Teaching a Dad to Fish

So… I’m getting a little frustrated with my dad. It’s a kind frustration, not an angry one.

My dad has struggled a lot since my mom died. To be expected, really. He has his good days and his bad days, but lately the bad ones have started to rack up with more frequency. My dad has been increasingly needy in the last few weeks. It all started when two former colleagues of his died- he got word within two days of each other. Now, he hadn’t talked to them in years, but still… it’s sad. My father is at that age where the death notices just start to roll in. Again, it’s sad… but what can you do? Stop 80 and 90 year olds from dying?

His messages to me started to get a weird panicky tone. He emailed and texted me several times a day. Then he texted me that my great uncle died (he was 96.) I got this text in the middle of a meeting. Not exactly the right time or place. Perhaps this is an example of older folks not understanding appropriate communication methods, but that’s just shit you don’t text.

Anyway… Sensing a disturbance in the force, I called him that afternoon. And he talked for 45 minutes mostly about my brother. (Context: my brother basically got fired because he got so depressed after my mom’s death that he stopped going to work. He’s been able to plead his case and is now “on leave” with the understanding that he is supposed to find another job while he is “on leave.” There is more nuance to that, but that summarizes what’s going on.)

Now, I get it. My dad is concerned for my brother. But this was different. It’s like my brother’s depression and all the people dying is proof that the world is a terrible place. He also implied that my mom’s death was easier for me because I’m “okay.” Cue brain boiling. Even though that insensitivity, I did my best imitation of a cheerleader, and talked with him about ways he can get outside, try new hobbies, meet with friends… you know, keep living even when life looks shitty. After the past few years I’ve had, I’m very good at this.

Several times in the last week, I emailed him an interesting article or podcast, and he’d either claim he can’t read it or access it. The end request is “Why don’t you call me and tell me about it/show me how it works.” Today he asked me to call him and tell him about a party I went to this weekend.

He emails constantly, texts me about people dying… Just as I was writing this, he texted me, my brother, and my sister an essay about Beverly Cleary’s birthday, and asked if Ramona Quimby was my role model. It was like an essay question over text. What, what?

Look, I love my dad, but I can’t be on the phone with him for 45 minutes every night when I get home from work. I have dinner to make, a baby to take care of, a house to make less chaotic. I can’t respond to every text and email because I have a job to do (and a big fat project I’m trying to keep from going off the rails.)

In the spirit of teaching a man to fish, I did a little research and found that there is a cooking class on May 14th that I thought Dad would really like. He’d get out of the house, it would give him something to look forward to, and he’d meet new people. Our exchange went something like this:

ME: What are you doing May 14th?

DAD: Nothing.

ME: Great, I’ve found a cool cooking class for you! It’s only 3 hours on a Saturday. You’ll go to a local farmer’s market, meet the farmers, and make fresh food from seasonal ingredients!

DAD: I appreciate what you’re doing but I have to get ready to go to my summer house. So no thank you.

To be honest, this is horse pucky- the man has 6 weeks between now and the class, which is plenty of time to get ready. He just doesn’t want to do it. 

Anyway, this was my epiphany: my dad wants companionship, and the best I could possibly be is a cheerleader. He wants my mom back and is trying to replace that closeness through emails and texts, and it just isn’t going to happen. Every time I make suggestions about how he can find companionship elsewhere (like going to the pool, going to a cooking class, or joining a book club) he finds reasons not to do them. I offer him this support, and he says no, I want that. But I just can’t be the only thing he seems to want.

It’s a no win situation.

In the past, I’ve had to set boundaries with my dad and it looks like they need a refresh. The question is… how do you do this that doesn’t shake his already fragile foundation?



  1. unproductiveatreproducing · April 12, 2016

    Ouch, this is a difficult situation. My mom is an only child and I see her going through it now with my grandma since my grandpa passed. I think you are on the right track with the boundaries. Unfortunately, feelings get hurt. My mom (and my sisters) have made a schedule with grandma. She knows that we will be there to join her for activities at certain days and times. We have had to be firm with those times, but it seems to be working. Grandma gets time that she craves with the family, but we all also know when to expect it and can still go about our busy lives (because we have to). Best of luck!

    • thecommonostrich · April 14, 2016

      Funny you mention it- my dad suggested something similar. Only it was “Why don’t you and your siblings arrange so that one of you texts me everyday so that you know I’m not dead.” That is, I’m afraid to say, a direct quote. (Because my family is macabre like that.)

      I know his feelings will get hurt, and I’m coming to realize there is no real way around that. I’ll just aim for doing the least amount of damage.

      • unproductiveatreproducing · April 14, 2016

        That’s all you can do… and my family totally says stuff like that! My grandma lives in the lower level of my sister’s house and screams like she’s in pain to get someone to come down because she says sister never answers the phone. Lol. Every family is just a little *different*.

  2. Nara · April 12, 2016

    Ah this sounds really hard. I’m the oldest and I definitely feel like I’ve been the one who’s had to go along with things or try and set boundaries – I feel like my mum had a hard time adjusting to the idea of us grown up and not in touch every single day. I found that calling up when I’m in a time limited situation helps. Either on my way to or from the station – as it means I have to get on a train or go in a lift or whatever. It means I can have a shortish conversation plus it’s boring walking time so I’m happy to have a quick chat! Obviously it’s hard to adjust to there being more distance / feeling lonely etc and you have to try and balance that with living your own life too.

    Btw, I had Ramona Quimby books as a child and loved her! I think she’s American as nobody else in my class had ever heard of her!

    • thecommonostrich · April 14, 2016

      Oooo, yes… I try to call him on my commute home when I know I have a limited time. It helps. (Though I’ll admit I’m starting to love my commute because it is the only time I have by myself.) Sometimes it backfires because he won’t get of the phone. 😉

      Ramona is so very much an American creation, and I’m so glad you read her! I was such a little Ramona, it’s like Cleary was writing about me. And quite possibly you too.

      • Nara · April 14, 2016

        Yes really! I could so relate to Ramona! Especially (if I recall correctly) she had an annoying little sister? And she was always trying SO hard to impress people.

        I can still mainly remember that time when she had to do a class presentation and she had a cat mask or something and she forgot her lines. I could so relate to her! She even looked a bit like me in the illustrations!

        I had a lot of American books growing up as we were always expats! I do remember no-one at my English school had heard of Ramona Quimby!

  3. My Perfect Breakdown · April 12, 2016

    This broke my heart and got me thinking. When my mom died my Dad moved on with another women right away, as in within a few months. I was heartbroken and simply couldn’t understand it and struggled for a very long time over this. But, today, he is married to this women and they are clearly still in love. Is there marriage perfect, I honestly don’t know but they do seem genuinely happy. And honestly, I’m thankful my Dad isn’t alone. And your post just reminded me of how thankful I am that he isn’t alone.
    And I have to say that I think you are right, you cannot be the replacement for your mom and you cannot be his companion that he needs/wants right now because you have your own little Chick and life. I’m sorry that you are being pulled in too many directions. I have no good advice, but I am sending you so much love.
    Oh and I just have to say, it pisses me off immensely when people judge how others grieve. Honestly, did you have much choice in picking up the pieces to care for Chick? And just because you don’t have a nervous breakdown doesn’t mean you aren’t hurting and struggling in your own right.

    • thecommonostrich · April 14, 2016

      For reals– I had a hard time biting my tongue when my dad talked about how “easy” I had it with my mom’s death. #rage

      I just wish he could get outside himself and realize that life can still be glorious even in the face of crappy things. For a while I was convinced that I could help him get there, but I’ve come to realize that perhaps he won’t. It’s sad, but also a probable outcome. He lost someone and something central to who he thought he was. Rebuilding oneself in the wake of that… it’s tough. I know your relationship with your dad after your mom and daughter died hasn’t always been easy either. I wonder if there comes a point where resign ourselves to the fall out of tragedy…

      • My Perfect Breakdown · April 14, 2016

        I think there is a point where we have to resign ourselves to the fallout of tragedy. Everyone is hurt and people change in the wake of such massive loss. Its taken me years (19 in fact) to really understand that the relationship we have now is now the norm. Its not what matches the dream in my mind, but it is what it is. I guess.

  4. Molly · April 12, 2016

    What about scheduling some time with him? Make it on your terms. Let him know that you’re going to call him at 5 pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays or whatever, and those times will be HIS time.

    • thecommonostrich · April 14, 2016

      I think I may try that. Still, I also want him to get outside his own house (and head,) but I’m starting to realize that is something he has to work out on his own.

  5. Anonymous · April 13, 2016

    Oh can I ever relate to this post! My mother (to whom I was extremely close) died almost 10 years ago. My father and I have never been close. In fact, I’ve spend pretty much my entire adult life avoiding him. This seemed pretty much a case of turnabout being fair play since he was not around at all when I was growing up. No, this is not an exaggeration. I was truly shocked to learn when I was turning 6 that he would actually be there for my birthday because his being home was such a rarity. My mom, when she was dying, told me she was worried about me but she figured my dad would pretty much not notice she was gone. So, you can imagine my shock when suddenly he started calling me multiple times a day. I thought I fixed that by introducing him to texting. That was my mistake. Now he texts so much we had to get an unlimited texting plan because he kept having overages. Boundaries are definitely key but I have to say even after 10 years we don’t have it figured out. Of course, if you actually have a decent relationship with your father that probably makes a difference. And I do realize I sound pretty heartless, I’m not. He brought this on himself. This is what we call self preservation. And I still feel like a rotten person. 🙂

  6. lovingthemarriedlife · April 13, 2016

    sorry you are going through this! I can’t imagine how difficult it must be!

  7. Pingback: This is How I Midlife Crisis | the ostrich

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