Spending time with my dad at home has given us plenty of time to intensely disagree with one another. Recently we got into a huge blow up over things that happened circa thirteen years ago when my parents separated. I promise you this isn’t a cliché story about my parents’ divorce, it is a just a container for the larger message. My mom, sister, father and I all went through the same experience together. It wasn’t until a month ago that I realized we had experiences that were worlds apart.
The details aren’t crucial and I do not want to write about his perspective extensively without his permission. All you need to know is that he portrayed everything as if after being the victim of his crazy ex wife (my mother is a wonderful, strong, loving, inspiring woman so that is definitely just one perspective) he did his best to create a long lasting relationship with Elizabeth* and I by fighting for parental rights, spending time with us whenever he could, etc.. I told my dad that the last thing he could claim to be is a victim in that divorce process because he took part in it (amongst other reasons) and by putting Elizabeth in the middle of their intense arguments it triggered periods of anxiety and depression when I was a teenager.
To say that my dad was surprised was an understatement because he had no idea what I was talking about. Not a clue. This was a very emotional conversation for me to have and I am never vulnerable with my Dad because we don’t have that kind of relationship. I was more disturbed by the fact that he had no idea where I was coming from. In that moment when he seemed to be denying my reality, it was like time froze and my world slowly started collapsing. It would be one thing if he simply disagreed. But he genuinely didn’t understand one iota when I felt like I was bearing my soul.
I had a huge “ego” death and awakening in that moment. I realized:
- In keeping this secret for so long I expected him to react a certain way when I decided it was time to tell him. The reaction I expected was definitely not from a place of confusion.
- I expected him to not only understand me, but also to adopt that as a part of his reality by shifting his understanding of the past.
Number two is very important because usually when someone says, “I am sorry you feel that way” or “that’s just how you see it” we are left upset or scratching our heads because it sounds like they don’t actually care to understand and want us to stop talking. Or maybe they do understand but they don’t plan on shifting their understanding of the experience. Isn’t that what we really want? For not only someone to understand us but to see what we see? I wanted and expected my dad to see what I saw. Especially since he was there! I was stunned because we all seemed to go through that together and yet we all emerged with totally different takes.
Cheryl Strayed wrote something about this concept and this post would be incomplete without it (a woman wrote in to ask Cheryl for advice on how to respond to people saying she should move in from her daughter’s death, full article here: https://therumpus.net/2010/07/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-44-how-you-get-unstuck/ )
…Don’t listen to those people who suggest you should be “over” your daughter’s death by now. The people who squawk the loudest about such things have almost never had to get over any thing. Or at least not any thing that was genuinely, mind-fuckingly, soul-crushingly life altering. Some of those people believe they’re being helpful by minimizing your pain. Others are scared of the intensity of your loss and so they use their words to push your grief away. Many of those people love you and are worthy of your love, but they are not the people who will be helpful to you when it comes to healing the pain of your daughter’s death.
They live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died.
It seems to me that you feel like you’re all alone there. You aren’t. There are women reading this right now who have tears in their eyes. There are women who have spent their days chanting daughter, daughter or son, son silently to themselves. Women who have been privately tormented about the things they did or didn’t do that they fear caused the deaths of their babies. You need to find those women, darling. They’re your tribe.
I know because I’ve lived on a few planets that aren’t Planet Earth myself.
The healing power of even the most microscopic exchange with someone who knows in a flash precisely what you’re talking about because she experienced that thing too cannot be over-estimated. Call your local hospitals and birth centers and inquire about support groups for people who’ve lost babies at or before or shortly after birth. Read Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. Find online communities where you can have conversations with people during which you don’t have to pretend a thing….
We all have our own planets that are very real to us. I lived on planet “My Parents’ Divorce Ruined My Mental Health As A Teenager” and my Dad lived on planet “I Did Everything Through The Midst of That Crazy Divorce To Not Drown and Love My Kids”. Slightly different experiences. I questioned whether my planet was real in the moment when time stopped. How could it be when a key part of the experience was saying it wasn’t real? We live in a culture that promotes heavily relying on external validation for so many things. How do I look? Am I smart? Am I healthy? Is my experience valid? Am I worth ___? That experience empowered me to validate my own experiences and that I didn’t need that confirmation from anyone or anything else. Sure this may not be “real” for my Dad, but it was very real for me. Just because he didn’t experience it that way doesn’t mean my experience was any more or less valid.
That is where the “true” part comes in. I am unsure of who coined this phrase but I’m sure my perspective is at least a little bit different. I have heard from people that use this phrase that if something isn’t “real” for everyone then it isn’t “true”. Consequently, my experience as a teenager is “real” but not “true”. I don’t believe in “God’s replay” (a man in the sky is watching our every move and knows what really happens everywhere from a totally neutral perspective). I don’t believe that anything is “True”. Or that that is even true! That may seem contradictory but I promise it isn’t. We all have our own planets that are very real and valid whether others agree or not. You are empowered to validate your own experiences.
I came to a place where I didn’t need my dad to understand my experience. I didn’t even want him to. I realized I felt the most hurt because it seemed like he brushed it off like it was nothing and that his perspective was the only one that mattered. This experience invited me to empower myself in being the only one I needed to understand, honor, respect and see my experience. I also want to extend this invitation to everyone else. Even if you meet someone who is on another planet in a different universe within a far off galaxy, that doesn’t mean you cannot hold space for them. By honoring, respecting and seeing their experience doesn’t mean you diminish or take power away from your own even if they directly contradict one another. Someone elses’ reality doesn’t “threaten” yours just because they don’t seem to align with one another. We don’t need to compete, especially in that way. There is space for everyone’s planet, perspective and reality. Pass this Love on to other people and let them do the same.
with unconditional love and space, katie
*name has been changed