An End to the Parent-Child Role Reversal: Taking Care of Me

By Dawn Clancy 06/18/18

When my dad drank, he folded in on himself and quietly disappeared. When this happened, I'd wait patiently for his return while dreaming up myriad ways to make his life better.

Little girl looks over shoulder of man with eyes closed, holding a beer bottle.
I was going to be there for him even if it meant losing myself along the way.

There was a little more than a week to go before my wedding day. Left on my to-do list was an array of tasks:

  • Pick up the marriage license.
  • Finalize the seating chart.
  • Tell my dad he wouldn’t be walking me down the aisle.

I called him on a Sunday afternoon, and he responded the following Thursday. After awkwardly discussing the weather, I said, “Dad, I need to talk to you about the wedding.”

As I waited for him to say something, I pictured him gently resting his cigarette in an ashtray on the kitchen table, leaning back in a chair and adjusting his thin-rimmed glasses away from the tip of his nose. Finally, he cleared his throat and let out a long and careful, "Okaay."

“Listen, I want you to know this isn't because I'm angry." I paused. "It's just I've thought about it and...I've decided it wouldn't be appropriate for you to walk me down the aisle."

"Mmm hmm," he grunted.

"I mean...I wanna hear whatever you have to say," I told him. "Do you want to ask me anything? Do you want to talk about it?" I waited. I wanted to know what he was thinking, and I thought he'd do so with words, but instead, he chose silence.

"Do you have anything at all to say about this?” I asked.

"Nope," he snapped. "I got nuthin to say."


If you ask my mother, my father didn't come to the hospital the day I was born. It's not that he didn't know my mom was in labor, or that I arrived earlier than expected, it was because he didn't believe I was his. And, knowing my father, he probably assured my mother he'd be there, in the delivery room, and then decided not to come and didn't think to tell her.

But despite his absence, which I was dull to as a newborn, as a kid I possessed an untempered affinity for my father. When my parents divorced when I was four years old, they agreed he would keep the house and my mother and I would move a 30-minute drive away, back to her hometown of East Falls, Philadelphia. On the day we left, I sat on my parents’ bed with my Raggedy Ann doll and watched my mother dump her side of their dresser into a suitcase, whining to the back of her head, "I don wanna leave daddy. I wanna stay wit daddy."

As I was growing up, my dad was drunk more often than I realized. I watched him stumble and bump into walls, and walked in on him passed out, chin on chest at the kitchen table. I sat and listened to his drunken, swear-laced ramblings about his bastard father, the assholes at work and the overall unfairness of life, but I never considered my dad an alcoholic because he didn't behave like the ones I knew. Unlike my mom and stepdad whose drinking guaranteed violence, when my dad drank, he folded in on himself and quietly disappeared. When this happened, I'd wait patiently for his return while dreaming up myriad ways to make his life better.

At some point, this dysfunctional pattern led to a complete role reversal: my father regressed into the helpless child, and I became the dutiful parent.

When he was drunk and while I still believed in Santa Claus, we slipped effortlessly into our roles, but when I became a teenager who needed more than my father could give, the cracks in our relationship began to show.

During my junior year of high school, I got a job as a telemarketer selling frozen beef. One night after a shift, I headed outside to the parking lot, expecting my dad's truck to be idling by the curb, but he wasn't there.

I waited about 10 minutes before I left the parking lot to use the payphone across the street. I called home collect at least a dozen times and each time the operator came back with the same disappointing response, "No one's home," she said. "Do you want me to try again?"

After an hour of pacing in the dark, I embraced my only option and started walking. By car, the drive home would've taken 20 minutes, but on foot, it took me over two hours. At 11 pm, I arrived home to find I couldn't open the front door because my father had jammed a kitchen chair under the handle. When he finally let me in, he refused to believe that I'd walked for two hours.

"Where the fuck were you?” He screamed.

"Where was I?” I punched back. "Where the hell were you?"

"I was in the parking lot, and you weren't there," he lied.

"What are you talking about? I waited an hour, and I called a million times,” I yelled.

"Who were you with?" He took a long drag from his cigarette.

"What do you mean who was I with?" I roared. "I walked home alone, two hours down Germantown Pike like a freakin’ prostitute."

"No, you didn't."

"I didn't?" I asked in disbelief. "Look at me: I'm soaked with sweat. Look at my feet!" I pointed at the dirt filled cuts and raw blisters my sandals left behind. Halfway through my journey, when the pain became unbearable, I ripped them off and walked the rest of the way barefoot. The black layer of grime and dried blood coating my feet was all the proof I thought my father needed. But he was drunk, and he'd already made up his mind.

"You're a fuckin liar." He slurred as he looked at my feet.


My father's greatest disappearing act occurred when I was in my freshman year of college. After months of chat room flirting, my stepmother packed up her car and drove to Florida to be with her Internet lover. On the day she left, my father called and left a message on my dorm room answering machine.

"She left me for a guy living in a trailer park! She's telling everyone I beat her," he wailed. "You're all that matters to me now; it's just you and me, kiddo."

That weekend I drove home to be with my father. When I walked through the front door I found him drunk at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette and staring blankly at the white wall in front of him. I sat and watched him cry, promising him that the pain he felt was temporary and that my stepmother was a complete fool for leaving him. Driving to a Friendly's restaurant for dinner one night, I sat in the passenger seat and watched my father get lost on a route that he'd driven a thousand times before. Seeing him hurting so profoundly cut me wide open. And although I didn't have the tools to fix it, I knew he needed me, and I was going to be there for him even if it meant losing myself along the way.

Back at school, worrying about my father edged out my sanity. I worried about him driving drunk, I worried about him feeling alone, and I lost sleep over the fear of him taking his own life. I became so consumed with him that I barely noticed the cloud of depression that stopped me from brushing my teeth or the bursts of anxiety that stole my sleep. But still, I answered my father's every phone call, I walked with him through the grief, and I did my best to coach him back to life.

And then one day, he stopped calling and just disappeared.

Fearing the worst, I stalked his phone. I called and left messages on his voice mail until the mailbox was full. After a week of torture, I reached his co-worker.

"Oh yeah, your dad's fine,” he told me calmly. “He's on vacation with your stepmom in Florida."


To my shock and surprise, my father showed up on my wedding day, and from the sidelines he watched me walk down the aisle. Since then, almost seven years have passed, and I can honestly say I don't regret my decision because it reflected the truth about my relationship with my father: he’s always been the petulant child while I’ve played the role of the ill-prepared adult. For years, I took care of him, catering to his every emotional need while he couldn’t bother to be concerned with mine.

On my wedding day, I retired from that role and did what was right for me.

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Dawn Clancy is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Fix, The Establishment, Dame Magazine and others. Her website is