How I Learned to Lead My Family
A Freudian Tale of How I Symbolically Killed My Father By Supplanting Him as De Facto Patriarch
It’s easy to resent someone — a parent, a teacher, a boss — for not leading the way you want.
It’s a lot harder to take the lead yourself. But the rewards are greater.
I don’t remember a time when my father and I weren’t fighting. When I talk to him about it now, he says he can recall one incident that “set the tone” for our relationship. I take his word for it, but I can’t recall it. I was too young. As far back as I can remember, Dad and I were fighting.
I call them “fights,” but of course an eight-year-old child doesn’t “fight” with his father. His father yells at him, and the child retreats to his room and cries.
The real fights didn’t start until I was about fifteen.
I remember coming home from a particularly intense and transformative Sunday school retreat. I was filled with energy and drive, all of my previous life seeming trite and inadequate compared to those three days. Something needed to change. I don’t remember making a conscious decision, but I remember that after that, I stopped retreating from my dad and started fighting back.
And not just on my own behalf, but on behalf of my siblings: my two sisters and one brother. Dad had a temper when I was growing up, and he would direct his anger at whoever was closest. From then on, I made sure that ‘whoever was closest’ was always me. Whenever he’d get angry at one of my siblings and start shouting — and it was always shouting, never anything physical that I can recall — I’d put myself between them and him and start shouting back.
Interestingly, I never thought to ask my siblings what they thought of it. Never thought to ask them whether this sort of protection was something they wanted. Whether it was more or less traumatic for them to get yelled at by Dad and retreat to their rooms crying, or retreat to their rooms crying because Dad and big brother Ben were shouting the most hurtful things they could think of at each other.
Never even crossed my mind.
I was filled with righteous moral certitude. My father was the Enemy, and therefore it was my job to be the strong protector. Whether anybody asked me to or not. Whether it actually did any good or not. And, of course, my protection would take the form of exactly that thing that I was protecting my siblings against — shouting and hurtful words.
I don’t know if I was making things any better for my siblings. I do know that things were far worse for me. Before, I had merely been hurt by my father’s rages. Now I was angry, always so angry. Angry at him for not being the father I wanted. Angry at myself for being unable to do much of anything about it.
I started to have very specific, detailed fantasies about killing him. I’d get myself a knife, a good sharp one, and the next time we had a fight I’d provoke him, refuse to back down, refuse to walk away and refuse to let him walk away. I’d escalate and escalate until finally, he hit me. Then I’d be justified when I buried my knife in his stomach and he’d bleed out while I watched. I’d be tried as a minor and I’d plead self-defense and I’d be fine.
He’d be dead and I’d be fine. And it would all be over.
I confessed this fantasy to a friend once. I had enough self-knowledge even then to know that this meant that I’d never actually do it. That I’d told my friend specifically to make sure I’d never do it. Now that I’d said it out loud, if I actually did it it would be premeditated. It would be murder. I must not have meant to do it.
I graduated from high school and left for college. If the lack of my loud, indifferent protection made any particular difference in my siblings’ lives, I never heard about it. My parents got divorced. My siblings bounced back and forth between households for a couple of years. Then my sisters graduated high school and left for college themselves, and my brother settled in with my mom. Nothing was resolved, but everything calmed down. Time and distance, upon reflection, did more good for our family than any amount of shouting I could have done.
When my sister Rachel got engaged, my dad wanted to bring his new girlfriend to the wedding. My mother announced that she felt he wanted this specifically to hurt my mother. She announced that if my dad’s girlfriend was at the wedding, my mother would not be. Rachel told me this, and I called Mom up to confirm it. She did. I asked Mom why this was so important to her. I told her that I was sure Rachel would seat her and Dad as far apart as possible and that Mom would never have to even talk to Dad or his new girlfriend. Mom stood firm. If Dad’s girlfriend was there, Mom wouldn’t be.
I searched my conscience and decided that my highest moral obligation was to my sister Rachel. Rachel was planning a wedding and didn’t need to deal with a parental dispute on top of it. I decided that I didn’t really care whether Dad brought his girlfriend or not — although I thought it was a little silly, he hadn’t even been dating her that long. But I did the mental calculus to try and decide which parent was more likely to respond to reason. I called my Dad.
I was a little older and a little smarter by now and I knew that shouting was unlikely to get me what I wanted.
What I wanted was for this stupid thing to be resolved without Rachel having to choose which parent to side with. I called my Dad up and told him what I’d heard from Rachel and from Mom and asked him to confirm his side of it. He did and offered the opinion that my mother was being controlling. I ignored this.
I told him,
“Dad, you’re going to do what you’re going to do, and I’m not going to take sides on this one. But you know, if you were willing to take the high road on this one, to be the bigger man and let Mom have her way so that you don’t have to put Rachel in the middle of it, I’d be really proud of you. I won’t get mad and yell at you if you take a stand on this one. It’s up to you. But I’d be really proud of you if you backed down.”
The day of the wedding came. Dad and Mom were both there, seated as far apart as possible. Dad’s girlfriend wasn’t there. I told Rachel about all of this later, and it turns out she was grateful for my mild meddling when she learned of it. Called it “some top-notch big brothering.”
A few years passed and my other sister, Chrissy, got engaged. All of it played out again the exact same way, with one difference: this time, when I called my Dad up, I said,
“Dad, remember the last time this happened? And I called you up and told you how proud I’d be if you backed down? And I was sort of buttering you up, and I think you knew that, but I was also trying to give you a way to back down but still feel good about it and it seems like you took it?
“Well, I’m not going to do that this time, Dad. ’Cause the truth is, I’m kind of on your side this time.”
Dad’s girlfriend was now his fiancee. He’d been dating her for a few years, and all the kids had met her and liked her. I thought Mom was being a little silly for holding this grudge years after their divorce. But I didn’t say any of that. I said,
“You’re gonna do what you’re gonna do, Dad, and I’m fine with it either way. Good luck to you.”
The day of the wedding came. Dad’s fiancee, I later learned, had caught wind of the drama and decided on her own not to come if it was going to cause this much conflict.
Mom got her way again. Then my brother Kenny died.
In the days that followed my brother’s death, my parents made the funeral arrangements together. I wasn’t present when they did this. I don’t know whether they met in person or spoke over the phone or what was even said. I imagine them meeting in person and being very quiet and sober.
They were both so quiet and sober during this time.
Kenny’s memorial service had largely been planned and paid for by my father, but he had gotten my mother’s approval for everything. I remember feeling, through my grief, surprised at how smoothly the decisions had been made. There hadn’t been any fights, any recriminations, any nasty surprises. I remember feeling both proud of my parents, and sad that it had taken my brother’s death to make them able to get along for the sake of their surviving children.
The day of the funeral came and I arrived at the graveyard, and my father’s second wife was there. And even then I remember thinking, “Wow. I can’t believe my mom was the one who backed down this time. I knew that they’d planned this together and, obviously, this old conflict would have come up again and they’d have talked about it. I can’t believe my mom backed down.”But, of course, she hadn’t backed down. They simply hadn’t talked about it.
My mother arrived, saw my father’s second wife, burst into tears, shouted “I can’t believe you would do this to me,” turned around and drove off.
My father, already standing near the front, turned toward the assembled family and friends. He started to say something that began, “It’s sad how some people — ”
It was all too quick, too smooth. There was no surprise in his face, no shock. He knew this would happen. He already had a speech prepared.
I looked at him. “Don’t,” I said it again. “Don’t.” Whatever was in my face and voice, it worked. He stopped.
The funeral went on without my mother. I didn’t know what to do. What did it mean if I stayed? That I approved? That I was siding with Dad? What did it mean if I left?
I stayed. I had a speech prepared, and I gave it. For a moment it meant something. For a moment I was able to share my grief. But only for a moment. Mostly I was mentally sifting through the drama.
The funeral ended. My girlfriend and I got in my car and I drove us away, telling her that we should go check on Mom. After a few miles, I felt it welling up inside me. The highway had no shoulder, so I took an exit. I took a turn, and then another turn.
“This isn’t the way to your Mom’s house,” my girlfriend said.
“I know.” They were all the words I could make come out. I finally found a safe place to pull over. I cut the engine.
“Oh,” she said.
I buried my face in my hands and wept as she held me.
It didn’t end there, of course. My mother distributed a letter to her three surviving children telling them that she had only been going along with Dad’s funeral arrangements in the interest of getting along. My mother announced that she, in fact, believed that my brother would want his remains buried under a tree in her backyard rather than in a cemetery. She stated that she was prepared to pursue legal means to get Kenny’s remains returned to her. And she urged her surviving children to testify against our father if it came to that.
She told us that we would see, in the coming days, just how little Dad cared about us.
My sister Rachel called me and our sister Chrissy together. Rachel said that our first loyalty should be to each other, because, cold as it might sound, we were going to be a part of each others’ lives longer than Mom or Dad would. I admired her so much for being brave enough to put it in those terms.
I told my sisters that I disapproved of the way Mom and Dad had put us in the middle of this. They’d never asked if we had any opinion on this, just set about attempting to enlist us to their sides. I said that I didn’t care what happened to Kenny’s remains. Kenny was gone, and the organic matter that he left behind the day he died was no more sacred than the candy wrapper he’d thrown away the week before.
My sisters disagreed. While they didn’t approve of our parents’ tactics any more than I did, they did agree with Mom that Kenny would have preferred his remains to stay with her.
Shit. I’d just finished angrily accusing our parents of failing to consider our wishes, and I’d done the exact same thing to my sisters. Never asked them what they thought, just assumed that they agreed with me because I was so obviously right.
I apologized to them. We hugged, and we reaffirmed that our first loyalty was to each other. We had different agendas, and we would pursue them separately, but we would not turn on each other the way our parents had.
I spoke to my mom first, and I did it alone. I set my boundaries. There would be no further attempts to enlist me to testify against my father. There would be no more disparaging statements about how much or little he cared about me. I remember thinking, “I know what he is. I don’t need you to tell me that. If I want to have a relationship with him despite that, that’s my business.” I don’t remember saying that. I do remember saying, “These are the conditions for you to remain a part of my life. When you have a problem with Dad, work it out with Dad. Don’t put me in the middle of it.”
Mom wasn’t happy about that — her eyes took on a flinty, stubborn cast — but she said, “Maybe it’s best we don’t talk about your father at all then.” I told her that if that was what she needed to meet my conditions, that was fine.
Mom was the easy part.
I spoke with Dad with both my sisters present, since we were more closely aligned on that one. I wound up doing most of the talking.
I had been cold, even clinical with Mom. I was furious with Dad.
I accused him of intentionally creating a situation at Kenny’s funeral where he knew there’d be a public scene. Accused him of caring more about scoring points in this stupid ongoing feud with Mom than allowing his children to grieve their brother in peace. “What,” I asked him, “did you think was going to happen?”
“Well I HOPED — ” he began hotly.
I interrupted him. “I didn’t ask what you HOPED. What did you EXPECT? What did you think was the most likely outcome? Put a fucking percentage on it.”
He launched into some personal attack on Mom, accusing her of being controlling and manipulative and anything else he could think of.
I repeated the boundary I’d set with Mom. When he had a problem with Mom, he was to take it up with Mom. No disparaging comments to me. No attempts to enlist me. Work it out with her. These were the conditions for him to remain a part of my life.
I took what he said next as a self-serving excuse, but in retrospect it might have been the most genuine thing he said in the entire conversation.
I remember there being real anguish in his voice when he said, “I don’t know how to do that!”
“FIGURE IT OUT!” I shouted and stormed out of the room. I heard my father’s anguish turn back into rage behind me. Angry shouts followed me out the door.
I spent the next three days not knowing if I would ever speak to my father again.
My sisters reported to me that as soon as I was out of the room, Dad began crying, saying, “I can’t lose another son.”
I hadn’t considered how deeply I was hurting my father with my ultimatum. He had a point. He had just lost a son, and I was threatening him with the loss of another. But what else could I do? His actions had been unacceptable.
Three days later, Dad asked me to talk. He invited me — wisely — to a public place, where we would be forced to observe more decorum. I agreed.
Dad didn’t say he was sorry, which would have been nice to hear. But he did say, “You were right,” which was almost as good.
He agreed to my terms, and our relationship resumed.
My friend and mentor, Tom, is a father of grown children and is separated from his wife. He once asked me for input on a situation involving his wife and children. I told him about my brother’s funeral to see if hearing about a similar situation from the point of view of the grown child of divorced parents could help give him perspective.
It wound up giving me perspective instead.
Tom, perhaps inevitably, identified more strongly with my father than any other character in the story. At first, this was frustrating to me. I wanted to tell him, “No, Tom, you don’t get it. I’m trying to tell you how my dad was a real jerk and that’s why I’m so angry at him.”
Except that wasn’t why I was angry at him. I realized this as I continued the story. After all, my Mom was hardly blameless in all this, and yet I didn’t feel the same white-hot anger at her. Why not?
Why had I been able to set boundaries with her calmly, but not with Dad?
Because, I realized, I was guilty of everything I’d accused Dad of. I’d hoped that my parents had magically learned how to get along for the sake of their children. Hoped that despite the intense stress and grief they were under, that they’d somehow grown as people. Hoped for it like hell… but what did I expect? What was it realistic for me to expect?
Exactly what had happened. And what I had I done about it? Waited passively. I hadn’t taken part in planning Kenny’s funeral. I hadn’t reminded them of their feud over my sisters’ weddings. I hadn’t done anything to see it resolved before it came to a head in public. And I hadn’t asked for my sisters’ input on what to do with my brother’s remains.
I’d hoped that the two people who had already shown themselves incapable of handling a situation like this in the best of times would suddenly prove themselves capable in the worst of times.
What did I expect?
Tom helped clarify things for me again, nearly three years after my brother’s death. I’d been dealing with a difficult situation at work involving some employees, and I found myself compelled to send a text to my Dad:
Hey Dad? I find myself in a position now where it’s become my job to be in charge of a bunch of dudes in their mid-to-late twenties. To catch them when they fall down and teach them how to get back up again. And as I think back on those times in my life, I remember a lot of times when you were there to catch me when I needed it. When you were generous when you didn’t have to be. I know we haven’t always gotten along well over the years, but I want you to know that I remember those times and I’m grateful for them.
And as I wrote it, I knew it was true. It was easy to remember all the bad times with Dad, all the times we fought, all the times I was so, so angry with him. But there were other times. Times when he told me stories from his life because he could see I was going through something similar, and maybe learning from his mistakes could help me through my own. Times when I’d lost a job or broken up with a girlfriend and needed a place to stay.
There are things I wish I’d said to my brother before he went. It’s so easy to let only the angry words pass your lips and think that you have all the time in the world to say the kind ones.
I resolved not to do that this time. Not even to wait until the next time I saw my Dad in person, but to say those words to him right then, right that second, while they were fresh and real and true.
Dad didn’t respond. He left me on ‘Read’ for three weeks.
I called Tom up and told him about this. “I know this isn’t how my dad communicates. Not through words like that, and not over text. And I didn’t send it because I needed a response from him. Not really. I didn’t do it for him, I did it for me so that I wouldn’t have to regret not saying it. I know all that in my head. But it feels…” I paused, and tears welled up. “It feels like abandonment.”
Tom asked me, “Who is the leader in your relationship with your dad?”
I am, of course. If I wasn’t before Kenny’s funeral, I was after it. I’d set the terms for our relationship. I’d set the boundaries and made them stick. That leadership was mine whether I wanted it or not. Resenting my father for abdicating leadership to me didn’t get me what I wanted, which was a functional relationship with him.
There was only one thing that would get me what I wanted: going about the business of leading well.
On Tom’s advice, when I went home for Christmas, I sat my dad down and announced that I wanted to play an improv game with him. I would give him a prompt, and he would choose a response from two cue cards that I’d prepared for him. He would pick a card blindly and at random.
As his prompt, I read him the text that I’d sent him three weeks before. The one that he still hadn’t responded to. The one still sitting on “Read”.
Dad’s eyes scanned the cue card, and he smiled. “I like this one,” he said. Then he read aloud,
“Thank you, son. It feels good to hear you say that.”
“Try the other one,” I said.
“You’re welcome, son.”
I told him that I didn’t want to give him just one cue card because I didn’t want him to think that there had been only one right answer. I didn’t want to him to think that if he didn’t guess exactly what I wanted to hear, he’d screwed up. “It’s not that there’s no wrong answer,” I told him. “But there’s a whole lot of right ones. Just as long as it’s an answer.” I became solemn. “It was important to me to get a response.”
I hadn’t rehearsed this part, but as I said it, I knew it was true.
All that stuff I’d told Tom about how I’d said it for me and not to get a response — bullshit. I wanted a response. Of course I did.
Dad apologized, and we talked for hours. He told me stories from his life. I told him about the things that were stressing me out at work. We talked about Kenny, the things I wish I’d told him while he was alive, the ways we were each processing our grief.
When I told Tom about it later, I called it a Hallmark-movie Christmas miracle.
I think back to my brother’s funeral. What could I have done differently? What if I’d been part of planning it from the start, instead of picking apart my parents’ mistakes after the fact? What if I’d asked my sisters what they wanted, instead of assuming? What if I’d recognized that I was in the best possible position to take the lead, and taken it?
This won’t be the last time I’m called on to lead my family. Dad told me once that he named me the sole executor in his will. With my brother, I had the opportunity to take the lead earlier, and I missed it until things had already gone off the rails.
When Dad goes, it will explicitly be my responsibility to lead from the beginning.
I need to be ready.