My father was a man, the son of his mother and father, the son of a multitude of mothers and fathers who passed life on in their distinct ways. He was a fashion illustrator, smoked a pipe, liked the horses, and tennis, clothing, Italian bread. Mostly though, he was a mystery to me as a child. I understood him in rather narrow ways primarily through the eyes of one woman, my mother, who felt hurt and abandoned. And he did not disclose much else of himself, though I do not think I asked many questions or was generous in my listening. The time I spent with my father was awkward, strained, exhausting. I didn’t know how to simply be his daughter. Any natural connective expression was drowned out by conflicting impulses toward other loyalties. My memories are few, vague, in accord with our shared absence to each other.
Sometimes there’s a hidden agreement among Mother, child, and Father. The importance of Father’s role will be diminished when parents separate. Everyone signs the agreement for their own reasons.
In convincing herself that he is nothing, Mom may be attempting to protect herself from further grief and overwhelm. Perhaps she hopes that the child will not notice or blame her for Father leaving. Or maybe if she makes him small she herself will loom big enough to hold the child to her.
And what of the father? Why would he sign such an agreement, one that says that he is insignificant? Sometimes it’s a reflection of how he already feels. He should have been able to hold the relationship together. He should have been stronger, smarter, richer, better, somehow more substantial. It also may be easier for him to pretend to himself that his absence won’t have an impact on the child. According to this agreement, Father is replaceable, erasable, disposable. In the face of feelings of guilt, this is a small price for him to pay, apt consequence for his terrible imperfections.
Victim and perpetrator, the agreement stipulates, are roles that are immutable. The victim will remain as victim and the perpetrator as perpetrator. These will be the perceptions. The agreement encapsulates the past, fixes it in time even as time passes. What is really a fleeting sense of things is cut off from natural movement in the panic of emotion.
The child attempts to navigate the clauses he or she has inherited. Much of the parents’ guilt, anger, grief, disappointment is displaced onto the child, who agrees to take on these aspects as a matter of survival. (It did not occur to me as a child how much of me I was sacrificing when I sacrificed my father. My compass was entirely set to the guidance of my mother, the one who stayed. I did not think to ask why. I signed the contract.)
In Constellations, participants are often shocked when we choose someone to represent Father, to ask him to stand in the space that has been presented as empty. It is immediately and powerfully clear: his presence makes a difference. This simple image touches everyone. And in showing us what we all already know at the deepest levels, the image provides relief, no matter the personalities or details. Suddenly the words written in the agreement become watery and smeared. What did they say? Father doesn’t matter? Suddenly the page is blank, the words fall away. Something new is waiting. A more essential truth that doesn’t even have words.
The adult who returns to the scene may be surprised that the split that had been so dominant, so everything in childhood, is no longer as pronounced. Just a small ache now, a distant memory of something past. Surprised that it is done, and that it must be done for anything fresh to emerge. That the adult heart has latitude that had not until this moment been tested. That the habit of being until this moment had been rigid, stingy, still protecting the child’s heart. With this realization, tears flow easily. Grief released finally, let out finally, let go finally. Something new is waiting. And perhaps this new has really been taking shape over the years, beneath the surface, something that can now be permitted, even welcomed: blossoming, integration, and the ability to look through the eyes of an adult, already accomplished in so many ways, into the eyes of the one man whom the child could not exist without.
And Mother, who at an earlier time in the chaos of circumstances was unable to bear the possibility of more loss, actually gains immeasurably from this image. This great contribution to life, the new life she help set into motion is unleashed, enriched from both sides. Now the most important truth invites our attention, the one that carries the future in its reflection. She is able, and in fact it seems a natural movement, to step back and give room for this connection, which of course is already there, has always been there, between Father and child. Feeling freer, the child can really see the father now, yes, and can take him in fully as the part that was missing for all of these years. Fruition.
And Father. To be allowed to feel the space opened up to him, to know what it is to have helped change the world through the co-creation of new life. To allow himself to feel at all, to feel it all. In this image he can open his arms to his child, and all who stand behind him can look up to see the grandchild, the great-grandchild, the descendent. Only this man with this woman could have created this particular individual. And these two systems – with their thousands of strands of language, artistry, sustenance, intelligence, faith, grace, challenge, breath – are joined within this one human being in this completely unique and common extraordinary way.
Mother, I am grateful. Father, I am grateful. The image has matured in me, ripened, is ready for what is next.