This year for Father’s Day, my 9-year-old son and I will celebrate my husband with a backyard picnic of homemade pizza and chocolate ice cream at our house in Maine. But I won’t get together with my own dad, or call him, or even send a card. I haven’t spoken to my father, or anyone else in my family, for more than 17 years.
I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s on the South Shore of Long Island, in a middle-class town a 15-minute drive from the beach. From the outside, our family must have looked pretty normal. My mother taught in our local high-school English department. My father had a Ph.D. and worked in the city. He was a self-proclaimed feminist who chaperoned my class field trips — the only dad who did — and took me shopping for ballet shoes and winter coats. My two older brothers were Boy Scouts and in Little League. They had newspaper routes. I took musical theater class, played my Free to Be You and Me record until it warped, and read my way through the Hebrew school library.
My parents were proud of their suburban life. They worked hard to provide for us. There was always enough food in the refrigerator and pantry; there was always summer camp and school supplies and new clothes.
But we had a secret: my father’s temper. My brothers and I never knew when a regular day would take a dangerous turn. When my father turned mean, he lost control. He hit us and threw things. He cursed and called us names. I learned to fear his white V-neck undershirt and oldest paint-splattered jeans, the open can of beer, the smells of turpentine and grease as he worked around the house or under one of the family cars. My first memory is of my father chasing after me, his flat palm making contact with my small pale back. Later, when I was older, he’d pound on my bedroom door, push me up against the wall, and say it was my fault for making him so angry.
Afterward, to apologize, he’d bring me Chinese takeout. He’d tell me I was his favorite, his sheyne meydele.
There was a backstory to the abuse. When I was in fourth or fifth grade, my father made a confession.
“My father hit me,” he said, as we drove. His declaration made me hold my breath. “He’d use his belt or sometimes plumbing pipe. Anything he could get his hands on.”
Self-awareness didn’t change his behavior, though. And despite my mother’s salary and Ms. Magazine subscription and all the reasons she should have known better, she put up with it and stayed.
By the time I graduated high school, the violence had ebbed. When I was in my 20s I went into therapy and tried my best to forgive. Still, my parents and I could never get along. They’d call and yell accusations into the phone; I’d yell mine right back. When apologies came, they were on my parents’ terms. They wanted me to shoulder part of the blame, to admit I’d been a difficult child. And it’s true, I was a questioning, challenging child and a wild, rebellious teenager. But that shouldn’t have mattered.
Everything came to a head when I was 28. On a visit home, my father’s temper flared, and this time I stood up to him. We fought for hours, the three of us in the family room crying. That night they dropped me at a friend’s apartment in the city. On the sidewalk, I asked my parents for space. “Don’t call me,” I said, thinking I’d take a week or two off from them.
Slowly, though, the no-parent days and weeks and months accumulated. My mother left messages on my answering machine. She said I had to call home, come home. I refused. I just couldn’t bring myself to deal with them, even as my depression overwhelmed me. Who was I without my parents? In a muddy stream of letters, my mother said she was suicidal, and that my father missed me desperately.
My brothers minimized and downplayed what had happened in our childhood; they wanted me to “forget about it” and reconcile. I pulled away from them, too.
And then, unexpectedly, I started to feel better. Not having to constantly battle my parents meant that I was free to take a long look inward. Yes, my mother and father had done the laundry and signed the permission slips and praised my report card and given me a middle-class childhood. They’d sacrificed to send me to college. But along the way they’d managed to stain the first half of my life; to wound me. I resolved to not let them ruin the second half.
Eventually I married and became a mother, creating a loving family of my own to replace the one I was born into.
As I write about in my book, it hasn’t been easy on any of us. My son struggles to understand why I won’t let him meet his grandparents, uncles, or cousins. I can only imagine the pain and loss my parents must feel. Every so often the guilt about abandoning my family and not sticking around to work things out comes back.
Was my choice extreme? Maybe, but I’m not alone in making it. There are no national statistics on family estrangement. Yet, since starting to speak openly about my experience, I’ve met many people with a similar story: the professor for whom coming out meant severing ties with his fundamentalist parents; the friend who escaped a childhood of sexual abuse; the neighbor who is barely on speaking terms with her extended family; even families torn apart by political differences.
For all these people — and certainly for me — a common thread is dealing with the shame. The idea of honoring your mother and father runs deep in our culture. Although Americans are individualists, we’re still expected to go home for the holidays and to cite our parents as our greatest sources of inspiration. Sibling relationships can be more fraught, but there too we’re expected to offer unconditional love and loyalty, or at least stick it out. Rejecting your family seems to violate the natural order of things. People who don’t speak to their parents are considered troubled and vengeful — maybe even evil.
That should change. Parents don’t always live up to their job descriptions. When they don’t — when they cross that thin line separating the normal failings of human beings from more egregious, unforgivable mistakes — then adult children who make the difficult decision to cut off ties should be able to do so without stigma. We celebrate when a victim of domestic violence manages to break free from an abusive spouse. Why is it any different with parents?
I wouldn’t wish the heartbreak of estrangement on anyone. But for me it’s been a powerful and life-affirming choice. My husband and son and I will spend the rest of our summer weekends riding bikes, hiking through woods, canoeing on lakes, reading in the hammock, and splashing in our town’s swimming pool. I know how lucky I am to have found these simple family pleasures. When I made the decision to walk away from my parents, I made the decision to be happy.