On Fathers and Failed Relationships: Part 2

Sunday April 12th. My birthday. I was enjoying the company of some friends who are incredibly near and dear to me. I could hear my phone "ding" with messages in my purse, as it had been doing since the morning. I don't think I had felt this loved in a while. I felt whole and complete, and thankful for the blessings that the day had brought.

During a brief intermission from our rambunctious laughter, I decided to check my phone. I scrolled through the messages on the lock screen, and paused.

My dad had texted me.

"Salaam Sameera jaan. Happy birthday to a very special and only daughter. 33 years ago when the nurse put you in my arms that was the best thing that happened to our lives. I want to tell you and don't forget that I am very proud of you."

I haven't spoken to my father in 18 months. I had asked him to not call or text message because I wasn't ready to speak with him yet. But when I read his message, in my euphoric and blessed state, I decided to do something I hadn't done, which was text message him back. I had also been feeling guilty about not speaking to my own father. I have never done anything remotely like this to anyone in my life, let alone my own parents. The religious guilt was amplified that weekend when I attended half of an Islamic event on Dua (prayer) and one lesson was around maintaining ties of kinship.

So I texted him back a few words.

"Salaam, thanks dad"

Even though I know my dad very well, I still had the anticipation that he would use this occasion - the first time in 18 months his daughter had communicated something to him - to continue the conversation. To ask me how I was, to tell me that he missed me, to say sorry that he had learned about my divorce from my ex-husband, something.

It's a week later and I still haven't received anything.

I was furious at myself for thinking that my dad had changed. I should have realized this pattern - this chase that has always occurred between us. I expect him to be the father I've always wanted, yet all I've ever received are Hallmark-esque greetings in my birthday cards, graduation cards, or my wedding card.

I was devastated when he didn't reply, and as angry at myself as I was with him. I had an hour to spare before seeing my mom and brother so I had a quick crying session when I arrived home, prayed, and headed out.

And I started to wonder why he's made his children and his wife chase him all these years?

I don't think I'll ever have the answer to this question.

The Meeting

I was 21 years old and a fresh University of Calgary graduate. It was the spring of 2003. My attempts at being admitted into medical school had been a flop, so my plan was to take a year off to work and explore graduate school options.

Things were not good between my parents. They hadn't been great for a long time, but it was our move to Calgary in 1999 that seemed to amplify the situation. I had started to gain a greater awareness of what was going on. My mom and I had always been close, but she started to tell me details and confide in me. I know looking back that she needed someone to talk with and support her, since we didn't have family around where we grew up and this was very isolating to some extent. I was more than happy to be that support for her, although I was shaken by what she was telling me.

The meeting that summer in 2003 was the most awkward and surreal situation I think either of us have been in. If it felt this way for me, I can't imagine how my mom was feeling and what it took for her to get through it. I was sitting in the living room of a woman's house, the other woman's house, next to my mom on the couch with the other woman sitting across from us. I don't know if I fully processed the meaning of the other woman. My mom was incredibly calm, stoically calm. I remember her asking simple questions, wanting to know details around the situation, length of time it had been happening, to know more about the credit card expenses and late nights, and so on. She never once yelled or overreacted. She just listened. I think it's because between my mom and I, we had found all of these answers through "clues" that had been accidentally left in plain sight. We just needed to verify that what we had found was true and hear it from the woman herself.

And it was.

I remember my mom encouraging me to go and see a counsellor. I was utterly confused and angry. So I did end up seeing someone, I don't know how I found out about this place or what led me there. I remember very little of what we talked about. I remember being given a checklist and the counsellor saying afterwards "I just wanted to make sure you're not depressed." She then spoke with me about my dreams post-university, what interests I had, etc. I recall her giving me the advice of separating myself somewhat from my parents' situation, so I could still be a support for my mom, yet also ensure that I create a plan for myself and my future. I told her I was planning to work full-time, explore graduate school, focus on health and fitness, and the like. She approved of this and said it was best to resume normal routines and see how things ride out.

After the meeting, my mom asked my dad to leave the house. He immediately purchased a home in the same neighbourhood as us. After 6 months, and interference from my uncle (dad's side) and pressure from my mom's brother-in-law, my mom let him move back in with us.

Not that this changed anything. Not all those years ago and certainly not now.

The Chase

From the time of the meeting onwards, I started to be more cognizant of my parents' marital struggles and the harm that my dad had caused (and as I learned, had been causing since the beginning of their marriage). But it's only been recently that I define my parents' marriage as a great chase. My mom has been chasing my dad for years, it seems to clear to me now but didn't back then. She had tried to bring him back to his family, asking him to spend time with his children, wondering why the already late nights were becoming even later, asking why he kept getting calls on his cellphone and talking in a hushed voice in his home office, and so on. To those who didn't know the situation, my mom looked like the nagging wife who wasn't satisfied with what her husband was providing. That's because my dad is incredibly quiet. So he looks like he's the good guy and my mom looks like the "bad person" because she's speaking up. All my dad has done during these time is look down and tell my mom that he hasn't done anything wrong.

Yet in the same breath, I have seen him plead her to forgive him.

My ex-husband had the same skewed view of my parents' marriage and my relationship differences with my parents. He berated me for not having a better relationship with my father and made me feel guilty about this. He insulted my mom whenever the topic came up. I remember disclosing the history of my parents' marital issues in an effort to make him understand, and he had the audacity to place the blame of these issues on my mom.

The icing on the cake came a few months ago. I had told my former husband when we had separated to not tell my dad that we were heading for divorce. I told him that this was my conversation to have with him and I'd like to choose when I'm ready to have it with him.

Back in January, I received this text message from him:

"Salaam. I just met with your dad and told him that we were divorcing. I don't know why you hadn't told him yet. He deserved to know."

I was stunned. I had intentionally withheld this information from my dad because for once, I wanted him to understand the ramifications of not being present in my life. And this was taken away from me.

I anticipated my dad would reach out to me. And he didn't. The next time I heard from him was a few weeks ago, another Hallmark-like greeting over text message during my close friend's wedding.

"Happy Nowrouz" (Persian New Year)

The ironic part of this is that we haven't celebrated this event in over 15 years, when my grandmother passed away. Her death had hit my mom hard and she stopped acknowledging a holiday she grew up with.

My mom stopped chasing my dad a very long time ago. She wouldn't talk with him even though they were living under the same roof. My dad's hours at "work" became longer and into the wee hours of the morning. He'd only be home in the morning of the weekends before taking off all day. When he was home, he either had BBC World News blasted on the television or sat in his office, doing "work" and tending to his cellphone. He made no attempt to interact with me or my brothers. He would come and eat dinner at the table but wouldn't say a word. If we didn't initiate conversation, he remained silent. After dinner, he'd pack up his car and leave. This cycle continued for years.

12 more years to be precise and it progressively got worse to the point of my mom receiving harassing phone calls from a screaming woman at 2:00am in the morning, on numerous nights; the woman telling my mom over the phone that her and my dad had done the Nikah (Islamic marriage ceremony) over 10 years ago; my dad upgrading his smaller SUV to a larger SUV and purchasing a Benz at the same time, which he only drives out of the house for his late night excursions; and a current partner of one woman who wondered what my dad's car was doing parked outside of his girlfriend's house for hours in the evening. He had taken pictures with his iPad and shown my mom the evidence.

Neither my mom or I can make sense of my dad's actions. I'm incredibly thankful that my mom has found the strength to do what's needed so that she's no longer a part of my dad's tangled web, and he's no longer a part of our lives.

My Chase

To see your mother continually chase your father over the years does damaging things to your perception of marriage. She tells me that she chased him for us, her children, because she believed that we needed a father figure and she desperately wanted us to have one. I didn't grow up seeing and experiencing a healthy marriage between my parents. I don't have many memories of my father being around. I didn't know how a real husband should treat his wife. All I had seen was the chasing.

And that's what stuck with me. It wasn't until after my divorce that I realized I too had been chasing during my attempts at finding a spouse...and in my own marriage.

I look back and can clearly see where my shortcomings in knowledge and experience were. No one EVER told me that if a man doesn't communicate back with you, you need to let him go and move on. This piece of simple advice would have saved me a lot of grief. I didn't know how to tell when someone wasn't being sincere and honest with me. So I chased. It wasn't about me not having any dignity in myself - it was based on sheer ignorance.

No one had told me any different than what I was raised to see. And I wasn't even aware of the unhealthy patterns I had grown up seeing.

After my first year of marriage, the chasing began. The patterns my dad had shown with my mom showed up in my own marriage, even though infidelity was not present. The lack of emotional and physical presence of my husband; making plans without telling me; my staying up until 1:00am on the weekends, wondering where he was and not getting any text messages back; the silent treatment and hours spent in front of a computer; the coldness in his eyes and lack of empathy towards my own personal struggles. It was all unfolding in front of me. These issues were not present when I met him or during our first year of marriage, but thinking back, year two was a duplication of my parents' marriage.

And I did what I knew best. I chased my husband for a year before I ran out of energy. It didn't occur to me that chasing is not synonymous with the "hard work" everyone had told me marriage would need. And that I was willing to put in.

Running out of steam was the best thing that happened to me. But it had done some serious damage to me as a person.

Giving Permission

It is incredibly hard for me to say the following words to myself:

"I deserve the best"

I'm terrified to tell myself this. First, I'm worried from an Islamic perspective that I'm being boastful and arrogant. I'm petrified that this will impact my spirituality by bolstering my ego. Second, since I've chased for so long - my father and then my ex-husband - it's difficult to imagine that there could ever be a time when I wouldn't need to chase a man in order to be loved by him. It seems somewhat impossible. I've always placed more work into my relationships with my father and former spouse than they had placed into it.

So then, how could there be men out there who give as much, or more, as they get? If the most important man in my life, my father, couldn't stop for a moment to allow his daughter to catch up - how can any other man do this for me?

It's been a long journey, and it continues to be, as I try to re-shape what I know about relationships. I am learning from my close friends' marriages, or I should say re-learning, what marriages should be like. I already know marriage takes work, patience, compromise, etc - I had been placing energy into these aspects AND getting my husband to dedicate his time and attention to me. The latter was where most of my energy went, leaving little for the true things in marriage that spouses need to be dedicating time towards.

I am deathly scared of falling into the same pattern in the future.

I'm scared of chasing again when I shouldn't have to chase. I'm scared of putting myself out there to someone and being rejected and then doing what I've done before, which is to chase. I'm scared that the only way I'll attract someone remotely interested in me is by chasing. I'm scared that if I do get married again, I'll have to keep chasing my spouse because their dedication to our marriage and me won't last more than a year.

I'm scared that I believe I only deserve someone who needs to be chased. And that it will never be the case where a man sees enough worth in me that he may need to chase me while I remain skeptical of his efforts, because such a thing has never happened to me before.

It's a scary place to be when you realize these patterns in your thoughts and behaviours. But we do have the ability to change them, which is incredibly hopeful.

But change is scary because it requires breaking habits, being vulnerable, and in my case, constantly assessing whether I'm falling into a pattern that is counter-productive and unhealthy.

Moving Forward

There are times I wish I had the courage to sit my father down and tell him, in person, what he's done to his family. Some day I will. But I'm not sure that I can do it right now. He's completely oblivious to any sort of negative impact his actions have had, which is easy when you seem to be constantly in your own thoughts and live a dual life. The only way I can think to describe it is by comparing his family and home to a hotel. He sleeps overnight (for a few hours), gets ready and eats and head out again...only to come back between 2:00am and 4:00am in the morning and repeat the cycle all over again. I am incredibly grateful though that my mom will not have to endure this anymore in the near future.

With respect to my own journey, I'm still healing and learning. I'm soaking up and downloading information from my friends' marriages. I'm hearing perspectives of other friends who have experienced challenges with their own fathers and their reflections on the impact, good and bad, it had on them.

I also take the time to observe the interactions of other couples I don't know. Whether I'm in a mall, grocery shop, or traveling somewhere, I've realized that I have the ability to see whether a couple is in a healthy or unhealthy place. And the more I'm exposed to healthy examples of marriages, the more I find my cognitive schema around how I think about marriage changing. And my hope slowly starts to rise.

I'm trying, very hard, to have a higher view of myself. But it's tough. My confidence is coming back in many other areas, but with respect to relationships, it's still shaky. Trust is definitely an issue - it was broken in my marriage and I know it will take work to be able to trust someone again. To know that someone won't let you down, and to be able to lean and depend on that - I hope to Inshallah experience this one day.

In the meantime, there is work to be done. I have a clearer sense of what I need and want in a life partner. I have the signs of chasing memorized down to a T, and will call myself out if I find myself falling into the trap. I'm cautiously optimistic and place my faith in whatever destiny holds.

As for my dad, I'm not sure. I'm still not ready to rebuild that relationship. Things are continuing to unfold and be discovered, and until I receive genuine honesty from him (which I have no hope of in the near future)...I'm not sure that we can have a healthy and productive relationship. I'm deeply hurt by his actions over the past 12 years that I've known about them, and all the other details that have been revealed since then and continue to this day. There isn't a week that goes by that new information isn't discovered. There's very little that surprises me anymore.

I can't see past all of this since that's all there is right now. Other women, another life, and a lot of chasing on my end.

And I'm tired of chasing. A daughter shouldn't have to chase her father.

Our community is not immune from the issue of infidelity. Judging from conversations with other Muslim professionals in the field, it's actually incredibly common. Whether we're defining it in the traditional sense of a "love affair", an emotional attachment to another person, or the taking of a second wife (from the religious perspective) with no transparency to the first wife that this is being done (which is not allowed) - it's an issue and it's not being spoken about. And we can't forget that there are Muslim wives out there who are just as unfaith to their husbands, it goes both ways. Infidelity not only breaks apart marriages, but it also has a strong and long-lasting impact on any children involved.

I think this will be the topic of my next post - stay tuned.

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