What Happens When Fathers Don’t Love Their Daughters

My father is the greatest man I know. He’s kind, gentle, supportive, protective, nurturing, and a whole host of other billowy adjectives, none of which do him much justice. He is the only man who has ever loved me endlessly — no matter what I did, no matter how I looked, no matter how much it took of him — and he did so wanting nothing in return.

My father prayed for sons but the universe knew that wasn’t what he needed. He needed little bright eyed girls to adore, daughters to praise for their beauty while their pig tales stood straight in the air, and that’s exactly what he got. Some people would argue I got lucky, and I don’t disagree. My father loved his seven daughters with a fervor that the coldest Pittsburgh winters couldn’t cool, working a labor job during evenings so that he could be home with his girls during the day. I don’t know too many men who could swallow that much pride, let alone men with advanced degrees, but my father is no ordinary man. He would become the pinnacle of sacrifice and selflessness for me, setting a nearly impossible standard for any man who dared follow him. As an adult, I often asked myself what my life would’ve been like without him in it. What obstacles would I have had to tough through without his guidance? What would I know about men and who would I have learned it from? All life lessons my father taught me for no reason other than the fact that he loved me. But if love is intended to be the driving force behind a father’s relationship with his daughter, what happens when fathers don’t love their daughters?

One of the earliest lessons I learned from my father was that I was beautiful. From my toothless elementary school smile to my college grunge days, not a minute went by that my father didn’t take the opportunity to remind me just how beautiful I was. No pimple was too big, no hair was too short, no frown was too long for my father. And it wasn’t just the physical beauty, it was the beauty you couldn’t see that he saw so well. My intelligence, my generosity, my creativity, he was impressed by it all and I knew it. I was proud because he was, and if such a great man thought so highly of me, well then the opinions of others simply carried no weight. To a girl, a father is her first love and my father was mine. He laid the foundation for my self-esteem and set the standard for how the men I allowed into my life were required to treat me. That’s not to say I haven’t dated some frogs that never morphed into princes, but I did so knowing fully well they didn’t measure up. Unfortunately, not all of us have an adequate standard against which to measure potential suitors. And when that happens, we navigate the dating world seeking the kind of unconditional love that an intimate partner cannot provide.

By design, romantic relationships are based on the principle of “Give and Take.” Sure, we’re all out here searching for the purest form of love we can find, but when it comes to the dating world, unconditional love is as elusive as it sounds. Not to say it’s not an admirable preoccupation, but most of us have no desire to be the only contributors in our relationships. This means girls who never receive the affirming love of a father or father figure only ever interface with men who want something in return for their affection, which calls everything that man is willing to offer for it into question.

Countless studies have shown that fatherlessness has an extremely negative impact on womens’ self-esteem. The Fatherless Daughter Syndrome, a disorder of the emotional system caused by lack of a father/daughter bond which leads to repeated dysfunctional relationship decisions, especially in the areas of trust and self-worth, is not a myth. Where a father would naturally establish himself as the source of validation in a young girl’s life, his absence leaves room for men offering a form of that validation, only with a price tag. His preferred payment may be physical or financial, social or sexual, but a man without genuine intentions will always demand payment for his affection. That not only leads a young girl to see affection as something to be earned, but also to see herself as something to be sold.

Everything I know about what a man looks like, I learned from my father. Right along with how a man sacrifices, how he protects, how he provides, and how he loves. These weren’t sit down, take note lessons. I learned all of this simply by watching my father interact with my mother. In 30-plus years I’ve yet to come across a man who’s a bigger fan of his wife than my dad. He tells the story of casually bumping into her on the campus of a local university as if it weren’t 40 years ago, still swearing that she was the woman he traveled all the way from Nigeria to meet. And through sickness and health, through poor (and poorer), he’s maintained that she was the blessing God chose for him. According to research which suggests that children use their opposite-sex parent as the template for their romantic partners, literally and figuratively, it’s also been a blessing God chose my dad as the model of manhood for me.

Not only do young girls commonly grow up to seek men who share physical similarities with their fathers, but they seek men who share behavioral similarities as well. A girl who grows up with a father who provides her mother with affection, respect and affirmation of her femininity will look for these behaviors in her future partners. In contrast, a young girl who fails to see her mother positively affirmed by her father, or one who grows up with a father who models criticism, neglect, and abuse will seek similarly neglectful partners. — partners who are irresponsible, self-centered and predatory. That’s not to say women with healthy paternal models don’t find themselves in unhealthy romantic partnerships, but they’re less likely to turn these individual experiences into the standard for relationships in the future. And it’s less likely that a woman who saw healthy relationships modeled in the home will adopt dating habits that result in extended cycles of self-sabotage. Not simply because she “knows better,” but because we’re hard wired to compare every love to our first example of it. A woman who grows up seeing her mother showered by the healthy love of her father will use this model as a guideline for assessing a man’s ability to win her affection in the future. But if a woman grows up seeing her mother neglected or bargaining for affection, she will use that model as a guideline for assessing her ability to win a man’s affection.

When fathers don’t love their daughters, they trek out into the world unprotected. They grow up seeking the validation of men who only assess value to the pieces of them that yield the desired results. They grow up exhausting their energy chasing an unconditional love that cannot be replicated through a give and take relationship. The daughters of unloving fathers navigate the world physically as adults but emotionally as children coveting expired nostalgia. One has to ask if their father’s are aware of the damage they’ve caused.

And furthermore, who helps unloved daughters heal? The boys who teach them on the playground that intrusive male touch equates courting? The boys who teach them that there is no greater attainment than the sexual attraction of the opposite sex? The men who take full advantage of their insecurities, intentionally contributing to the pre-existing damage? The men who convince them that their value isn’t within their femininity and compassion, but instead in their ability to endure until they fracture? The men who believe that a woman’s value is based solely on what you can harvest from her, not what you can help her cultivate? Men who most likely also suffer from the affects of not having a healthy male role model to teach them the error of their dysfunction? Everyone suffers when men fail to protect the innocence they create, leaving the burden of restoration resting squarely on the shoulders of the daughters themselves, ironically where its always been.

I’m grateful that the man who made the decision to create me also made the decision to raise me. That feels odd to type but I believe it deserves to be said as often as possible. It serves as a reminder that fatherhood is a choice for men in the same way that motherhood is a choice for women. And contrary to popular belief, mothers don’t morph into superhuman hermaphrodites when a fathers decide to abandon their responsibilities. As with any job, and parenting is a job, the work remains whether we show up or not. Fatherless daughters become strong women not by choice, but by necessity. They tough through the trauma of roughing out the lessons that daddy didn’t teach all while trying to prove that his departure did no real damage. Parroting the phrase, “I didn’t have my father and I turned out just fine,” as a constant reminder. But denying that fatherlessness has a profound affect on a young woman’s life benefits neither party. Nor does the acknowledgement, in any way, serve as condemnation of those whom it affects. The time for restoration and healing comes when we decide to stop being agents of our own pain, choosing to no longer be victimized by the repercussions of other people’s poor decisions. And If the unloved daughters of broken men must be the catalysts for their own healing, then shouldn’t that time be now?

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