Cat's in the cradle
October 12, 2008 12:00 PM   Subscribe

My dad was an insecure, unlikeable jerk (to me at least) who clearly did not like his children. I have become an insecure, unlikeable jerk (to me at least). Am I doomed to have the same, terrible relationship with my future kids as well?

Let me start by saying that overall, my dad is a good person who tries his best every day, and I openly acknowledge that I have inherited some good qualities from him that make me stand out as an individual.

I still can't stand the jerk and will not shed a tear when he passes.
He can't stand me either and would probably feel the same way, should I meet my maker before him.

As I look back on my childhood and the gangrenous relationship I had with my father, I realized that he never really liked me and my 3 siblings. I think we "got in his way" and we were a disappointment to him because we weren't like "the other kids", or the Bradys or the Cosby Kids. I can remember from the age of 12 onward, he never had a kind word to say to us. He was verbally and emotionally abusive, and in my case, would regularly threaten to throw me out of the house (or car, if we were on a road trip).

I thought I put most of that stuff behind me, until I noticed that I would speak to my wife with the same condescending, annoyed tone my dad would use when speaking to my mother or to us. I am regularly annoyed by my wife and feel that I need to "babysit" her. I also feel that she is "in the way" - probably how my dad felt about us and my mom.

The issues with the wife, although alarming are of less concern to me - I have realized that I am acting this way and am working very hard at making myself a better husband.

The fear I have is with my future kids - heck should I even have any?
I am worried that I will communicate those same feelings of contempt, disgust and loathing as my father did when interacting with me.

Although I am willing and able to make the physical sacrifices associated with parenting, I am incapable of doing so with empathy or with love. Heck, I honestly don't feel I am capable of empathy or love for anyone. I guess I view parenting (and life in general) as one big sacrifice until death - kinda how my dad probably views life.

I don't think I can count on my wife to "keep me in line" either. She's let me act like a complete jerk to her all this time without even saying boo and I don't think - actually I know - she doesn't take me seriously when I express my concerns about parenting. I could spend an hour recounting my childhood, my fears and my worries and all I'll get in response is: "You'll be a great dad", "you're perfect ". my wife was taught to neve criticize one's man - just bottle everything up inside. WIth that attitude, she's going to need a keg just to deal with me...

So the question is: can I become a kind, empathetic and loving father and husband or am I doomed to become a dick like dad?
posted by bitteroldman to Human Relations (29 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, you can. See a therapist.
posted by scabrous at 12:05 PM on October 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

Not doomed. If you were doomed, I wouldn't have entered the clinical psychology field. Awareness is important, but it's nowhere near half-way, as many think. Awareness and desire to change? Decently half-way. People are not slaves to their patterns of behavior, and certainly not to their parents'. Without a doubt, therapist.
posted by namesarehard at 12:14 PM on October 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm only a first year student, but maybe look into a DBT (dialectical behavioral) therapist and ask if they'd be interested in working with someone who's not self-injurious but afraid of being injurious to others...
posted by namesarehard at 12:17 PM on October 12, 2008

You sound like you know you need help in order to be a good Dad, a good husband, or even just to see life in a more positive light.
The good news is that you are AWARE that you are acting in a way that is potentially deleterious to your marriage. You are already ahead of at least half the people who seek counseling for their relationship problems, because you know you need help, you're not being dragged in by your wife in a last-ditch effort to save your marriage.
Do it now, and you will feel so much better prepared to be a good father, and you will enjoy having kids -- something it sounds like wouldn't be the case right now.
Don't miss the joy you could have in your marriage and in parenting because you are reluctant to seek therapy.
posted by mmf at 12:23 PM on October 12, 2008

Try Big Brothers first, to see about how you treat kids.
posted by notsnot at 12:42 PM on October 12, 2008

Is it possible that you (and maybe your father) have chosen to marry someone whom you just don't respect that much? Maybe you married someone because _she_ loved and validated _you_? If that's so, then maybe you'll feel the same way about your kids.

Imagine having children with someone you truly loved and respected, someone who was so awesome that every day you can't believe she married you. Imagine the kids from that union. If they acted stupid, you'd know it was just a phase. You'd know that it was _worth it_ to devote yourself to all of them.

Can you feel that way about your wife?
posted by amtho at 12:44 PM on October 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

Therapy helps. But, NO you are not doomed to repeat his pattern.

I'll skip gory details, but I had a much much worse-than-average upbringing, with an emotionally unavailable dad (he only hugged me once in my entire childhood; I remember it distinctly because it was the only time it happened). It was a violent, abusive, dysfunctional upbringing. Some specific events I have never told anyone, because I don't want to get those thoughts into anyone's head.

However... my own child (daughter) is now away at college, and by her account, as well as the opinion of anyone who knows us, I am The Best Damn Daddy in the Entire History of Forever. Without pride, I can say that I do think I did a good job. Perfect? No, but every day I put my best effort into being the best dad I could be. Part of my effort was being conscious of not repeating the mistakes of my parents. Having been through it, it gave me a tremendous about of empathy and the ability to be able to see things from her perspective, and understand how my behavior affected her.

In my case, therapy did help, plus a lot of self-examination and reading. Couple's therapy will be a big help with everything; it will get to the root of a lot of issues. Everyone's journey is different, but you are definitely not cursed to repeat the pattern. You get to choose your own behavior, and your own future.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 12:54 PM on October 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

You're only doomed to repeat a pattern you can't see. You have the insight, and you seem to have the willingness to change. Nthing therapy and hoping you will someone with whom you're very comfortable about opening up. Maybe couples therapy because the dynamics that come out will probably be very germane in your current interactions with your wife.
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 1:02 PM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

My dad was a distant, disinterested dad who, frankly, had no interest in kids. (As a boy, I always thought Cats in the Cradle was written about him. I still do.

And though I do share some of his unfortunate behaviors (being impatient), in terms of being a father, my dad has been an inspiration to me.

He inspired me to be the father I never had, the father I always wanted. I have a five year old and an infant, and though I have many years of fatherhood to go, I'm confident I've done just that.

That's not to say I'm a perfect father. Far from it. But I know what I aspire to be, thanks to what my dad wasn't.

So, yes, I think you can be a good father if it's what you really want to do. But you'll need to define what you think being a good dad is and aspire to that, every day.
posted by cjets at 1:06 PM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think the others who have responded have better advice and insight into this issue than I could. However, please think a bit about the following:

If you were doomed to be unsympathetic, unkind, and unloving, would you even be as concerned about this as you are?

Nothing's ever easy, but it's amazing how rarely anyone is doomed to a certain fate.
posted by Ms. Saint at 1:21 PM on October 12, 2008

As another data point: my mother's father was a thoroughly rotten parent, yet she somehow managed to rise above that and break the cycle to become the best damned mother I can imagine ever having. So yes, it's definitely possible, though I suspect it takes a hell of a lot of work, patience, and strength. But definitely don't rush into having kids until you know you're ready, because you shouldn't make a child be involved in that process until it's further along. Good luck, and props for your insight and desire to change.
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:07 PM on October 12, 2008

You're only doomed to repeat a pattern you can't see.

Well said.
posted by mandal at 2:21 PM on October 12, 2008

Would your dad have described himself as an insecure, unlikeable jerk?
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:05 PM on October 12, 2008


But for what my opinion is worth, I had a lot of physical problems as a child and being an only child, my mother had nothing to compare me with. She raised me to believe I was Broken, and prevented me from contact with other kids, for fear that anyone else would discover I was Broken. (This has nothing to do with your problem; it's just an example.)

When I had kids of my own, I swore I would do everything different than what she did. (Back then, we did not have therapy.) Whatever I did, it seemed to have worked. The kids turned out OK.

The only message here is that you don't have to be the same parent yours was. Now that you have access to therapy, your chances are infinitely better of avoiding the problem. I think you will be fine as a parent.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 3:21 PM on October 12, 2008

I'm the youngest of five children. My father once told me that if he had to do it all over again, he'd stop at the first kid. Thanks, dad.

I made a conscious decision to be different from my father. I think I'm doing fairly well. I yell too much and sometimes I'm too hard on my kids, but they know I love them, they know I value them, and they know that I wouldn't trade them for anything in the world.

The fact that you admit you need improvement bodes well for the future. Look into therapy. Also, perhaps your wife could use some assertiveness training?
posted by cooker girl at 3:23 PM on October 12, 2008

Do any of your siblings have kids? Did they worry about this?
posted by salvia at 3:25 PM on October 12, 2008

I am not any kind of expert, so take the following with a pinch of salt.

I think kids pick up behaviour patterns from their parents. I'm scared of spiders because my mom is, and I heard about that growing up. I'm emotionally distant because that's how my dad is, and I lived that growing up. I even saw the video "Reclaiming Your True Identity" by Tony Robbins, that really helped me see these things. I truly am the product of my parents, and every day I see myself getting more and more like them.

But that's a choice. I'm an adult, and I can choose to behave however I please. I can go with the "default setting" of being emotionally distant and catty, or I can choose to change the settings, and stop myself from behaving in a certain way. So I do. I've tried to make myself more available to the people in my life, by doing things differently to how I would in the past, and it's working. I can see a change in myself, and so can the people around me. It just takes effort and self awareness.

Every time you find yourself doing something that you disliked your father doing, do something to change that. I picked up on my mom's fear of spiders as a child, so now, I catch them, and put them outside. Identifying that there is a problem is half the battle won.
posted by Solomon at 3:26 PM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

A therapist might just distract you from the work you need to do.

1. Make goals. Goals about what you do and what you think.
2. Share these goals with your wife and friends, and tell them that you are going to be a different person with their help.
3. Every week and every month figure out a way to measure your progress.

Also: Identify a new role for yourself. You aren't a babysitter. You are a cheerleader. Live it. Be it. Do it. No outfit required.
posted by ewkpates at 3:35 PM on October 12, 2008

To answer your question, no, you are not doomed. You can become a kind, empathetic parent. Or at least, far more kind and empathetic than your dad was. Don't expect to break the cycle completely in one generation. You see some of what you don't want to be now. You see patterns--as NNDP aptly puts it-- that you want to reject. But there are other patterns that are still invisible to you, that you won't see 'til decades down the road. You'll have to work through them one at a time. But you are self-aware, and that makes a huge difference. I'm betting that you will be man enough, when the time comes, to apologize to your children when you are in the wrong. And that can make a huge difference right there.

My dad was an insecure jerk too. And so am I. Your story resonates strongly with mine. But I was hyper-aware of my shortcomings as a parent, and my kids turned out pretty OK, and I'm pretty sure they know how much I love them and am proud of them. I look back and see how I could have, or might have, done better, but I never regretted having kids.

The other thing I wanted to say was about what amtho pointed out. If you don't respect your wife, you shouldn't accept that as normal. If you have kids with someone you don't respect, it will be one long sacrifice. You may be repeating some pattern that you can't see yet. This might be a good time for some soul searching about that. It may be you, or it may be her.
posted by bricoleur at 3:56 PM on October 12, 2008

i would look into seeing a therapist. depression often manifests itself as numbness and irritability in men. it also often runs in families. an antidepressant might help; therapy certainly will.

i know you feel pretty down on yourself right now, but the fact that you recognize and are seeking to address this behavior and habit of mind puts you way ahead of the game compared to your father, and you should be proud of yourself. therapy wasn't as easily available to him, literally or figuratively, but it is available to you. make use of it. good luck!
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:58 PM on October 12, 2008

Although I am willing and able to make the physical sacrifices associated with parenting, I am incapable of doing so with empathy or with love. Heck, I honestly don't feel I am capable of empathy or love for anyone. I guess I view parenting (and life in general) as one big sacrifice until death...

Do you want kids? You kind of imply that you might from the fact of asking this question, but I'm getting to that age where my friends are becoming parents and I'm surprised at the number of them who never bothered to question whether they actually want to be parents.

Maybe you're just not meant to be a parent. (I'm not!) There's nothing wrong with that. In my opinion it's better to acknowledge this, if it is true, and not to bring kids into the world who will know they're unwanted; rather than to forge ahead unthinkingly and then live with stewing resentment the rest of your life.

Conversely, if you really do want kids, I think the fact that you have self-awareness about this problem will be what keeps you from ending up like your father. You may have to work at it, and the commenters upthread have given you some good ideas how to do so; but if you genuinely want to become a father your love for your children will keep you from hurting them in the way your father hurt you.

My point is, you need to know whether this is something you really want. If you do, then the sacrifices parenting demands will be worth it to you, and you won't have the disdain for your children that motivated your father's actions. If not, you may not still end up like your father; but it may take a lot of work, and you may end up unhappy.
posted by AV at 4:15 PM on October 12, 2008

I'm nthing the therapist recommendation. You might want advice on how a father should act, but I'm more concerned with whether you really are an "unlikeable jerk" OR you just THINK you are, which means you might need some help viewing yourself realistically and, sappy as it sounds, learning to like yourself. You certainly sound like depression could be an issue.

So, about the "unlikeable jerk": Do your friends and co-workers avoid you now, or is this just something that shows itself in the marriage? And what is it about the dynamic you have with your wife that makes you feel disdain for her? Maybe you are unwittingly just following the pattern your parents provided you.

It does sound like your marriage needs some serious work. One of the biggest red flags in a marriage is when one of the partners starts to view the other with contempt. Don't let it get that far, please, if you have something worth salvaging with your wife. And if you don't, definitely get therapy to figure that out now, when you DON'T have children.

So, yes, go see a therapist. For that matter, get your wife in there too! The negatives she won't say to you, she might be able to vent to the therapist. At the very least, maybe the therapist will help her become more assertive, and you to understand yourself better.
posted by misha at 6:00 PM on October 12, 2008

Your willingness is the biggest factor, I believe, in if you can reform your ways and be a good dad (and husband.)

My father was similar to yours, I think. I am pretty sure he was always so impatient/contemptuous with us because he didn't go out and get what he wanted, which made him insecure and mean. He pointed out our wrongs because it made him feel like the king of at least one castle. You may want to look into that part of yourself with a therapist---are there things you feel you are unable to accomplish?

Not a part of your question, but it seems some sort of . . . something, therapy or what have you, may be in order for your wife as well. It indicates something about her feelings of self-worth that she would allow you to behave the way you say you have. (This may have been cultured into her, but that doesn't change things much---she has been convinced she is "lower", which is not healthy imho.)
posted by lacedback at 7:41 PM on October 12, 2008

I think it's too early to think about this question. First, work out the problems you have with your wife and with yourself being a jerk. You will be a changed person at that point, and that is the right time to ask whether or not you can be a good father.
posted by ignignokt at 11:12 PM on October 12, 2008

Therapy is a good idea. Many people asking questions here are adverse to it so I'll suggest something else.

Can you forgive your dad? Can you maybe understand why his behavior was what it was? If you can be empathetic and loving toward your own father, then that will put you on the road toward being the empathetic and loving father you want to be.
posted by 26.2 at 11:21 PM on October 12, 2008

I agree with the others who have suggested therapy, and suggested that depression may be an issue. I also agree with the notion that an awareness of this problem is a huge plus for you that I hope you don't underestimate--it should give you hope, and you should be proud of your willingness to look at yourself and your life with such scrutiny. It takes a lot of bravery to do this, even though what you seemed to have gleaned from it at this point is mostly self-contempt, over time that self-scrutiny can give you the strength you need to actually change.

Secondly, though: about your relationship with your wife. It is impossible to be close to someone you keep secrets from. If you want closeness, and honestly, I think you do, you need to tell her these things and make yourself vulnerable. That is what intimacy is--it's sharing each others' deep, dark secrets.

Thirdly: That's a heck of a username you've got there, for a guy concerned about being just that. I would recommend looking for ways you're putting on this identity of angry, selfish old man and wearing it around. In all seriousness, I know this might sound trivial, but I think you should drop the username. I think it would be a gesture toward shedding a bit of the person you so clearly don't want to become.

Good luck. I really admire your willingness to confront yourself.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:24 AM on October 13, 2008

I don't think I can count on my wife to "keep me in line" either. She's let me act like a complete jerk to her all this time without even saying boo and I don't think - actually I know - she doesn't take me seriously when I express my concerns about parenting. I could spend an hour recounting my childhood, my fears and my worries and all I'll get in response is: "You'll be a great dad", "you're perfect ".

Sorry, I kind of missed this part. I think you should continue to pursue this line of discussion with her, and in therapy if necessary, help her to understand a bit more deeply your fears. After going on and on about something for an hour, I think it's fair to want to hear more then, 'Don't worry about it.' She loves you, though, and it's possible she's seeing strengths in you that you are unaware that you have, and through hard work and therapy you might be able to fully express these. (I doubt she's an idiot, but it's pretty common for people with low self esteem to dismiss the people who care for them as desperately misguided or dumb.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:30 AM on October 13, 2008

Please don't do this. Kids in the Big Brothers/Sisters program aren't there so prospective parents can work through their fears of being abusive and discover 'how they'll treat kids.' I'm sure they've got enough challenges on their own. /derail

bitteroldman - nthing the suggestion for therapy.

I hope you'll learn to treat yourself with love and empathy before taking on the responsibility of caring for others. You sound so fatalistic about having children: as if you must have them, and then doom everyone involved to being miserable. Both are optional. I wish you luck and hope you find peace and happiness soon - with or without kids.
posted by Space Kitty at 10:59 PM on October 13, 2008

Thanks to all for your answers and insight - they are all appreciated!
posted by bitteroldman at 5:34 PM on October 16, 2008

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