July 18, 2006 2:05 PM   Subscribe

I grew up without a father. He wasn't dead, but he might as well have been. My mother divorced my father when I was one because he was throwing away his music career and life on drugs. Soon after the divorce, his parents and brothers essentially divorced him as well. He wrote me one letter when I was 12. Last year, my father passed away before I could ever meet him. As I am getting older ( 32 ), I am starting to wonder how this experience, or lack therof has shaped my character. Do guys who grow up without a father exhibit certain character flaws or attributes. Without making me feel totally jipped, what is it like to have a father? Am I doomed to have deep reaching gender identity issues? Are there any good books on the subject? Does anyone have some good perspective on growing up fatherless and how you manage(d) it?
posted by jasondigitized to Human Relations (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The only meaning this has is the meaning you give it.
posted by UncleHornHead at 2:27 PM on July 18, 2006

I believe I read Man Enough several years ago and found it thought-provoking. You might also see if anything on this listing catches your eye.
posted by NYCinephile at 2:27 PM on July 18, 2006

My parents divorced and moved several hundred miles apart when I was around four, and my brother was around one. I had minimal contact with my mother. My brother had virtually no contact with my father. I don't think that either of us have "gender identity issues". My brother and I are very different people, but I don't attribute it to the lack of certain parents, but rather to the unmitigated presence of the one we lived with (e.g. my mother was random and crazy so my brother became very aggressive, my father was very aggressive, so I became rather passive).

Everyone's family is different, and different people can respond differently to similar circumstances. In the end, I have to agree with UncleHornHead.
posted by Humanzee at 2:56 PM on July 18, 2006

Right there with you, my biological father and mom divorced when I was one. While my situation is a little different in that my biological father is still alive (afaik), I often run the same questions through my head. How would I be different if I'd been raised with a father?

So far, it's been enough for me to hold two things closely:

1) I have to admire the hell out of my step-dad for adopting my sister and I. Even though he passed when I was really young, I take as much knowledge from our short time together.

2) I also have to give my mom major props for taking hold of the reins and getting everything in order for my sister and I.

Frankly, what being a man means for me is stitched out of those examples. Live by your word and do the hard thing. Don't play games, be honest, be flexible and avoid the overarching sin of taking yourself too damn seriously.
posted by drewbage1847 at 2:57 PM on July 18, 2006

Yep, we're all totally screwed up.

I've been asked a few times what its like, and my response is always "What's it like having grown up without gills?" Not to be snarky or anything, just the lack of a baseline to compare it to makes answering hard/impossible. I did have a few good male role models though.

Given that I have no base of comparison, I do think that not having had a father growing up (since about age 4 for me btw) did affect me in one way. I feel that I take the possibility of becoming a father myself far more seriously than I might have otherwise. Its hard to explain why I feel this way, given that my childhood was all in all pretty boring and low-drama. I don't feel like I need to give my children anything I didn't have, its more like seeing that my childhood was maybe closer to some 'edge' than it had to be.

That doesn't really make much sense outside my head but that's my take on it. My one biggest complaint about the whole deal is talking about it. Its impossible to say anything without getting either the "oh you poor baby" eyes or the "oh god a sob story" face.

On Preview: What drewbage1847 said.
posted by Skorgu at 3:10 PM on July 18, 2006

My parents divorced when I was too young to remember. I never knew my father, and that's the way my mother wanted it. After the divorce, my mom borrowed money from her mother (who had been a widow since my mom was young, and was a successful professional) went back to college to finish her degree, and became an engineer.

I've never had any gender identity issues. The experience has affected my outlook on life in that:
1) I view an active, independent, professional woman as the norm,
2) I sort of lack a reference point when people talk about their fathers.

FWIW, I'm about the same age as you, Jason.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 3:13 PM on July 18, 2006

I don't know if my lack of a father specifically caused any traits or lack of traits, but I think that having only one parental figure may have. I am very like my mother - she was the only real reference for my development. Where other people may have been able to pick from two options for traits to adopt, I had just my mother. Luckily, she is a wonderful person.

I sorta fell into guy-related things like shaving, I guess, not having anybody to really tell me how. I really noticed this when I got married, and my Father-In-Law was the first person I ever referred to as "Dad."

I don't feel like I lost anything.
posted by dammitjim at 3:21 PM on July 18, 2006

I agree with UncleHornHead. Having grown up in a similar situation and being near your same age, I can understand some of what you feel. Of course, each formative experience is different and I certainly became my own person through ways that are not applicable to you at all.

What I truly believe kept me from going down the wrong path with drugs and other less-than-productive activities, was having the good fortune to find(initially) a martial-arts sensei and having that become a solid basis for increasing my understanding of myself and how I interact with the world. Something I only realized later was that his presence in my life was filling a good portion of the gap that was left after the absence of my father. As I found subsequent teachers(mostly men, but a couple matrons also), I became more aware of how necessary it was for me to continue to do so. It lead me into some incredible arenas of spirituality, old arts and valuable skills. To this day, I have a better understanding of what education is and how I learn than many I know.

I think anyone who tries to reinforce your desire for external answers would be steering you wrong. The best direction you will find for what this means to you is through looking inside and understanding yourself better. Have you noticed negative or positive pulls towards something that seemed important at the time but which you left unexamined? Everyone exhibits character flaws, it's the nature of living with others where you can't be perfect to everyone. Meditate(for lack of a better term) on it and pay attention in general to who you are. I know it's vague, but it's been of great utility to me after a youth of having people tell me something concretely only to find that they only see a small slice of the pie, while I know more about myself then they and can encourage myself to see the world in my own light.

One more thing coming from a teacher of mine(in her 70s): Things you think you are "over" will often come back to you later on. Deep "issues" are never solved, so revisit them from time to time and see them in a different light as you grow older(and hopefully wiser).
posted by a_green_man at 3:33 PM on July 18, 2006

What is it like to have a father?

Sometimes, it's like having the best guy friend ever. He lets you watch horror movies even if your mom doesn't let you. He tries to teach you baseball even though you suck. He shows you how to edit film.

Mostly, there's someone at home ready to beat the crap out of you and your mother who's also eaten all your Eggos and stolen the birthday money out of the card for your grandmother telling you you must be someone else's kid because you're a dork.

Oh wait, that's just me.

I love my father with all my heart. And I think I would have been much better off -- mentally, spiritually, financially -- if he died when I was young.

My half-brother has never met my dad (or met him once when he was 12 or something). He seems sharp, well adjusted, is married with two sons and has absolutely no interest in our dad. And I'm jealous.
posted by Gucky at 3:42 PM on July 18, 2006

Just 'having a father' in itself is no particular blessing. My father probably would have left the family had it not been for a lot of his own personal identity coming from his membership in the Baptist Church. Instead he 'bore the cross' of parenthood, resenting it all the way, treating us all like dogs for the most part.
Ah, well, years later I can see that absence makes the heart grow fonder while familiarity breeds contempt.
My future son-in-law was raised without a father and I can see that he has some difficulty accepting responsibility but eventually gets around to it. I asume it's because he didn't have a dad to spoonfeed it to him (or ram it down his throat) through the formative years, so it doesn't come to him automatically.
posted by dkippe at 3:49 PM on July 18, 2006

I second Gucky. It sounds like your dad didn't make a real effort to be in your life, and speaking as a person with the same experience, it sucks to deal with the "but why didn't you loooove me enough to see me" issues. On the other hand, I think some people just know their best chances of not screwing up their kids is staying the hell away from them. That doesn't excuse every emotionally dead-beat dad, and it doesn't make it any easier on me when I see a world full of great fathers, but I do know I would have been worse for the wear if my own extremely inept dad attempted to parent me.
posted by zoomorphic at 3:57 PM on July 18, 2006

See here and to a lesser extent, here.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:25 PM on July 18, 2006

Hope you don't mind a response from a woman who grew up without a father. Due to what happened the last day I saw my father, I thought his disappearance from our life was my fault. (I got sick. He got made and never returned.) I was four when my parents divorced and he left. I remember being "daddy's girl". It physically hurt that I loved and missed him and could not understand why he was gone. I assume you were too young to have that pain.

My mother worked very hard to not speak ill of him. She always said we would meet him one day and she wanted us to make up our own minds about him.

For a long time, I felt as if a part of me was missing, like I was incomplete due to his absence. Fortunately, I eventually decided I am complete. I am who I am. I also decided that having him around may not have been better than his absence.

I had an opportunity to meet him a few years ago. We have not spoken in several years now. He's smooth and manipulative. He never paid child support and never intends to even though he is ordered to continue payments in support of my mentally retarded sister. He's a total POS that I'm happy to not have in my life.

For me, it comes down to decisions you make. Our fathers both decided to not have a role in our lives. Yeah, it sucks. You didn't walk away from him. Even if your Mom told him to leave, he also decided to not try being a better person so he could be with you. He chose not to return. Unfortunately, since your father has passed away, you don't get any chance to question him or try to establish a relationship.

So, as others have mentioned above, would you have been better off with him in your life? Probably not. You can still learn from what you know about him. You can choose to not make the same decisions he made. You can choose to not impact a person in the way he did you. You can also choose to be content in who you are, knowing that many, many of us grow up without one parent or another and we do just fine.
posted by onhazier at 7:30 PM on July 18, 2006

My dad was away a lot when I was growing up*, so much so that after being admonished by him once, I retorted "You can't tell me what to do, you don't live here!". Kids say the darndest, heh...

Anyhoo, my formative years were spent almost exclusively around women, and for a long time I found it easier to relate, converse, and get along with women than with men. Though it's not half as bad as it used to be, sometimes I feel self-concious hanging out with guys, particularly blue-collar/jock/man's man kinda guys like my dad, and often used to *Daddy Issue Alert!*defer to what I percieved as being 'stronger', more 'masculine' personalities. There's some other shit in there too - I'll often catch myself over-compensating by exhibiting exagerrated 'male' attitudes such as aloofness, emotional distance, that sort of thing.

*Out earning a living to support a family he rarely saw.
I'm not sure when the resentment I felt turned into regret and pity for the opportunities both of us lost, but I think my dad feels it too. Sorta the elephant in the Ampersand family's living room, my dad and I have never been able to relate to one another.

Wait, what was your question again? :D
Kidding, I hope this helped you get some perspective.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:47 PM on July 18, 2006

The only strong character attribute I can identify in myself from having a weak and emotionally absent father is a certain desire for the approval of older men who I looked up to. In my 20s especially I found several life mentors who gave me great advice and a life philosophy that shaped me deeply. I did not recognize until years later that these men were substitute fathers. I can also relate to some of what Alvy relates--I used to prefer the company of women, and sometimes cultivated "manly" poses. But really, in the end a weak father was no big deal. We are all fucked up if you look close.

By my mid 30s I pretty much grew out of these things. Though I still hope that Languagehat will take me under his wing and teach me to play catch one day...
posted by LarryC at 9:46 PM on July 18, 2006

I had a dad, to my misfortune. I am eternally envious of those blessed with reasonably normal family life.

There is no reason to worry about what you missed, the missing may be better than having.
posted by Goofyy at 7:28 AM on July 19, 2006

UncleHornHead has it correct, right out of the box! To put it another way, it all boils down to the choices we make, so choose wisely. We can each choose to be affected either positively or negatively, but ultimately we are all responsible for our own reactions to external (and internal) stimuli.
posted by Bobtheordinary at 8:44 AM on July 19, 2006

My father and mother divorced when I was 2 - we'd see him every year or so, when he'd come out to visit and do *masculine* things like camping, probably to ease his guilt and to help make sure my brother and I didn't turn gay (or become fairies as he used to put it). He was pretty emotionally distant when we were in touch - I would always call him a "man of mystery." He remarried, had 3 more kids, and died a few years ago.

Divorce was pretty rare back then, and women were very much subjugated - my mom, for example, couldn't get a credit card in her own name. She never remarried and we were brought up by her and my grandmother (my mom's mother).

I think not having a father in my life affected me in lots of ways. When I was a kid I always felt the other boys had some access to secret male knowledge that I didn't have - this included such important life skills as catching a ball, tying a tie, picking up girls, etc. This was a pretty big deal at the time, as boys in the 50s and 60s were so concerned about being masculine. Looking back, I can see this was probably an unconscious response to the coming breakdown in patriarchy, but at the time you'd get the crap beaten out of you if you were anything other than masculine - and I felt like not having a father, I didn't know what "masculine" meant.

It also affected me indirectly, as it made my mom very depressed at times. Sometimes people have told me that they could tell that I was brought up by women because I'm sensitive, etc., but I've never known whether that's BS or not (kind of like - "I KNEW you were a capricorn even before you said it!"). Your experience is undoubtedly affected also by your mother's response to the absent husband.

Like a_green_man, I found a father substitute - in my case it was the owner of a local live theatre, and those relationships sustained me through high school.

It's a pretty complex issue you raise. The meaning of not having a father is something that is deeply personal, and something that you should explore creatively for yourself. I recently took a solo performance class, and, to my surprise, ended up writing and performing a piece exploring my relationship with my father. There's a lot there. I encourage you to explore it yourself, with or without a therapist. There are also a lot of books on the subject - go to a bookstore and page through them and see if any of them speak to you.

My email's in my profile, if you'd care to carry this conversation further off line.
posted by jasper411 at 11:15 AM on July 19, 2006

If you want to explore your idea of what it means to be a man, I hear the book Iron John is supposed to be really good. Also stuff by Robert Moore & Michael Meade. If you're nearby, you could also check out the Mendocino Men's Retreat.

Mythical, archetypal stuff. Helpful if you're wanting to think about male role models and how different ones could have shaped your life. Few people have more than one father, so I think a lot of people end up asking the same questions you're asking, just that they might ask "how did my father screw me up?" or "what if my father had been more ____?"
posted by salvia at 9:56 AM on July 20, 2006

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