When I was born, babies were kept away from families for awhile. Even the mother didn’t have a lot of time with the baby right after birth. For the most part, the babies spent their time in a nursery, separated from visitors by a huge sheet of glass.
I’m one of those babies in the nursery above. I’ve been told that I was the one on the front left, but I can’t be sure of that. The man you see reflected in the glass — the one in the short-sleeve dress shirt and tie — was my father. For days, he couldn’t hold his first-born child — and I’m told that he spent hours watching me, just like this.
My father could be a very loving man at times. Because I had to go so many years without being able to talk about his terrifying narcissistic side, you’ve heard me speak quite a bit this year — since he died in April — about the awful side of growing up with him.
But when I look at a picture like this from my baby book — with him longing to hold and love his new son — it breaks my heart, because it reminds me how much he wanted to love me and how much he wanted me to love him.
How would my life have been different if my father hadn’t suffered from narcissistic personality disorder? And how much would my life have been different if my mother hadn’t been pushed to a breakdown by his treatment of her?
When I’m able to put aside the horrible memories I have of childhood — the fear and the shame that were so much a part of my life — I can remember another side of him. I can remember when he was compassionate and loving and kind. I can remember moments of being proud of him and times of feeling love and caring for him.
When I can look past my feelings of having been abandoned by my mother — who you might remember left us for him to raise — I remember a brilliant, loving and creative soul. I remember someone who read to us tenderly and talked with us about everything under the sun. I can remember moments of feeling loved and contented.
I wonder what life might have been like if there had been more of those good moments and less of the bad. Since it’s impossible to replay the past, it’s a useless question, but it still haunts me.
In Sufjan Stevens’ brilliant album, “Carrie and Lowell,” he spends a lot of emotional energy looking back at his childhood with his dysfunctional mother, so that album really resonated with me. In the song “Should Have Known Better,” he expresses what I often feel about my thoughts about my past:
I should have known better
Nothing can be changed
The past is still the past
The bridge to nowhere
Nothing I say or do or think can change anything that happened. So why do I feel so driven to think about it?
Maybe this is ridiculous, but I think it’s because I want to get right what he got wrong. He had so much potential — as a person and as a father — but he was torn apart by emotional demons that he didn’t understand. Something happened in his family which caused him to be broken — and he never recovered. He died alone because he drove away everyone who had wanted to love him.
My father was about to turn 30 when I was born. When I look back at who I was at 30, I fear that I would have been a lousy father at the time. I hadn’t matured enough, but mostly I hadn’t come to understand what I had been through. I hadn’t dealt with my baggage. I fear that I would have been a lot like he was as a father if I had had children back then — and that makes me sad.
I always knew I wanted kids, but I never felt the time was right when I was married back then. For the sake of whatever children I might have had then, I’m glad I waited. I think something inside me knew better.
I have gone through a lot of change and growth, especially over the last 10 years. I’m not the same person I was at 30. I’ve confronted a lot of demons and seen a lot of my shortcomings. I know I would be a different father now than I would have been then. I hope I get the chance to be a father soon.
My parents both wanted to be good parents, but both of them had serious flaws. What I’ve learned is that flaws don’t mean you have to be a bad parent. They just mean you have to be mature enough to confront who you are and who the other person is — and make sure the children are in an environment conducive to their emotional health, whether that’s with the parents or without them.
I can’t relive my life with healthy parents, but I do replay how things should have been different. I will try to get right the things they got wrong. I won’t be perfect, but I hope knowing their flaws — and knowing what their flaws did to their children — can let me get right a lot of things that went very wrong in our home.
I just have to find a woman to be their mother who understands this, too, and is as committed to their emotional health as I am. Maybe that’s a fantasy, but it’s one I hope to make come true.