With Father’s Day upon us, daughters of all ages are preparing to celebrate their fathers and all they have done to positively impact their lives.
But what about the daughters who do not have fathers present in their lives? How does life play out when paternal protection, support and resources are missing from her life? Is she significantly impacted? We believe she is.
What is Fatherlessness?
According to an open, quantitative online research study conducted on SurveyMonkey.com by the authors for our book, The Fatherless Daughter Project: Understanding Our Losses and Reclaiming Our Lives (Avery, June, 2016), out of approximately 2,000 female respondents between the ages of approximately 15 and 80, of diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, 50% of females identified as fatherless, with an additional 11% responding, “maybe I am a Fatherless Daughter.” These women cited a range of reasons that they became fatherless, including parents’ divorce or separation (28%), emotional absence (26%), death (19%), desertion (13%), addiction (13%), abuse (12%), never having met their father (6%) and incarceration (4%).
We describe fatherlessness as the loss of an emotional bond between a daughter and her father for any of the above reasons, which are often compounded. A fatherless daughter can experience several layers of loss – most before the age of ten, rendering them trauma survivors from a young age. The impact of the trauma affects her at every major developmental phase of her life.
Jackson (2010), fatherless daughters were shown to miss out on gaining a sense of security in life, as they missed out on having him in the home as their protector. They also reported missing out on learning positive masculine behaviors, specific social skills and a comfort with male-female relationships because their fathers were not there to teach them.
Because of her personal calling in this topic, Denna started writing about and researching fatherlessness over a decade ago by reading women’s stories and conducting ongoing informal and formal interviews with fatherless daughters that she met through invitation, social media or word of mouth. Since 2013, in an effort to gain fresh research for the book, Denna and Karin focused on documenting these qualitative one-on-one interviews and group conversations via face to face, email, and telephone interviews with fatherless daughters. In addition to the online, quantitative Father-Daughter Survey cited above, an open and ongoing Fatherless Daughter Survey has been conducted on SurveyMonkey.com since 2014, yielding over 1,200 female respondents between the ages of 15 and 70 worldwide.
Analyzing the responses collected from these thousands of women, we found one major experience that sets fatherless women apart from their fathered counterparts: their loss caused emotions that were too difficult to handle and thus, were pushed underground, not being adequately dealt with at the time of the loss.
As the daughter grows into a woman, these repressed emotions tend to bubble to the surface as a result of another significant trauma, loss or abandonment. This lack of understanding of her current emotional reaction – often seen as over-reaction to others – can leave her feeling guilty, isolated, misunderstood, and sometimes out of control.
This is where the obvious divide comes for women who have experienced father loss. Life experiences can be post-traumatic triggers that unearth pain hidden since she was a child. In our study, a shocking 90% of fatherless women reported significant emotional distress in their lives because of their loss, with 65% of them reporting mental disturbance as well.
Specifically, fatherless women have been documented to experience lower levels of well-being (Cook, 2004), higher levels of anger-related depression (Lucas, 2005), and emotional difficulty in intimate relationships (Gaddis, 2003). The hallmark psychological fall-out, however, is that fatherless women carry an overriding – often disabling – fear of abandonment (Krohn & Bogan, 2001).
This multi-layered fall-out occurs because the foundation that a father usually lays for his daughter does not get formed. Not only are there emotional costs, but experiential ones as well. She does not receive those things that fathered daughters might take for granted: protection when life gets tough, safe male affection, and a Dad’s presence at her graduation, wedding, and birth of her first child.
Gifts and Costs
Although the fatherless daughter consistently re-experiences fear of rejection or abandonment, our study also found that she is also building up some very powerful coping mechanisms over the years in the pure act of survival. She learns the importance of loyalty and compassion; becoming a friend that feels more like family to those close to her. Often faced with assuming responsibility at a young age, she grows up more quickly than her peers and develops qualities of self-reliance, leadership and perseverance.
The flip side of these positive attributes is that the fatherless daughter can take on far too much herself. Because of likely taking care of her mother, siblings, father, and most importantly, herself along her fatherless journey, she has developed the tendency to carry burdens for others. This can translate into her becoming over-stressed, physically ill and psychologically taxed. While she may have tremendous coping mechanisms, she is likely tending to herself last, leading to isolation, loneliness, and feelings of unworthiness.
Our research results showed that these negative emotions can trigger a great fear of abandonment, often leading to the fatherless daughter exhibiting negative coping mechanisms to deal with her emotions. The majority of our research respondents reported isolating themselves and/or overusing alcohol, food, shopping or sex to deal with their father loss.
Nearly 90% of women who lost their fathers reported finding emotional lifesavers in the forms of their friends, family members, therapists or stand-in father figures. But when these outside support systems do not show themselves, a daughter can be left with the tendency to gravitate toward unhealthy relationships because of a deep need to be loved and accepted.
In 2012, an analysis was done from the U.S. Census Bureau citing that 80 percent of single-parent families are father-absent households. When it comes to the relationship with her mother, a fatherless daughter might find herself scared to rock the boat, causing the daughter difficulty in differentiating her own beliefs, feelings and opinions. On the other hand, nearly one-third of our respondents described their relationship with their mother as growing closer after the loss, feeling a great deal of pride for the hard work she put in after Dad was gone.
The Fatherless Daughter Project
The Fatherless Daughter Project helps these extraordinary daughters turn things around when they find that their old ways of coping are no longer serving them. We offer them a place to call home among a sisterhood of women with whom they can relate and find support. True healing begins here, as a fatherless daughter reclaims her life by turning the corner from feeling isolated to realizing that she is not alone. With us, she can write a new powerful story and turn her pain into a life of purpose.
Cook, R. (2004). Father absence and correlates of well-being among African-American college women. (Doctoral Dissertation, Loyola College, Maryland, 2004). Dissertation Abstracts International, 64, 6367.
Gaddis, M. (2003). When little girls grow up with dead fathers: A phenomenological study of early object loss and later intimate relationships. (Doctoral Dissertation, Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2003). Dissertation Abstracts International, 63, 3472.
Jackson, L. M. (2010). Where’s my daddy? Effects of fatherlessness on women’s relational communication. (Master’s Thesis, San Jose State University). SJSU Scholarworks.
Krohn, F.B. & Bogan, Z. (2001). The effects absent fathers have on female development and college attendance. College Student Journal, 35, 4.
Lucas, C. (2005). Anger and depression in the father relationship. (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Alabama at Birmingham). Dissertation Abstracts International, 65, 3707.