On Being The Daughter Of An Absent Father

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Sarah Laing is not damaged, she does not find it impossible to form relationships with men, and she doesn’t want your sympathy. She just wants to know why her father doesn’t want to know her.

I don’t have any tattoos. I haven’t developed a drug addiction. I’m in a stable relationship with a wonderful man. I’ve always been a straight-A student. Rather disappointingly, as I enter my mid-20s, I have come to realize that—at least on the surface—I am a daughter that most parents would agree has rather avoided the classic pitfalls that might cause them sleepless nights. And, while recognizing that I am extremely lucky, this list of somewhat dubious accomplishments (if being too squeamish to get a tattoo might be called that) also makes me rather cross. Because I’ve never understood why my father might not want to know me.

Now, it’s not that I’m perfect. In fact, I’m a long way from it. But he doesn’t know me well enough to know that I’m not perfect. He’s only ever heard the positive headlines, never witnessed the tantrums and trauma behind them. Despite doing everything in a rather boring, conventionally “correct” way, and never having given him an excuse to intermittently exclude me from his life, he’s never wanted to feature more than passingly in mine. I neither deserve nor want pity, as I have a wealth of loving relationships that more than compensate for his absence. But, over the last year or so, I’ve become increasingly reflective on what our cultural take on fathers is.

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If the importance of fathers is emotional as well as financial, as the late 20th century psychological literature has affirmed, what discourse is in place for those who are missing one? And if that discourse seems to rest on our overwhelming sense of loss or inability to form healthy relationships with men, what is in place for those who have defied this?

Our conception of fatherless daughters derives almost entirely from psychoanalytic theory. The narrative that fatherless daughters are damaged isn’t a useful one. It provides too easy a get-out for those who want to ignore the fact that the most important factors to allow lone parents and their children to flourish are social and economic support.

But the cultural vision of the father-role has failed to evolve in any positive way since the mid-20th century. The surviving trope is largely redundant, just as the image of the fatherless daughter is negative and largely false. Of course, experiences of fatherlessness are stunningly varied. I’m not claiming that all children who have grown up without a father figure emerge unscathed. Rather that having one image of fatherlessness isn’t useful, and our weak but pervasive image of fatherhood contributes to this.

Modern families are increasingly complex entities, and—despite the complications and tensions arising from this—are stronger and more beautiful for it. It seems to me that the traditional meanings attached to “fatherhood” have failed to keep up with the shape of our families. We are slowly coming to recognize the multiple ways that families might be healthy and loving, and are reinterpreting the traditional “nuclear” family into something more diverse and accepting. Is it time to re-examine what our images are of fatherlessness?

I suspect that my feelings toward my father’s absence have been more stimulated by the cultural perception of the essentialness of paternal love than by any tangible privation. We’ve certainly changed our understanding of lone mothers. Might it be time to formulate a new and more nuanced understanding of what it means to be the child of a single mother? There are many of us around, quietly going about our daily lives, without ever having been taken to play football in the park (my mother was more one for taking me swimming; again, not exactly a deprivation), trying to avoid the look of “Oh, you must be unable to form meaningful relationships with men/have abandonment issues/have a difficult relationship with your mother.”

No really, I’m fine. I just want to know why he doesn’t want to know me. And why I still care.

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Let’s acknowledge that all children should grow up in a loving and supportive environment, and that this can take many shapes and forms. Let’s recognize that the heteronormative model of two-parent families isn’t the only valid space to raise healthy and emotionally nourished children. Let’s decide to evolve our ideas of what parenting means and how to do it well. Since fathers don’t have to be biologically related to the children they’re raising to be wonderful parental figures, and the embodiment of “traditional” fatherly attributes doesn’t have to be male, what does being a dad actually mean?

It’s not enough to rest on the tired trope of fathers-are-important-because-children-need-men. And nothing creeps me out more than the father-as-protector cliché (I learned to get up and brush myself off after falling over just fine, thanks). Fatherhood isn’t about personifying gendered qualities or attributes. Fathers don’t have a distinct role to play purely by virtue of their role in the procreative act, and certainly not a uniform one.

The fact is that there are many ways of being a good father, and it’s about being a good role model of a person, not of a particular gender. I want my (future) children to have a relationship with their (future) father not because he’s a man, but because he’s another person to love and learn from, and he’ll have qualities as an individual, not a gender stereotype. Parenthood for men should be an experience culturally articulated in all of its glorious modern messiness.

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I think it’s because there is no conversation about what fatherhood means that my father was able to “opt out.” There is indeed a stigma around being an absent father. But this stigma doesn’t do anything to help men who just don’t know how to go about being a father. Perhaps he thinks the stigma of not getting involved at all is preferable to trying and failing.

Can we seek to understand what it means to be a father without prescribing the right way to be one? If we created a space to talk about fatherhood (a conversation that must engage women and children), we might be able to persuade more men that being a father isn’t an “all in” or “all out” experience, and that positive fatherhood comes in many forms.

I don’t want my father to be a 1950s stereotype, as he’s clearly not cut out for that. But I do want him to know me.

Sarah Laing is studying for a PhD in London having graduated from Oxford University in the summer. She writes on women, masculinity, and mental health. She lives with her partner but regularly visits her lovely cat and terrifying mother.

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