My father is not a narcissist, but he certainly could be an asshole.
As a kid, I was often afraid of him. He was depressed and angry. He disciplined with a belt. He didn't fly off the handle and hit us whenever he wanted to. He was too controlled for that. We could get punished with the belt for almost anything (often just typical childhood mistakes). Punishments weren't always the belt, but they were frequently enough to make me stay in line. We would have to go get the belt for him. It was pure torture.
He and my sister fought horribly. She was rebellious and aggressive. He actually defended me a lot from her. When she would attack me, he would try to punish her for it. He seemed like such a horrible brute to me, but I've come to understand he played the foil to my mother's "soft" side. She recently told me, with a look of pride, that my sister had said she was a "softie" and would give in a lot. She did. She was a push over. But what we didn't know is that she would then complain to my father about our lack of discipline and he would become the "enforcer". So, in comparison, she looked like the kind one, and he looked like the asshole. And it was often worse for my sister, who was a difficult child.
My sister was my mother's baby and were stuck together like Velcro. NM often asked me to cater to my sister, to give into her. And my mother allowed a lot from my sister. She also allowed my sister to be her little side kick because she was the baby. NSis sat next to NM all of the time, NSis was with NM all of the time. I was left with my dad.
It wasn't all bad. As I grew older, my father didn't find the need to discipline me as much. He could be largely ignoring of me. He rarely expressed any real interest in what I did. He was cold and distant. I remember once calling him "daddy", like my 8 year old friends at school called their fathers. He yelled back at me that I was NEVER to refer to him in such a babyish term. He was strict and allowed little slack because I was a child. I was never "daddy's princess". Ever. He was a task master. He always seemed so angry and depressed.
But he taught me a lot. He refused to allow me to fall back on being a girl and taught me to change my oil and my tires. He expected straight A's (straight A's was not being "perfect" to him, but being "normal"). He helped with homework on occasion, but mainly expected me to just get it. He told me repeatedly that I was smart. I sort of double edged sword, being smart, because it again allowed me no slack in life. I was always "too smart" to be acting like this or that.
I think any confidence that I had came from him though. He believed in me, in his own weird way. NM always believed she needed to step in for us. Unless she didn't want to, then we were on our way. My dad taught me not to be dependent on men, to take care of myself, to have a good work ethic. I know he thought I could accomplish things.
He was irritable, and easily provoked and I walked on eggshells with him. But when my parents divorced, I ended up choosing him. I chose NM first, but that quickly dissolved into shit. Dad required a lot out of me (I did the laundry and the cleaning and the cooking) but he was more stable than my mom at the time. It wasn't all that bad, living with him. He cared enough to do things with me, which is more than I can say for my mom.
As I got older and older, things began to change. I had always viewed him as my "bad" parent. As the reason for all of our troubles in our families. Well, not shockingly, as I learned he wasn't always horrible, I learned how much more sneaky and subversive my mother was. My father went to therapy. My father got on medication to control his depression (or at least ease it). I know he was trying.
In my teens, I learned my father had been horrible abused by an uncle. It was an on going abuse that, obviously, fucked him up for life. I don't know how my grandparents didn't know or stop it. They were good people, as far as I knew. I don't think they knew. My grandfather was quiet and studious and kind. My father loved him. My grandmother was what I thought "maternal" to be growing up. She cooked well, kept the house clean, seemed interested in her kids. She had had a rough childhood (being pretty much on her own at age 12, and being raised by a passel of extended family before that). But, compared to my mother's fucked up family, my father's family seemed "normal". But there had been this secret. Grandma says my dad was always sad, always difficult. Maybe he was. But I know that this didn't help.
As I grew up, things became more and more apparent to me. NM was not interested in how I felt about her or the divorce or really anything. She wanted me to go along with the delusions she had created: she was a good mom, my father was the problem, she did the best she could, she only put herself first because she'd never been first (which was probably true, but required that her children came behind her needs, I don't think you really get that luxury when you become a mom.) My relationship with my father relationship got better. He lives a distance away, but I always had relatively good conversations with him. They weren't the drama filled, soul-sucking kind I had with NM.
He never became kinder or gentler. He often is still grouchy and mean. He can deliver a low blow like no one else. He has a short temper and is irritable. He has a low threshold for outside "noise" and can easily loose emotional balance. But he doesn't lash out physically. He doesn't intentionally try to hurt people. He does hurt people because he can be blunt and mean. But I do think he is trying. I know he has tried a pharmacy of drugs to ease his depression. I know he really needs talk therapy, but I know that for a man of his generation, that might not be something he's willing to do.
He's told me repeatedly that he was a bad dad. Not because he wants me to feel sorry for him. Not because he wants me to reassure HIM. But because he is sorry. Because he would do it differently if he could. If he could erase things, he would. He has been kinder and gentler, in his own way. He tells me he is proud of me. I think he is proud of me. He does not compete with me. He is genuinely happy for me. He may not always be as invested in our relationship like I would like him to be. In fact, he can be quite selfish in not making more attempts to get together. He can still be a grouch and an asshole. But he's not a narcissist.
I recently went to visit him. He has been remarried for about 15 years and his wife is controlling and overbearing. She struggles with limits too. She definitely has some narcissistic qualities and is on the spectrum. She is bossy and pushes her opinions on people. When I had my children, her constant opinions and criticisms pushed a huge wedge between us. I really, really disliked her. When I coupled that with all of the chaos of my recent problems with my sister, and my dad's difficult temperament, I didn't even know if I wanted to go.
But I did. I had a plan (something I plan to write about soon). I was a grown up now, and if he pissed me off too badly, I'd just pack up my kids and leave. I had that right.
But the trip went well. Step mom was on better behavior. She was softer with me and even offered support to me about my sister (she is estranged with her narcissistic sister). My father told step mom to back off when she was trying to control me (she really can be controlling about the DUMBEST things, like that I had to give a paper napkin instead of a paper towel to my kid).
My dad seemed to respect my feelings on things and we had good conversations. When he was getting grouchy one night and I pissed him off, he went for a walk instead of blowing up at me. That is progress. He came back in a better mood. He is trying. I know he is. I had some good talks with him about my childhood. He listens. He tells me he is sorry.
He and my step mom were good with my kids. It was strange to see them interact with the kids. There was a different frequency in the air than with my NM or MIL and the kids. The room didn't seem so charged. There wasn't tension. No one was competing for the kids' attention. Dad and SM helped out when I need them too, but let me be the mom. They didn't hoover or silently "observe" my mothering skills. I didn't feel I was constantly being watched and ranked as a mother. They didn't compete with me or each other for the kids attention. In fact, when they needed a break from the kids, they took it. That's something MIL and NM really struggle with. There were no forced interactions, no forced hugs, no bribes of toys. There was activities together, and a souvenir from the zoo, and SM brought out coloring books one morning so I could sleep in. But none of it felt like it was a bribe, or an attempt to buy attention, or some sort of "investment" on the part of the grandparents that they expected the grandkid to pay back with love and attention. The grandparents did what they wanted to do with the kids, and expected nothing in return. It was refreshing and sweet and did my heart well.
It wasn't all perfect, but it was so much better. I wonder if the changes in me showed. That the changes in me made things different too and that they recognized it. That I wasn't so "charged" with anxiety. My father lives a distance away and so I don't get to see him as much as I like. I do wish he lived closer. My step mother, well, I do think seeing her less frequently makes for good visits. She was good when we went (even finally giving into this stupid little pissing match she and I have been having, and allowing me my way....which was HUGE) but I think she'd be too much if we lived closer. And I do wish they'd visit more. My father is really involved when we are together, but he can be a kind of "out of sight, out of mind" person. He struggles with developing relationships. He struggles with moving out of his comfort zone in order to make things work. He hates travelling and can be selfish about not being willing to compromise to make visits work. There is still a lot to work on, but there is progress.
Recently, he and I had a talk about NSis. We haven't spoken about her in almost a year. But I needed some information (NSis has been "hovering" and playing really nice trying to "win" me back. I don't buy her bullshit-like gifts and cards and texts- but I was feeling guilty that I wasn't giving her more of a chance to "make amends") and I had intended to bring her up to my father. Not to triangulate or gossip, but to try and sort out truth from fiction. But I didn't have to bring her up. Dad mentioned her and a visit she wanted to do with him. A visit she is completely manipulating for her own interests. I knew it. I knew she hadn't changed. Dad and I talked some more about my sister's "mystery illness" and how she was lying about a lot of it. How she was manipulating people's feelings and taking money. How she lies. How she has a personality disorder (his words, not mine. I try not to use any words that can be Googled and linked to narcissism with any one in my family. It's a way for me to try and protect my anonymity). I felt validated. I felt understood. I felt that I had some support. He told me to not contact her again until she "heard" and understood the boundaries that I'd set up (all of which he found to be reasonable.) I didn't need his validation and support, but man it felt good to hear.
So, progress. Not perfection, but progress (as other bloggers remind me). I don't feel so alone, a woman without a family. I feel good and this has renewed my strength and resolve.
My dad can still be an asshole, a giant asshole. But he's not a narcissist.