Fatherless Daughters: How Growing Up Without a Dad Affects Women
Growing Up Without a Dad Shapes Who You Are
It took six decades, but I can finally utter a huge truth that caused me tremendous shame and sadness: My father didn't love me. I never spoke that deep, dark secret, but it was always festering inside of me. It manifested itself in many ways throughout my life as I struggled with a food obsession, low self-esteem, social anxiety, and depression.
Whether a dad was present but rejecting like mine or walked away from his fatherly duties entirely, his absence leaves an indelible mark on a daughter's psyche as she grows into adulthood. What does the research say about woman who grew up with fathers who didn't love them—daughters who were never daddy's little girl?
Below, you'll find six ways a daughter may be affected by an uninvolved dad.
Fathers provide their daughters with a masculine example. They teach their children about respect and boundaries and help put daughters at ease with other men throughout their lives. [...] So if she didn't grow up with a proper example, she will have less insight and she'll be more likely to go for a man that will replicate the abandonment of her father.— Caitlin Marvaso, AMFT, a grief counselor and therapist in Oakland, CA
1. Fatherless Daughters Have Self-Esteem Issues
According to Deborah Moskovitch, an author and divorce consultant, kids often blame themselves when dad leaves the home and becomes less involved in their lives. When they aren't given an explanation about why dad left, they make up their own scenario and jump to the conclusion that it's their fault and that they're unlovable.
This is especially true for daughters. Countless studies have shown that fatherlessness has an extremely negative impact on daughters' self esteem. Her confidence in her own abilities and value as a human being can be greatly diminished if her father isn't there. Academically, personally, professionally, physically, socially, and romantically, a woman's self esteem is diminished in every setting if she did not form a healthy relationship with her father.
As a child, I watched television shows like The Brady Bunch and Happy Days in which the fathers showered their daughters with tremendous amounts of attention and affection. Because I never got that from my dad, I convinced myself it was because I wasn't cute enough. I thought if I had blond hair and talked with a lisp like Cindy Brady I would then have my dad's devotion. I hated the way I looked because I thought it caused my father's disinterest in me. As I got older, my self-esteem plummeted and I was sure no man would ever find me attractive.
2. Daughters With Absent Fathers Struggle to Build and Maintain Relationships
According to Pamela Thomas, author of Fatherless Daughters (a book that examines how women cope with the loss of a father via death or divorce), women who grew up with absent dads find it difficult to form lasting relationships. Because they were scarred by their dad's rejection of them, they don't want to risk getting hurt again. Consciously or unconsciously, they avoid getting close to people. They may form superficial relationships in which they reveal little of themselves and put very little effort into getting to know others. They may become promiscuous as a way of getting male attention without becoming too emotionally involved.
Ever since childhood, I've built walls around myself. I didn't open up to people. I didn't ask questions about their families, jobs, or hobbies. I kept my life private, and I remained socially isolated. These were all self-protective measures so I wouldn't experience rejection like I did with my dad. Knowing this intellectually did nothing to help me change my behavior because my fear of rejection was more powerful than my desire to make connections.
3. Women With Absent Fathers Are More Likely to Have Eating Disorders
In their book The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders, the authors Marcia Herrin and Nancy Matsumoto write eloquently about the fact that girls with physically or emotionally absent fathers are at greater risk of developing eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge-eating, body dysmorphia, unhealthy preoccupations with food or body weight, and other eating disorders are all more likely if a girl does not have a father figure as she's growing up. Daughters without dads are also twice as likely to be obese. Because her longing to have a close relationship with her dad is denied, she may develop what Margo Maine (author of Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, & Food) calls “father hunger,” a deep emptiness and a profound insecurity. Daughters are left wondering: What's so wrong with me that my own father doesn't love me? If I looked different—if I was thin—would I earn daddy's love?
I've struggled with "father hunger" throughout my life—stuffing my face to fill the void, dieting to get model-thin, and always obsessing about food. My days have been filled with thoughts of eating—either doing it or struggling mightily not to. When I accepted that my dad didn't love me and that he was an unhappy man with deep-rooted problems, I finally started eating normally and began maintaining a healthy weight. I began treating myself in a loving way by exercising, gardening, reading, walking in the woods, and spending time with family. For the first time in my life, I only thought about food when I was truly hungry. This freed me to enjoy my life in so many wonderful ways.
4. Daughters of Absent Fathers Are More Prone to Depression
Not surprisingly, girls who grew up with dads who were emotionally or physically absent are more likely to struggle with depression as adults. Because they fear abandonment and rejection, these women often isolate themselves emotionally. They avoid healthy romantic relationships because they don't feel deserving and fear getting hurt, but they might jump into unhealthy relationships that ultimately lead to heartbreak. In either scenario, the women are in emotional peril and frequently become depressed. If they don't deal with the cause of their sadness—an absent dad—they may never be able to develop healthy relationships with men.
To top it all off, data suggests that children without fathers are more than twice as likely to commit suicide.
According to Denna Babul and Karin Louise, authors of The Fatherless Daughter Project, it's helpful to simply realize that we're not alone. In fact, one in three women see themselves as fatherless and struggle with feelings of abandonment. Knowing this fact helps us see that there's a whole sisterhood out there who share a common pain and a need to connect. When we open up and share our journey, we help both ourselves and each other. Whether we feel the loss of a dad through death, divorce, drug addiction, estrangement, or emotional neglect, we must grieve in order to move forward. Read Five Steps to Heal Her Pain: How a Fatherless Daughter Can Move On From Her Dad's Rejection for ideas on how to avoid falling into depression. A gifted therapist can be key to helping us do just that and becoming happier people.
5. Dadless Daughters Are More Likely to Become Sexually Active Earlier
Studies have shown the many benefits that come from a strong father-daughter bond. Most notably, girls who are close to their dads are less likely to get pregnant as teens. They delay engaging in sexual relationships, wait longer to get married and have children, and when they do find a husband, their marriages are more emotionally satisfying, stable, and long-lasting.
Countless studies also show that women who have unstable or absent paternal relationships are more likely to start having sex earlier and engage risky sexual behaviors. Daughters are four times more likely to get pregnant as a teen if dad isn't in the picture. Studies show that more than 70% of unplanned teenage pregnancies occur in homes where there is no father.
My older sister (who, like me, did not have a relationship with our father) met her future husband when she was just 18 and married him when she turned 22, straight out of college. He was the only guy she ever dated. Without a doubt, she was looking for the love and validation she never got from our dad. She was looking for an alternative to a man who never said "I love you" or "you're pretty" and never gave the unconditional acceptance one craves from a parent. Although she is still married, her union has been a difficult one, and she discourages her own daughters from marrying young.
6. Abandoned Daughters Are Susceptible to Addiction
As with depression, eating disorders, and low self esteem, the absence of a father can trap a daughter in a negative repetitive pattern she can't easily break out of and turn to drugs to self-medicate and help numb the pain. She is more likely to find herself trapped in a cycle of substance abuse, for example. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, fatherless children are at a dramatically greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse. Not only are kids in father-absent households about four times more likely to be poor (which can trigger many negative cycles), fatherless adolescents were found to be 69% more likely to use drugs and 76% more likely to commit crimes.
Can a Daughter Survive Without a Father?
Try as I might, I was never been able to get any traction, always making a mess of this or that and never able to form long-lasting friendships. I rejected happiness because I never felt worthy of it. I did so much to sabotage my life and make myself miserable.
Then last year my older sister revealed to me that she, too, had felt unloved by him. I immediately felt enormous relief and then great euphoria. I realized it had never been about me—that I was bad, ugly, stupid and undeserving. It had always been about him—his unhappy childhood, his cold mother, his negative nature, and his dissatisfaction with being a husband and father. It had never been about me...never.
I could finally shout: “You were a piece of crap and now I'm done with you! I'm not your prisoner any more!"
According to Caitlin Marvaso, AMFT, a grief counselor and therapist, to recover from a father's abandonment, a woman "must learn how to father herself, hold herself, and receive the type of love a father provides. It is a lifelong process, but with the proper support, tools, and patience, it is totally possible. That being said, the grief and pain never goes away, it just changes."
A daughter whose father abandoned her can grow, thrive, learn, excel, succeed, love and be loved, and live a wonderful life when she realizes that the problem isn't her, it's him. This is the first step toward healing.
Self-mutilation comes in the form of promiscuity and [...] it's violence against yourself. I never thought of it that way before!— Oprah Winfrey
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Fatherless Daughter Syndrome?
"Fatherless Daughter Syndrome" (colloquially known as "daddy issues") is an emotional disorder that stems from issues with trust and lack of self esteem that leads to a cycle of repeated dysfunctional decisions in relationships with men. It can last a woman's entire lifetime if the symptoms go unacknowledged and ignored.
Does the Reason Affect the Result of Fatherlessness?
Half of the daughters in the US self-identify as having no father in their lives, but the reasons for that fatherlessness vary. Approximately 28% lost their connection to their dads via divorce or separation, while 26% cite emotional absence as the reason for the estrangement. 19% lost their fathers to death, 13% to abandonment, 13% to addiction, 12% to abuse, and 4% to incarceration. 6% say they never met their father.
Certainly, a daughter whose loving dad passed away when she was 15 will be affected differently than a daughter whose father abandoned her when she was born. Unfortunately, many studies do not account for the reasons for fatherlessness.
The effects of fatherlessness can be mitigated by many factors. Daughters who were brought up in households with two moms, a loving and very-involved step parent, or participating grandparents or other extended family members will probably not experience the same lasting wounds and negative impact of a father's abandonment.
What about you?
What kind of absent father do you have?
What Are the Emotional Effects of Being Abandoned by a Father?
Compared to those with healthy paternal relationships, fatherless women report...
- feeling less happiness and lower levels of well-being,
- higher levels of frustration, anger, and anger-related depression,
- difficulty navigating the emotions of intimate relationships, and
- overwhelming fears of abandonment.
What Are the Psychological Effects of an Absent Father?
To summarize, depression, suicide, eating disorders, obesity (and its effects), early sexual activity, addiction-formation, and difficulty building and holding on to loving relationships are all side-effects of an absent father.
This is the book I recommend to those of us who identify as fatherless daughters and are eager to heal and move forward. No book will help us change until we have the motivation to do so, are willing to look at our painful past, and put in the hard work to eliminate our destructive thought patterns and behaviors. There's no doubt about it; this is a painful book for us fatherless daughters to read. It will surely make you cry as old wounds get opened up. If you're like I was, you'll have to put it down and walk away many times before finishing. I wrote in my journal after almost every page because something got triggered from my childhood that I needed to think about and understand.
Ultimately, though, this book provides us fatherless daughters with comfort and hope. Dr. Rosenthal does a superb job of detailing the six types of unavailable dads and provides stories of women who grew up with them. It feels good to know we're not alone in the treatment we endured and the struggles it produced. It's encouraging to hear the stories of fatherless daughters who've broken free of victim-hood and are now thriving. If you're ready to take the next step, please read this book.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
My father was a good man who struggled with depression and alcoholism (so he was emotionally unavailable). How can I address my emotional issues without putting the blame on him?
I'm so impressed with you based on your question. It shows great insight, compassion, and desire to move forward with your life. So many of us (myself included) get stuck in the blame game, keep recycling our past, and don't enjoy the here-and-now. Since you already understand your dad was emotionally absent and why, you're doing great and are ready for the next step to jump-start a happy future.
My 80-year-old mother was recently reminiscing about her mom who died from alcoholism and said, “She chose booze over me.” I was immediately struck my how tragic (and untrue) that comment was and how my mom had no understanding of addiction and depression. I knew this ill-conceived belief of hers had negatively shaped her life and the lives of my siblings and me. I wished she had attended Al-Anon meetings, read books about alcoholism, and gone to therapy before getting married and having children. It would have saved us all a lot of heartache.
I hope you will avail yourself of the resources my mother didn't. By putting in the effort now, you'll have a happier life in the future. By talking with others, you'll realize you're not alone, find camaraderie in your shared pain, and learn how others have moved forward. There are so many of us women who identify as fatherless (I in 3), and 10 percent of U.S. adults say they grew up with an alcohol-abusing parent. Janet Woititz wrote Adult Children of Alcoholics, an excellent book in which she discusses the common traits that people with alcoholic parents share.
I found a lot of relief, support, and peace of mind by being vulnerable and sharing my experiences as a fatherless daughter. When you open up and reveal your pain, you meet so many people who will do the same, and an instant connection is formed. For too long, I lived a life where I seemed strong and put together. In reality, though, I was numbing my emotions by taking anti-depressants. The seven years I remained on those were the worst of my life, “my lost years,” because I lived like a zombie. While I felt no pain and never cried, I also felt no joy. My doctor did me a great disservice by prescribing drugs to me instead of urging me to do the hard work needed to get better. I do that now: meditating, writing in a journal, focusing on gratitude, spending time in nature, exercising, eating healthy foods and, most importantly, dealing with my feelings instead of stuffing them.
I wish you the very best as you move forward. I think you will have a lot to offer those who are on a similar journey.Helpful 45
My dad is a deadbeat. How do I emotionally get through all the years of tossing thoughts of only having my mother? I have neglected to recognize how truly alone I really am. How do I get through this?
I believe deep misplaced feelings of shame are at the center of a fatherless daughter's life. The paternal archetype—loving, protecting, advising—has a strong presence in all cultures throughout the world. Fathers portrayed on television risk their lives to save their children, are infinitely patient and giving, and are always warm and kind. When we don't have a dad like that, we blame ourselves when we're kids and even when we're adults.
I grew up watching Pa Ingalls on the “Little House on the Prairie” series. His devotion to his daughters was infinite. At the same time, though, I was a girl with a workaholic father who was rarely at home and, when he was, would call me names and berate my appearance. How does a kid wrap her brain around these disparate fatherly images? She blames herself and feels deep shame for her failures as a daughter. She thinks that if I were cuter, smarter, thinner, more charming, more petite, more athletic, and more talented, my Dad would love me.
Looking back now on my life, I see how it was molded by my feelings of shame, worthlessness, and never feeling good enough. These emotions resulted in my addiction to food, my low self-esteem, my neglect of my appearance and health, my inability to put myself out there to make friends, my willingness to settle for jobs that were below my abilities, and my reliance on anti-depressants. When I finally opened up to my sister about our dad, she confessed that she, too, felt unloved and unaccepted by him. Her admission lifted the weight of shame that I had been carrying on my shoulders, and I experienced a lightness I had never known.
I want you to experience this lightness as well. When you open up to other women about being a fatherless daughter, you'll feel so much better. Since 1 out of 3 of us identifies as such, you won't have a problem finding those who say, “I understand... I feel your pain... You're not alone...I went through the same thing.”
I'm the happiest I've ever been since I let go of the shame, and I never want to be bogged down by it again. Connecting with other women who've had a similar journey is the key.Helpful 32
How can one heal from growing up without a dad?
That's the $10,000 question, isn't it? I don't think any of us fatherless daughters ever completely heal from the loss. We'll always feel sad about it from time to time, and that's normal. We'd have to be stoned out of our minds or numbed with anti-depressants (like I once was) to not feel some anguish, but we need to put it in perspective, move forward, and enjoy our lives in the here-and-now. As I've gotten older, this has become much easier to do because I don't want to spend my time feeling bad about my yesterdays (when I didn't have much control) instead of enjoying my todays (when I have all the control).
When I taught preschool, I loved watching dads pick up their daughters from class and sweep them off the floor in a big loving embrace. At the same time, though, I'd feel pain that I never experienced anything like that with my own father. I'd acknowledge my feelings and then think of a mantra to help me work through it. Some of my favorites were: “I know for sure what we dwell on is who we become” (Oprah), “failure is dictated by a focus on yesterday,” and “I'd rather be better than bitter.”
I've healed a lot by sharing my journey with others—by writing this article but also talking with friends and acquaintances. When you open up and become vulnerable, others will do the same. One in three of us identify as fatherless so there's a lot of women to whom we can relate and form an instant bond.
I've also found a lot of healing in taking better care of myself: exercising, eating healthy foods, making time for reading and relaxing. For much of my life, I was my own worst enemy, and it was really starting to catch up with me as I became obese and sedentary. I've also started to speak up more, sharing my experiences, my opinions, and my knowledge. My dad often shushed me as a kid, and now it feels great to reclaim my voice.Helpful 29
What can I do for my wife who has these issues: Anxiety, depression, no deep down connection. But deep down, she wants love. She wants to feel it, but it's just not happening. It has been 13 years. How can I help her?
I can relate to your wife's situation because I struggled with emotional numbness for many years. After my son was diagnosed with autism, I fell into a deep sadness and was put on anti-depressants by my doctor. The drugs flattened out my emotions. While I no longer felt so blue, I also no longer felt joy, excitement, and hope. Even when I finally weaned myself off the anti-depressants, my emotions didn't return to where they were before I started using them. There were there but muted.
I came to realize that for most of my life as a fatherless daughter I'd been at war with my emotions, swinging back and forth between wanting to experience them deeply and not wanting to experience them at all. That early rejection from my dad left a deep wound that I tried to heal with drugs, alcohol, bad relationships, and my go-to salve: food. Overeating was my favorite way to sedate myself and keep me from feeling pain. Being overweight was the perfect excuse to hide away, avoiding life and the possibility of getting hurt again.
You sound like a loving and patient husband for wanting to help your wife. However, she must do most of the work on her own. She needs to have the motivation to change for herself but also for you. You deserve someone who can love you deeply and accept your love fully in return. You deserve someone who can be open and vulnerable to all kinds of emotions, good and bad, because that's what makes us human and alive.
In order to start feeling again, your wife needs to connect with her feelings and no longer avoid them. She should talk about them, write about them, and experience them in the moment. She should embrace new experiences that will challenge her and, thereby, illicit strong emotions: taking a dance class, training for a marathon, learning to scuba dive, or doing public speaking. She should also exercise on a daily basis, benefiting from the good feelings that come when endorphins get released. She could also work with a therapist who can help her reconnect with her inner world.Helpful 2
I have picked up attributes of being the protector/fixer of the family, but what if the family can't be fixed? It's just messed up entirely. I just want to walk away, but I have two children that I want to support and family love in their life. I don't want them to experience anything like what I have, and I've been told that I should write a book about my life (it's been that bad).
© 2018 McKenna Meyers