My dad was a disappointment

I RANG my dad this week.

I rang him from the car because it was an efficient use of time. I rang him because I haven't spoken to him for six months.

I'm not estranged from my dad. We speak. Intermittently. But he's not the dad I'd hoped for. When I think of him I feel disappointment. He wasn't a bad dad; he was simply emotionally unavailable.

As a child he never seemed to delight in me. He didn't remember the names of my friends, he rarely gave me a hug and one year he forgot how old I was, returning home from the local swimming centre with a season pass that declared I was 10. I'd turned 11 months earlier.

As I grew older I tried to get him to notice me. If I could win the swimming race or give a moving school speech or work for the most prestigious newspaper in the country then perhaps he'd finally see me.

When I had my first front page story, I pointed out my name - our name - under the headline. "You're writing about a giraffe," he laughed, clearly unimpressed that I'd been tasked with reporting on the zoo. He stabbed a finger at the lead political story: "When are you going to cover the real news?"

Sir Anthony Hopkins recently spoke about his long estrangement from his daughter Abigail Hopkins (pictured with him in 1991). (Pic: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Sir Anthony Hopkins recently spoke about his long estrangement from his daughter Abigail Hopkins (pictured with him in 1991). (Pic: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

In terms of parental failure, it's small stuff. Barely warrants a mention. But for decades I strung these hurts around my heart as others might thread silver charms on to a bracelet.

I envied a friend whose dad took her out for lunch each month, gaped incredulously when an editor told me he'd helped his daughter choose her formal dress and watched movies featuring loving fathers and daughters as if they were a country I'd never visit.

I'm not the only one. Plenty of my generation have rubbish relationships with one or both of their parents. Age doesn't dull the disappointment; becoming parents ourselves only reinforces the hurt indelibly inked on our psyches.



I have a friend who travelled from Australia to the UK to catch up with his dad only to be told that dinner was sufficient - there was no need for them to have breakfast the following morning. There's the girlfriend who, on her wedding day, overheard her mother telling a relative that she was surprised her daughter hadn't lost a bit of weight for the big day.

Even now she can't hear the word "porky" without experiencing a stab of pain. There's the dad of two who can tell you everything about his representative rugby game at the age of 13 - the strip he was wearing, the weather, the score.

He remembers proudly giving his dad the ticket and how he kept looking up into the stands to the seat where his dad should've been sitting. The man never turned up - for that game or any other.

When he died three years ago, father and son hadn't spoken for more than 20 years. The old man had never met his grandchildren.

Sir Anthony Hopkins recently spoke of a similar estrangement from his daughter. He didn't know if his only child, Abigail, had children and did not care "one way or the other". He claimed it didn't bother him that she didn't want to be part of his life, that it was "just the way it is".

Drew Barrymore with her mother Jaid in 2000.
Drew Barrymore with her mother Jaid in 2000.

I don't buy it. The actor wouldn't be talking about it if he didn't care. Estrangement contradicts everything elemental about love and family. It ruptures the basic human need for emotional attachment and connection. One academic characterises it as "a bloodline version of divorce that leaves us with phantom limbs."

Drew Barrymore has been tortured for decades by her estrangement from her mother.

"It's the hardest subject in my life," she's said. "I've never just been angry with her. I've always felt guilt and empathy and utter sensitivity."

For many, reconciliation is not an option but I wonder, for some, if it is. A recent survey revealed that most estrangements are instigated not by a disapproving parent, but by their son or daughter.

What if we took the lead, if we subverted the dynamic and became the grown up? What if we placed our anger and disappointment in the bottom drawer - hidden but not forgotten - and replaced it with forgiveness?

What if we tried to understand why our parents are like they are. What made them so? What happened to them?

Last week a friend was telling me of his awful relationship with his mother. From what he relayed, she didn't have the emotional equipment to repair, to care, to nourish the open wound of their relationship into a scar.

"But you do," I told him. "You have the skills."

And that's why I rang my dad. Because when I peek past my own pain I can see a softer picture. I see a boy who stuttered, a left-hander who was forced to write with his right, a kid who never bonded with his own dad because he was away fighting in the war for the first years of his life.

Dad and I had a really good chat. The best in years. Most of all, I could tell he was glad to hear from me.

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