By Kathryn Passeretti
Originally posted August 9, 2017
I am a part of a colossal sisterhood of women and girls, grown up, or currently growing up without a father. My father walked out on my sister and me when we were under the age of four, leaving our mother to assume all responsibility for us. It went beyond a marriage ending. It was his disregard for us; his refusal to provide a support system for my mother to depend on- like she never meant a thing, and his casual treatment of us, his daughters, that affected our lives.
As a child, I tried to compensate for my father’s absence by taking on adult roles in my mother’s life. Mom let go of powerful emotions in our presence without understanding how it affected my sister and me. She displayed anger and grief over why he wasn’t a part of his daughter’s lives; the sadness of parenting alone, financial anxieties- it had always been her dream to stay at home with us, but instead, she worked a full-time job to support us. Our small shoulders buckled beneath the weight. As daughters we listened, comforted, worried, and felt responsible for her in ways that went beyond our age or requirement. I remember advocating for my mom out of frustration after hearing her cry. I left a message on my dad’s answering machine reprimanding him. “Why won’t you send my mother child support?” Then, suddenly feeling my age and embarrassment, I hung up.
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Along, with our father’s abandonment, came the fear of losing mom. In a journal entry- when I was six, and my sister four, mom recorded the questions we asked her. “What will happen to us if you die? “Grandma and grandpa are old.” Will we go to the neighbors?”
I was especially aware of my fatherlessness, on the rare occasions when he came to visit us as children. It was strange being in the company of a man who was my father and a complete stranger in my day to day life. The title, “father,” seemed sacred, like saying: mom, grandma, grandpa, even sister. They were given a special name out of a commitment to me. I understood the dichotomy from an early age. It’s in a child’s nature to make connections and to establish boundaries. Being so new to life, it’s a part of feeling safe and forming an identity. The times I talked about my father, I used his first name, Chuck; out of a need to be honest with myself and others.
Still, I wanted Chuck to know me. Sometimes I would call him up to tell him things about myself: I lost another baby tooth, I boiled spaghetti noodles on my own, our hamster ran away. I remember an occasion when Chuck came to visit. I was given the choice to run a short errand with mom and my sister, or to spend the time alone with him. I decided to stay behind. I wanted the opportunity for Chuck to see “only me.”
As an icebreaker, I suggested we play a game of Hide and Go Seek. Our apartment was tiny, so it wouldn’t be long before he found me. I watched him from my vantage point- between a puffy-paisley chair and corner wall. He searched the living room, before going on to the other rooms. I had to press my hands against my mouth to keep from giggling when he returned. I knew that he would find me! Instead, he turned on the TV, sat down, and began watching it. Over time, his program went to commercial break, back to programming, and again to commercials. He had forgotten me.
I was becoming increasingly nervous. I needed to call out to him for the game to end. Only, what would I call him? I couldn’t say, “dad,” I’m over here. And somehow, I sensed he wouldn’t appreciate being called, Chuck, by a child. This is when I compromised, without compromising myself. As a last resort- after being backed in to a corner; I said it with honesty and without disrespect. “Hey you, I’m over here.”
He knew exactly where I was. In seconds, he was pulling me out from behind the chair. My arms and legs were flailing, my sobs were filled with humiliation and fear. “Don’t ever call me, “hey you!” I’m your father!” Show respect for your father!’ He used one hand to hold my wrist and the other to swat at my bottom. I ran in circles around him, bucking from him on a maddening carousel. It didn’t hurt physically, but it was devastating.
Why couldn’t I quit the game? It would have been so easy to walk away like he did. The only answer I can come up with is – I choose to play by the rules. How do you explain to an adult what is so apparent to a child?
Throughout the years, he’s given the same excuse, “I don’t know how to be a father. I told him once, “be consistent, that’s the first step in forming a commitment.” I would like to say that he finally got it. Only he never has.
Being a fatherless daughter left holes in me. Sometimes I wasn’t aware of the existence until I entered a new phase of my life, or in hindsight, after changing things in my life that were not working. In my teens and twenties, I looked for validation in dating and relationships. When the first man to walk away and break your heart is your father, you may ask yourself, “why didn’t you love me enough?” The abandonment may be perceived as a personal deficit, no matter how irrational. I believe we walk a fine line in other ways. Fatherless daughters often pick men similar to the ones who abandoned them. They ignore the obvious, expect different results, and are hurt again and again. My mother married a man like her father.
It has taken time and council to learn how to love and value the parts of myself that were injured, and to finally accept that he will not change. I have learned to fill the holes he left by investing in myself and others who are willing to reciprocate the commitment. I married a man who loves me and accepts my love with open arms! When I talk with girlfriends who are fatherless daughters, I find our challenges, mistakes, and redemptions fit similar patterns. And some of our stories are so outrageous; we find ourselves laughing through our tears. As a fatherless daughter, I sometimes feel the ache and longing for what I will never have, but it’s ok. I have grown beyond chasing shadows. I am not bitter. I am sorry for Chuck. He could have had his daughter’s hearts. He could have been a father.
Kathryn Passeretti earned her Bachelor’s degree from Indiana University. She came to the Blue Water area from the Chicagoland area nearly two decades ago and loves it here! Kathryn works with children throughout the Port Huron school district as a substitute teacher and enjoys volunteer work. She values the people here- of all ages, who continue to touch her life. And prizes the lakes and rivers available to all of us at our fingertips.