A Conversation With Alex Elle On Choosing Yourself
My biological father wasn't the first father figure I knew. For almost as long as I can remember, my mom's ex-husband, whom she married when I was about 8 years old, was a consistent presence in my life, years before they ever walked down the aisle. My dad, on the other hand, picked up our relationship when it was convenient for him and set it back down when it wasn't, until one day my fantasy of telling him about himself came true. After yet another incident of selfishness proved to be the last straw for me, I told my dad until he could own up to his faults as a father he was no longer welcome in my life. His initial reaction was to dismiss my pain and tell me to go to therapy. It would take another three years and the death of his mother for him to not only acknowledge the effect his intermittent absence had on my life but to apologize for it.
I was brought back to that moment of what writer Alex Elle would call choosing myself when she shared her similar experience growing up. "My mom was a single mom until she met my stepdad. I don't know how old I was, I might've been 8 or something when they met, but I always kind of felt like an outsider," the author of Words from a Wanderer and Love in my Language told me. "My relationship with my biological dad, I no longer have one. I set that boundary when I was 16. I haven't talked to him in 17 years and that was my first recollection of me choosing myself and me choosing not to engage in unhealthy, toxic, misogynistic, abusive behavior from a man."
As soon as I heard those words I thought back to the essay I wrote about my own boundary setting: "When Cutting The 'No Good' Men Out Of Your Life Includes Your Own Father." Like Alex, I was no longer interested in tolerating bad behavior from my father and I saw no differentiator between a man with whom I was engaged in a romantic relationship and the one responsible for half of my DNA. After all, the similarities between their behavior were grand and if I was going to cut one out of my life, why not rid myself of all of the toxicity? It was a choice I'd dreamt of making since a teenager, going so far as to roleplay what that moment would look like in my head. It wasn't until I was 27, however, that I actually wrote the letter that would sever all ties with my father for years. I asked Alex how she was able to make that choice for herself at such a young age and the short answer is she was tired.
"I just knew that he made me feel like shit all the time and I just didn't like that and I saw that he treated women terrible. It was just not okay and I'm just like I'm tired of this and I was also tired of my mom too. I was really really upset with her that she decided to try to keep a person in my life who was not good."
To my mom's credit, she never interfered with my relationship with my dad -- neither forcing me to spend time with him nor trying to keep me from doing so. My paternal grandparents, on the other hand, and even friends whose fathers weren't in their homes, but whose relationships weren't as estranged, put pressure on me to bond with my dad as a young girl. Somehow building a relationship with him became my responsibility, though I was the child in the situation. I was even chastised by my grandfather for creating the boundary that I did when I was an adult, which made me angry -- another reality Alex could relate to.
"I know now as a mother myself that [my mom] was trying to do the best she could. But I was just so angry, like why was I born into this life, to these really broken, damaged people? And at 16, of course, I didn't have that language and I didn't have the compassion or the lens of understanding. It was all like, 'I'm being punished, God hates me.' But now looking back, I'm 31. I have the language to say that was younger Alex choosing herself."
Though my father and I have been able to repair our relationship, which took a couple of years once we were back in contact, Alex's boundary with her father is a permanent one.
"He's never met my children. He will never meet my children and that is a boundary -- I would even say that is a barrier -- of self-protection because you know when people aren't well-meaning and when they're out to hurt you." She added, "Knowing that at 16 and then still feeling that same way today at 31, speaks volumes."
When I saw my dad for the first time after our three-year separation, it was awkward. He'd asked me to return home after my grandmother fell ill and after a few days together I started to experience the compassion Alex talked about. I saw how similar my dad and I were in how we handle things -- even interpersonal relationships -- and I could feel his longing to connect along with his hesitation about whether I would receive him if he tried. It wasn't until he dropped me off at my mother's house the night before I was to fly back out that he ran through a monologue acknowledging the hurt he'd caused me that I felt he was someone I wanted in my life -- not because he's my father but because I believed there was value his presence could add to my life. I didn't expect us to ever get to that point and I was completely okay with us not getting there unless he made some fundamental changes. As Alex put it:
"I can totally forgive somebody for how they are and who they were and still not allow them back into my space. I think that, especially as Black people, we need to understand that just because we have forgiven someone for doing something or hurting us, that that does not mean we have to reconnect and that no one, especially Black women, no one can force us or guilt us into shifting that boundary of self-protection. We deserve to stand in our power in that way to keep ourselves safe."
Part of keeping herself safe is not revisiting the pain of her relationship with her father which Alex purposely didn't include in her upcoming book, After the Rain, which is part memoir, part guide.
"I told myself I wouldn't write about certain things in my life until I could greet them with love. So you won't find stories about my biological father in there because I'm not there yet," she said, pointing out how emotional it was to be pregnant and writing a book at the same time. In lieu of that story, however, Alex said of her book which will be released on October 13, "You will find stories about my childhood with my mom. You will find stories about my identity as a Black woman and the first time I heard a racial slur. You'll find stories about falling in love. You'll find stories about my self-love journey and how it shaped me. You'll find stories about my career and how I got to where I am, all from a lense of learning."
In the same way that I talk about the journey to believing you're enough is never-ending, the wife and mother of three demonstrates the process of learning is never-ending, even when you are the subject.
"There were plenty of instances in life where there was this unspoken energy of you're not enough and you'll never be enough and I had to put that down," she explained. "I've been doing a lot of inner child work in my journal lately and choosing to put that down has been one of the hardest things to work through."
The absence of her father in her life along with her mother's unaffectionate persona compounded Alex's feelings of not being enough, so much so that she questioned whether she was even loved. In fact, she said it wasn't until she met her husband that she realized she is.
"He and his family are very close, very much in love with each other and their dynamic was just so different from mine," she shared. "I remember his mom before she passed just really loving me and that being my first taste of what authentic, unconditional love was. And that's when I started questioning everything I knew about what love was. I had a lot of unlearning to do, like what is love, how do I find it, and how do I give it to myself because when you don't know you have to teach yourself."