My father John died suddenly five years ago, when I was 21. The time since his death has been complicated but clarifying for my family. And with that fated day of October 1st rolling past again, I felt something a little different this time. For one, I cried about it – a lot, and multiple times. In fact, a week out, I still do. This has been strange. I'm not a crier. Why feel it now, when I’ve pretty much kept it together, dry and contemplative?
What’s occurred to me is that enough time has passed for me to no longer mourn the loss of my father, specifically. When I think of what I like about my father, and what I didn’t, I consider them thoughtfully, objectively, and rather dispassionately. He was prone to self-pity and depression… womp womp! But he sure could fix Volvos, and loved nature. What a neat guy!
Rather, the grief I feel is something larger than who he was: very simply, I miss having a father.
I won’t make the mistake of comparing grief. I have male friends who've lost their fathers prematurely, and I have seen the grief shake them to their core and haunt them forever. But I do think women without fathers experience something unique from fatherless men—no better, no worse, but unique in ways I want to discuss.
When you’re a woman with a living father (assuming he’s not a total deadbeat, or deeply depraved), you always have someone who you can count on to offer something very basic, and yet irreplaceable: deep, abiding, unconditional and wholly platonic love from a man. Lose a father, and you lose that forever.
In many ways, this love is valuable because it’s deeply practical. Pardon my perpetuation of gender norms*, but by and large, the sort of tough love, the world-wisened perspective, and the practical skills many men acquire are invaluable to women.
I’ll spare you the foray into the nature-or-nurture question but, with the world as is, women are on the whole more vulnerable to abuse, violence, and being taken advantage of than men. So that the very act of being born guarantees (until it doesn’t) a guardian and champion is not to be taken lightly. In the handful of times when I had to call my dad for help, the assurance I received from his being able to save the day resonated on a very ancient and biological level. I don’t think I’ll feel that depth of safety again.
The thing is, when you’re a woman without a dad, you have to look elsewhere to cobble together the sorts of skills and care that good fathers offer their daughters. I’m lucky to have a mother who is technically savvy and deeply logical, with lots of experience I avail myself of regularly. But living across the country from her, I’ve had to rely on a broad swath of bosses, significant others, friends, coworkers, and so on to help me with some challenges life presents that I used to only have to call my dad to hash through.
In some ways, this is a beautiful example of social resiliency in the wake of losing a father. But in other ways, it sucks. Because my dad was always overjoyed to help. There is no one else in the world who will ever feel happy to help me with my problems, time and time again.
So when you don’t have a dad, you become very conscious of your imposition on others’ time and resources. Asking for help becomes an economic exchange: am I going to seem too needy? Will this person see me as a worthwhile investment? Will this strain our relationship? What will they expect in return, and can I make good on that?
Even love between spouses is not without condition, nor should it be. There are plenty of other parents out there with abundant love for folks beyond their own kids, but ultimately, it’s not their job to take on a whole new human as their charges. Truly, we just haven’t got it in our DNA. And besides, everyone is overtaxed these days. We don't have the surplus attention. We don't have the surplus time.
There’s another element to this that leaves me feeling a bit vulnerable, and it’s this: as a young woman, I’m subject to the objectifying eye of men, regardless of age. Don't get me wrong - I'm not disparaging the naturalness of human sexuality. And what's more, I deeply appreciate the many men out there who can perform the mental acrobatics to not consider even the most attractive of young women as fair game. Gotta love the compartmentalizing capacities of masculine minds.
But many men don’t. Many men are happy to take the youngest, most attractive women they can find—nevermind if what that woman really needs is a father figure, not a platform for her to work out her daddy issues, or for him to try to conjure some long lost youthful vitality. How often do older men ask the question, "Will I be good for her?"
How many of us even ask that of our relationships to others?
The more I think about it, the more I think my complaints are merely symptoms of broader cultural dysfunction. We're shattered. When we interact, we are often doing so out of a basis of need. We constantly want something of others. To be a modern human is to swim in the perception of constant scarcity. To be successful is to be political.
And as a result, we lack patterns of meaningful intergenerational caretaking. We lose interest in our elders and shut them away behind closed doors to die of loneliness and stagnation. We have allowed our time and attention to be commodified and thus, I think, sexualized, such that old men view young women as fair game, regardless of whether the relationship would be beneficial to either… and because of this, those who wish to serve as friends or mentors to young women must endure suspicion of ulterior motive and try to forge a relationship without signposts, thereby perpetuating the cycle. We are, in a phrase, fucked up. (Sorry, mom - but I mean it).
So, what’s a way forward? Well, I don’t actually have any idea. I hate writing a blogpost without a shimmery conclusion at the end to inspire us to organize and actualize some new and better future. But I don't think there are any social hacks here. There may not be any shortcuts.
What I do know is this: the current paradigms of relationship across genders and generations is mostly broken, and it needs changing. This problem is systemic, and I am very open to others' opinions on the root causes of these problems. Is it capitalism? Is it our desecration of nature that contributes to our commodification of one another? Is it somehow rooted in our puritanical past? I'm sure my religious friends will have a subset of beliefs, and my secular friends another, and my animist friends another yet. I would like to hear them all, so please leave a comment.
*note: I recognize that this post may stir some discontent for some who have grown up happily without fathers, whether thru circumstance or because they had two mothers. please consider that I looking at society as a whole from the very specific and personal viewpoint as someone who had a dad, and lost him. perhaps, regardless of our family or origin, there's benefit to father figures, even if not biological.