Lisa doesn’t see much of her dad. Once or twice a year when he’s back in the country before then he’s off again, leaving her to decide whether or not to bother with their relationship, whether to say, “That’s it! I never want to see you again!” or to persist despite the disappointments, the sense of things never being as good as they could be.
“I know I don’t matter to him as much as Jack,” she says, “and I don’t mind because Jack lives with Dad and sees him every day. That’s fair enough. He’s bound to be more interested in Jack.”
Jack is her half-brother. When she was three, her father left Lisa and her mum and went to live with his girlfriend – now wife – in Spain. They had Jack, their only child, when Lisa was eight. Lisa’s mum re-married a man Lisa likes.
“But he’s not my dad,” she says. “It would be nice – when I do see my dad – for him to be a bit interested in what I’m doing. And ask a few things.” She smiles but her smile is almost a wince, bittersweet and hurting. Lisa is old enough to understand that couples split up and that it’s sometimes for the best; she understands that parents are entitled to their new lives and that with new partners come new children. Sometimes. She gets all that. What she doesn’t get is her father’s behaviour towards her and what sense to make of it. Does he love her? Think about her? Care about her? Or is she a burden to him, a needy legacy of a failed relationship, a reminder of a time he’d rather forget?
A girl’s need for a father never goes away, despite the most painful setbacks. Lisa’s father hasn’t done anything dreadful. He’s simply been absent: physically absent for most of her life and emotionally absent on the rare occasions when the two of them are together.
“He’s always checking his phone when I’m talking,” she says, “and I know perfectly well that he’s not listening. He’s texting other people or seeing if he’s got any messages.”
This story informs all her stories. Without making the connection, she’s forever telling me about friends who are distracted, about relatives who take her for granted, about teachers who seem more interested in other students despite Lisa’s best attempts to do well at school, to try hard, to ingratiate herself. She tells me these stories, mystified and furious, indignant and saddened by other people’s behavior.
“Maybe he’s just not good at being a dad,” I say to her. “Maybe he’s got his own needs and can’t understand that other people might also be needing things from him…”
She thinks about this. “That’s no excuse, though, is it! I’m not asking for much! I’m only asking him to pay me a little bit of attention sometimes!”
I feel for her. “You’re right, Lisa. You’re not asking for much. And yet he can’t seem to do it.”
There’s silence between us.
“I guess he’s the dad you’ve got. He may not be the one you need. And he may not be the one you deserve. But he’s the one you’ve got.”
“And I guess that’s what you can’t change. What none of us can change about our parents.”
She’s angry now, a child inside her 15-year-old body. “But it’s not fair!”
“I know it’s not, Lisa. I know.”
I let her cry.
“And maybe he’ll never realize what a kind, strong, talented daughter he’s got. Maybe that’ll always be sad. But it won’t stop you getting on with your life. It won’t stop you loving other people and being loved by them.”
Our work isn’t done. In future sessions we’ll think more about her father, about the years before Lisa was born and the years immediately afterwards, the years leading up to the split. We’ll wonder about these things together, always acknowledging her need for a father but also acknowledging and trying to understand the story of this particular man, flawed like the rest of us, but also, like the rest of us, unlikely to change.