This essay is adapted from a June 10 post on the author’s Facebook page.
A huge piece of my emotional puzzle fell into place last week. For years, I had a story in my mind that my dad did not pay much attention to me when I was growing up. There was a lot of evidence I could marshal in support of this story. After he released the Pentagon Papers to many newspapers, including this one, in 1971, he devoted himself full-time to activism. By the time I came around, in 1977, he was immersed in the global movement for nuclear disarmament. He was often away for long stretches of time, and we didn’t spend a lot of time together during my childhood.
One of my clearest memories as a boy was waiting for dad to walk through the door after a long trip, off saving the world. He would always bring me a stuffed animal, which made me ecstatic. I was proud of what I saw as his heroism. And I was proud to have the greatest stuffed animal collection of any of my friends. Yet there was a bittersweetness to this delight: Why did I have so many of them?
Over the years, I had come to my own peace with his choices about where his focus went. As an adult, I greatly respect the work he did throughout my childhood. Even then, though I only had a child’s understanding of it, I had the sense he was up to big and important things. I was proud of daddy. But as a young boy, I longed for time with and attention from him as well.
At lunch with my father last week, he shared information with me that changed my understanding of that time. My parents have been married almost 45 years, and from my vantage point, it has always looked like a happy marriage.
At that lunch, he told me that, despite loving each other deeply, they had a very challenging marriage for about the first 15 years of my life. They managed to keep this hidden from me. He said there were times when he just couldn’t take any more of the challenges, and was ready to leave.
But he stayed, because he just couldn’t bear hurting me by leaving. He had already divorced once in his life, with two children, and he didn’t want to cause that pain again. They went on, after that period, to have decades more of a wonderful marriage, and they’re still happily married today.
I started crying when he told me this. It just blew my mind and my heart open that a man would stay in a difficult marriage for 15 years in large part to avoid my suffering. That’s more than twice as long as my six-year relationship with my ex-wife — and most of our marriage was quite happy, until the end. I could not believe the generosity of his heart. All my stories about him not caring, or not being there for me, instantly vanished in one conversation.
It got me thinking about the stories and interpretations we come up with and fix upon as adults, often based on emotional reactions we have as young children, based on not knowing the full story.
I say this not to shame anyone for divorcing with children. (As a divorcee myself, that would be rather lame of me, wouldn’t it?) Though I don’t have children, it is clear to me that sometimes divorce can be the most compassionate and loving act for children as well as parents.
Rather, I say this to share that, often our parents express their love in ways we didn’t realize when we were children. I am flabbergasted at the dedication and sacrifice my father showed to avoid my suffering. I cannot imagine enduring 15 years of a difficult marriage. I feel a bit silly at the stories I created about him in my head.
At the same meal, my father apologized for not being more present during my boyhood. He even said that, looking back, he felt he hadn’t been a great father to me. Even a day earlier, I would have relished this apology and recognition. Finally, that thing I had longed for out loud during so many therapy sessions!
But after hearing of my father’s stubborn resolve to keep in the marriage for my sake, suddenly his apology felt unnecessary — and his sense of failing as father felt like an insult to his caring heart.
As I assured him that his apology was unnecessary, I listed all the ways he had been a great father. It was the first time I had made such a list in my mind, let alone shared it with him.
I went on to tell him:
Dad, there is no way I’d be able to take the creative risks I take now, as an artist and entrepreneur, without your example of standing up for what you believe in, and speaking truth no matter what the consequences. I wade into some very controversial territories in my work, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without your example. I always come back to my own moral compass in deciding what to put out in the public, and I learned that from you. I also learned how to open my heart, from you and mom together. That is the greatest thing you could have taught me. I hope you never, ever feel bad about the way you raised me. You were the perfect father for me to become who I am today. I will always be grateful.
Michael Ellsberg is the co-founder of Best Sexy Friends, a group devoted to helping single adults of all genders, ages and walks of life find friends with whom they can explore their sexuality.