It's not easy for me to recognize that I have a toxic parent. I love my father and I always will, but our relationship has been really confusing and, well, less-than-positive. So it honestly pains me to have to think about the things I want my children to know about my own toxic parent. As a parent I know we make mistakes, but we love our children with everything in our souls. Even though I rarely felt it, I have to trust that my father feels the same about me, too, and on some level. I just don't want my dearest children to feel what my father has made me feel.
My father and I are very different, but I am the only one who is willing to make all the accommodations in our relationship. In order to keep things nice and positive, as was his requirement, I had to remain silent about liking Madonna when I was 10 years old, or be quiet about being queer when I was 13 years old, or tell my child they can't be themselves in front of him when I was 36 years old. I was never OK with this silence; it felt disingenuous, like I was lacking integrity by pretending to be someone I wasn't. Still, I wanted to have a relationship with my father, and following his unspoken rules was the only way to make that happen.
It's taken me a long time — my whole life, really — to stop blaming myself for not having a more authentic relationship with my father. I came to realize, however, that it's not for lack of trying on my part. He doesn't want an authentic relationship with me because who I am authentically makes him really uncomfortable. Right now I can try to shield my kids from the more blatantly painful things he does (like misgendering my oldest) but some day my children will get to make their own decisions about their relationship with him. Before that happens, though, I want them to know the following things:
He Really Doesn't Like Being Uncomfortable
Which has been really frustrating for me since everything about me seems to make him uncomfortable. Now, though, it's just sad. I know that growth requires being uncomfortable, and without even painful or uncomfortable growth a human will simply remain stagnant.
His Silence & Complacency Are Toxic, Too
Recently, I've come to realize that the most painful thing my father has done, especially when I would try to be my authentic self while simultaneously trying to establish a relationship with him, is remain silent. You see, my biological father never yelled at me. He never expressed his disdain for the so-called "un-godly" things he saw in me, to me. He'd just stay silent. He would not respond, as though I'd said nothing at all.
Then, later, he'd slip in a comment about "femi-nazis," or "Ellen Degenerate," or respond to a transphobic video my brother posted with "Outstanding!"
You Can Set Your Own Boundaries With Him...
A boundary is a rule you set for yourself about how you will allow yourself to be treated. Other people get to decide if they will respect your boundaries or not, that's true, and then you get to decide if you're going to allow someone who doesn't respect your boundaries to stay in your life.
My father isn't a mean guy. He's a really nice guy, in fact, which is one of the reasons our relationship has been so confusing to me. He ignores the parts of me and my family that he doesn't like, and pretends they don't exist by never talking about them. If I try to talk about these parts of myself with him, he doesn't speak. Literally.
This has never been OK with me, and it's always been painful, but when it comes to my kids I cannot allow it to continue.
...And You Deserve Your Boundaries To Be Respected
People do get to decide whether or not they respect your boundaries. But you also deserve to have your boundaries respected, and that's a lesson I want every single one of my children to know, even — and especially — with family.
His Silence Is Not The Same As Acceptance
In fact, and in my case, silence can be damaging. I learned fairly early on that if something was uncomfortable, you should't talk about it. Certainly, I didn't talk about it with my dad. So when my step-father started sexually abusing me of course I didn't tell my dad.
My children should be able to talk to me about anything, and especially the uncomfortable things. Silence breads secrets, and secrets allow abuse to fester.
He Means Well, But That's Not Enough
I do know that my father is not trying to be hurtful, and I have faith in his good intentions. He's not trying to change, though. Good intentions are not enough when you tell someone their behavior toward you is not OK and they continue to behave the same way.
In fact, now that I think of it, I'm not entirely sure his intentions really are that pure.
He Is Trying To "Save Us"
For my father, his religious belief that he is trying to "save our souls" is the highest way he truly believes he can show his love. Unfortunately, it ends up feeling like you can't be fully yourself in his presence. As a result, I truly feel like my father doesn't know me at all.
If this same relationship occurs with my children, I want them to know it is not their fault. I don't want them to internalize the idea that something is wrong with them the way I did for so long. They are not wrong, they are perfect just the way they are.
He Doesn't Know How To Love Unconditionally
There's a line that has become popular recently among some of my family members. It goes something like, "Unconditional love doesn't mean what people think it means." The premise of this statement is that a person can still claim to love someone unconditionally and even if, say, they refuse to use someone's correct pronouns and intentionally misgender them. When I object to this treatment, however, I am the one who is being disrespectful and close-minded. I just. I mean, um, what?
I want my children to know, without question, that if someone tells them them they don't respect their identity, or anything else about them, or puts quantifiers as to how much they can love them, that's not "unconditional love." That's toxic. That's abusive, no matter how "nice" someone is being.