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Shopping for a Father’s Day card has always been a struggle for me.
The vast majority are dripping with sentimentality, thanking dear ol’ Dad for his advice, love, and presence…or cracking good-natured jokes about a daily habit or adorable foible.
While I love my father, none of these cards ring true.
My parents divorced when I was four years old, and from that point on, I lived on the east coast with my mother while my father relocated out west. We had—and have—a relationship, but it’s complicated, fraught, and intermittently distant, and not easily reduced to the language of Hallmark.
After purchasing this year’s requisite innocuous card (this one reads “Especially for you on Father’s Day: with warm wishes, because it’s Father’s Day, because you’re you!”), I found myself thinking about my stepsisters—the three girls (women, now) who got to grow up with my dad.
Is shopping for Father’s Day cards complicated for them, too? I mean, they got to have my dad, but he wasn’t their dad. Do they buy cards for both men? Do they buy cards just for my dad, but with a similar side-serving of confusion and sadness? Do they gravitate, as I sometimes have, toward humor as a way to avoid sentimentality? Have they ever lost an hour in the card aisle, trying to find something that fit?
We used to be close, my sisters and I.
Even though the girls were no less than my third set of step-siblings (the second on my dad’s side, plus my mom had remarried by then), and despite a 10-year age difference separating me from the oldest of them, I worked hard to be a good sister.
I selected and spent my own money on Christmas presents every year without expecting anything in return (they were still kids, after all). I remember being consulted, as a mental health professional, when one of the girls revealed a significant childhood trauma. I remember flying out with my newborn son one Christmas, bearing hand-knit scarves for each of my stepsisters. I remember joining hands at one of their weddings, encircling the bride and sending into the universe our collective love and hope for her future. I remember feeling sorry to find out, later, that the marriage hadn’t lasted.
Something shifted a decade or so ago, and it’s been a long time since I’ve heard from any of my sisters. I’m not sure why.
I have no idea what (potentially false) narrative they’ve been fed, or if they have it all straight and don’t want to talk to me anyway. I had a falling out with my dad around the time they dropped off the radar (he and I are in a better place, now), but I’m not sure if or why that meant we sisters had to stop speaking, as well.
Being as young as they were when they came into my life (three, five, and seven), there was no way for them to understand the trauma inherent in their mother’s marriage to my father…no way for them to comprehend the vast differences between their perspectives—their loyalties—and mine.
They couldn’t have known, back then, that my first step-family had just been abruptly and summarily erased from my life after 10 years—a beloved stepsister my same age and a hero-status older stepbrother reduced to memories. Despite having legally adopted my step-siblings some years earlier, I don’t believe my father ever spoke to either of them again.
They wouldn’t have been aware that when my dad picked me up at the airport that Christmas, I was surprised to find an unfamiliar woman—their mother—waiting with him at the gate.
I was surprised to be meeting a new love interest when I’d been prepared to spend the holiday comforting my dad in the wake of his recent separation. Surprised to see the sparkling emerald and diamond engagement ring on their mother’s finger as she draped her left hand over the back of the driver’s seat while my brother and I exchanged confused glances and wondered what the hell was going on. Surprised to be sharing my father’s house with an entirely different family than the one I’d bid farewell four months earlier.
They weren’t there, in the privacy of my dad’s walk-in closet where I sat wrapping his Christmas presents, when I discovered some gifts sent to my brother and me by my stepmother—gifts that were never delivered and which I later heard were returned to her, unopened.
They weren’t standing in my mother’s bedroom back in Florida, a year or so later, when I got the call that my now-former stepmother had killed herself, and immediately wondered if any of her despair had to do with her mistaken belief in my rejection.
This was before cell phones or Facebook; as a teenager in the 80s, there was no way for me to question any of what I was being told by the adults in my life, no way for me to reach out—or back in time—and say to my stepmother, “I know you loved me, and I loved you, too.”
My stepsisters couldn’t have known any of this, and maybe now they wouldn’t even believe it. It was a lifetime ago and their experiences of my father have been different. They grew up with him; I haven’t lived with him since I was four years old. They saw him every day after school; I saw him only a few times a year. We used to trade off going back and forth between Florida and Arizona, but as soon as he married their mom, my dad stopped traveling east.
I guess he was needed at home.
One of my stepsisters is a mother now, and I sometimes wonder if that’s informed or changed her view of my father, or of me. I wonder if the girls’ collective traumas (for who makes it through their parents’ divorce and into their 30s without trauma?) have enabled them to better understand my traumas. I wonder if their failed relationships have helped them to empathize with my divorce, which I can only assume was some kind of sticking point as it coincided pretty clearly with the end of our contact.
I wonder if they’re as curious about me as I am about them. I wonder if they think I stopped talking to them. I wonder why I haven’t been able to bring myself to reach out—now that I do have access to cell phones and social media—and ask them.
I do want to say this: the 70s were a different time in terms of how a father’s role was viewed and valued. I believe that my dad was wholly unaware of the pain we were in or the long-term trajectory he set in motion by moving west, across the country—his children would always be oriented to the east coast and would identify more closely with the parent who raised them. I believe he loves me to the extent that he’s capable, and I believe he’s always tried his best to do right by me and my brother.
What remains unclear is where that leaves us—four women thrown together in childhood who are now free to navigate, or ignore, our relationship.
With step-families increasingly becoming the norm in the United States (according to the United States Census Bureau, over 50 percent of U.S. families are remarried or recoupled), where does that leave any of the adult children of these unions?
Are we anything more than the legal terminology that renders us “related?” Do we have any familial obligation to one another when we’ve never even lived in the same house?
Who are we to each other, all of these children who share parents but not lives…who have the same father, but somehow a vastly different version?
If these words make their way to my stepsisters, I want them to know that I remain open. That even though we live completely separate lives, I feel inextricably linked, inexplicably tender, and infinitely curious. I would like to share our stories. I would like to know what it was like for them to grow up with my dad, and what their relationship looks like now. I would like very much to be something to each other—something we forge ourselves now that we’re all adults and no longer subject to the whims of our parents.
I will be working on the courage (if, indeed, that’s what’s lacking) to reach out, and perhaps as they’re standing in the card aisle this year, they’ll be doing the same. I do hope we meet again.