I grew up with a workaholic father who was cold and distant. Acknowledging that heartache let me open up and create strong connections.
Fatherless Daughters and Self-Inflicted Pain
The plight of fatherless sons in our society has received a lot of attention from the media. Most of us have heard about the high percentage of male prisoners, high school dropouts, gang members, and juvenile offenders who grew up without dads in their homes. It's only recently, though, that a light is being shined on how women are affected by absent dads. Unlike fatherless men who sometimes turn outwardly violent to release their agony, fatherless women are more likely to hurt themselves. They do this in three ways that can be incredibly self-destructive:
- ignoring their anger
- acting invulnerable and
- blaming themselves.
A Tribe of Fatherless Daughters
My 22-year-old niece, Samantha, struggles in many of the same ways I did at her age with depression, social anxiety, and self-harming. She wears long-sleeved t-shirts even on the hottest summer days to cover the random markings she's carved into her arms with broken pieces of glass. I, on the other hand, took a more passive route to conceal my anguish, numbing my feelings for years with anti-depressants and walking through life like a zombie.
My niece and I both grew up with absentee fathers, not through death or divorce, but by their emotional disengagement from our families. She and I, like one out of every three women, identify ourselves as fatherless daughters—a designation that's beginning to get noticed as more of us speak out about how having remote dads affected our lives. Although the tribe of fatherless daughters is not one anybody sets out to join, it's a safe place where we can commiserate, offer support, learn from one another, realize we're not alone, and move beyond victimhood.
3 Common Mistakes Fatherless Daughters Make
1. Ignoring Their Anger
Fatherless daughters can feel tremendous rage about their dad's absence, whether it was caused by death, divorce, or his emotional disengagement. Society, though, often views these angry emotions as unfeminine and unattractive. Therefore, girls get the message at a young age that they should be concealed. As women, they may continue to bottle them up: denying them, never discussing them with one another, and not learning how to manage them. The last thing women in our culture want is to get pegged as angry and bitter, so they hide any trace of those sentiments from the world.
As a result of keeping their hostile emotions inside, some fatherless daughters become overwhelmed with sadness and despair. Sigmund Freud, the famed founder of psychoanalysis, wisely noted that depression is anger turned inward and directed at one's self. A 2013 study done in the United Kingdom found that those who turned their fury inward were more likely to increase the intensity of their depression. Those with absentee fathers, therefore, can easily become their own worst enemies by ignoring their rage
I took antidepressants for years rather than confronting my fury. While they kept me from becoming despondent, they also made me emotionally flat and robbed me of experiencing any joy. After getting fed up with my emotionless existence, I finally chose to get professional help. My very wise therapist would take me on as a client only if I agreed to one thing: committing to at least one hour of vigorous exercise each day. Consenting to that was the best decision I’ve ever made: liberating me from antidepressants, helping me come to terms with my anger, and warding off my despair so I no longer felt depleted.
2. Acting Invulnerable
Growing up with an absentee dad can make girls feel inferior. They may believe that they're at a disadvantage in life with no paternal figure to help them with homework, take them to the park, show them how to ride a bike, or teach them about boys. Some, feeling unprotected, bend over backwards to appear tough and fearless. Their veneer of invulnerability, though, can make them seem hard and unapproachable. Their peers might avoid them, leading to a lonely existence.
Even though my dad was present in our home, he kept himself walled off (figuratively and literally) from my siblings and me by being a workaholic and staying in his office. To cope with his rejection, I put on armor each day to fortify myself from the pain. I became a sarcastic and cynical teenager with a snarky attitude to keep myself from being hurt. As a young adult, I came off looking cold, indifferent, and not so nice. This left me very much alone at a time when I desperately needed connection.
Dr. Brene Brown is the author of a book that all fatherless daughters should get, entitled Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. After reading it, I was finally able to drop my tough facade, be exposed, and express my pain. Dr. Brown showed me how my need to appear invulnerable had kept me from being open and making new friends. Today, I speak candidly about growing up with a distant dad. As a result of that honesty, I’ve had countless conversations of substance. I’ve also developed deep, long-lasting bonds that never would have been forged previously when I had been so inaccessible.
This is a must-see video for fatherless daughters in which the brilliant Dr. Brene Brown details why being vulnerable is essential for loving, connecting, and being healthy.
3. Blaming Themselves
When selecting a frame for a painting, it’s astonishing how much the right one adds to the overall aesthetic while the wrong one ruins everything. The same can be said for how daddyless daughters frame their own life stories. It’s within their control to construct a beautiful tale that empowers them or an ugly one that debilitates them.
Sadly, though, a girl growing up with a detached dad can develop an inner voice that’s negative, self-critical, and devastating to her self-esteem. She can embrace a destructive narrative in which she blames herself for her dad’s absence and lets him off the hook. Crippling messages can run through her mind such as: I'm not interesting enough to warrant my dad's attention.... If only I were prettier or more popular, he would love me.... He doesn't want to spend time with me because I'm an embarrassment to him.... He left because I was too irritating and needy.
This condemning inner voice leads to shame and a lack of self-confidence. Once in the throes of self-reproach, she can lack the energy to connect with others. This may lead to a reclusive existence and self-destructive behaviors. In “The Toxic Effects of Negative Self-Talk,” Elizabeth Scott writes that a woman’s rebuking inner voice can lead to serious issues such as depression, decreased motivation, feelings of helplessness, and an increased risk of mental health problems.
With determination, though, a fatherless daughter can replace her debilitating self-talk with words that are kind, gentle, and supportive. She can stop blaming herself and finally hold her dad to account for his irresponsible parenting. If her inner chatter is overwhelmingly corrosive, though, she should seek professional help. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one approach that’s been proven to be highly effective at getting good, swift results.
In this vital video for fatherless daughters, Dr. Brene Brown discusses shame and why we need to open up and talk about it.
What do you think?
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
Question: Why do I care more about my girlfriend than my kids?
Answer: You have a sexual relationship with your girlfriend that bonds you, excites you, and makes you feel good. You have fun together, share relaxing moments, and have stimulating conversations. A loving relationship between two adults is largely reciprocal while the relationship between parent and children is largely one-sided; you're doing the giving, and they're doing the receiving. You're morally and legally obligated to support your kids while time spent with your girlfriend is your choice, not a duty. For all these reasons, you may care more about your girlfriend than your kids.
What's most important, though, is not how you feel or why you care more about one than the other. It's about your behavior. If you have deeper emotions for your girlfriend, that's okay as long as you're fulfilling your responsibilities as a dad and making your kids feel valued and loved. Remember, girlfriends can come and go, but your kids are forever. What you put into the relationship with them now will pay dividends for the rest of your life.
While my father lived in our home, he was emotionally detached from my siblings and me because he was a workaholic. He was always busy with his job (or relaxing from his job), so we got the message that we weren't worth his time and effort. Now that I'm a parent myself looking back at childhood, I'm shocked that my dad never read me a book, never took me to school, and never helped me with homework. I can't recall a single incident when I was ever alone with him.
I love how some dads have “dates” with their kids, taking one at a time to do something special. Having that one-on-one time with a parent builds a child's self-esteem and makes them feel seen and heard. It's really valuable that a parent has this exclusive time with a youngster to get a sense of what she's thinking and feeling. Many kids today are depressed and anxious because of social media—a world where everyone but them seems to be picture-perfect, carefree, and having fun. Moms and dads need to be aware of that, talk with them about it, and put it in perspective.
Don't beat yourself up about your feelings. They're neither good nor bad; they just are. Focus on your actions. Spend time with your kids and have fun with them.
© 2018 McKenna Meyers
McKenna Meyers (author) on July 26, 2020:
Marie, it’s great that you’re acknowledging your lack of confidence and wanting to change it. When seeking to build self-esteem, we need to set goals for ourselves and work hard to achieve them. Whether it’s going to college, getting a different job, starting a fitness routine, or establishing new friendships, we impress ourselves when we put in the effort and persevere through the challenges. Our 20’s are a time to build the foundation for our futures by taking risks, making mistakes, and discovering who we are and what gets us excited about life. You’re not responsible for your mom’s happiness and for protecting her from your feelings. The two of you will have a stronger bond when you’re honest with her. Take care!
Marie on July 25, 2020:
Hi,my dad left home years ago without any obvious reasons...he just left.Now I'm getting to my 20s and I'm with my single mom.I got no siblings..I feel so lonely within and even wished for just a sibling...but hmm life..i smile on the outside to make my mom not feel bad,,i lack self confidence too...i need advice pls
McKenna Meyers (author) on March 22, 2020:
armydad12, there's probably not a lot that you can do at this point other than to recommend therapy. They have to realize that they have a problem and be motivated to change. Some fatherless daughters have low self-esteem. Therefore, they don't believe that they deserve anything other than these destructive relationships. If they start doing things to better themselves--taking college classes, joining fitness classes, reading more, voluntering in their communities--their self-confidence will increase. You can suggest this to them and hope for the best.
armydad12 on March 21, 2020:
I have see that certain self destructive behaviors have lead them into abuse relations and becoming victims of sexual assault what guidance is available to assist these women. I am at a loss
McKenna Meyers (author) on January 17, 2020:
Phillip, I'm so sorry that you're suffering. This is a hard day for you and I hope you take good care of yourself. A good cry can help.
Phillip on January 16, 2020:
My daughter just got married today..it was heart. Renching as i was not invited and not there to give her away...
Work took me away 15 years ago..i had to work did not wont to be a bum in a country town..but my wife did not wont to follow...
Time went on and then devorce..
I have 2 daughters the yougest i see alot but 2years ago the oldest called me saying she did not wont to see me anymore...as we did not see eachothere much...
It hurts me so much...if you work 12 hr days on contracts...and a 14 hr day it takes its toll...
Life for some dad...has it cost..
And its a big one......
Im out of breath cryed to much.
57 years old...and very sad that im hatted so much
McKenna Meyers (author) on December 27, 2018:
KO, it sounds like you're highly motivated to heal and are on your way. My father didn't have the emotional intelligence to be a good dad either and realizing that has brought peace. It wasn't about him not loving me; it was about him not being able to love. I hope you find a supportive group because you have a lot to offer others!
KO on December 27, 2018:
Thank you for your kind words. I am so glad I found your articles and a sense of commonality with others. It seems so unfair that a father's actions can determine their daughters life trajectory. I often get caught up in blaming my dad, and even my mom for pushing him away. But the truth is, he never had the emotional intelligence to be a good dad. I know I need to stop feeling victimized and start fathering myself, but the task is daunting. I bought "The Fatherless Daughter Project" and reading it is helping. Still a lot of work to do, though. I am between therapists, but I plan to find another soon, and I will definitely ask about group therapy.
McKenna Meyers (author) on December 20, 2018:
KO, I'm sorry you're feeling depressed but glad you know the reason why and are searching for relief. Wanting to connect with other fatherless daughters is a great idea. You could contact therapists in your town and ask if they have such a group or search online for one. I wrote an article called “Fatherless Daughters: How Growing Up Without a Dad Affects Women.”
Many fatherless daughters have written me questions or made comments on this article. It's been eye-opening how many of us need to bond over our common hurt and how so many of us suffer with depression, shame, and low self-esteem.
I wish you the best on your journey of self-healing. You've suffered enough so get the help you need to have peace.
KO on December 19, 2018:
Three years ago I realized my dad abandoned me when I was 11 or 12, and I'm now in my late 30's. My dad came back into my life when I was in my 20's and maintained a surface level relationship with me, probably so he didn't come off as a dead beat. I unknowingly went along with it, but I still lived the life of an abandoned daughter. Low self esteem, secretly promiscuous with the "wrongest" men I could find, and absolutely toxic shame. My low self esteem turned to self loathing and then morphed into obsessive thoughts about wishing my dad dead. I confronted him this year and then cut him out of my life. I have good days, but for the most part, I'm depressed. I would love to find a group for this type of trauma, because finding people who understand is super tough.
McKenna Meyers (author) on July 30, 2018:
Thanks, Dora. Glad you and I can connect as fellow fatherless daughters. Now that I've started using that term and opening up about my experiences I've met so many wonderful women with their own stories to tell. They really have a need to release the hurt their dad's absence caused them. Thanks always for your support!
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 29, 2018:
Great advice for fatherless daughters. I'm one. Thanks for being a great help to those who suffered like you and your niece did. Happy for you that you're surviving the ordeal.