[Interview]
John – School Teacher Afraid to Get Too Close to His Daughter (and Women) Because of What Happened in His Childhood

Fifty-six year old school teacher

  • He’s the fourth of five children, with two brothers and two sisters
  • His one daughter, Emma, is eighteen years old
  • He divorced her mom when Emma was seven
  • He suffered through an overtly emotional mom and a difficult divorce

 

SELECTED QUOTES

“My mom did not get her intimacy needs met in her relationship with her husband and therefore was extremely clingy with her children… In a sense I was emotionally incested by her.”

“It scared me because my daughter was acting exactly the way I was when I was a kid.”

“Her mom ‘broke my heart’. I don’t think I’ve ever used that phrase in talking about her mom.”

“There’s a part of me that doesn’t feel like I particularly want to be my daughter’s confidant. That’s one of the things that my mother did with me, and I think it was not healthy.”


[INTERVIEW BEGINS]

Throughout your life, has it been easier to connect with men or women?

I think I have a long standing fear of women.  In particular I fear that I will too readily and unconsciously give up my power to women.

So on a certain level, there is just a low grade fear that causes me to be on eggshells around women.  I don’t feel threatened in the same way by men at all.

As a child, were you closer to your mom or your dad?

I’m going to say that I was closer to my mom.  I’m also going to say that in a sense, I was emotionally “incested” by her and it was not what I would categorize as a particularly healthy relationship.

My father was physically present.  He was always around… [because he] was a nurseryman and his business was where the family home was.

[But] he was, as many men of his generation, pretty categorically monosyllabic and cut off… at least talking about his emotions and being demonstrative about his emotions.

By the same token, he was also unusual in that he was a dad that actually did diapers and fed the kids and was very involved with his children.

My mom… I’ll describe her as a woman who did not get her intimacy needs met in her relationship with her husband, and therefore was extremely clingy with her children.

I felt like I got less attention and less love and less affirmation from my father, surely less than I wanted.  Therefore I was looking for affirmation from somewhere, and my mom was dishing it out for free.

On an unconscious level, I’m going to presume that one of the things that was happening [at home] is that all the other sibs were so grateful, “Mom’s clinginess and intrusiveness is being satisfied by John, that it lets me off the hook.”

[At the time] it didn’t feel like undesired attention.  It was only after I got to be a teenager and I was like, “Oh man, I need some privacy,” you know.  Emotional privacy.

[By] emotional privacy I mean… I can sit next to a man who’s in… abject fear, and then have my feelings of sadness, and sit next to a man who is happy.  The three of us can witness each other, but MY sadness doesn’t affect this man’s happiness, nor does this man’s fear affect my sadness.

In my house, it felt like my job was to try and figure out what emotion it was that my mom wanted me to have, and then I had that.

So if I felt anger, I was, uh… I felt like I was shamed.  So, you know, “John you know you should be able to let go of that.  You should be able to be happy, John.  Just be happy.”  So I pushed down my anger and put on a happy face.

What’s something you remember about your parents?

As kids, after we got old enough to know what sex was, we used to say that our folks made love four times, only four times and procreated four times.  [And that was] the only time they ever were intimate with each other…

In many senses they were oil and water.  It’s stunning to me that they stayed married for thirty-three years.  I mean, that’s partly because they married right after World War II… [so] divorce was not particularly accepted.  It wasn’t until the sixties or seventies that it started to become accepted, and my guess is that [my parents] never even considered the possibility when we were little,

What was it like at home with your parents?

I didn’t always feel safe in my own home when I was a kid.

Neither of my parents were particularly good at handling anger.  And my mom was an expert at being passive aggressive.

When my father would ask for dinner at a particular time, she would gently serve it five minutes later or ten minutes later, and do it consciously or unconsciously to irk him.  He would stew in his anger for a week or two weeks.  Then when she had bugged him enough, he would explode, and he’d throw dishes around the kitchen and stomp away from the dinner table.

I don’t think I really understood when I was young, but it’s part of my mission now and I understand what that means to be safe and feel safe and engender safety.

How did you meet your wife?

[After college, I was part of a] circle of friends. One of the guys’ girlfriends… invited a bunch of people out for a dinner.  I was one of the circle, and so I got invited.

That was the first time I ever met her.  I very much fell for her right away.  She had a boyfriend at the time, so I just bided my time and waited for that relationship to fall apart, which it did.  Then I made my intentions known.

What attracted you to your wife?

Personality… Personality, sense of humor and looks, I’m going to say in that order.

{Laugh} God knows [what she saw in me].  I’m going to guess that I was a better looking man twenty years ago, twenty-five years ago.

One of her attractions to me is that I give very good phone.  By that I mean I am a very good listener and, uh… I think she responded to that.

The beginning of our relationship was on the phone.  Her relationship with that previous boyfriend was starting to deteriorate.  I don’t remember if I asked her for her phone number or got it through one of the friends, but I started calling her up on the phone.  Just establishing a relationship.  We carried on for at least a couple of months, almost exclusively on the phone.

How long before you decided to get married?

The relationship was really more like, a year and a half.  It was pretty precipitous because both she and I had not married [before], both she and I were interested in having children, and both she and I were not young.  When we married in ’89 I was uh, thirty-six and she was thirty-two, so we were not kids.

How long was it before she got pregnant with your daughter?

All told, it would have been two years into the marriage before she got pregnant [with Emma].  We started trying before a year in the marriage, and [Emma] was born in ’91 in summer.

We made both boy names and girl names, and did not want to know the sex of the baby.  Both of us had a very strong belief that [if you] desire a boy and get a girl, [that] would be something that would be impossible to mask to a baby. It would be like putting energy out to the universe, that it’s not okay.

I know there’s no prescription for success in marriage…. Some people get married when they’re seventeen and sixteen, they live together and they’re married for seventy years, and are absolutely in love and infatuated with each other.  There’s other people that have ten years of marriage before kids come, and as soon as the first kid comes… the marriage falls apart. There’s just no ONE way that works.

I often think that if she and I had had a number of years before our daughter came, that it might have contributed to our being able to sustain a relationship.  I don’t know if that’s true.  Needless to say… we’re not married to each other anymore and neither she nor I are married [to anyone else].

Where you hoping for a boy or a girl, or did it make a difference?

Our wish was to have a healthy baby…

One of the things that I can say about her is that she was incredibly wanted, meaning both her mom and I were extremely excited about becoming parents and extremely intentional about being parents…

What was she like as a little child?

What was she like?  Geez, she was a joy. She was willful, she was intelligent…

I make a joke that they say the hardest thing for a parent is to recognize that the children are smarter than them.  The punch line is that I had that experience when my daughter was six months old.

She was socially and remains socially very cautious. She’s not the kid that would run up to a group of girls and say, let’s play jump rope.

As a student in first grade I’ll never forget…  You know, school had been going on for a month.  I was volunteering.  There’s nineteen kids talking and walking around the classroom and exploring and doing this and that.

[But] my daughter has her head bent down, her pencil in her hand.  She’s the only kid in the class that’s doing the assignment that the teacher assigned.  All of this is going on around her and she’s completely focused and oblivious to the distraction.

It scared me at first because I thought, that’s exactly the way I was when I was a kid.

I felt proud of her.  Yeah, I think the overwhelming… feeling was pride.

Um… it’s really interesting because one of the lessons that I got as a kid was that – from both of my parents, particularly my mom but both of my parents – was, I love you for what you DO, not for who you ARE, which I consider backwards.  [So] all my parenting years I’ve tried to give the exact opposite message to my daughter, which is that, I love you for who you are, not for what you do.

So, I was proud of her being such a focused, conscientious student, and I wanted to love her in spite of her being a spectacular student.

How old was your daughter when your marriage fell apart?

She was three-and-a-half, four when we separated and then at least, I’m going to say, three years passed before we actually dissolved the marriage.  That was mostly because her mom is, uh… particularly, uh… inattentive to things like legalities and paperwork and taking care of that kind of business.

I was kind of waiting for her to, because she began the separation and began the divorce. I was waiting for her to complete it [but] after a number of years, I said to myself, this is crazy.  Emotionally it’s important to me to finalize this.  I’m never going to reconcile with her and I’m never going to get back together with her. So I went ahead and completed the dissolution of the marriage.

Do you remember when she stopped being a girl and started becoming a young woman?

After her mom and I separated, she was more often than not, maybe every night, sleeping in her mom’s bed, and that was okay with her mom. Also, her mom welcomed… I’m going to call that, “closeness”.

When Emma finally was a little bit older and able to sleep over at dad’s house, she also needed to sleep in my bed, which she did for, oh, I don’t know how many, for at least a couple of years.

Then finally at some point, let’s say seven or eight or nine, she needed to sleep by herself.  I asked her to sleep by herself.

Then, about eleven or twelve… all of a sudden she needed to set a boundary and she wanted to be modest around dad. All of a sudden I couldn’t watch her change from clothes to PJ’s. And I couldn’t’ be in the bathroom when she went to pee.

You know, we basically didn’t have any locks on any rooms in the house and we’d be in and out of the bathroom, uh… with each other and changed in front of each other.

It was a non issue, it was no big deal.  Then all of a sudden at eleven, twelve she needed her privacy and she needed to express her modesty.

It made me a feel a little sad but I thought that’s good. It’s time for her to grow up. She’s growing up.

What do you think SHE remembers most about growing up?

For a number of years, I’m going to say [when she was] four, five, maybe even into six, she would express the desire for mom and dad to reconcile and to get back together.

I’m guessing that she had sadness around that. I think that by about six or seven [that] had extinguished.  I think at that point, she normalized it, that mom doesn’t live with dad.

She probably got to the point where she kind of forgot what it was like for mom and dad to live under the same roof.  She was pretty young.

Has your daughter been dating?

Um… she has permission to date.

She had one or two very brief boyfriend experiences in high school.

When people ask about that, does she have a boyfriend, um… my response is that… if I had been in high school with a kid like that, there is no way I would have had the courage to ask her on a date. 

When people ask about that, does she have a boyfriend… my response is that if I had been in high school with a kid like that, there is no way I would have had the courage to ask her on a date.

When Emma graduated high school she was five-foot-eight. She was taller than most of the boys. She graduated valedictorian in her class, so she was smarter than all the boys in her class, and she’s beautiful.

If I was a guy, I would be scared to death to ask a girl like that on a date.

In spite of that, she had a couple of brief boyfriends. but I don’t think it was anything ever serious.  My great hope is that that will change now that she’s in college, that she will begin to have male attention and the boys won’t be so intimidated by her.

[And now that she’s in college, my hope is] that she’ll be out from underneath the apron strings of her mother.

I think there’s something about her mother um… uh… being um… overly attentive, that’s caused my daughter to very much want to get out from underneath her apron string.

Does your daughter talk to you about boys?

Not like I’m her confidant.  Frankly I think that’s appropriate.  I don’t think that I should be her confidant.

Um… in fact, that’s one of the things that my mother did with me that… I think was detrimental.  I was my mother’s confidant until I was like fourteen or fifteen, and I think it was uh… not healthy.  So there’s a part of me that doesn’t feel like I particularly want to be my daughter’s confidant.

I talked about the method, that I love you for who you are, not for what you do. That’s one of what I call the good-mother and the good-father messages.

Another good-father message that’s also different from what I got when I was a kid was that I give you permission to be sexual.  I give you permission to be a sexual being.

When I was a kid I was taught uh… expressly and, um… and… expressly and… implicitly and explicitly that I was supposed to like nice girls.  I was supposed to like girls that were, you know, “personality” girls.

[But] there was a part of me that very much liked trashy girls because they were forbidden. [So] for my daughter, my wish is that she will have permission to be sexual but not be ashamed of being sexual.

Does the subject of your ex-wife come up with your daughter?

I’m very devoted to my daughter and very much in touch with her. [But] I am almost incommunicado with her mom. I mean I can go six months, I can go a year and not actually speak to her and that’s fine.  I mean uh… our relationship is probably barely civil.

In other words, we are not friends and I don’t suspect we ever will be friends and it’s okay. I frankly see it mostly as her choice that she continues to be bitter. I don’t know why but…

Is the relationship with your daughter positive or negative now?

Extremely positive and has been forever.

There are rare instances when she and I had difficulty and, um, her senior year in high school…

It’s an interesting dynamic that has started to happen.  She started to butt heads with her mom more and more, and she talked about it. [She] would reveal to me, you know, “Mom’s driving me crazy.  She won’t let me go out on Saturday night,” and you know, things like that.

I would try to be a non-judgmental listening ear… Because one of the important things that happened when I was a kid that I actually learned about from my parents – when my parents split, I was young twenty’s – and my mom had trashed my father from, you know… those years when I was her confidant.  That was one of the things that she confided with, how unhappy she was in the marriage and what a jerk he was.

It was not until I was in my thirties or forties that I realized how inappropriate that was.  She was talking about my father and that was absolutely a violation of a huge boundary that she had sort of taken me in as her ally, that she can dump on my father to me.

[So] when my daughter’s mother and I split, it was really important to me that I refrain from expressing any negative judgment in Emma’s earshot, in my daughter’s earshot.

Um… so that Emma, my daughter, can know that her parents don’t get along but it’s not anything that she has to reconcile or hold any mediative energy about. It’s not her job to make us be amicable with each other.

[So she understands] that does not get in the way of her mom loving her and me loving her.

Can you think of a time when your daughter really needed you as a dad?

What I said to Emma when she started to bang heads with her mom in this most recent year was that, um… if the roles had been reversed and she had lived primarily with me and her mom was the Disneyland mom, the Disneyland parent that got to see her every other weekend and didn’t get to be the disciplinarian.

[If her mom were the one that] got to… bring her gifts and take her on trips and do all this special stuff instead of the day-to-day packing the lunches and making sure her homework was done, etc.., then it’s very possible that she would have been banging heads with me and her mom would have been the one that looked like the great parent.

How have you impacted your daughter’s life?

I think a lot of children idolize their parents. When I see instances of that in my daughter, when I see moments when I get that she, you know, worships me, it elates me [but] it also just gives me pause, because I don’t think of myself as worthy of worship.

Then I think, but that’s appropriate.  All kids worship their parents.  All kids think that their mom is the most beautiful and that their dad is the strongest and their mom is the smartest and their dad is the bravest.

I suspect, what I don’t want is for Emma to think, my dad’s perfect and I will only hang out with boys that are as spectacular as my dad, because I’m not.  I feel very much like a regular Joe.

At times of stress, uh… there’s times that I’ve wounded her.  The reconciliation is that… I’ll apologize, and she’ll crumble into my lap and just cry and want to be held.

She still doesn’t ask in words [if something is bothering her].  But she still will sit on my lap and will still occasionally cry in my arms.  I cherish that. She may not do that many more times.

What do you think a daughter really wants from her dad?

Safety, arms to be held, yeah, to be protected…. from the big scary world.  To my daughter, scary – and I’m guessing here – scary is, not knowing anybody, being in a place surrounded by strangers.

One of the primary things [I can give her as a dad] – I reiterate to her and I hope that she gets – is a lesson I didn’t get when I was a kid.  That it’s important for her to recognize what SHE wants, and to be brave enough to ask for it.

It comes up in the most conspicuous thing.  Even in high school…

“Sweetie, you probably have friends that smoke cigarettes. And you may even have friends that smoke dope.  You may already have been offered to smoke dope.  I don’t know what you’ve done.  The fact is, I’m not going to be there when it’s offered to you.  You can’t turn to me and say, dad what should I do?  So what I want you to do is to pause and ask yourself what YOU want.  Don’t smoke dope because it’s what your friends want.  [I don’t want you to smoke dope, but if you choose to smoke the dope], smoke the dope because it’s what you want.  Make a decision based upon what you want.”

“You’re going to do and you’re going to experiment with what you’re going to experiment with.  And neither your mom nor I are going to be there.  So you’re going to have to make your own decisions.  I just want you to be sure that you counsel with yourself.”

What’s been easiest or most difficult about your relationship with your daughter?

Being a husband was very difficult, [but] being a father was very easy [compared to that].

Everything about being a father feels right, feels natural. In every instance, when I am being a father, parenting in her presence, I feel empowered, more so than in anything else I do in my life.

My heart goes out to, not only fathers but also mothers, parents that I’ve talked to that say, “Oh my god, kids drive me crazy, it’s really hard for me.”

There are things that are difficult.  The most difficult thing about being a parent for me is to let go.  The most difficult thing, god forbid, would be that I would outlive my daughter.  That is the ultimate having to let go.

When her mom and I were pregnant with her, we said to each other, we wish for a healthy baby, that literally this is God’s child.  God is loaning this child to us.

We may have this child for nine months and he or she may be stillborn.  We may have the child for a year and [then] she would die from, you know, instant crib death or whatever they call it.  We could have this child for twenty years and then she would die.

All of that would be God’s will and we surrender to that.

[So] we are grateful and thankful and blessed for the time we get to have with her.

All of that is a way to let go, and it is the hardest thing that I’ve done as a father, to let go and to continually let go, and to practice letting go.

Not having her live under my roof, seeing her every other weekend, having to continually say goodbye to her and not see her for two weeks at a time… has been sort of practice, consistent practice in letting go of her.  It’s still the hardest thing.

Have you made mistakes with your daughter?

Oh yeah.  Discounting her feelings.  She tells me, “I feel a certain way,” and I say, “Oh well, you couldn’t feel that way.”

[Or my] wanting to encourage her modesty and going overboard complementing her friends, to her great pain.  That’s something I did repeatedly.

She’d come home with straight A’s and her best friend who was not half the student she was, would get two A’s.  And I’d be effusive to her best friend and say, “Oh my gosh.  Look at your report.  It’s fantastic.  You did great.  Look at you.”  [But] I wouldn’t be equal with the complements to my daughter and she’d feel like her straight A’s were not as good as her best friend’s two A’s.  Does that make sense?

I recognize my own fallibility, that I’m going to make mistakes with my daughter.  That’s exactly as it should be, because I’m a human and it’s okay to make mistakes.  It’s even okay to wound my own child [inadvertently].  The desire is just to continue to increase my consciousness and improve.

I don’t want to [have to] be a perfect dad.  That’s too much of an onus.

Is there something you wish you could have changed in your own life”

I wish I had been more attentive to my marriage. Made more of an effort in my marriage, to see if there was a chance that it could have been sustained.  To give my daughter a longer, more stable home with two parents.  She did okay and, um…

I don’t owe it my daughter so much as I owe to myself and to the woman I chose as a partner, to have made more of an effort.

What could you tell your daughter about you that she doesn’t know or understand?

Hmmm…  I could talk to her about my fear of women. I have never discussed that with her.

My hit is that it’s a little premature, you know.  But it must be apparent to her that, since her mother and I broke up eleven years ago, I have had very few girlfriends… relationships.  I have mostly been alone.  I suspect that… she is adversely furious about it and likely wishes that I could find somebody to love.

If your daughter knew that about you, how might that affect her?

The first thing that comes up [when I think about that is], she might see her mom as a dangerous person…  She would see that her mom “broke my heart,” for instance.

I don’t think that I’ve ever used that phrase with my daughter in talking about her mom. That I am continuing to be wounded.

What effect it would have on my daughter, to know that about me or have that understanding, would be to show her that her dad is wounded in love, that his heart is wounded and that her mom is a dangerous person.

I’m guessing there’s a part of her that is protective of her dad, perhaps… Yeah, that she sees on some level the “woundedness” of her dad and, you know, wants to make sure he’s not hurt further, wants to protect him.

[On the other hand]. I think she’s a typical human being in that she’s basically self-absorbed.  During her day, she doesn’t walk around saying, what’s going on with dad, what’s going on with mom.

Basically she’s thinking, what’s going on with me.

I don’t think she loses sleep over what “woundedness” I may have, or what trials and tribulations are in my life.  And I’m thankful for that.  I don’t think that would be appropriate.

What advice do you have for a new dad with a daughter?

{Laugh} I’m not real big into particularly [giving] unsolicited advice.

[But] just relax and appreciate it as much as you can.  Because she’ll grow up.

Basically, I believe that all a daughter wants from her dad is an open heart… an open ear… support… protection, a safe place.  When [my daughter’s] forty years old and I’m eighty, I’m hoping that she can still get that from me.

[There’s] only thing you need to provide.  You don’t have to worry about money, you don’t have to worry about toys, you don’t’ have to worry about cars, you don’t have to worry about boys. If you provide love, everything else will take care of itself.

How would your life be different if you had never had your daughter?

I cannot imagine how empty it would feel for me.  I know how filled up I feel by being a father.  I know how much I identify as a father and how I identify with other fathers.  I can’t imagine what my life for the last nineteen years would have been had she had not been conceived.

Any final thoughts about being a dad?

[Before my daughter was born] I had fantasies of having ten children and running and skipping through fields of wheat with wildflowers.  And having these children giggling and laughing and running with me and surrounding me and tumbling into a ball and hugging and rolling and kissing and singing songs.

So, there’s a part of me that would have loved to have more children.  I may still. Anthony Quinn (famed actor reported to have had twelve children from numerous wives) is one of my heroes.

[INTERVIEW ENDS]

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