We squared off in an asphalt parking lot outside a diner near the interstate, somewhere between Denver and Colorado Springs. Me – coursing with adrenaline, sweat studding my brow – and my daughter’s boyfriend, who I’d flown from Chicago to meet.
Just shy of 6ft tall, he had the build of an athlete who hadn’t seen the inside of a gym for a few years, a man who’d learned to hide his insecurities with trendy clothes and skin that served as a canvas for color-rich tattoos. He had a struggling marijuana business, an ex-wife and two small children. I had a daughter who professed to love him, a daughter who told me she would marry him tomorrow if he asked her.
“Look,” I said to him, locking eyes and giving voice to the words I’d been silently rehearsing the entire plane ride. “You need to help me understand this, man. My daughter is 20. You’re 34. In what fucking world do you think this is okay?”
It was likely the wrong question, delivered the wrong way. But at that moment, as if by muscle memory, everything I’d been trying to unlearn about toxic tendencies took over. It was the best I could do to stop myself from reverting to the hotheaded, harmful man I’d once been.
A few yards away my wife and daughter stood, watching nervously. I caught my daughter’s eye and felt the air crackle with the static of our shared history.
My daughter was born when I was 19. After getting expelled from high school, I had moved from Chicago to Colorado with a hundred dollars, convinced that geography– not anger, immaturity, and substances – was the reason I kept getting into trouble. There, I met my daughter’s mother, and we got caught up in a relationship raw with love and drugs and violence, some of which was perpetuated by me. On two occasions during substance-fueled fights, I struck her and went to jail. At 20, I pleaded guilty to a felony and served some time. At 21, I pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor that required me to leave Colorado. Finally, at 26, I admitted that I was a selfish, rage-filled addict, and made the life-altering decision to get sober.
In the years that followed, I used AA meetings and counseling sessions to distance myself from the man I’d once been. I also traveled back and forth between Illinois and Colorado, trying to build a relationship with my daughter. I was committed to seeing it function despite the fact that the relationship I had with her mother never did.
During those years, especially as my daughter entered her teens, our bond was often strained. She was not unlike me at that age – increasingly rebellious, increasingly angry – and life with her mother ultimately became too volatile for them both. Just before her 17th birthday, she came to Chicago to live with me and my wife. But what started out as hopeful began unraveling just months later when my daughter ran away back to Colorado. Within weeks of returning, though, she found life under her mother’s roof was the same as before: untenable. So she ran away once more, and spent the next year or so sleeping on her friends’ sofas, calling me here and there, somehow managing to finish high school despite all the volatility. When she turned 18, she returned to her mother’s house, landed a job at a bank, and mostly leveled out.
I watched her proudly, but with the breaking heart I think all parents must feel as they watch their children navigate the impediments of early adulthood. I watched proudly as she overcame emotional upheaval and rootlessness. I watched proudly as she demonstrated a laudable tenacity to change her circumstances. I watched proudly as she was quickly promoted at the bank.
And then one night when my daughter was 20, she told me through tears how things with her mother had spiraled once again and she felt they couldn’t even be around each other. I couldn’t help her fast enough. I wanted to see her safe and secure in her own apartment, away from drama and distraction. So when I found out a month before I’d planned to visit that she was dating a man 14 years her senior, it didn’t bother me simply because of their age difference. It bothered me because she and I were nearing the end of a long, difficult race, one that had left both of us exhausted. She was finally settled in her own place with a good job, and now everything was at risk again.
I was terrified that this man would upend her world. I was worried that he would influence her, and that she would make some of the same mistakes I had at her age. I was projecting, of course, taking plot lines from my own life and inserting them into hers, and to a degree I understood that. But simply taking stock of my apprehensions didn’t make me feel any better. I wanted to stop their relationship, to spare my daughter what felt like inevitable heartache. I also wanted to stand squarely in front of the man she was dating, look him in the eye, and hold him accountable for her still-tender heart.
The smell of baking blacktop surrounded us as I waited for his answer in the summer heat. I wondered what my daughter thought of all of this, what this scene looked like to her. Did she see me as yet another man trying to assert his dominance, trying to prove his manhood, trying to control her life under the guise of protection? I could see how it might look like that, and it wasn’t entirely untrue. As her father, I did want to protect her from people and situations that might threaten her hard-won stability. But there we were, this man and I, sweating in the parking lot of a greasy spoon, both trying to establish our claims to a person whose independence was, ultimately, not ours to control.
Churning beneath it all were a litany of thoughts I’d yet to share with my daughter. Over the past few years, as I watched her grow, and as my marriage evolved to make space for me to understand and advocate for feminism and equality, I came to question much of what I’d inherited about being a man. I’d come to see that ideas I’d long held – that men need to be decisive leaders and sole decision-makers and majority breadwinners – were not just wrong, but harmful.
I stood shifting between a legitimate concern for my daughter and my regression to an old alpha-male trope. I also felt the needle prick of my own hypocrisy. When I was 30, I briefly dated a 19-year-old.
At the time, I told myself that I was dating her because she was attractive and intriguing, but I knew the real reason was that it was easy. I was months out of a relationship with a woman my own age, one that still hurt to think about, and hanging out with this younger woman helped me feel less lonely. I worried my daughter’s new boyfriend was going to treat his relationship with my daughter the same way I had treated my relationship with the19-year-old – as an afterthought, a convenience, as something fun between two consenting adults but certainly not something to be taken seriously.
As it is for many men, it is easier for me to feel fury than it is to acknowledge fear. I stood there, a stiff jab’s distance away from this man’s chin, beginning to understand the truth of the matter: I wasn’t simply confronting my daughter’s boyfriend, I was also confronting myself.
As it is for many men, it is easier for me to feel fury than it is to acknowledge fear. Our masculine script tells us that we can be angry, but we cannot express ourselves in other ways lest we come off as weak. We need to “man up” and dismiss our pain. We need to swallow our emotions. We need to always assert our authority.
Even though I can label those ideas as the lies they are, I still sometimes find myself beholden to them. In that moment of confrontation, I chose to focus on him rather than myself. I acknowledged my anger and dismissed my fear. It was so much easier to be upset with him, to be distracted by confrontation, than to share with him the truth: that I loved my daughter to pieces, and I was scared she was making a mistake.
When his answer finally came – that he hadn’t known my daughter’s age when they met, that she looked older, and that he really liked her – it was predictable, and probably not all that different from the answer I would have given. Our conversation continued a few more minutes, my tension and anger slowly dissipating, and I asked him to respect her, to treat her well, to consider her past and all that she’d overcome.
More than two years removed from that moment, I’m uncertain if my decision to confront that man was driven primarily by my love for my daughter, by my own need to feel some sort of control in a situation that felt so completely out of my control, or by some deep notion of how I think a man – or father – should act. Was I wrong to feel angry? Was I wrong to interfere? Perhaps. But my intrusion into my daughter’s dating life didn’t alter anything in the end. I flew back to Chicago. My daughter continued to date him.
What I know for certain is that I’ll keep striving to jettison this gender baggage. More than anything, I want to be a better father, husband, person. I want to coalesce what feel like fractured selves: the impulsive, domineering, toxic man I sometimes am and the consistently kind, loving, temperate man that I aspire to be. Because it’s in this melding of masculinities, in this synthesis of selves, that I can both fashion my future and make peace with my past.
Timothy J Hillegonds is a writer based in Chicago. He is the author of the memoir, The Distance Between, published by The University of Nebraska Press