There are a few episodes of The Cosby Show that make me cry. Probably as much for their unrealistic portrayals of black life that looked nothing like my real-life experiences as for the happily-ever-after endings that concluded every 30 minute segment. The things I found most believable and desirable, however, were not necessarily the brownstone in Brooklyn, discretionary funds, or inevitable success of five children…ironically, for me, the thing that made me cry was the “daddy-is-in-the-house-and-gives-a-damn” storyline (which was the most un-real and the most tear inspiring). Nevermind the fact that daddy was a doctor, mama was a lawyer, and they had five well mannered and well adjusted children who did not suffer from a lack of attention, affection, or supervision (imagine that no premarital sex or pregnancy, no drug experimentation, no disciplinary problems, etc.).
I grew up in a full house but with female father-figures because my biological didn’t bother–and divided time between my mother, othermothers, grandmother and pseudo aunties and cousins. We were NOT the Huxtables. But it is not the traditional, nuclear family structure that most turns my heart upside down—it was the lovingly strict and humorous way with which Cliff handled his children–loved his children. One episode in particular made me cry for hours after it was over (the “Father’s Day” episode, season 1). In the episode Cliff reminisces about various father’s day gifts he has received from his children and complains that they always give their mother the “good” gifts. After being confronted by their father with the various useless items they have either made or purchased for him over the years, the children decide to celebrate Father’s Day early (even though it is Christmastime) to show Cliff how much they love and appreciate him. The gifts represent their personal relationship with their father and their observations of his needs and appreciation of his being a good father.
I couldn’t stop crying. While I am not 100% sure that the tears were not hormone-driven (I may have been pre-menstrual) or that I would have the same reaction watching the same episode now, something in me moved that day and every other day when I think about the impact of not being a daddy’s girl. I have a recovered relationship with my father (meaning the wounds are healed and covered with band-aids) but I still find it difficult on birthdays and holidays to find a card that truly represents our relationship. They don’t have deadbeat daddy cards. There is not a greeting card that acknowledges “you were never there for me…but I love you anyway,” or “I can remember the time I needed you and you were not there,” etc. I usually opt for a blank card and write my own words, or get a generic card that could just as easily go to someone I barely know. With cards, however, it is the thought that counts.
I remember thinking how lucky Rudy was (we are almost the same age) and wanting so desperately (but eventually outgrowing) to be a daddy’s girl. All these years later and instead of being daddy’s little girl I am a grown woman negotiating daddy issues. Daddy issues manifest themselves in many ways—as a teenager (and in my 20s) they led me to attract men who were unavailable or uninterested (in me) so that I could correct in me what was never right with Daddy. My tantrums (various culminations of begging, pleading, kicking, screaming, crying) never worked to win the men over, but it never stopped me from wanting their attention and affection–even if it meant waiting (patiently and diligently). Even when it meant believing lies.
I have been actively forgiving my father for years. When I think about it, it is so much bigger than I’m sorry. My father could never say he is sorry enough to make up for how his treatment and dismissal of me as a child has affected how I see myself, how I see men, and how I see relationships. Its all broken, and in some ways I am broken, and him being sorry or saying sorry isn’t enough. But it is a start.
It was selfish of him to make a daughter and then walk away—to prioritize everything above me—to not give me a semblance of balance between loving myself and showing me what love looked like. The template he gave me is the template I have followed—he starved me for his love so that when he gave me any moment of attention the moments were delicious—I have always ravished the uninterrupted attention of a man.
It is a miracle I am not a whore because attention and affection are addictive. But I think I learned a long time ago, from my daddy, that some types of love are temporary. Luckily the sick one-sided love relationships I had with men who were just like my daddy ended as quickly as they started—because otherwise I may have found myself a baby’s mama to a triflin’ motherfucker with no prospects. My daddy issues translated into fierce independence and success because as a little black girl I was conditioned to be strong and told that I could not wrap my dreams around a man—and unlike the Huxtable kids I wasn’t given an example that looked like right…
I come from a long line of absent fathers. My daddy, my mama’s daddy, my grandmama’s daddy (my great-great grandfather did not abandon his children, however, but worked out of the state) and I struggle with becoming the fourth generation of women in my family who try to figure out who they are and how to give (and receive) love to men who don’t care enough to stay. Or leave.
The Cosby Show episode ends with children laughing around a father who would be every little girl’s dream. My daddy made me laugh. And he has always been one of the most beautiful men in my life. If I were to gather all of his father’s day gifts together they would probably include empty bottles I waited for him to fill and issues I am ready to pour out.