One summer day when I was nine, I came in from playing jump rope, discovered my father unconscious in his chair, and thought he was dead. He survived another twenty years, but for the rest of my childhood and early adulthood, I lived with the fear of losing him. The possibility that at any moment I might suddenly be a fatherless daughter shaped the woman I would become.
Mothers and mothering occupy a lot of space in psychological literature, but the role fathers play in a daughter’s development does not get equal attention. The National Initiative for Fatherhood, the nation’s leading provider of research on evidence-based fatherhood programs and resources, reports that according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2022 data, 1 in 4 children in this country live in a home without a biological, step, or adoptive father. Their research indicates that children raised in a father-absent home face a four times greater risk of poverty, are more likely to have behavioral problems, are two times at greater risk of infant mortality, are more likely to go to prison, commit crime, become a pregnant teen, abuse drugs or alcohol, drop out of school.
Daughters growing up without a father face specific challenges. Fathers influence their daughter’s relational lives, their creativity, sense of authority, self-confidence, and self-esteem. Her relationship to her sexuality and response to men will in part be determined by her father’s comfort or discomfort with her gender and her body, starting at birth. (This post addresses one’s personal or biological father. The capacity for “fathering” is not based on anatomy nor is it gender specific.)
In post-modern societies, both parents may contribute to the family’s financial stability, or the mother may be the primary wage earner. However, through the lens of patriarchal values, a father is a failure if he cannot provide for and protect his family. Fairy tales convey societal and psychological truths in magical settings, and many of the most popular tales—Cinderella, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White—depict the reality of inadequate, neglectful, or harmful fathers. The story of Hansel and Gretel portrays the quintessential feckless father. He can neither provide for his family nor stand up to his wife’s cruel demands. Instead, he succumbs to her insistence that they leave their children in the woods to die so that they, the parents, can have enough to eat.
Why does the father disappear after the first page in some tales as if his relevance hardly matters? In real life, though, we know that an absent father is a haunting presence for his daughter. She will wonder why he left, why he has abandoned her, and if she did something to cause him to disappear. She will look for him in the men in her life or perhaps choose men who are the opposite of her father.
One positive outcome for fatherless daughters is hinted at in some fairy tales, as in The Girl Without Hands. The story recounts the survival challenges faced by a daughter who flees the father who maimed her. Without a father, and no sympathetic maternal figure to rely on, the heroine undergoes a self-revelatory process. In undertaking a series of impossible tasks, she discovers her moral and emotional strength, her courage and inner authority. She survives and thrives.
Psychotherapist Susan Schwartz has written extensively about the wounds daughters suffer from inadequate or harmful fathers. In The Absent Father Effect on Daughters: Father Desire, Father Wounds, she notes that fathers often have difficulty relating to a daughter’s emotional life. Even if the father is physically present, the daughter may feel unseen and unknown and will take on the burden of this failure as her own. She will feel a lack in herself. She may also strive to fulfill her father’s expectations in sports, in scholarship, in financial success, or she may try to fill his emptiness, his depression with her own energy. Dr. Schwartz describes how a father’s wounds can depotentiate a daughter’s capacity to use her energy for herself which can compromise her ability to focus and value who she is.
Author Patricia Reis’s book Daughters of Saturn: From Father’s Daughter to Creative Woman is part memoir about her father, part analysis of the father-daughter relationship. She finds Freud’s theory that the meaning in life is found in work and love too reductive. For women, she says, another dimension must be added. That question is “Whom do I serve?”—self or other.
“It is not enough to claim our power as women: we must be able to use our powers consciously, knowing where and how our energy is spent, on what, on whom, for what purpose—both in work and in relationships.”
To be a fatherless daughter is to feel abandoned by a paternal figure, emotionally, physically or both. A father may be absent from the home for reasons beyond his control. The list of reasons is extensive, and each situation impacts a daughter differently. Illness and death may burden her with additional grief, while military service, deportation, adoption, incarceration, divorce, or disinterest will have their own effects. A father who is physically present but emotionally distant, manipulative, abusive, or depressed also sets up a daughter for psychological distress. Her sense of herself, her ambition, her independence, her trust of the world will be shaped by her relationship with her father.
Fathers who long to have a deeper relationship with their daughters might ask themselves: what is my daughter trying to tell me about herself? What does she want me to see? How can I be more curious about her and her experience in the world? And they might ask their daughters, “How can I be more attentive?”
 Schwartz, Susan, The Absent Father Effect on Daughters: Father Desire, Father Wounds. Routledge, 2020
 Reis, Patricia, Daughters of Saturn: From Father’s Daughter to Creative Woman. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1995, Preface pp xiii-xix.
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”
If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Given Away: The Plight of the Wounded Feminine,” “Fathers: Heroes, Villains, and Our Need for Archetypes,” and “Daughters Discovering Mothers: the Yearning for Identity.”
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