I lost my father when I was 11. He died of a heart attack. The pre-teen girl I was had to grow at a very high speed. My life changed completely as my family moved to another city, my mother became a single mom who had to care for 4 children while I had to lead by example for my siblings. A shift happened not only in my life but also in my mind: I had to create a new paradigm where being strong was the only choice I had. The only way to survive. I was fortunate enough to still have my mother at this critical time. But this void my dad left, this painful and timeless trauma, remained unchanged. I was fatherless and broken, no matter what I would do to hide or forget it. “Daddy’s issues” ruined a big part of my life, but I was too busy being strong to notice. What started as a defence mechanism became my personality. 15 years later, the young woman I have become is changed, for better and for worse. My strength, resilience and courage became my greatest allies. My vulnerability, insecurities, fear of abandonment became my demons. My story is perhaps painful, but far from being isolated.
Many teenage girls and young women around the world suffer from emotional trauma due to father loss whether it’s caused by death, abandonment, divorce, imprisonment, addiction, emotional or physical absence. Whatever the circumstances causing the absence of the father are, the impact is critical as the father-daughter relationship strongly influences key factors of personal development among young women such as relationships, self-esteem, aspirations, confidence and self-love. Over the years, they become vulnerable young women who find it harder to build healthy personal and professional lives as they are building their lives, relationships, aspirations, and self-representation on the basis of this trauma, especially when it occurs during adolescence. They suffer from trust issues, low self-esteem and fear of abandonment which create the unhealthy need to be accepted and loved at all costs. Most of the time, these symptoms usually go unnoticed and unacknowledged as these young women do not necessarily understand the root issue causing their behavior, and build a façade around themselves. From dysfunctional relationships to chronic depression, the fatherless daughter syndrome can take several forms over the years and even be forgotten for some time, without actually disappearing. Rather, it gives rise to a vicious cycle of self-destruction mechanisms, self-doubt, and unhealthy or abusive relationships in young women’s lives.
Because we feel unloved and unworthy, we search for love and validation in all the wrong places, which make us vulnerable and exposed to all sorts of physical and emotional abuses.
The social and economic environment as well as the family structure are factors that significantly influence or reinforce the impact of fatherlessness in young women and girls’ lives. In low incomes families where the father is absent, the mother is emotionally unavailable or unstable, and there is no positive male figure, daughters will most likely develop more self-esteem issues, insecurities, sexual promiscuity and repeat the cycle of fatherlessness. Having a support system is crucial for fatherless girls as they often feel vulnerable and struggle to open up about what they experience, yet millions of children around the world go through the same thing. A survey of the U.S. Census Bureau estimated at 24.7 million the number of children who live without the physical presence of their biological father in the United States. In this same country, 80% of father-deprived adolescents are in psychiatric hospitals. While in Canada, over 80% of single-parent families are led by women (www.imfcanada.org / Statistics Canada). Fatherlessness is the greatest social problem in North America according to 72.2% of the U.S. population (National Center for Fathering). Other studies show that 71% of teenage pregnancies comes from fatherless homes and 92% of girls who come from fatherless home are more likely to divorce. These statistics demonstrate that children thrive with the active and meaningful participation of both parents, and that fathers play an important role in child and teen development. Understanding the impact of fatherlessness in young women’s lives specifically, the emotional trauma caused by father loss and the consequences on society is key if we want to build a healthier society.
A healthy and uninterrupted relationship between a father and a daughter greatly helps to create a positive self-image and therefore will have a positive influence on her aspirations and relationships.
When this relationship is suddenly broken for some reason, the daughter’s cycle of identity development is also interrupted. Adolescence and preadolescence are critical times where young women build themselves: their body change, they make a transition from girls to young women, and in this transition, the father’s role is crucial. Fatherless young women often become self-destructive, violent, vulnerable, sexually promiscuous, prone to abuse, unstable and develop a conflictual relationship with their femininity and sexuality. They find it difficult to trust and live in constant fear of abandonment which sometimes lead them to make unhealthy choices for themselves in order to please others. In their professional and social lives, the absence of a paternal figure, that of a guide and protector, manifests itself through a lack of self-worth and consequently create more difficulties for them to be stable and become autonomous. Or conversely, they become obsessed with their professional achievements that give them the illusion to fill that void. Romantic relationships is undoubtedly the area in which the impact of father loss is felt the most in young women’s life. Growing up, a father figure is a sort of masculine ideal in a girl’s mind. It’s her first male reference, one that embodies the values necessary for her to build her identity: guidance, protection, authority, discipline, kindness, confidence and absolute love. When they become young adults, their choices of partners are highly influenced by this ideal (and illusory) image of the father figure and the relationship they had or would have loved to have with him, thus causing unhealthy and often abusive relationships. Many of these women will particularly struggle during separation and break-ups as they make an emotional projection of their dads on their partner, while others experience more difficulties to trust, express their feelings and commit. It is common that fatherless young women unconsciously repeat the same relationships patterns that manifest through a constant fear of abandonment, insecurities, difficulties to open up, a conflictual relationship to male authority and defence mechanisms. They usually create a shell around themselves that seems strong on the outside, but deep inside, they remain extremely vulnerable.
Fatherlessness should be seen as a psychological trauma like any other that deserves special attention and care because of the impact it has on society as a whole.
We cannot build an equal society with broken people. Nor can we speak of women and girls’ empowerment without addressing such essential parts of their lives. Many girls who have faced the death, abandonment, physical or emotional absence of their fathers will become broken young women with emotional trauma and relationship issues. On the other hand, the number of single-parent families continues to grow but the focus is not quite on young women traumatized by the loss of their fathers and who, subsequently, face difficulties building healthy lives and thriving. A woman with unhealed father loss trauma will most likely repeat the cycle of the fatherlessness and abuse she went through, which will result in more broken children growing into broken adults. And so on. In this growing social issue, everyone has a role to play. Parents, step-parents, educators, psychiatrists, civil society, governments and society in general should pay a closer attention to fatherless girls and young women, encourage them to open up and actually listen to them. I believe it’s the first step to finding adequate solutions. We tend to focus so much on the consequences rather than look at what triggers dysfunction in young women’s lives. As a society, we are so quick to judge and blame, without looking at ourselves and seeing our own responsibility in the problem. We build short-term solutions, we “cover it up”, then wonder why depression, suicide, crime, teenage pregnancies, abuse, incarceration, school dropout, mental diseases are so common among father-deprived children. It is crucial, as a global community, to raise awareness on this issue and support women and girls to minimize the negative impact on themselves and society.