When I was about, oh six or maybe even five years old, I remember standing on the ledged wall at the side of the playground with some friends, fingers hooked through the wire fence, telling them that "I have two dads. There's my biological dad [I learnt that big word very young], and there's my dad who brings me up."
My biological dad is a man named Dan Flowers. When I was in secondary school, Laurence Kavanagh (the boy I was madly infatuated by for about five years) joked that my real dad was Mike Flowers. If you've never heard of Mike Flowers, here is a (rather Christmassy) picture of him:
This picture makes it clear that Laurence was not complimenting me, because Mike Flowers has a basin haircut and is the epitomy of cheese.
Mike Flowers sang awful covers of songs like Oasis' Wonderwall (I am still haunted by the sound of him crooning away, "You're my wonderwall, da-na-na da-da") and Don't Cry for me Argentina. Hideous. Needless to say, being teased by Laurence for this was infuriating and led to me defending myself with that most adolescent of lines: "He's not my dad!"
Coincidentally, I realize in the telling of this story that those four words were almost exactly what I spat out when I was just a wee tot, to my second dad (aka Dad-who-brought-me-up, who is actually the man I call dad, and who is different to my step dad, which is the man my mum married when mum and dad had split up. Sadly, mum and step dad are no longer together).
My memory holds an image of mum and this man - who my brain computed was not my father and was a threat to me - kissing in the kitchen. I ran up to them, little balled up fists beating at his legs, lungs bellowing sound at their full capacity (which is piercingly, uncomfortably loud as we all know from hearing toddlers screaming in supermarket aisles and on buses and during weddings and at other important times when you want absolute silence).
You're not my real dad!
Five words, as cold and as cutting as ice.
The funny thing is, he really is my real dad, in every sense except the biological one.
My papa bear is so much a part of me that I can't imagine not knowing him. If he hadn’t brought me up, I’d be a very different person today. My childhood memories contain image after image of my daddy - driving one of his many cars, stopping at petrol stations and bringing back sweets, trips to Water Palace where we rode inflatable 'doughnuts' in the river rapids that circled the entire swimming complex. There were trips to theme parks and funfairs and the beach, holidays to international destinations. The first time I saw my dad cry. Dad leaving the house for what I knew would be the final time, a fatal blow to the fastly fading mirage of a happy family. His absence at my nativity when I had a solo song. His uncomfortable presence in a family therapy session while I was in rehab, a man in alien territory as I tried to provoke some kind of argument with him to get all the dark and unspoken family secrets out in the open.
His proud, proud face on my graduation day, as I awkwardly threw my academic cap into the air, the day when mum couldn't get herself together to come along. His proud, happy face as he married lovely Helen (pictured) and listened to me reading a poem to the congregation. His tears. His snoring! His mid-afternoon sleeps on the sofa.
My dad, Steve Baker. Our relationship is not without its tensions, but over the last 8 years, since I got into recovery, I've come to see just how dearly he loves me and to remember, when I think he isn't supporting me in my dreams, that he really only wants the best for me. Dad sees my potential, more than I do sometimes. A couple of years ago, he told me that I ought to work for BBC Worldwide as a researcher. I was gobsmacked that he thought I was good enough to do something like that. I halfheartedly researched it, but didn't ever feel passionately enough about the news to pursue it, and I doubted my ability to even get an interview.
One of the ongoing frustrations in our relationship centres around my career. He has suggested many professions for me over the last few years, including lawyer, researcher and teacher. Dad is certain that I’d make a great teacher. It’s been an interesting journey through my early twenties, as I’ve contemplated law school (it’s just so not for me), have applied three or four times for my postgraduate teaching qualification, have worked for a corporate retailer, have quit that job and gone to live in a sustainable community in Big Sur, California, have worked in a tearoom, have taken a ten grand paycut to be a support worker for people with autism, and have now landed on my feet (yet again) as a School Adviser for a charity called v, co-ordinating volunteering opportunities for 14-16 year olds. When I told dad about the new job, I was aware of wanting to please him and elicit praise and words of pride from him, whilst simultaneously trying not to seek that and to be proud of myself, gve myself the love and acceptance and approval I think I need from him in order to feel okay about myself.
Time and experience have taught me that my relationship with my papa bear works best when I arrive in it as an adult, not a child trapped in a grown up’s body. For this reason, I’ve recently changed his name in my phone from ‘Papa Bear’ to ‘Dad’, but my fingers still keep searching for his number under ‘P’. Sometimes, I’m vulnerable, and a dad-shaped hug does comfort me and help me feel better. A few years ago, it was very hard to be vulnerable around dad, because he just couldn’t respond in the way I yearned for – emotional availability isn’t one of his strong points. I think that over time though, he’s softened and opened, and connecting with him from my heart has become easier. It’s vital though that I remember that my life belongs to me. Dad doesn’t try to control my choices, but he does occasionally disapprove, and overtly so. Last year, he asked me when I was going to “stop pissing around” and get my life together. Weirdly, when I was in California just a few weeks previously, he’d said that my being out there was “a fabulous opportunity”, which shocked me into silence. I couldn’t actually believe what I was hearing, and soon enough, I got the conflicting evidence that I was really looking for as my dad disapproved of my choices once again.
The best solution for this is for me to stay in my power. The second I start trying to get him to agree with what I’m doing so that I can feel reassured, I’ve entered a minefield, and the only way out is to love myself, to forgive my dad, to forgive myself, to remember the truth.
The truth is that I am innocent. When I was a Christian, a friend once told me that “Nothing you do can make God love you more, and nothing you do can make Him love you less”. I think that is a beautiful sentiment, and one that is helpful in relation to my approval seeking from dad.
The truth is that I am safe and loved. Nige witnesses and supports me in remembering this time and time again. I carry a deep seated belief that I am unloveable and that I am not safe. When I encounter conflict in a relationship, particularly with my partner or a parent, the ground feels shaky underneath my feet, and my world feels as flimsy as a fallen autumn leaf, ready to be crushed in a whim of carelessness.
The truth is that I am enough. Human being, not human doing.
Remembering the truth helps me to see my dad for who he really is, too, rather than projecting my illusions onto him.
Papa Bear’s done some really cool stuff in his life. He learned how to fly planes a few years ago, and bought half a plane, and flew the whole plane (because he’d borrowed the other half from the man who owned that bit of it) to Morrocco. My dad flew from London to Morocco!
Dad works in the electronics industry. When I was about 13 or 14 years old, dad and I were watching Top of the Pops and I was worshipping some pop star or other on there, when dad conversationally pointed out that the microphones the presenters were using – gold, cordless – were his. His! As in, he designed them. (He never could get me free Take That concert tickets though.)
I recently discovered from my grandpa’s second wife, Julie, that my dad also invented the first baby monitor and sold the patent to it for £150. Holy moley.
The stuff I love the most about my dad though isn’t what he’s achieved, incredible though these achievements are (and I’ve only listed a couple. At the moment he’s studying for a MBA, for example).
I love my dad’s dancing. It’s completely uncoordinated, completely out of time, all arms doing a choo-choo train movement and legs jigging up and down awkwardly, and it never ceases to make me crack up in hysterics.
I love the way he comes home from work and puts on his pajama bottoms but leaves his shirt on. Hawaiian patterned pjs with a shirt is a top combination.
I love the way he says ‘top bananas’ and the way he calls me ‘Tellie’ and the way he puts a posh voice on when meeting somebody for the first time or speaking on the phone.
I love dad’s guitar playing. When I was younger he used to play ‘Four legged friend’ for me and my sisters, and we’d fall about laughing. Daisy and I even wrote a song in tribute to Four Legged Friend, which went like this, “The dishwasher is my friend, the dishwasher is my friend, he’ll be with me till the end, ‘cos the dishwasher is my friend”. I’ve never told anyone that.
When I was younger than that, I’d try to tell my dad about my day and he’d be playing his guitar, staring blankly at the telly, and I’d feel so invisible and worthless. Nowadays, I see my dad as a human being and I get it – it’s just who he is. It didn’t mean that he didn’t love me, or that I am worthless.
Top of the list has to be my dad’s singing. It’s simply awful! (But not in a Mike Flowers way). Dad sings first thing in the morning, and converts lyrics from love songs so that he’s warbling to himself rather than to his beloved. How romantic for his lovely wife! For example, he’d sing, “I can’t live, if living is without meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee”. He does this religiously. I like it when he sings because singing = happy, and I love to think of my dad as being happy.
He also loves joking around. When Austin Powers came out at the cinema, dad took on the persona of Dr. Evil, and it's never quite left since then. You can see on his face when he's got an evil plot in mind, as is clear from this picture of him teasing my sister Daisy.
Because of the type of person my dad is, I don’t know that he’ll ever be able to fully receive my heartfelt words of gratitude. Perhaps he does. Perhaps when he reads the birthday cards I send him, the words I write journey straight to the centre of his being and rest there, speaking to the little boy who lives inside him. I know without a shadow of a doubt that papa bear loves me, that I am his daughter, that his love for me doesn’t see the lack of Baker genes in me.
My landlord perhaps summed it up best when, upon meeting my dad the other week, he said to me, “Cor Ellie, you’re so like your dad, aren’t you?!” My relationship with dad provides a lot of evidence to the nature/nurture question. I am Steve Baker’s daughter through and through, and hopefully some of my free-spirited “hippy”-ness rubs off on him and reminds him that all you really need in this world is love. In turn, he reminds me that it’s also okay to drive a Maserati if you’re willing to do the work to get one.
Until next time…. xxx