My relationship with my father was great until I turned 12 and started forming my own opinions about the world around me.
My opinions were often different than his, and that’s when our disagreements began. In his sentimental moments, he’d say it was because we were too similar: strong character, opinionated, talkative, and we stand up for ourselves. Except things weren’t so good when I stood up to him.
After my parents split when I was 9, I often told my dad, a macho Latino immigrant, that I didn’t like his disrespectful comments about my mom or his objectifying commentary about women we’d pass while driving or walking down the street. Instead of acknowledging what I was saying, he’d get defensive and shrug me off by saying, “I’m not talking to you.” And then there was his favorite, “You’re so sensitive.”
Sensitive or not, I wanted respect.
Growing up in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area, I sensed the way my dad talked to me wasn’t the norm among my peers. I was aware that things he said in front of my younger brother and me weren’t considered appropriate by others, but regardless of what I said, he never acknowledged that he was in the wrong. His parenting style was protective, authoritative, and with an attitude of “father always knows best.”
As I started to mature into a responsible adult, he still viewed me as “daddy’s little girl.” He needed me to need him and look up to him in the same way I once had. I needed him to trust me, to let me spread my wings and do things my own way. After all, he’d raised me well. He’d taught me to think critically, to be brave and, inadvertently, to do things my way, just as he lived life his way.
“He needed me to need him and look up to him in the same way I once had. I needed him to trust me, to let me spread my wings and do things my own way.”
Then when I was 20, things came to a head. My dad and I went to the department of motor vehicles to transfer the title of a secondhand car he had purchased for me as a surprise birthday present. We had an argument in the DMV parking lot about how I didn’t do things his way. I was tired of our arguments and tired that he continually treated me like I wasn’t capable of doing things correctly when I’d given him no reason not to have confidence in me. I told my dad point-blank that we needed counseling.
Deep down, I was sure it was useless to say, but I couldn’t help myself. I felt like I had nothing to lose. I knew my idea would fall on deaf ears and possibly cause more issues between us ― and unsurprisingly, he did become upset.
My father was born in Chile in 1940 when talking to a professional about your problems was taboo. For him, therapy meant you had a mental illness. In his generation and culture, you didn’t talk to a stranger about your personal issues. You just dealt with them yourself or maybe you shared with a few select people you trusted. He often talked negatively about therapy, suggesting that therapists choose the profession because they have problems themselves.
“In his generation and culture, you didn’t talk to a stranger about your personal issues. You just dealt with them yourself.”
I always found his perspective absurd. For me, the real question was, and still is: Who doesn’t have problems they’re struggling with? Everyone does at various points in their lives. Sometimes a trained professional to help you through tough circumstances can be a lifesaver. Sometimes they simply provide a non-biased space in which to process what is going on. I’ve gone to counseling on my own and always found it to be helpful, providing me with perspective I hadn’t considered and allowing me to share my vulnerabilities.
A month after our argument — after not talking to each other because I refused to call him — he called me. I was shocked yet happy that he’d reached out. The first thing he said to me was, “You’re right, I think we need to go to counseling.” I was stunned. I never expected my father to admit we could use therapy, but I was ecstatic his relationship with me meant enough to him to consider it. He had looked into his health coverage, which provided 10 sessions with a co-pay.
Our therapist’s process was for each of us to have an individual session in the beginning. This gave my father and me a chance to explain why each of us was there, what was going on, and what we hoped to achieve. Afterward, she had us each fill out an intake form giving her more information about our issues and dynamics. Now we had eight sessions remaining.
The truth is, I was nervous. I knew counseling wouldn’t be easy. I was going to speak up about sensitive issues and wasn’t sure how my dad would react in front of a mediator.
Going to therapy requires time, attention and a willingness to be vulnerable and to listen to the other person. There’s no magic formula. We had moments of tears and moments of laughter. My father was a natural storyteller and loved to be in the limelight. In some ways, having a space to talk about himself with an attentive listener was a perfect fit (though he’d never admit it).
In our first session together, I was nervous about how he was going to react, yet I found the courage to say that I didn’t like his patronizing and negative comments about women. He listened and then he brought up the cultural argument that I had heard several times before: In his country, people aren’t as sensitive and those comments aren’t meant in a negative way.
“My dad had said so many times, ‘I’m too old to change’ ― he’d even said it while we were in therapy. I didn’t like hearing those words.”
When the therapist highlighted how his words affected me ― I had tears streaming down my face ― he paused. But he still didn’t comprehend my point of view and grasp that I wasn’t just being overly sensitive. He still didn’t see that he had raised me in a time and place that didn’t share that culture of machismo.
Even when he acknowledged my feelings, his behavior after therapy didn’t change dramatically. Over the course of our sessions, I began to see some progress and sometimes I walked out of a session feeling like things had shifted. But bigger changes can take time, and I didn’t start noticing them until long after counseling had ended.
As our sessions were nearing their close, I knew we needed more time. Yet I also knew my dad wouldn’t be open to the idea. First, he wouldn’t want to pay out of pocket for additional sessions. Second, he thought that if the medical establishment had given us 10 co-pay sessions, that should be “sufficient.” More importantly, I believe having a set number of sessions gave my dad the relief of an end date. He could commit to 10. He could do that for me. For us.
In our sessions, my dad had scratched the surface of traumatic experiences he endured when he was around 14 years old. I knew he should dive deeper into a challenging and emotionally vulnerable process. I also knew that admitting he needed individual therapy would be too hard for him. After all, my dad had said so many times, “I’m too old to change” ― he’d even said it while we were in therapy. I didn’t like hearing those words. I understand that as people age, they become more set in their ways but I interpreted his words as an excuse to absolve himself of the responsibility to change.
Our second-to-last session was split, each of us having one-on-one time with the counselor to wrap up our experience. I realized, and the therapist confirmed, that I had a crucial role to play in my relationship with my father going forward.
I would need to change. I had to shift my perspective and my expectations of my father.
“I realized, and the therapist confirmed, that I had a crucial role to play in my relationship with my father going forward. I would need to change.”
Going to therapy made me aware that I couldn’t share vulnerable pieces of myself with my father because he wasn’t capable of being there for me in that way. He never was. What I so desperately wanted from him ― connection on a more personal and emotional level ― he wasn’t able to give me. Therapy gave me the perspective to see that. After therapy, I changed my own behavior and stopped trying to share some aspects of myself in the interests of having a good relationship with him.
It was only a few years later, after his passing, that I realized how much culture had divided us. I’d never really understood the “cultural” rules that governed my dad’s life. I knew things at home were different from my peers’ families, but as a child, I couldn’t articulate or understand that difference.
Culture is something you can’t always see even when it has a huge presence. Although my father immigrated to California when he was 28 years old, he still maintained his culture at heart and often criticized the American way of doing things. Yet I don’t think it ever occurred to my dad that he needed to teach me his culture.
For example, one thing that was always my responsibility as a teenager and an adult was to initiate phone calls with my father. I found it frustrating and annoying because in the United States, calling is a two-way street. No one is keeping score of who called last. But when a week had passed and I hadn’t called, I’d get anxious because I knew that when I finally gave in and called him, he’d answer the phone by saying, “Who’s this?” I’d respond letting out a sigh, “Your daughter,” and he’d always reply sounding hurt, “I have a daughter, I didn’t know.”
“I don’t think it ever occurred to my dad that he needed to teach me his culture.”
When I didn’t call frequently, he interpreted this as a lack of caring and love for him. Even though he carried himself as a tough guy, my dad was a sensitive person. He had his own emotional baggage and didn’t know how to express himself without appearing vulnerable ― which would be a sign of weakness to him. Instead, he pushed me away with his words. I didn’t like the guilt trip or the constant sense of being responsible for his feelings. I simply couldn’t understand why he didn’t just call me. It seems so simple and yet it took me years to grasp the underlying cultural basis for our differing expectations.
Although the outcome of therapy may not have been what I hoped going in — his respecting me more and treating me like an equal — I realize my dad stepped out of his comfort zone to show his love for me. He had to push through his own biases, judgments and ideologies for the sake of our relationship. I realize now it wasn’t easy for him. He had to acknowledge there was a problem. For him, admitting that was a sign of weakness. For me, it was a sign of bravery.
I’ll always be grateful for that.
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