I was sixteen when my father died. My mother told me that she didn’t know how to offer me guidance after that point because, “I don’t really understand men.” But she was very wrong about what she had to offer me. She taught by example. She demonstrated courageous, adventurous, passionate engagement with her life and community, a gift I still draw strength from.
Ironically, I became a couples therapist, not because I was inspired by the example my parents set for me, but because I learned first hand about so much of what doesn’t work in a partnership from them. Not that they didn’t love each other. I believe they did. But their marriage was difficult and my mother, in particular, was ground down by being caretaker for four children. She cooked, cleaned house, played secretary to my father’s various business ventures and overall complemented his initiatives. She yearned for the opportunity to have a connection to the world beyond the home. And when their marriage of thirty-odd years ended she never looked back.
My father came by his sense of entitlement honestly if such a thing can be said or make any sense. When we were alone, I was my mother’s confidant. She explained that, because my paternal grandfather, tailor by trade, had lost his eyesight when my father was in elementary school, he—five ten by the time he was twelve years old—had been working, building and repairing tracks in the New York subway at a time that his age would have dictated he report to junior high school. With his fifth grade education, and later sporting runner-up status in the Golden Gloves, he made his way to manhood. One hundred percent old school. He was a thoughtful and even a sensitive man but questioning his right to exercise prerogatives and control in his home was, to his mind, neither real nor right. He worked hard and felt entitled to be attended to when he got home.