From the outside, Sarah Tomlinson had a picturesque childhood. She grew up with her mom, stepfather and little brother in an intentional community on 100 acres of land. Still, she longed for her birth father, who her mother divorced because he was a compulsive gambler. We talk to Tomlinson about her complicated relationship with her birth father.
Having it all, yet wanting more
Tomlinson’s father’s visits were very few and far between, occurring once a year, or every other year. “I thought of him like a rock star and his visits were the best of my life,” she says. “So even though I had this beautiful childhood, it was really painful because I missed by dad. Kids don’t have the conception to understand addiction or to understand some of the setbacks that might keep an adult from being a good parent.”
Bad boyfriends and booze
In her 20s, Tomlinson says the relationships she had with men echoed her relationship with her father. “I dated men that were largely absent,” she says. “They were touring musicians who were away and then in town for a night and we’d have this amazing connection. It was actually very comfortable for me to miss people.”
She also started drinking … a lot, which she says in part was to add heightened drama to otherwise lackluster experiences. “Everything had to be the best or the most intense, and when it wasn’t, I drank to create a false sense of that,” she explained. It wasn’t until realizing that and going through therapy that she became content with quiet nights at home.
In her 20s, Tomlinson found herself living in the same city as her father, Boston, and the two would meet up for father-daughter dates quite regularly, doing all the things she craved to do with him as a kid. “I decided to let him back into my life, telling him, 'Don’t wait until you’re perfect or it will be too late,'” she says. “That time was really healing for me. We really got to know each other, which was a pretty incredible opportunity.”
Though the memoir is out, Tomlinson says her relationship with her father is still very much in flux. “I always thought there would be a moment where I would just feel better, or I would understand some profound secret about my dad and I would never be sad again,” she says.
While that magic moment turned out to be a myth, she hopes her story will provide solace to others who are still unpacking their own complicated relationships with their families. “I think sometimes people who have a troubled childhood but not a ‘bad’ childhood feel a little bit guilty about that. They think, I wasn’t abused. I had enough to eat. Why can’t I be happy? … It’s OK to have a painful experience that from the outside doesn’t look ‘that bad.’”
Book reading with Sarah Tomlinson:
New York City
May 26, 7:30 p.m.
126 Franklin Ave., Brooklyn
Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmLaurence