I walked down the stairs, nervous as all hell. It was prom night, and as a vulnerable teen, I cared deeply about how I looked in my fancy dress from Macy’s. I saw my dad at the bottom of the stairs and innocently asked him what he thought of my appearance. As I waited with bated breath for my father’s answer, I watched him look me over with a slight smile, shrug his shoulders, and casually say, “You look fine.”
My heart sank with those three disappointing words. Here I was, all dolled up and feeling like Cinderella when she sticks on the glam clothes for the first time. In that moment, I wanted my dad to shower me with the praise I so desperately needed. The response I got from him was nothing new. My dad has struggled with expressing his emotions and thinking positively for a long time. But as a kid, I just remember waiting for the day when he’d surprise me.
Valentine’s Day in our house was no different. My mom was the queen of every damn holiday and spared no expense to make our dreams come true with fun gifts, elaborate decorations, and an endless assortment of delicious homemade food. My father was a totally different story. After receiving a Valentine’s Day gift basket from my mom that included a festive red sweater to wear for school, I waited for whatever my dad was going to give me when he got home from work.
Nearly every year went down like this: He’d awkwardly walk up our front yard, his arms filled with some flowers for my mom and a bunch of cards. Every single damn V-Day, I’d open up the pink envelope and find the card signed simply, “Love, Dad” and a Victoria’s Secret gift certificate tucked into it. The first time I received it, I wondered what the fuck a bra store has to do with Valentine’s Day.
When I asked my dad to explain to me why a 14-year old even needed a gift certificate to Victoria’s Secret on this particular day, he’d do the same exact shrug he always resorted to and clumsily mention something about knowing that girls need nice underwear. I’d awkwardly joke about his response, feeling pretty fucking uncomfortable the whole time. We’d go our separate ways, and that would be the end of nearly every Valentine’s Day.
Between my mom’s gratuitous indulgence in holiday gift-giving and my father’s lack of everything in the celebration department, I was left totally confused as to how I was supposed to enjoy Valentine’s Day with a partner in the future. It didn’t help that I never seemed to see my parents kiss, slow dance, exchange romantic gifts, or go on dates together. As I got older, I’d waver between wanting the huge, glitzy expressions of love my mom had showered me with at the holidays and just hoping to have the genuine moments of loving connection I lacked with my dad. It’s also taken a long ass time for me to realize that romantic love doesn’t need to be a big production to be real, and it’s also been a work in progress to learn how to advocate for what I truly want from my husband during special moments.
It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve really begun to understand why my dad struggles to be more authentic with his feelings or easily dole out the compliments. He’s been suffering from generalized anxiety disorder for many years, and it takes up a lot of mental space inside of his head. Add to that the fact that he grew up without the proper example of parental love that was consistently nurturing and emotionally connected, and you have the makings of a father who doesn’t know what the fuck to say to his daughter when it’s time to get gushy.
My relationship with my dad was strained for much of my early years due to enduring a ton of childhood trauma that he didn’t know how to help me with. I often felt abandoned by him at the very moments when I needed protection, support, and stability, because he worked long hours at the law practice he devoted his life to. I felt second to his work, obsessively overachieved to prove to him how lovable I was, and constantly believed that he just didn’t care about me.
All of that changed when I moved out of my mom’s house at 19 and decided to live with my father for the first time. I didn’t initially want to be there, but the fighting with my mother had gotten so dysfunctional that I needed to go somewhere else. I remember us having endless talks where I took my dad to task and aired out all of my grievances to him. He’d sit there patiently, listen to my tearful rants, and give me what I had longed for every Valentine’s Day. My father validated my feelings, took responsibility for his actions, and sincerely apologized to me. He even started seeing a therapist to work through his challenges as a dad and human.
Not only did my father show up for all of his counseling sessions, but he also opened himself up to medication once he was officially diagnosed with anxiety. At the time, I was still a young adult and didn’t fully believe mental health disorders were a real thing. To be honest, I thought my dad was just using it as an excuse to get away with some less than desirable behavior. But then, as a new mom, I was diagnosed with the triple whammy of complex PTSD, anxiety, and depression and realized that I was so fucking wrong to assume that my father’s mental health struggles were just a story he told everyone.
When my dad saw me going through the darkest days of my own parenthood journey, he urged me to see a counselor to feel better. And because of his personal lived experience of showing up for his own anxiety, I felt the courage to do it.
So often, we think that the destructive moments in our parenting journey have the potential to make or break how our children feel about us and themselves. The therapist my dad encouraged me to see gave me a powerful response to this that I’ll hold closely to my heart forever. She said that the repair is often as important – or more important – than the tear. In other words, showing up in the moments after we screw up and embodying empathy, understanding, and responsibility for our words and actions can often add a surprising layer of authenticity in how we raise our children. And they will be more resilient, empowered, and seen for it.
My dad may not have known how to model emotional vulnerability for me during childhood, but he is definitely making up for lost time now. These days, he fills cards with genuine words of affection and encouragement. He’s sure to say “I love you” as much as possible. He tells me he’s proud of me, how much he believes in the work I do, and that I deserve to feel good always. He still struggles daily with anxiety, and I’m sure to share with him everything I learn from the counseling journey he originally helped me begin.
Because of my dad, I unexpectedly learned how important it is to share how you feel, tell the people you care about how much you love them, lift others up with your words, and show up when you’ve made a mistake. I also learned to avoid Victoria’s Secret for all eternity because my father’s gift cards basically scarred me for life. But I finally understand what he was trying to convey when he gave them to me. He was struggling to tell me what he most likely knew deep down – that I deserve to feel loved, take care of myself, and celebrate who I am. I am beyond grateful that, in lieu of these cards, he just says it to me now in person.