Sunday, 3 August 2008

Fathers and Daughters

My relationship with both my parents is deeply special to me, but right now, this is about my Dad and me and my brother and my niece.

They are both complex men, different and similar all at once. My brother thrives on a reputation of being open minded and wayward, yet can surprise with the conservative nature of some of his values and beliefs. My dad is the opposite, like a picture in negative, his conservative reputation is important to him, yet every now and again he surprises me with his open mindedness.

They both have strongly misogynist streaks. Where has this come from? With my Dad I think it’s clear. He was married twice for nearly twenty years each time: his first marriage was to a woman who left him and their children while he was on a naval tour of duty, returning to port to find his car keys and a note with the Harbour Master. His second wife, my mother, was a woman who excelled in her field and earned more than him after he left the armed forces and retrained as a teacher. She eventually left him and took up with another woman.

With that in mind, I can delineate my Dad’s feelings about women reasonably easily. I know less about my brother’s experience, but he was one of the kids his mother left, which must obviously have had a huge impact, leading him to behave badly which resulted in my niece’s mother leaving him. She left without warning him and without notice. He just came back from work one day and she was gone.

(I confess a sneaking admiration for this. If you give warning and discuss it beforehand then it becomes an ultimatum and gives the soon-to-be-ex a chance to falsely improve their behaviour, which never lasts and only confuses matters. As such, I think this is how it should be done and she managed it, off to another country, with a baby and a toddler in tow. She’s a pretty impressive lady.)

Undoubtedly being dumped so abruptly had a massive impact on my brother, but one of the reasons she left was the ways his pre-existing misogyny played itself out.

He is also generally unpleasant.

So, my niece and nephew who are now in their twenties were brought up in their mother’s country of origin in a stable environment with grandparents, uncles, aunts and family friends over generations close by. They are distinct personalities, both creative, both intelligent, very much like their mother. They were not without male figures in their lives but they were shielded from their father. At no point was he denied contact, it was just stipulated (wisely) that their mother had to be present.

For the last twenty years, my brother’s ex has gone to great lengths to ensure that she remained in touch with our family and that both children had the chance to spend time with us and meet us. It’s only now that I spend time with my in-laws that I realise how difficult this can be, even when you get on well.

My brother, Mr WeeWeeHead, turned this into denial of access and then denial full stop. My Dad followed his lead, identifying wholly with his son. For years, the subject of his grandchildren was taboo and he denied their entire existence.

Meanwhile, Mr WeeWeeHead had a fling with a woman he met on his travels, she got pregnant and had their baby: a little girl. When he caught up with them back at home they got together, he moved in them and has been a father to their daughter.

I struggle to figure out whether this is a good or a bad thing.

This was the status quo for fifteen years. The eldest two didn’t exist and he has come back to be with his youngest daughter. It all changed earlier this year when my niece got in touch with him. Immediately he made the huge offer to take her on a skiing holiday for two weeks.

That’s big, generous, but it’s a fraction of what he owes her.

She feels that their holiday was amazing, like she had a real connection with him. He was clearly moved by her being there and proud of the young woman she’s become. He emailed my Dad photos of the two of them and for the first time in many years, my father began to accept her existence. My brother was eager to tell my niece what “really” happened, his version of events which leading up to that point. My niece is a smart girl and has spent hours around people who think about the differences in the ways those events were perceived and why that might be. He said nothing that surprised her, though uncharacteristically she didn’t respond or point out the inconsistencies. She nodded silently while she listened to his tale of woe (I have little sympathy for him) and gave herself a panic attack instead.

During the worsening panic attack, my brother told her ‘Daddy will sort everything out’ a doctor was called, and then an ambulance and she ended up in hospital, just for a while, but exhausted from the sedatives. Everyone was scared. The curious thing, though, was that at one point, my brother began to develop his own panic attack in sympathy with her and had to leave the room. This, my niece felt, bonded them, and they spent time getting to know each other and his pride in his daughter was obvious.

The difficulty, though, came when everybody went home. They went back to their normal selves. In my wee-wee head brother’s case, that is someone who is self-righteous, arrogant, dismissive, self-absorbed who spends more time in the pub than with his family. He puts time and effort into maintaining this image. Inevitably my niece called and tried to talk to him but was puzzled by his lack of enthusiasm and even interest for anything she has to say.

On the phone, that means she’ll keep talking. We’re alike in that respect, if it’s quiet, we need to fill the space.

On her next visit, a six day trip, he worked, she spent time with his partner and their daughter. She came to see me. We had a lovely day, but from what she told me, it seemed that she was discovering the other side of my big brother. I know that this is going to be a bumpy ride for her, but one that only she can take and she’s entitled to. The only thing I can do is to listen to her. I can’t bad mouth my brother, that would be inappropriate, however tempting.

The other thing I can do, and have so far done with success, is negotiate her pocket money from her grandpa. She insists that she’s an adult and has her own money. It’s true she’s an adult and has a job, but she is still my father’s grand-daughter, still a child of this family, and frankly, it’s the least he can do.

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