How To Survive — And Thrive — As A Fatherless Daughter

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young woman

By Liz Furl

He was a perfect storm of a human being, drowning women in physical abuse, rape, judgment, and his excuses. I experienced all but rape, and for that I consider myself lucky.

But since then, I’ve joined the ranks of the fatherless daughters — the women who grew up without ever knowing the men who impregnated their mothers. The women whose fathers played ding-dong-ditch with their lives, and the women who, like me, saw the toxicity in their fathers and chose to live a life without them instead.

It isn’t an easy journey. There are birthdays — yours and his — that will come and go without acknowledgment from either party. There is the guilt that sometimes comes and takes up residence in your mind and without your permission; telling you that you’re a bad daughter, that you’re unworthy of love, and that you should have tried harder. Maybe then you’d have a father...

Those times are infectious, poisoning the well of relationships with other men (or women) you try to love. The need for approval becomes so strong that you mold yourself into the shape you believe your would-be paramour would like best, forgetting your own shape in the process. You can take on challenges because they feel familiar: people who batter you with their words, or fists because clearly (and sarcastically) you don’t deserve better.

And then there is Father’s Day, the ultimate anniversary of loss. As other women take their fathers to brunch, accompany them at their beloved grills, and hike with them up mountains to celebrate their father-daughter bond, you’re left on the sidelines, wondering how to possibly spend your day.

If you’re coupled, you could always tag along, of borrowing someone else’s father, as a substitute for your own, but it’s usually an unfulfilling experience. No matter the fondness or love you may have for this surrogate, he’s not your one-and-only father.

If you’ve adopted a father later in life, you’ve missed the formative time when you’re supposed to learn how to relate to and be loved by a man, and what it is like to have the other half of a parental set.

It took me 23 years and many abusive and draining relationships to learn that I’m worth more than being someone’s side chick, more than the ignored and neglected friend, and more than the woman who needs to lean on her mother for every little thing because I never learned strength.

But it took nearly everything I had to do it. I had to unlearn every learned impulse and replace it with something positive and healthy. Strangely and easily enough, though, it all came around to one simple task: listening.

I needed to listen to my ‘friend-family’ when they warned me that some guy I was dating didn’t value me; that I was only being used for sex or comfort. I needed to listen to them tell me that I was beautiful, intelligent, talented, and worth the world. And more than merely listening, I needed to hear it — to absorb it into every pore of my being, until I knew (most of the time, at least) that it was true.

I needed to listen to my mother, as she shared her stories of abuse and neglect, in order to understand that not everyone who comes into your life is worthy of being there.

Some say there’s nothing more important than family, and that blood is thicker than water. She taught me that you don’t get to choose which family you’re born into, but that you can always build your own out of people who accept you for exactly who you are without any reservations. She taught me that, in the end, there’s no distinction between types of love — as long as you have some, everything is okay.

Most of all, I needed to listen to myself; to the inklings of doubt that came out of the pain of unanswered texts, being kept a secret, or simply being looked past in favor of other things. I needed to listen to the voice that said a person who didn’t take care of themselves wouldn’t be capable of caring for me, to the voice that said bypassing important conversations would only lead to arguments, to the voice that said happiness wasn’t a crime.

It’s taken time, I’ve learned to listen but sometimes I flounder — it’s hard to undo 23 years of taking my father’s treatment and absence to heart. But instead of shaming myself unendingly and unapologetically for my mistakes, I learn from them, and try to do better next time.

It is difficult to be a strong woman when you’re also a fatherless daughter, but it isn’t impossible. No matter the lessons you’ve learned as a girl, you can always learn new ones; healthy ones; ones that make you happy — as long as you’re willing to listen. 

This article was originally published at Ravishly. Reprinted with permission from the author.