Finding My Footing Without A Father

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“He said,

‘My absence is strong and warm.

It will hold

You.

It will teach you how to miss.

How to be without.

And

How to survive anyways.'”

-Nayyirah Waheed

I’ve had an eerie fascination with wolves since elementary school. I’ve lost track of how many presentations I’ve given on wolves, or how many passwords I’ve conjured that included “wolf” in it. I’ve even contemplated getting a minimalist wolf tattoo placed somewhere discrete on my body. A bit excessive, I know, but I’ve always felt like the animal personified my soul. Wolves represent loyalty, communication, freedom, intelligence and intuition. They’re social animals that thrive best in packs, but there’s always the “Omega,” also known as the “Lone” wolf, the sporadic wanderer – well, that’s me. Research shows that the lone wolf will seek to assimilate into any pack it can join even if it means it’s on the furthest outskirts. I remember my friend and I were discussing whether having friends or belonging to a social group was important. I stated that having relationships are one of the greatest joys and is an important function in my life. His stance was that he doesn’t need friends – because he already has his core social group, which is his family. He stated that one of the major reasons why friends are so important to me is because I didn’t have the luxury of having a large family presence in Seattle to fulfill my social needs. I had no familial foundation, which is why I looked externally to build a sense of belonging of my own. A bit harsh, but he was right.

It’s always just been my Mamaiay and I. I don’t have any siblings and have always lived thousands of miles away from the closest relative. I’ve always envied those with large families because they operated as a collective unit. There’s an element of protection you’re granted when your family is large enough – people treat you better, because they know there’s a lot of people they’d have to answer to otherwise. I never had that protection, it was pretty much always me against the world in times of conflict. I had to handle the rumors, the fucked-up shit people would do or say to me, all on my own. As a small and solo female, I was an easy target. There was one instance when I had a significant argument with a guy in Seattle and he was trying to figure out who my male family members were, so he could sort the issue out with them. But the thing is, I never had any, or had anyone remotely close. So, I called, and told him – look, I don’t hide behind men, if there’s an issue you’re going to have to take it up with me. To be frank, I can be a bit rough around the edges. I like to (half) joke that I was blessed with a sharp mind but cursed with a sharper tongue. I’m not a fighter – but I could sharpen blades with my tongue – the words I say when I’m angry hurt more than any punches I could ever throw. I’m not proud of it, but it’s my defense mechanism and I’m working on it. Sometimes my own actions and words confuse me – I’ll do or say something to push you away but hope that you’ll pull me in closer. I’m in my natural and happiest state when I’m tender.

One of the most difficult and emotional books I’ve ever read is called, “It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle,” by Mark Wolynn. The book talks about how trauma is passed down in families over generations and provides a guide on how individuals can break the cycle. In chapter six, it discusses the importance of healing our relationships with our parents. Studies show that when we cut ourselves off from our parents, we express the qualities we viewed negatively in them unconsciously. The chapter discusses how, “feeling at peace with ourselves often begins with being at peace with our parents.” The author also quotes a Buddhist monk who said that being angry with your parents is akin to being angry with ourselves, “Supposed the plant of corn got angry at the grain of corn…If we’re angry with our father or mother, we have to breathe in and out and find reconciliation. This is the only path to happiness.”

In this period of reflection, I’ve wanted to unravel conscious and subconscious habits that might have originated from my upbringing. A friend who had read my previous blogs that were relationship-oriented messaged me asking if my parents were together and if I’ve considered whether I was seeking out a man to fill in my father’s absence. First, it’s important that I clarify that I am not actively seeking a man I just reflect on my past experiences. Do I want to have a family? Someday, absolutely, but I’m not pressed if it doesn’t unfold for me either. I discussed with my life coach how I want to master the line between wanting a spouse and being okay if I never find one either and she said what I was experiencing was a common phenomenon for individuals ages 18-40. There’s a psychologist by the name of Erik Erikson, who explored the stages of psychosocial development and coined the phrase “identity crisis.” Erikson claims there are 8 different stages in life that individuals must overcome to achieve happiness. His research suggests that each person must learn to accept and understand both sides of each stage’s spectrum in order for the optimal virtue for that stage to surface. For individuals aged 18-40  “Love” is the optimal virtue and intimacy vs isolation make up opposing ends of the spectrum. Only once an individual no longer rejects the concept of one or the other and understands how they can work in unison, will they be able to experience true love.

Anyways, I’m digressing – I just wanted to make that point to show that my feelings aren’t isolated and I don’t want to be reduced to having “daddy issues.” It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question, and I’ve always wanted to retort that I know many women who do have fathers in their lives that have worse relationship plights than me. Nonetheless, it’s important that men don’t shape the narrative of women based on other men. Going back to my father – I never really cared for him (sounds fucked up I know). I wasn’t one of those kids that felt anger towards him because he was never in my life. That was just my norm. However, I thought for personal purposes it’d be good to write out our (short) story.

My first memory of my father was while I still lived in Chicago; I must’ve been around 6 years old at the time. I remember checking the mailbox with my Mamaiay in the apartment lobby and looking up to her staring at the surveillance camera screen. I asked her who she was staring so hard at and she said that the person on the screen was my father. That caught my interest and so I turned my head trying to catch a glimpse of this mystery man as my mom gripped my hand to rush me out the door.

The second time I saw my dad was when I was 8. I remember waking up early and being really excited to go to my classmate Eleyna’s birthday. That morning, my Mamaiay broke the news that I wouldn’t be able to go to the birthday party anymore because my dad would be stopping by. I was livid. How is he gonna pop into my life, on his terms, and already fuck up what I have goin’ on? Total bullshit. I heard the knock on the door and I dragged my feet as my Mamaiay made me go fetch it. I opened the door, and *underwhelming drumroll* my dad was standing there. I said “Hi, are you Kidane?” To which he said, “Yes” and gave me a really big hug and a kiss. I wondered how many times he role played this scenario. I wasn’t excited, curious, or impressed in the least bit. I audaciously asked if he could come back tomorrow because it was my friend’s birthday and I’d been looking forward to it all month. He said he couldn’t because it was his last day in town. Way to fuckin’ go. My mom scolded me for being rude and I had it made up in my mind I didn’t like him. Why would I make him a priority over what I had goin on if he never had the decency to do the same for me?

We walked around North Seattle that day, my Mamaiay, my dad and I. This is the only time I’ve been able to mention both my parents in one sentence, let alone witness them in the same room. In that moment, we probably looked like a perfectly functional and happy family. As we were walking, I’d fantasize about how different life would be if my dad had been in my life: Would I be richer? Smarter? Would my mom be happier? Calling him “dad” couldn’t even roll off my tongue, such a simple concept couldn’t have been more foreign to me. I would trail ahead in the front and would get annoyed by how slow my parents were walking, as if they were trying to unpack years of history with each step. My father was adamant about buying me something and while we were in the computer store I found myself in love with this large Gateway Desktop – but really, I was just immersed with one of its games. I remember when I told him this was what I wanted and he asked if I was sure once he peeped the $4,000 price tag. I said yes, and he went ahead and purchased it for me. That’s how I got my first computer. I know my father was trying to buy my affection and make up for lost time, and at the end of his visit I walked away with a computer, a tiger stuffed animal, miscellaneous items and some cash. At the end of the day, we went back to the apartment and said our goodbyes. Once he left, my Mamaiay asked me what I had thought of him and I said something along the lines of “he’s alright” without much regard. She asked me if I would be interested in having him move in with us, he said he wanted to re-enter our lives. I told her either way I didn’t mind, I was completely fine with it just being us two but I wanted her to do whatever made her happy. So, she decided three was a crowd.

The third time I interacted with my dad was when I was 18. It was right after I withdrew from spring quarter my Freshman year – I felt discontent, and I thought maybe being around family would make my world spin the right way again. I made arrangements to spend time with family across three different states over the course of the next few weeks. I hadn’t spoken to my dad for a few years but I figured I’d make a pit-stop while I was on the East Coast. My first stop was in Chicago for my Uncle Ina’s wedding. My extended family was there and I had a blast catching up with my aunts, uncles and cousins. One of my favorite uncles by far was Uncle Samson, he always made me laugh and could tell me stories for hours on end. He told me stories about my father while they were in Kenya, how they barely escaped the bombs when they escaped Ethiopia as refugees. He spoke on how my father was very quiet, but smart and a jokester- he humanized him in a narrative I had never heard of before. This made me more receptive to seeing him next in DC.

When I finally got to DC, my father picked me up in his cab and I had to force the communication through DC’s suffocating traffic. The only thing worse than silence is small talk. It was during this car ride that he informed me he had a son and a wife, who was excited to see me. Great, thanks for the heads up. I got to their house and he introduced me to his new wife. The first thing she said was “wow you’re cute but not as cute as your dad,” I rolled my eyes at her extra-ness. She then grilled me about not speaking Tigrinya and asked why my mom never taught me. All I could think about is if this bih keeps pressin me and throwing jabs at my mom I’d show her the Tigrinya swear words I knew. She told me about how my dad was so excited, nervous and happy to see me and he had cried to her about me. All I could think of is why is this nigga acting like he couldn’t have gotten a hold of me if he tried? I didn’t really care much for the wife, but I fell in love with my baby brother, Ezana. They said he’s usually anti-social with strangers but he walked up right to me and lifted his arms so I could carry him. They said, he must’ve instinctively known we were blood.

During this visit, my father hosted me around DC. He took me to all the monuments, ate sushi with me, offered me beer at the bar, and shriveled with discomfort when men would try to holler at me in his presence. I was like geez this guy does not know what he’s doing. I learned that we had a lot of similarities – we both loved art, loved computers, reading and we shared similar mannerisms. He asked me about my future plans and what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him how I had gotten a full ride scholarship for school and was interested in being a doctor. He said he was very proud of me and said my mom did a great job raising me and I said yes, she sure did. Not once did I ask him about what happened between him and my mom, nor did I ask him how he felt about me – because I didn’t care. I had no animosity for him, but I also had no space in my heart to love him either. He was as relevant to me as a stranger that walked by the street. They’re relevant only in the present moment. After about a three day stay I said my goodbyes and my dad sent me off with cash, and empty promises as I went to visit my family in Minnesota next.

We kept in touch for a few months after but just like the seasons, he faded away with time until he became yet another distant memory. The last conversation we had was when I had called him to ask if he could cover a dental cost because my tooth was in such bad pain I couldn’t go to class. His response was that my mom should be taking care of that and said if she needed to she could pick up another job. After that call, he was pretty much dead to me. I hung up the phone and called my fill-in second dad, my best friend’s dad at the time, Erik, instead. He took me to go to the clinic the next day. Erik exemplified everything I wanted in a dad and he willingly took on the roll. Throughout middle, high school and college he scolded me, he encouraged me, he challenged me to be the best I could be and always called me out on my bullshit. I had the absolute utmost respect for him and feared nothing more than to disappoint him. While my Mamaiay was gone, I lived with him and his family and it was my first time being a part of a fully functional two parent home. It was also the first time I had felt like I missed out by not having a dad. There was only one other time where I felt like I was part of a functional two-parent home and that’s when I was living with my ex and his family.

I remember feeling a little uncomfortable when I’d be speaking to my Ex’s dad – I absolutely loved him, it’s just I never really knew how to interact with a Habesha dad. Interacting with Habesha moms and women was easy, because that’s all I’d ever known – but I never was consistently around a Habesha dad or older guy. All the ones I’d known were never really around, they stayed in the shadows and were nonexistent in conversations or in the lives of my friends. They usually were cheaters, abusive, alcoholics, gamblers, sexual predators, etc…none of them had traits which make you gravitate towards them or want to build a relationship with him. But, my ex’s dad was completely different. Watching how he interacted with his wife, and kids, all I could think about is wow I pray one day I’m able to replicate this life. Seeing what home looks like when I was living with both my “dads” had me wondering if I’d missed out, or how different would I have been if this was the life I’d lived, and got me excited to provide my own children with this experience.

My dad and I are living in the same city now but figuratively, we couldn’t be further apart. I tried calling and emailing him to connect but never got a response back. I sometimes wonder if we’ll bump into each other by chance – at a Habesha event or if I’ll hop into a cab and it’ll be him behind the wheel. If we were in the same space would we even recognize each other? Would he even be able to recognize his nose, his skin color, his hair texture on me? The trends show that I see my father every decade, so our next appointment is approaching when I turn 28. Maybe we’ll have a civil yet shallow conversation over dinner sort of like Olivia Pope and her dad. He’ll say how he’s so happy to see me and I’ll hide my smirk as I take a sip out of a large glass of red wine. He’ll have me list out my accomplishments as he internalizes how much he fucked up.

We’ll never address the elephant in the room – uncovering my parent’s relationship and why they split. I don’t ever want to give him the gratification of feeling like his absence negatively impacted my Mamaiay and I. I’ll never tell him his relevance was that we used him as a weapon – when my Mamaiay was really mad at me she’d associate my behaviors with that of my father (e.g. you’re selfish like him, you have a bad temper like him, you don’t care about socializing all you care about is studying like him etc.) In turn, when I was mad at my Mamaiay I’d hastily yell out how I wish I lived with my dad instead! But, when he asks me what my Mamaiay has said about him I’ll nonchalantly say she never brought him up – that all I knew was that he was smart and he lived in DC.

I’ve never asked my Mamaiay about my dad because I didn’t ever want her to question her decisions or feel that she wasn’t enough for me. Being blood, doesn’t mean being imprisoned, and he had no obligation to stay. It’s important to wipe our lenses to not romanticize or vilify people but accept them simply for who they are. My Mamaiay isn’t a superhero for sticking around and my father isn’t a villain for choosing not to stay. Our parents aren’t perfect and often times we fill their imperfections or absence with our own assumptions and narratives. The only thing that makes me sad is knowing I won’t have anyone to give me away one day when I walk down the aisle, but it’s okay because I’ll be in a room of people who decided to play an active role in my life and love can take form in other ways than kin.  In one of my favorite books, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” the author wrote, “Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.” I’ve never felt like I fit the “Daddy Issues” caricature, I’ve never had a disdain or distrust for men, I’ve never felt unworthy, I’ve never felt abandoned. If there was a crack in my life, it was just enough to let the light in. I don’t have any animosity towards my father, and I’m thankful for all the lessons I’ve learned in lieu of him. I absolutely love who I’ve become and he’s indirectly played a role in it. You see, absence is a gift and one of the greatest teachers of all.

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