If you have seen the 1970s sitcom All in the Family and are familiar with the character of Archie Bunker, you pretty much have met my father. In his heart he is a decent person, I know he loves me, and he has some good traits, for example he can be very helpful - but his exterior is gruff - complaining, criticizing and delighting in being a bigot. He even walks like Archie Bunker. He is the type who will hover over you when you are cooking so he can point out everything you are doing incorrectly and what a mess you are making (I even nicknamed him hovercraft, which I found outrageously funny and which I could tell he thought was funny too, although he tried to act annoyed). He enjoys (and is fixated on) seeing people get punished, which I suspect may stem from being raised by an abusive German mother. He is politically and socially conservative to the extreme and sees everything in black and white. He cannot accept anyone who is different from him, is liberal or who thinks independently. A psychologist might describe him as having an authoritarian personality.
As you might imagine, he and I exist on opposite poles of reality.
My dad has never paid me a compliment, other than an occasional approving nod when eating one of my gourmet family dinners with the occasional comment of "tasty". When I made the honor roll and National Honor Society in high school, he didn't attend the award ceremony or even congratulate me. Ditto for when I got my bachelor degree and later my masters. I can't think of anything I have accomplished in life that has impressed him and if it did, he simply could not bring himself to tell me. It's not in his constitution.
Except for once - the one time he complimented me and rendered me speechless.
I had taken him shopping with me one day to help me purchase tires for my car (my dad is an expert on cars and fixing things and likes to be helpful with things like this). We went to one of those big wholesale clubs which has its own auto and tire department. After picking out the tires, we had a half hour to kill while the mechanics put the tires on the car. So we walked up and down the sterile, flourescent-lit aisles of the store.
While browsing in one of the aisles, there was suddenly a loud ruckus in the next aisle from us. A family with young children was carrying on with such ferocity that everyone in the store was gaping at them. The kids were screaming, the parents were screaming, merchandise was being knocked off store shelves. It was the typical center-of-the-universe-obnoxious-family-disturbing-the-entire-environment scenario which I have often complained about in this blog.
When the ruckus reached a fevered pitch, my father turned to me and said, "you are smart not to have children. Your mother always says you should have kids, but I think it's smart what you're doing." I blinked in disbelief. Was this a compliment from my father? He continued, "your life is so much easier because you don't have kids. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't have had kids either." Then, realizing what he was saying to his daughter, he added, "I don't mean that I would give you and your brothers up now - I mean, I am glad you are my kids, but I'm just saying that knowing what I know now, I wouldn't do it again."
My father, "Archie" - the unlikely childfree advocate.
I don't remember how or if I responded, but I believe I was rendered speechless, since being told I am smart or anything positive by my dad is completely novel, uncharted territory.
This was several years ago. Since then, several parents have told me the same thing - that if they could do it all over again, they wouldn't have kids. I've written about many of them here and will continue to do so as I encounter more and more parents who open up to me this way. Of all the parental revelations I have received, though, my dad's will hold a special place in my heart because I know that his revelation to me was a breakthrough for him, and also for our relationship. I realized that somewhere deep inside him and to some extent, he gets me and that's a good feeling.