In late September last year I had a phone conversation with my dad that I found especially frustrating. While he was going on at length about every bit of minutia in his life, I was having difficulty getting a word in edgewise. He’d asked me precisely two questions, and interrupted one of those answers. When he’d had enough of the conversation, he signed off, leaving me annoyed and aware that we really hadn’t connected at all. I’d just been an audience. Again.
Over the next month or so, I pondered this and compared it to previous conversations with him. In that respect, this one had been unremarkable – it’s the way things usually went with him, but I’d always shrugged and didn’t think about it until next time.
This time was different. One reason was that I’ve been surrounding myself with authors and people online who say that if there is someone in your life who does something that causes you difficulties, you’re allowed to ask them not to do that thing. This is contrary to what I’d learned growing up, but it has finally started to sink in.
As I thought about my relationship with my dad, and in particular our roughly monthly calls, I became aware that he rarely expressed any interest in me, and the usual topic of conversation was the trivia of his life (down to his heel that still aches), much of which was complaints, and commonly complaints about his wife’s adult children (who are about the same age as me). I also began to realise that I don’t especially enjoy these calls. They’re just something to endure.
It had occurred to me that maybe he couldn’t talk to his wife about these things (and especially her kids), and so maybe he didn’t have anyone else to vent to. But he’d assigned me this role without ever asking me if that was OK, and as it happens I’m not OK with it, and I don’t actually have to participate in calls that I find largely unenjoyable.
The other thing that was different this time was that I’d gone for lunch with my mom at a time when this was still on my mind. Although we don’t generally talk about anything significant (that’s a whole other issue), I raised this with her, mentioning my concern that dad had no one else to talk to.
Now, my parents split when I was a kid and it was largely very reasonable, neither of them badmouthed the other, and they still talk from time to time. But she said matter-of-factly, “Oh, he’s like that with everybody.”
I’d resolved to confront him in some way about the issue next time we spoke but I hadn’t figured out how best to handle it and that was stressing me out, especially since I was already thoroughly stressed about preparing for my upcoming trip to Japan. I eventually gave up on saying anything about it this time; it would have to wait until I was home again. But if he wasn’t interested in hearing about me, why should I shoehorn that info into the conversation? I decided not to offer anything, and in particular not mention the Japan trip unless he expressed a minimum of interest in me by saying something like “So, anything new going on?”
The next time he called was, as luck would have it, the day before my trip, and as the conversation felt like it was winding up, he happened to ask, “Got any trips coming up?”
“Actually, yes! I’m going to Japan tomorrow!”
“Oh! Good thing I called then,” he said with a touch of acidity.
I thought, but did not say, No, it’s good that you actually asked me one question about my life.
So we chatted about that for a bit, and the conversation felt more balanced and thus better than usual, but it didn’t solve anything.
I needed to do something more.
Next: communicating with my dad — the mildest confrontation