the floodgates to friend requests, messages, and eventually reunions with long lost family members. I am open to renewed relationships with my Vietnamese family, but my dad is a different story. Now that I'm a mom, I especially can't understand how anyone could abandon their child, and it makes me want to protect my daughter all the more fiercely.
I Don't Really Know Him
I never lived with my dad, and although he spoke English before he came to this country, language always seemed to be a barrier. To me, as a child, he seemed traditional, strict, and reserved. I know that I was so shy around him that my sister ordered my food for me at restaurants.
What I know about my dad's story comes from my mom and the friend who sponsored his family as refugees. I know he would have been assassinated if he'd stayed in Vietnam. I know he got his family out on a fishing boat. I know he left a fiancée behind when he escaped during the fall of Saigon.
These stories tell me of bravery and resilience, but I also know he's the kind of person who could discard his own children. He also led his family to believe that it was my mom who wanted it that way, so I'll never trust him. Not with my daughter.
He's Not My "Real" Dad
He is my biological father. We share genes, sure, but genetics don't always determine who dad is. My "real" dad is the man my mom married when I was 7 years old. He's the one who showed up to dance recitals with flowers, who saved the kitten I wanted from certain death, and who patched the hole in the wall of my first home. He's the guy who paid for college when the child support checks suddenly stopped coming, and he's the one I chose to walk me down the aisle.
I Had Many Loving Adults In My Life, Just Like My Daughter
I don't want my daughter to feel sorry for me. My father may have been absent, but I had a magical childhood. My mom, sister, and I lived with my grandparents, and my uncles were home on school breaks. I also had wonderful teachers, babysitters, and neighbors, so there was no shortage of caring adults in my life.
My daughter is lucky in this way, too. lucky, too. She has her mother, her father, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins who absolutely adore her. Our army family is a special group of people who would go to the moon and back for her. Plus, now she can count on her extended Vietnamese family among this group of people who love and care about her.
He Made A Choice
Make no mistake, my father did not have to bend to his wife's will. He chose not to have a relationship with his daughters. I'll always respect my ex-fiancé's dad, who maintained contact with his stepchildren after his separation because "you don't divorce kids."
I want to make sure my daughter understands that deployment is different. My baby's father is gone and his inevitable absences will be difficult, but this is not abandonment. My partner's choice is an honorable one; one that serves his country. My daughter will never have to worry about her father's love for her. Truly, he can't even go two days without a FaceTime call.
He Has Regrets, But I Don't
My father's health is failing. I think that, as he comes to grips with his own mortality, he wishes he'd done things differently. He cornered both my sister and me individually at the party and said, "All I ask is that you forgive me. Can you do that?" I answered very honestly, "I don't know."
I know some of my family members think I should reach out with a phone call because he's not doing well. Perhaps it is callous of me, but I feel like, as the parent, the ball is and always has been in his court. The fact is, I sleep fine at night.
I Might Have Been Different
Grades were important to my father, so I was excited to share my straight-A report card with him in sixth grade. He asked if it really counted as straight As if I had an A- in science. My perfectionism kicked into high gear, and it now manifests itself as obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I have worked through a lot of my "stuff." It's a work in progress, but I'm a fully functional human being. Without him, would I have had such high expectations for myself or such a crippling fear of rejection? I don't know. Sometimes I wonder what I would have been like if he'd been the one to raise me. I might not be the energetic, outspoken, delightful weirdo that I am today.
I can't say for sure. My siblings turned out pretty amazing and have their own lovely families. My half-sister is a confident, doting mother, and my half-brother is kind and thoughtful.
I Didn't Need Him
In the end, maybe I was better off without my dad. Maybe not. In any case, I did just fine without him. I graduated college, taught successfully for a decade, and even lived and volunteered abroad. Today, I'm married to a rock of a man, I have a blossoming second career, and most important, I have my beautiful baby girl. He can't take credit for any of it.
My Daughter Will Learn About Her Heritage
My dad always kept us at arm's length, so we never really identified with being Vietnamese (except to answer the inevitable "What are you?" questions that multiracial people get). My daughter may not learn to speak the language, but she will always have an ao dai to wear, lucky money to gamble, and chả giò to eat.
You Should Choose Your Partner Wisely
I'm not blaming my mom (or any woman, for that matter) for getting divorced. You can't know everything about a person, and everyone has their line in the sand (mine is infidelity and physical violence). However, even my mom admits that she married my dad because she felt societal pressure and he was the first one who asked. She's never regretted it, though, because it gave her two beautiful children.
When someone who is supposed to love you doesn't, it's a deep cut. I think that's why I went looking for love in all the wrong places. It took me the better part of a decade to be secure enough to demand to be treated the way I deserved. Fortunately, my partner came along at just the right time. When I saw him interact with his nieces, I knew he'd be a great father.
I hope and will always encourage my daughter to be careful. I broke my engagement at 22 because something didn't feel right, and it's the best decision I've ever made. I want her to know that she doesn't have to get married. Marriage can be wonderful, but it's not an accomplishment. Anyone can have a fulfilling, happy life with or without it.
Grandchildren Can Be A Second Chance
I have a friend whose family was deeply racist and objected to her interracial marriage. However, once they held that sweet baby in their arms, they changed their tune. For me, the sting of rejection is too close, but I think it can be different for the next generation and, perhaps, my daughter. Maybe it's possible for people to heal the wounds of the past by making things right for the future.
The Decision To Have A Relationship With Him Is Up To My Daughter
I will never force my daughter to have a relationship with my biological father, her grandfather. I think he's lucky that I let him be in the same room as my daughter, honestly, but I also won't prevent her from forming a bond with him. When she's old enough to understand, she can make that decision for herself. I'll support her either way, even if it makes me uncomfortable.
This Will Never Happen To My Daughter
My partner and I are committed to our marriage and utterly devoted to our daughter. Even if something were to change between the two of us and we separated, my daughter would still have two parents in her life. I don't think that will happen, but I will always assure my daughter that the love her parents have for her is steadfast. There isn't a power in the world that could possibly erase our daughter from our hearts.