The night before she passed away, my mother told me she felt her three grown children would be OK, but she was worried about our dad. She didn’t think he could live without her. I smiled and assured her that he would be fine. I promised to take care of him.
One of my many tests for taking care of my dad came 14 months later, during his breakup with his first girlfriend after being widowed. She’d broken up with him five or six times in a matter of weeks, and he never knew whether they were exclusive anymore. “Oh, she’s so wonderful,” he’d say, giddily. “We’re going to a party tonight, a play Sunday, and then I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again.”
Exasperated, I replied that I was also in love with someone unpredictable. “But at least I’m aware he has issues,” I said. “You need to be aware.”
While my dad was in confusing post-breakup territory, I was relieved to find an Apple receipt in my e-mail one day, after he’d inadvertently used my credit card associated with the account instead of his to purchase a new dating app. I wanted him to find someone else.
After hearing he was reunited with his ex — for the seventh time — I became livid. Only the day before, he’d said there was close to zero chance she’d take him back. His self-esteem was steadily dwindling. “Love isn’t being broken up with every week and never knowing if you’ll see your partner again,” I implored. “You’re wringing your heart through a washing machine. You’re so devoted, loving, and romantic — you deserve someone who makes you feel safe!”
But my dad wasn’t done parenting me yet. “I love you so much, sweetheart,” he responded. “You’re the person I can talk to about my most intimate relationship perspectives. I know you are right, but please, just be a little gentler with your feedback.”
His words were reassuring. Perhaps I had greater influence on him than this woman I feared was harming him, and I could just relax.
One day, my dad was particularly crushed. “I did something very bad,” he said. “She found out that I was on Match.com.” I quickly began my rant about how she must have been on the app, too, to have seen him — how he had every right to be dating, given she didn’t want to be with him. But then he mentioned he’d previously logged in on her computer, which saved his password, making all his communications visible. She’d seen that he’d “winked” at other women during the time they were together. For many weeks, I had focused on protecting my helpless father, but he had actually been a heartbreaker, too.
After they were done for good, my dad started to feel sad again. One morning, he decided to “put dating thoughts into the universe,” and by midday four attractive women on the dating app had reached out to him. I hadn’t seen him so excited since he digitized a video of himself from the ‘80s making a half-court basketball shot. He went on three dates in 24 hours, charming one after the other. (He’s now happily married, by the way, to someone he didn’t meet online.)
I had self-righteously lectured my “incapable, hasn’t-dated-in-28-years” dad (with an apparently clumsy trail of online receipts) for weeks. But it wasn’t until after he finally moved on from his ex-girlfriend, and dated more people in the prior 24 hours than I had in the past year, that I revisited my own dating situation.
I decided to cut off communication with a love interest who on some days recited speeches to our future children and other days had a “strict” policy against dating business school students (like me) that we could “maybe” break. My friends, family, and multiple therapists had pushed me, with no success, to get over him for a year.
“Finally,” my dad sighed when I revealed the news.
Jackie Rotman is a writer in San Francisco and director of the Center for Intimacy Justice. Send comments to email@example.com.