At this very moment I'm eating sugary cereal and drinking a beer, because that's what I do when I'm emotionally eating. Don't judge. Father's Day has always been somewhat of a clusterf*ck for me. This year in particular, though, I'm struggling with the things I want my son to know about my estranged father on Father's Day. How do I even go about starting this very necessary, but emotionally taxing, conversation? By eating some sugary cereal and drinking a beer, apparently.
The funny part about my estrangement from my biological father is that we've never actually said we're estranged. By "funny" of course, I mean totally f*cked up. Sometimes the most toxic paternal relationship can be the seemingly nicest; a kind of parent-child relationship that can make the child feel crazy. For me, I'm constantly asking myself, "If he's not being blatantly mean, am I really justified in my hurt or disrespected feelings? Maybe I'm being too sensitive? It can't be that big of a deal if he's literally not even acknowledging that any sort of conflict has even happened. Right?" Wrong.
As a therapist, as a human, and as a parent, I know that my feelings matter. Having been told that they don't matter my whole life (or at least that they don't matter as much as someone who was assigned male at birth, or someone who happened to choose Christianity as their career choice) it has taken me years to validate what I'm feeling as something more than a product of over-imagination. Realizing I'm not entirely sure I'm sad about my son not having my father in his life, however, is a bitter pill to swallow. Though he is only 5 years old and not quite ready to understand it all, here are the three most important things I want my son to know about my estranged father on Father's Day:
I Didn't Need Him
I mean, if we're talking psychosocially and emotionally, sure, I probably could've used a stronger father figure in my life who showed me I was unconditionally lovable. I didn't have that, though, and I'm OK. I survived and, some might, even say I have thrived.
My son will, too.
I Do Love Him
I love my father even with all of his faults. If tomorrow he decides to use my trans daughter's correct pronouns, he would be welcome in my home. But loving someone does not give them the right to perpetuate violence against you. Make no mistake, identity threat* is violence. If I teach my son anything, I hope it's the undeniable fact that emotional violence is not love and no one ever has to endure it. Especially from family.
*Identity threat is the name for when transgender people are subjected to chronic denial by society or family that their identity is valid. One way identity threat is perpetuated is when a person intentionally misgenders a transgender individual by using the wrong pronouns.
You Have Other Grandfathers
Even if my father refuses to ever confront the reason we haven't seen each other for the last year and a half, because his family "just doesn't talk about these things," my son still has two other grandfathers. These grandfathers have proven time and again that they will be there for my children, even when my kids don't think they need them. They will put my son's emotional needs before any ideological differences.
You Can Choose A Relationship
If my father continues to refuse to validate my daughter's identity, we have no reason to believe he wouldn't do the same to my son should he have a trait he finds distasteful or "make believe." It's my job, as my one of my son's parents, to keep him safe from violence, even if it's emotional violence.
When he's old enough to understand the ramifications of the decision to have a relationship with my father, however, and can look after his own wellbeing, he can choose what that relationship looks like. If, in fact, there's a relationship to be had at all.
Unconditional Love Means Unconditional
Part of the reason that my son doesn't get to see his grandfather right now, is because our definitions of "unconditional love" are different. His definition is "hate the sin, love the sinner." What that meant for me, especially growing up, was that I knew I'd always be loved as long as I didn't talk about the sinful parts of myself. Those parts of myself that were OK to show my father changed as I grew.
As a 9 year old, I had to hide my love for Madonna when she came out with "Like A Prayer." Then, at 16 years old and when I was about to come out to him, Ellen Degeneres beat me to it and his absolute disgust told me I'd better hide my queerness. After that, I had to hide anytime I had a relationship with someone who wasn't a cisgender male. I was willing to be quiet about those things when it was just my heart I had to worry about. When it's my children's hearts, though, I'm not so willing to overlook the devastation that is identity erasure.
My definition of unconditional love is just that: unconditional. My estranged father will not talk about my daughter's pronouns, nor will he even answer the direct question of whether he'll honor her pronouns upon request. Though done with a smile, this identity erasure is a form of insidious violence that I refuse to subject my children to. Though he insists he would never hurt my children — and I know he truly believes this — what he doesn't get is that in many ways silent violence is worse. It's the kind of violence that turns hatred inward. It's the kind of violence that causes kids to contemplate suicide and feel totally alone in the world. The reason I know this is because I was one of those kids.
In my definition of unconditional, my son and I can get angry with one another, frustrated with a certain set of behavior, and even disagree, and still, always, love one another. I will always believe my son. I will always respect him and love him. I will show him that love by honoring his ability to self-identify.
This is one of the reasons I chose to have children with my your father, my dear son. I knew he would never expect you to hide who you are. He wants to know you fully and that might mean confronting some things he disagrees with or doesn't understand, but he will face those things head on. He will ask you to teach him when he doesn't understand, and he will never ask you to pretend to be something you're not just to make him comfortable.