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A Tale of Parental Alienation

“Any Man Can Be a Father…”

This is my personal experience of parental alienation. Hanging in my dad’s (well, my step dad) office for many years was a picture that my mom embroidered for him one year for father’s day. I’m pretty sure she bought it as a kit, but she customized it by making the little dog look like our Scottish Terrier, Heather. She gave the man holding the little girl on his shoulders silver gray hair, just like his, and the girl (a stitched version of me) brown hair. Above the frolicking father and daughter duo were the lovingly-outlined words “Any man can be a father, but it takes a real man to be a daddy!”

To this day I whole heartedly agree with those words. So many people are out making babies that they never spend the quality time with to nurture and love as they deserve. My mom had more in mind when she took needle and thread to cloth. Sure, she was extending gratitude to her husband for accepting and loving her child from a previous marriage as his own; but, the words had a hint of sharpness to them, taking a dig at my “real” father who was nowhere in my life.

For 30 plus years I drank cup-after-cup of the “your dad’s a deadbeat loser” kool-aid before I examined the facts a little closer and discovered so much more to the story.

No doubt, my step dad, whom I referred to as “Dad” for the extent of my memory, deserves high praise and admiration for loving a little girl he did not have to and providing every benefit and opportunity to, without ever skipping a beat. The world does need more men like my step dad who can open their hearts and homes to other men’s children and do everything from help them with their math homework, teach them to ride a bike, and even walk them down the aisle.

No matter what anyone else ever contributed to my creation or upbringing, he earned the title “Dad” and a permanent special place in my heart. I’m sure many people who know me all the way back to kindergarten don’t realize that he’s not my biological father. He was always there, from the time he and my mom exchanged vows when I was just four. I wasn’t too familiar with what a father was supposed to look like. I knew everyone was expected to have one, and I willingly attached myself to the man who whistled silly songs to me and let me hold his hand.

Divorce and blended families are not that uncommon; however, my story is my own, and I can’t deny that it’s part of who I have become. I was born in the early 70’s in a time when children went into their mother’s custody almost without question in a divorce. My parents divorced when I was about one. I have photos of that period among hundreds of other pictures my mom collected for me over my childhood.

My dad was from Alaska, and many of these pictures included him with his jet black hair and uber cool 70’s attire holding me in front of totem poles and other sights from around Ketchikan. We appear as a “normal” family through a first Christmas, my birthday, then Whammo; he was gone from photographic record. I have few scattered memories of him during my childhood, ending at age ten. I remember seeing him a few times at Christmas or my birthday and an occasional phone call.

My mom was always clearly frustrated and inconvenienced every time he was due to come around. In 100% honesty, I never heard one nice word about my father during my childhood. My mom would tell me very explicit stories of his infidelity, the drinking problem, temper, and lifestyle that wasn’t compatible with her. She was undoubtedly riddled with shame for having ever been married to him, and she did everything in her power to hide her first marriage and sweep all evidence of it under the rug.

I knew my father was an artist. I knew he worked for an airline. I knew where his house was. Other than that, my mom sold me to the notion that she was performing a huge favor to me on a daily basis by not letting me have any relationship with him. Anytime I would ask about that side of the family she would snap at me in disgust as to why I would want to know anything about “those people” or associate myself with them in any way. The problem is that everyone has to consider genetics at some point: what diseases run in the family, and so on. Plus, who doesn’t wonder who they belong to, about other siblings, family stories, and so on?

Nice stepdad or not, a piece of me was always confused, lost, and always wondered what was wrong with me that my dad didn’t want anything to do with me. To this day I still have issues with not feeling good enough or questioning when someone I love is just going to leave me. Yes, I was one of the lucky ones who did grow up with two parents under one roof, and my “Dad” was a heckuva guy; but, the heart always wonders…

Back in this era, if one parent wanted to make the other parent disappear out of a child’s life, it was exceedingly easy to do so. Fathers didn’t have any rights. Let’s just say; this scenario couldn’t as easily play out today unless one parent could demonstrate to a court why one parent should not be in the child’s life. My mom was able to manipulate her status of the custodial parent very effectively to erase my father.

It started in kindergarten when my teacher informed me that my last name was now the same as my step dads. I assumed that because my mom got a new last name at her wedding, mine was being made to match. A child’s name would never be changed without going to court, and the schools would never completely ignore the existence of one parent without some legal justification. I floated all the way through high school using another man’s last name.

I was not legal using that last name until my mom set the process in motion for my step dad to formally adopt me just before my 16th birthday. He was happy to adopt me, and I had no objection to being adopted because by then I had no contact with my father for about five years. My mom was very concerned about a legal stamp of approval on my moniker because while the school may have let an illegal last name slide for multiple years, motor vehicle (for my first driver’s license) and colleges would not.

It was time for some official documentation to back-up the story we had stood by for so long, and nothing would horrify her more than having me walk the stage at graduation to accept a diploma inscribed to the wrong name or for more questions to be raised for her to answer.

In my 41st year, I learned that all those years I thought my father had gone on with his life and didn’t care if I was a part of it. Parental Alienation is simply wrong.

There had been many, many cards and letters all thrown in the trash before I saw them. Many, many visits to see me or have time with me when the door was never answered. Many, many phone calls when he was told I wasn’t home or didn’t want to talk to him.

I, myself, have personal experience with divorce and the tenuous situations that arise arranging visitation, child support, and so one. Both my husband and I were married and had children in previous relationships. Both of us dread having to bump into our exes at band concerts, baseball games, and half of Thanksgiving day; but, time and attention from both parents mean the world to our children. I wish I didn’t have to see my ex again after walking away from divorce court, but I do.

I do because my kids need him, and my children need me. I may not care for him or wish to have him in my life, but even though my kids are blessed to have a great step-dad they deserve a full and loving relationship with their father too. Step parents are a bonus – kind of a cherry on top of the sundae, but surely not a replacement to the real deal. I wouldn’t dream of hiding a school play from my ex or tossing away a Christmas gift so they would think their dad didn’t care.

I’m sure that in her way my mother felt that what she was doing was best. I’m not sure if it was best for her to preserve the image of her perfect little family or truly best for me not to know the man who is my father. No kid should ever have to feel like some reject because their parents can’t be mature enough to face the past.

My relationship with my mother has been severed for over five years, mostly due to just these type of actions. The good news is that the opportunity now exists for me to have a “do-over” with my dad. We can never go back all the way to my first birthday and retake every ballet recital, my wedding, or the birth of my children. Both of us endured the pain that should have never occurred, all in the name of putting a good face for whoever my mom was trying to impress or fit in with.

Personally, if people can’t handle the fact that I’m divorced, re-married, and doing the best I can, then they don’t need to occupy space in my life. It is what it is, and it is my life. Too bad she couldn’t have been as secure about having made a decision she later regretted. In the process, a parent was pushed away from his little girl at every turn, and she thought something was wrong with her.

My point in writing this peek into a very personal part of my heart is that I learned through my experience with my step dad that family is not always blood, it is the people who love you and stand by you every day and no matter what. He opened my heart to my future step kids. I have to give it up for all the men out there who are standing by their kids and doing the right thing. My hat is off to all the fathers and other men out there who willingly love and care for children not biologically theirs.

I am glad there has been some progress in the battle for parental equality, but there is still a long way to go! There is no justification to parental alienation. Children deserve the love and influence of both parents (in most cases), and the only games with parents that children need be a part of are along the likes of Clue or Monopoly.

June 27, 2016

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