With or Without You: Fatherless Daughters and Finding Strength in the Absence of Parental Guidance
I was named after a scale.
I was born in April at a hospital in Italy. Right outside the birthing room, my father spotted a scale. The brand? “L’auretta.” He was confident it was the perfect name for me.
Naturally, “L’auretta” morphed into “Lauretta.” Naturally, I clung to this oft-repeated family story as if it were proof of my father’s indestructible love for me. Naturally, later on in life, I questioned the tenderness of the tale: Was the origin of my name sweet and somewhat serendipitous, or was I named in haste?
For years, I convinced myself of the former. I lived by it. That small gesture of naming me allowed me to believe that my father thought the world of me. Never mind that six months after I was born he became enamored with a brash woman from Cyprus and followed her to Greece, leaving my mother husbandless and me fatherless.
If you’ve been following my blog or are familiar with my memoir, you know that I’ve wrestled with overcoming my troubled, bleak childhood. I was born a gypsy and lived in several different households throughout my youth. I recall few details about my father before moving in with him at the age of fifteen, when I was desperate for stability and safety. Prior to that, he was as elusive as the fog that skulked in on summer mornings in Pavia and Florence: A dashing figure, prone to disappearing acts that made little sense to a child. When I think of him, he arrives in slivers. Almond-shaped eyes. A sultry voice. Swagger and languor at once. The visits he paid to me every three months or so were rushed, heart wrenching, and futile, in that I spent most of my time with him in the back of his Alfa Romero while he sat in the driver’s seat, smoking and making out with his lover of the month. Over time, those visits every three months turned into six months, then a year, then more, until several went by without a word from him. I didn’t reconnect with him until my mid-teens. By then, I’d made up my mind about him. He was a traitor. He was self-indulgent and unkind. He was undeserving of my love and attention, no matter how urgently I wanted and needed his.
Growing up without a father has a tremendous impact on children. Countless studies have been conducted and regardless of the reason for the father’s physical or emotional absence—whether it’s due to death, abandonment, work, addiction, psychological illness, or divorce—the implications are far reaching and long lasting. Females in particular need fathering during the critical years of development; without it, their lives have the potential to be rife with difficulties, from a lack of self-confidence to promiscuity. In “Fatherless Women: What Happens to the Adult Woman who was Raised without a Father?,” Dr. Gabriella Kortsch writes, “If a girl has not been assured of her value as a woman by that early relationship with the father, she finds it difficult to relate to men precisely because she may often unconsciously seek to find that recognition in the eyes of the beloved…and this may lead her down an early path of promiscuity… which in turn makes her feel she is “bad”, but on she marches, relentlessly visiting bed after bed, locking in a fierce embrace with man after man, in the hope that this one or that one, or the next one will finally give her that which she never had as a child – validation of herself for herself.”
The lack of a father figure—on top of having a mother who was hell-bent on destroying herself—didn’t just leave a mark on me. It scarred me; it punctured me. I suffered from depression and anxiety at an early age. I felt sorely out of place wherever I went. I was self-conscious, often terrified, and habitually adrift. The mere presence of a man would shake me. It could be a teacher, a neighbor, a boy in the schoolyard, or the baker down the street—it didn’t matter: the male species unnerved me. As if programmed by a computer, my spine would straighten in their company, a smile would appear on my face as if on cue, and the brighter aspects of my personality would snap into place. As Dr. Kortsch said, I needed their validation. Their admiration. Their praise. And, later, their physical affection.
This promiscuous nature that was cultivated at a young age persisted into adulthood. Without the approval of a man, I felt incomplete. “The value of such a belief in oneself, easily acquired by the woman with a positive relationship to her father, is immeasurable in the adult life,” Dr. Kortsch writes, “and the lack of it in many of the countless women who were raised without a positive father image, may cause the life course to be fraught with difficulties.”
Certainly. But the past, after all, is the past. My father has since passed away, and the years I spent waiting for him to visit and then expecting him to arrive in the form of a man who would love and worship me without question or pause are behind me and impossible to retrieve (try as I might). Which leaves us who were raised without a father with the question: What can we do with the grief their absence created? What have we learned? A surprising amount, it turns out. Here are five positive qualities I’ve been able to foster as a fatherless daughter:
1) Self-sufficiency. Without the reliable presence of a father figure in my life, I learned how to take care of myself from an early age, from changing a tire to wielding a screwdriver. These lessons I taught myself have proved to be invaluable—namely because I know that wherever I am, I’m capable of surviving.
2) Feminine Pride. For years I felt inferior to men, due in part to the approval I sought from them; now, however, I take extreme pride in my accomplishments and in the achievements of women around the world. We don’t need men as we once thought. We are capable of ruling companies and entire countries. Give us the chance, and we could easily rule the world.
3) A Healthy Sense of Competition. I fought for my father’s love, attention, and support. It was a crushing endeavor but it shaped my competitive spirit. Who knows—if my father had been present in my childhood, would I have learned to stand up for myself in the ways I discovered by myself? Would I have been as driven to succeed? Would I have been as outspoken in the workplace, which led to a stronger sense of self, not to mention promotions, bonuses, and praise? I can’t answer those questions but I can safely say my father’s absence inspired in me unbreakable determination and an ardent desire to succeed.
4) Freedom from Expectations. I envy my girlfriends who were fortunate enough to be raised by warm, generous, and sensitive fathers. That said, several of them have led their lives based on the expectations their fathers had of them. I was able to carve out my own path, from marrying whom I pleased to selecting a profession—and there’s something wonderfully liberating about that.
5) Self-protection. I don’t move through this world blindly. I’m acutely aware of my surroundings at all times. I work out regularly to ensure I maintain my strength. I’m careful around strangers, and sensitive to places and people that hint of potential danger. This might be because I’ve lived in so many different places; this might be because I didn’t have a father to defend me. In any case, it’s a priceless attribute to possess.
In my drearier reflections of my father, I think of the small, self-conscious, unfed girl I once was, and the young adult who put herself second to all of the men who happened to be in her presence. Then I think of the strength I’ve gleaned from this and the success I’ve found. That’s when I smile and think, Hey, dad. If only you could see me now. It is my hope that you can do the same.
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