The absence of my father in the past couple of years has not meant the absence of awkward expectation or the immediate absolution of all the emotional garbage I carry around as the child of a narcissist. Life delights in presenting a myriad of circumstances to constantly challenge and question that which we think we know.
There was the time this summer when he had acquired Easter Equine Encephalitis, which has a 1 in 3 mortality rate. My sister shot off a text to me to let me know, which sent me into a bit of a tailspin. I got to look at what it might feel like if he was on his death bed. What would I do? What I did was… nothing. Had he actually been dying, perhaps I would have tried to see him. My step-mother didn’t even reach out to my sister until he was on the mend. And me? I heard nothing from them.
I have to remind myself that I have not done anything wrong by them in my adult life, ever, except not meet a status quo that is ever changing and elusive. At almost 40 I continue to be treated as if I had just talked back or missed curfew when I was 16. This treatment is so normative from them that I actually forget that I’m not ‘wrong’ as a person, they just perceive me that way.
While the holidays are less fraught with dread than they once were, there is still uncertainty. The last two years he has sent gifts to the kids via my sister. I don’t want them. Not because I don’t appreciate them, but because I would far prefer he buy himself a couple boxes of insight and humility. It would mean so much more if he actually took the time to be part of my family instead of constantly expecting me, us, to come to him, to pony up to his expectations only to be guaranteed some kind of slight or hurt.
A few years ago, when my sister and niece first moved in with her boyfriend and his 3 kids, we had Christmas with my dad and step-mother at my sister’s house. I only had 2 kids at the time. The Man was newly living with us. The kids were opening their gifts from my father and step-mother. There were lovely necklace and earring sets for my niece and my sister’s ‘step-daughters’ and big, expensive Nerf guns for my oldest and my sister’s ‘step-son’. And for my daughter, the beautiful heart that she is, so loving and accepting of any and everyone – they got her a cheap $10 baby doll from the junk toy section at Wal-Mart. My throat feels tight even thinking about it now, almost 5 years later.
My daughter did not grow in my body but she has been mine since before she was born. I was part of the planning, conception, pregnancy and her birth. I was the first person to see her perfect, rose bud lips, to rub the vernix into her skin while they helped her to breath, to touch and hold her while my ex was in recovery, to feel my heart ripped out when they whisked her to the NICU even though I was hot on their heels. I spent every moment in that NICU until they finally discharged her to be with us. I am her mother in every way possible for me to be. Their $10 gift can’t take that away. Their ignorance can’t evaporate my love for her.
She was 4 when this happened. She didn’t notice. My sister did. My sister slid extra gifts her way, gifts that were from my sister, because that cheap $10 doll was the only thing her ‘grandparents’ got her that year. Because of that, I didn’t even notice right away. But she’s 9 now. She would notice. I would notice.
So, their gifts? I don’t want them. Anything from them, however detached from the source, is dirtied with judgment. Anything they have to give, that they’ve ever had to give, doesn’t come from a place of altruism and love. They don’t know us and they don’t even really try.
How do I set that boundary without being seen as a ‘ungrateful’? As that question comes into my consciousness the answer follows close behind – ‘you can’t’. They will always see me as not enough – not grateful enough, not pleasant enough, not pretty enough, not silent enough, not like them enough. That line is too heavy to tow, it always has been.
When I even think about communicating with him I start to get tripped up. I pre-apologize for how my words might sound, try to side-step land mines that may or may not be there, do the dance. It’s that same dance I said I wouldn’t do anymore, couldn’t do anymore. I’m not responsible for how he feels. That’s big. That’s a hard thing for a child of a narcissist to understand because we’ve been so conditioned to the opposite. Never being allowed autonomy, and being shamed for attempting it, is incredibly damaging – and I’m learning, that damage has been a stain on my heart for far too long.
When I was a child I was conditioned to believe that my voice didn’t matter, that I was only worthy of love if I put myself into a box whose shape was always changing. As an adult, I continued to choose to live within that narrative. I’m finally learning I don’t have to, that the perceived safety of silence and quiet are preventing me from living fully, and am actively working to change that.
I’m only responsible for my own feelings, my own behavior. I can set boundaries with love and without judgement. What other people then do with that is up to them. I will never be able to control the destiny of someone else’s happiness. That, too, is up to them just has my happiness is up to me.
I don’t know if I’ll set the boundary with him this year and say “no thank you” to gifts. I don’t know if I have the strength to do it and still maintain my integrity, my autonomy. I might only have the strength to, again this year, let things unfold as they will. Whatever I choose – and yes, doing nothing is a choice – I will work hardest at being okay with it because regardless of what my father or anyone else thinks, I’m okay just as I am. I have to believe this in order to survive.