By Tanya Harding
Tanya says her dad, Robert, was a hard man who “pushed me very hard to excel at sport”. (Supplied: Tanya Harding)
When I was young, my dad — a hard man — pushed me to excel at sport.
There were no excuses, no easy pep talks. Only the harsh realities of how well or poorly (mainly poorly) I was doing, and how much better I could do if I really tried.
Sports were definitely my thing, and I excelled in most of them. But my greatest passion was softball.
With my dad as my coach I went on to represent Queensland, and later I represented Australia at four Olympic Games — Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing — winning medals at each.
Dad coached me throughout my junior years, but there definitely came a point in my life where I didn’t want him around me anymore.
I didn’t want him at my games, scrutinising me and humiliating me in front of my teammates and my friends. I didn’t want him telling me what to do anymore.
I left home as soon as I could when I finished high school and got a job. I wanted my independence and I wanted to make my own choices in life, good or bad.
When I was 18, I decided my coaching days with my dad were done and I flew the coop.
I travelled to Sydney to work under a specialist coach, and spent a season in New Zealand, before returning to my hometown of Brisbane to play in the amateur club softball competition there. I also played professionally — for money — in Japan, and even secured a playing scholarship at the prestigious University of California, UCLA.
Tanya Handing (second row, third from right) represented Australia at four Olympic Games.
I wasn’t upset when my Dad decided not to travel to the US to watch me at the 1996 Olympics. He never travelled well and I knew that him being there it would cause me great emotional turmoil, as it would be hard for him to refrain from “coaching” me.
I saw my dad in one light. I judged him. And, at times, I really didn’t like him.
It wasn’t until I became a parent that my thoughts and opinions changed.
The curse of expectations
Tanya Harding represented Australia at four Olympics: Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing. (Supplied: Tanya Harding)
We arrive in this world dependant almost exclusively on one or two individuals for everything, If we’re lucky, our basic needs as children are met, and we are perhaps grateful for it in later life.
But often, somewhere along the line, dependency develops into expectation. And as often as not, parents can fall short of those expectations.
Does my parent love me enough, or at all? Do they prefer my siblings over me? Are they doing as much for me as my friends’ parents do for them? Are they too involved in my life, or not involved enough?
Since becoming a parent myself, I’ve been keenly aware of how my kids see me. I am Mum, and it’s all I am or ever will be.
They don’t see me in my role at work. They don’t see me with my friends out having fun, because apparently parents don’t do that. That don’t see me sometimes as a human who has emotions. Because mums and dads don’t cry.
As a child I remember feeling exactly the same way about my parents, and judging them — quite harshly at times — on the choices they made and who they were as people. More so my Dad.
Journey to acceptance
I discovered there was another side, to my dad and to parenting. And so I began my journey of acceptance.
I realised that before he became a parent he had been someone else as well. He was someone’s son, someone’s friend, an employee and a boss. He was many more things as well.
And of all those identities had contributed to who he had become by the time I came into the world as his daughter.
He himself had been exposed to very little “parent modelling”.
He was looked after and bought up by his grandmother, and was a direct member of a very dysfunctional family.
Atlanta marked a momentous occasion in Australian softball history, when we beat the US and secured a spot in the medal round. To this day it is one of the greatest moments of my sporting career.
Australia had not beaten the US in more than 20 years. When I had the opportunity, I called my dad. He had been up all night waiting for the game to be televised. There had been numerous delays due to weather and it was very early hours Brisbane.
I had never heard my dad cry, until that day.
I think my father always thought that he had to be a certain kind of dad. He couldn’t be vulnerable. He couldn’t show his weaknesses. There was little openness or transparency, and he did not show emotion.
I lived in fear of doing the wrong thing by his standards. I don’t remember ever feeling that he was approachable, or that I could talk to or question him about anything.
I never felt like any sporting performance of mine was good enough, ever.
Forgiveness and other parenting tricks
Tanya Harding was inducted into the Queensland sporting Hall of Fame, with her mum and dad by her side. (Supplied: Tanya Harding)
It wasn’t until I became a parent that I could see some of what he was going through. And I began on a path of forgiveness.
Many people see forgiveness as letting a person “off the hook”. We may even fall into thinking that we should “make them pay”. But the hard truth of it is, the only person who suffers form a revenge mentality will be you.
Forgiveness can help you move forward, and bring a sense of release from whatever has held you in the same spot emotionally for so long. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse the other person’s actions or wrongdoings, but it does allow you to acknowledge them without hate, hostility or the urge for retribution.
At times I know I exhibit poor parenting. Days when I am tired, run down, the kids are testing me, and I have to remind myself that I am only human.
I have emotions. I get tired. I am not a super mum.
And I explain this to my kids. They have seen me cry. They have had to care for me when I’ve been sick. They have had to learn to be quiet some mornings when I’ve worked all night. They have to learn empathy, they have to learn compassion.
It is important as parents that our children see our vulnerabilities and they do know who we are as people. We don’t have to pretend to be perfect people or perfect parents. No-one ever asked that of us.
Being a good parent doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes, possibly even some epic failures. Far from it. But you can also expose your children to the full spectrum of your humanity – your resilience, love, compassion, frailty, honesty, empathy, loyalty and humility.
Be what you want your child to be. They learn by example, they will hopefully model your behaviour.
More than anything, I truly believe that it isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do. And I strive every day to be living proof of that.
Tanya Harding currently works in communications and is a sole parent to three children aged 6 to 18, and writes about her experiences in her blog.