My eldest child turned six this year. We celebrated her birthday far from our families because we live on the other side of the world. We are here because a few years ago, my husband lost his job. After a year as a stay-at-home-dad, a job opportunity came up for him in Asia. We decided it would be best to swap places and have him take over the breadwinning role. Although he loved his year with our daughter, I could tell he was struggling, that he wasn’t happy, and that something crucial was missing. He was progressively getting sadder. It got me thinking about my own father and how his life played out.
My mother went back to work when I was 6-years-old. She had been a stay-at-home mom for both my older brothers. Maybe she got bored; maybe she sensed the hardships looming just around the corner. Whatever her reasons, what started out as a part time sales assistant job, soon turned full time and eventually, all consuming as she worked her way up the chain of command.
For a time, I spent most of my days at home alone or with my brothers looking after me. Then, around my 10th birthday, my grandfather passed away. My dad was deeply affected by the the loss. He had already lost his mother, with whom he was very close, to Alzheimer’s. The subsequent betrayal by his brothers over the estate was too much. The whole thing broke his heart and his travel agency collapsed due to neglect. My father had nowhere to go.
Now, I was no longer parentless at home. My father was Mr. Mom at a time when being a stay at home father was considered a failure, not an enlightened choice. He endured countless raised eyebrows and smirks, jibes and jokes, all at his expense. He was effectively emasculated. A man who was already going through such a hard time found no support from his friends or his community.
He took me to ballet classes and piano lessons, while we could still afford them. He tried to do laundry though often would end up boiling sweaters and shrinking them into tiny matted messes. Whites became pinks. I remember him, bathrobe loosely tied, underwear peeking through, rushing to get me off to the school bus. My parents decided that the canteen was too expensive, so he would pack me lunch. A soggy tuna and mayo on white wonder-bread wrapped tight in plastic wrap. By the time the lunch bell rang, that thing was a just a wet ball of mush I would end up throwing out, preferring to go hungry instead. Sometimes, I would just leave it on the counter.
Thinking back, I realize that even in the refuge of his home, he was treated as someone who did nothing right. We would roll our eyes and tease him. We accepted he was there but we all knew he was supposed to be out 'taking care of us', like a real man. Over time, he started to change. He went from being the charismatic and witty Don Juan everyone wanted to talk to at the party, to the pariah they would avoid, all the while, family and friends acted as if nothing was happening.
With a technological revolution now in play and a large crop of fresh-faced baby boomers ready to go, he never did manage to get back into business. With each passing year, he watched his dreams slip further away.
It didn't take long for my father to cave to his depression. For most of my childhood, I remember him asleep during the day in my parents’ bedroom or drowning his failure in a tumbler filled to the rim with scotch. While my father battled his demons, I sat in front of the TV, watching endless hours of picture perfect families, where daddy always came home to save the day.
I don't have many great memories from my youth. Certainly they are there, but it's difficult not to have these dark clouds looming over the sunnier times. I've often wondered if I would have been a stronger person, filled with less doubt and self-criticism if my father had been embraced as the person he was instead of the ideal everyone expected. He should have been able to stay home and get the love he deserved for a lifestyle that ultimately was not his first choice.
Mostly, I regret the years he lost, the pain he endured. I no longer speak to my father. He has become a mean old man, belittling everyone around him in his old age. Years of mental illness and alcoholism gone untreated have destroyed him. It is only now I realize he is just paying forward the lack of compassion and cruelty he endured for so long.
I wish I could somehow give him a chance at the life he should have had.