Listener’s Letter: Episode 101 – Why Should I Pretend?


Written by In Sight

Our listener this week shares some harrowing stories from her childhood and describes the lasting effects she’s spent years processing in therapy. Tired of playing happy families to protect the public image, she asks for help envisioning a future where she can be authentic without having to rewrite her past for someone else’s benefit.

Episode 101 is available now.

Here’s the letter in full. If you’d like to send your own question for Helen and Katie to answer, we’d love to hear your story.

This letter contains references to sex, suicide, child neglect and parentification.

Dear Helen and Katie

Thank you so much for your podcasts, they have helped me feel validated and not alone. I know my past was bad but I have cycles of questioning if my present is really that bad. I would be grateful for your perceptive on how the past and the present are related.

I grew up as a family of 4 with my mum being an extremely loving mum and my dad was around. To the outside world we were a perfect family, until my mum suddenly announced that she wanted a divorce, sending my dad a solicitor letter, to all our surprise. My parents had an extremely messy divorce whilst all living in the same house for long periods of it, although my mum was frequently abroad with work.

I was parentified emotionally by becoming my dads closest friend and listening to all his issues. He told me things that were extremely inappropriate as his daughter, such as the details of his sex life and traumatic events. Once I asked him why the telephone cable in his bedroom had been cut. He explained that he wanted to punish my mum, so he had locked them both in his bedroom, cut the telephone and then took a mixture of medicines, so that my mum had to watch him die. There was never any consideration of the impact of telling me things like this. I was also parentified when it came to housework. I took on a significant amount of chores that my mum had done. If I didn’t do certain things like cooking, we wouldn’t have a cooked meal. My younger brother and I didn’t have food in for lunches and weren’t given money to buy lunches. I left like we were neglected and didn’t have a parent figure.

My dad would love bomb new girlfriends and they became his everything, from going on holidays during term times, leaving my brother and I alone. My brother, 15 at the time, looked after our family dog during this time and slept on the kitchen floor of a friends, to stop the dog barking and waking his friend’s family up. To saying, he would give me lift somewhere at a certain but leaving me waiting downstairs whilst I could hear him upstairs having sex.

I look back at it now and feel like I was never a priority, and I was always seen to be ok and therefore didn’t need parenting or love. I feel angry and so sad as I reflect on how I struggled alone and in silence during this time. My days would involve going to school, coming home to walk the dog, cook tea, clean, listen to my dad for hours about his issues, go to bed late and cry by myself alone. At 16 I applied for a sixth form boarding college. I was successful and it was my escape, but holidays meant I came home to my dad. He had married a Russian women he had met on the internet and proposed to the first time they met. She was horrible to me. I would be sat watching tv and she would walk into the room and scream at me. My dad told me later that it was because I hadn’t stood up when she walked into the room. He didn’t stand up for me or protect me from her. He would often tell me that she had given up her children to come to the UK and she wanted him to do the same. As if I should be empathic to her. I endured these times, knowing that the end goal was a career, which would allow me to be independent.

These are only a small number of examples of awful things I experienced as a teenager and young adult but somehow my dad has always portrayed this image that we were really close and he was a great dad. I feel like the impact of his actions are so invisible to him. I’ve never told him that I’ve been hurt and how I feel. I don’t feel like I’m allowed to.

Recently I told my dad was I was going to get some counselling and he told me that he couldn’t cope with the idea that I might have any issues. I struggle now with pretending that we are a happy family and I have so much built up frustration and hurt, after spending time together. What he says and does triggers me all the time and I feel like I have to recover from visits, where he just gets to enjoy playing head of this loving family. As a parent now, I reflect on how he is with my children and what he was like when I was young and I have less empathy for him. I am very protective of my children around him and I feel like I’m hoovering around him to correct him. From demanding a kiss from the child and me being their voice and saying that they are allowed not to kiss him. I don’t have my own voice yet with him, but I do for my children and I know this annoys him. He criticizes me for trying to be too good a mum and says that what I do is unachievable. Which sounds like him projecting his own guilt or failures onto me. But instead of offering help when I’m tired, I’m criticized for how I want to parent.

Despite all this, I feel so much expectation to see him all the time and let him be this great grandparent. For example, he’s built a treehouse in his garden so that I visit more with the children. My grandad died recently but when I last saw him, he told me that my dad was such a great grandad. It has stuck with me and I wonder why he thinks that.

When my youngest was born, I had a home birth and my dad looked after my eldest for a few hours. He brought him home before I even had time to shower. When he arrived it was all about how his wife was such a great grandma and how she had to hold the baby. 6 hours after giving birth, I was the one loading the dishwasher and cleaning up. My husband was equally busy hosting and looking after my eldest. My dad asked me how long I wanted him to stay and help.

I don’t understand how he can think he’s this amazing helpful dad, when his actions are so different. But I’m left with the guilt for not seeing him more. It’s like I’m the difficult one, even the cruel one, when I don’t visit more or let them look after both children alone. How is everything that he’s done in the past so invisible? How can he say things to me such as, if I had my time again, I wouldn’t have children, and expect us to play happy families? I can’t think of examples but the way he talks is always giving this image that he helps others so much and he’s loving and caring. So I’m left feeling like I’m the mean one for creating space – the only way I know to reduce me being triggered and upset my him. I can’t talk to him about the past and yet my present is so affected by it. I have been doing therapy for almost a year now and I feel stronger to be myself and prioritise myself. As a result, I just want to slip away from my dad, but without causing conflict or being the source of his complaining. How can my past experiences be so ignored and invalid?

I really struggle with pretending that everything is great with my dad and I want to create distance without having the conflict or having to justify why I feel how I do. But whenever I take steps to do this, I feel guilty and as if I am being mean to my dad. I feel really like I go through cycles of it feeling valid that he has been horrible to me and I need space to prioritise myself. And then I feel guilty and like I’m the one who is being unkind and thinking that he’s not that bad now and I’m making things a bigger deal.

Is it possible to have some form of relationship without addressing the issues of the past and tolerating the present, knowing he doesn’t have the same impact on me, now I’m independent? Why do I feel like it’s so hard to limit contact when I feel like I don’t get anything from the relationship? I don’t think he’ll ever change who he is so I don’t think it’s hope that I’m holding on to. I think that I’ve spent my childhood being told he’s a great dad, with his actions being different, that I don’t trust my feelings around it. Why do I battle with these mixed feelings? Is this what a narcissist does?

I would be grateful for your thoughts on if it’s realistic to think that without addressing the past, is it possible to have an ok relationship in the present and the future. Or does it sound like my dad is always going to be a source of pain even if I’m the only one who sees it? 

Thank you

If you’d like to share any words of support or solidarity for our listener, we’d love for you to join us over in our private Facebook Group.

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