“You don’t call your Dad enough,” interrupted my mother as I talked hurriedly to her, rushing from my German class to dinner with friends. “You call me three times a day, not that I’m complaining, but when was the last time you directly spoke to your father?” I pondered the question. I false-started answering a couple of times before realizing that the last time I called my father to actually have a conversation with him, without the call prompted by a question or request, was never. There were a couple of times when he’d grab the phone off my mother and ask me how I was doing. When my boyfriend and I broke up he called to talk to me about the situation, explaining he wouldn’t judge and that he was there if I needed to talk. I called him once, requesting our Dish ID so I could access HBO-Go.
I told my mother that I didn’t call him because I always assumed he was busy. He runs a business, waking up every morning at 5 am and coming home around 6 or 7 pm. What my mom said next made my stomach drop out of pure guilt and sadness: “He’s been complaining about how you girls call me all the time but never him. He’s sad about it.” Here I was, assuming that my father didn’t want me to call him, or didn’t notice that I didn’t call him, when in reality, not only had he noticed, but he felt bad about it. “He feels like you girls don’t love him sometimes,” she said, quietly.
A few weeks later I had something of an anxiety attack at school. I didn’t know what was going on, but thankfully my mother did and she talked me through it and came promptly to my rescue as the school year ended. We spent the next few days moving out my things as I finished my finals and she gave me tips on how to deal with the anxiety, while telling me stories about how my father helped her through her anxiety. I remembered before she came to visit, she had been talking to me on the phone, asking me how I was feeling, and I could hear my dad in the background, whisper-shouting out questions about how I was doing, if I was relaxing. When I came home, there was my dad, sitting on the couch. When he saw me he jumped up and tightly hugged me, and told me that it made his month to have me home for the week.
Growing up, I was never particularly close to my father. I don’t mean I was Robin from How I Met Your Mother, but when we were young, my sister and I were always with my mother. To the point where if my dad wanted to take me and my sister on a trip just the three of us, we’d panic about leaving our mother behind. He was the disciplinarian. He was the rock. He was sometimes goofy and a little embarrassing and oftentimes kind of scary to us. When we were young, we often worried about what we said or did out of fear of disciplinary repercussions, while my mom would just giggle and tell him not to be so serious. He wanted us to grow up to be good people, strong people, smart people. When we were kids, we just thought he was being mean.
I realize now, that my father took the backseat, watched from afar, and let us do our thing. But he was always there, even if he couldn’t be there physically. What I mistook before as preoccupation with his job, or just a lack of connection, was him choosing to stand by our side – choosing to be the secondary parent, the guardian versus the nurturer, even though that meant that we didn’t call him as often as we did our mother. He chose to not intrude too much on our girl-bonding with our mother so that we could develop an incredibly close relationship with the woman. He voluntarily stepped aside, knowing that someday maybe I would realize all he had secretly and subtly done in our name, and that maybe someday, I would call him more often.
I doubt my father was looking for any kind of realization on my or my sister’s part that he had stood in the background, pushing us on the swing when we wanted more air and teaching us the minor things in life like how to fish; even today, after hearing my mom tell me that he felt like we didn’t call him, I realize that he still didn’t tell us himself. He didn’t tell our mother that with the hopes of her telling us.
He’s still happy to be the observer and the protector, silently looking over us to make sure we don’t fall off the swing set or have another anxiety attack at college. He knows the role he chose and is comfortable in it for the most part. And even though he doesn’t expect us to, today I’m going to hug my father and thank him. And over the summer and into the next school year, I’m going to call him more. Because even though he might not want us to know all he’s done for us, he deserves to be called and told that he is loved and appreciated.