In the small, broken nucleus that is my blood family, I have been appointed, by silent decree, pater familia. As the first-born of his children, my father felt entitled to a boy and, undaunted by the appearance of a rosy girl, plowed forward in molding me and feeding his own expectations of making me his male heir. The way he went about it was denying me anything too apparently feminine: ballet and piano lessons were a big no-no while swimming and skiing were encouraged much to my chagrin. Adventure books were piled up at my door from an early age and travelling with him on business trips was definitely encouraged, even if it meant missing school for days on end.
When his prayers were finally answered, and it seemed as if I were to relinquish my mantle, my brother betrayed me in surviving only a smidge of a hope, thus securing my position. Even when I made patently clear that I would have precious little to do with the business he hoped I would take over, my father quickly recovered from his disappointment and proceeded to declaim to whomever would listen the stories of my “successes” in an industry he had little knowledge of.
The result of my double pronged upbringing – the pretty dresses my mother bought , the dolls I was indulged with paired with a strict commitment to education and manly pursuits (or my father’s ideas of manly pursuits) – is that, behind a veneer of femininity, I hide a plate of steel that gets uncovered at sometimes inconvenient times. It’s an aspect of my personality the men in my life both found attractive and uncomfortable to live with and, once I started looking at things from their perspective, I stopped blaming them for their feelings: they were lured by a package with pretty bows only to open it and find a declaration of independence.
Slightly incapacitated by a stroke, crippled by financial ruin and entangled in a long and mostly ugly divorce, my father, not known for particular strength or courage, happily relinquished all family decision-making to the daughter who was far away, the one he was always slightly in awe of, mainly because he never fully understood her.
Recently, my baby sister communicated a somewhat momentous decision to him and his first question was whether I had been informed. When she told him she was going to call me later in the day, he became preoccupied with my reaction as if I had a long history of criticizing other people’s choices or ostracizing their freedoms. Wishing my sister happiness and slightly peeved at noticing that my (imperfect) judgement created a sense of disquiet in my family, I realized that the pater familia title was on my shoulders to stay, like it or not.
How can they not see it’s the other two women in the family I rely upon, whose succor and counsel I seek in times of trouble? My mother’s “your allotted crying time is over. Now get off the couch and do something” speech always works wonders. And my sister’s voice, so similar to mine our parents often weren’t sure who they were talking to, is my mirror and the memory of our personal history.
I long ago stopped feeling resentment for a flawed father who ended up paying dearly for his mistakes, shut out by the female triad the rest of us presented to the world. If I am who I am I definitely have him to blame – but also a lot to thank him for.