There are superheroes among us. Disguised as ordinary moms and dads, members of this league of extraordinary parents change diapers, pack lunches, and tuck kids in at night just like the rest of us. But behind the scenes, they battle forces of darkness none of us can see.
My dad was one of these superheroes. I was unaware of it through much of my childhood, though the signs were there. I don’t remember when I first took note of the cape tucked neatly under his sweater vest, but by the time I left home, I had some idea of how much time and energy he spent fighting the villains in his head.
Growing up, I heard stories and parts of stories. A grandfather beating his wife before chasing his sons down an alley with his police pistol. A mother plagued by alcoholism and anger. Six siblings from six different fathers. A precious violin smashed to pieces in a drunken rage. Bit by bit, the picture of my father’s upbringing was painted in blacks and blues. He didn’t tell us everything—just enough to give us a sense of where he came from. Superheroes must keep some secrets, after all.
Now that I have three kids of my own and a keen understanding of how difficult parenting can be under the best of circumstances, I recognize my dad for the cycle-breaking hero that he was. I’m well aware that the hell he lived through as a kid, simply by being born into a wounded family, could easily have been my own fate. The cycles of addiction and abuse, the inheritance of personal and parental tools in need of serious repair, the passing down of bitterness and rage like family heirlooms—I’ve witnessed these phenomena in other families over the years. It’s the easiest thing, for mortals to be human.
But at some point, my dad stepped into a phone booth and vowed to be more than the sum of his upbringing. He took on the monsters that followed him and declared war on the dysfunctional demons he carried. He chose to give his children the childhood he didn’t have.
And for the most part, he succeeded. I remember fun family vacations, laughter around the dinner table, prayers and hugs at bedtime. I can still see my dad giggling to the point of tears when my brother announced his pet rock pooped on the floor. I can smell his famous hash browns cooking with Stevie Wonder blaring on the record player Sunday mornings. I can hear his voice filling the room at choir concerts, plays, awards ceremonies, and graduations (“That’s my daughter!”). He was always proud of me. I always knew I was loved, deeply and sincerely.
But there were battle scars he couldn’t hide. I remember watching him leave in the evening to attend ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) meetings and wondering what went on there. I recall pleasant but wary visits with uncles and grandparents and a dim awareness of extended family member drama. I still feel the grief of my dad’s beloved younger brother’s suicide when I was 10—too young to understand that my sweet, funny uncle had been fighting the same war as my dad, but had lost.
And I did witness occasional losing battles—jaws clenched, eyes flashing as the demons surfaced, changing the weight of the air in the room. I remember moments when my mother (a superhero in her own right) calmly tamed those monsters. I remember staring them down myself once, begging my father to fight harder before he silently carried the beasts off to battle alone. He always apologized for battles lost.
But I remember many more battles won. Struggle and strength manifested in deep breaths and strained brows. There was a speed and energy to his movements when he took on the rage monster. I instinctively knew to step lightly, to give him space to build his fortresses, and strategize without distraction. In time, I discovered some of his weapons—faith, prayer, books, routine, decompression time, classic rock albums—and saw how much easier the fight was if he kept them well-maintained and at the ready.
I know it wasn’t easy. I’m sure he feels he failed us in some ways. My dad wasn’t perfect—it’s true. But neither is any parent, or superhero, for that matter. All have their kryptonite. But the fact that he kept returning to that phone booth defines his fatherhood for me. I admire my dad for many reasons, but none so much as his courage and fortitude on his internal battlefield.
I’ve met others like him in my adult life, and they all amaze me. It takes superhuman strength and stamina to fight the good fight every day, to drown out the dysfunctional dialogue in your head, to overcome anger and abuse. Cycle-breaking parents face a megalopolis of tall buildings, and those single bounds have got to be exhausting.
So if you are a parent from a wounded background striving to raise your kids differently, if you are silently waging your own battles the rest of the world can’t see, I want you to know that you are awesome. Parenting is damn hard, even with good psycho-emotional tools, so naturally it may feel impossible sometimes. But you’ve got this. Keep choosing that phone booth. Don’t give up.
When you feel weary, remember this: The rewards for your efforts to break the cycle of abuse are vast and far-reaching. You are protecting your own family, yes, but your feats also positively impact society at large. Raising kids with minimal damage is a gift to the world. Seriously. How many great thinkers and potential trailblazers have been held back by the scars of their upbringing? How much of the pain people inflict on one another is a byproduct of generations of abuse or neglect?
So wear that cape proudly, cycle breakers. Don’t be afraid to give your kids clues to your “secret” identity. You don’t have to tell them everything, but offer them a sense of what you go through in order to shield them from the darkness. I am so grateful to my dad for tackling those demons for me. Your kids will thank you, too.