I remember watching Iyanla Vanzant on OWN speaking about daddy-less daughters. It was the first time I had heard this term, but I immediately rolled my eyes. It’s not that I didn’t believe or empathize with the women who expressed their hurt; I was just over the narrative women are forced to carry when they don’t know their fathers.
For as long as I could remember, I’d heard stories about women suffering from “daddy issues.” They are often characterized as being needy, jealous, overly emotional, emotionally stunted, aloof or bitter. Whatever narrative was most relevant to the situation.
I’ve heard many men and women say things like, “In order for a woman to truly know how to love, she must see her mother in romantic relationships, to know how she should behave and how these interactions work.”
I don’t know my dad. We’ve never met. I’ve never felt the urge to meet him.
My grandparents and several other family members loved to periodically bring up my fatherless condition … in front of me … to my mother. They would pontificate about how my mother should have tried harder to keep him in my life.
Keeping a short story short, my mom and dad were in different branches of the military and casually dated for a short period of time. My mom, who knew he had a couple of kids, heard him speaking to their mother on the phone one day. He was ordering her to do specific things regarding his children and her life.
My mom didn’t like the way he spoke to her – and wasn’t all that into him anyway, so she broke things off. Weeks later she found out she was pregnant. She let him know she didn’t want anything from him but figured he should know she was making plans to return home to have me. She gave him my grandparents’ phone number in case he wanted to check in. That was the last she ever saw of him.
Despite knowing this, my grandparents still felt the need to harp on this topic again and again. They would hound my mom about “running him off” or how she “should have made him pay child support,” and they often feigned concern about my lack of a male role model. They conveniently ignored the fact that he had the ability and agency to ensure he was part of my life.
Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t
Single mothers – especially Black ones – have a horrible reputation. There’s a pervasive myth that anytime a woman asks for child support commensurate to the father of their child’s actual income, they are nothing more than a scorned woman harnessing the power of the courts in her quest for revenge. Add to this narrative, the idea that any woman asking for more money is just looking to spend it on themselves rather than the child or children they care for as the custodial parent.
If a woman dares to demand her children have the money they are entitled to by law, she runs the risk of being ostracized and accused of being a gold digger. If she doesn’t pursue child support, she is admonished for not trying harder. Either way, people are likely to gaslight and blame her all the same. Just look at the conversations surrounding Aryn Drake-Lee. You may not know her, but you may know her famous, soon-to-be ex-husband, Jesse Williams.
Williams, of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame, and Drake-Lee are in the middle of a divorce. They were together for a total of 13 years, married for five, and have two children. They are also fighting a very public and very messy custody battle. Their personal relationship and the speculation surrounding the dissolution of their marriage isn’t my business, but what has been interesting is the way Williams’ $50,000 a month child support payment is discussed. In court documents, Williams’ states “his ex-wife ‘wildly inflated’” numbers on the requested payments for their children so she can pocket some extra funds.”
Women being accused of seeking child support for personal gain is a pervasive and sexist stereotype. Twitter users have no problem chiming in with outrage on the $50,000 a month in child support payment, nor do they have a problem speculating on Drake-Lee’s actual motivations for seeking 10 percent of Williams’ $521K a month income. Even if that payment is in accordance with California state law. Here are a few things people had to say about their situation.
Adherence to the Stereotype
As a child, I would ask my mother about my father every so often. She told me what happened between them in matter-of-fact terms and never spoke ill of him. In the end, I was secure in the fact that my mom loved me and provided for me. Our home life was peaceful, and I always had the support, encouragement and freedom to be who I was. I never felt like I was missing out on anything.
I, however, always covertly and overtly received messages from society at large that something was wrong with me because of my fatherless status. I would suffer through countless fictional stories about overwrought girls and boys who were desperate to find their fathers and make them love them. When characters were made to come to terms with the stark truth of their fathers, their teary eyes and devastated faces made for good TV. It was always weird to watch. I empathized with the characters, but I never felt driven to know.
Throughout my childhood, adults were the worst people to have to mention my fatherless status to. I was often met with looks of pity and odd concern. It didn’t matter that I was a well-adjusted child or that his lack of presence didn’t bother me, people always thought I was putting on a brave face or just lying about not caring. It’s one of the ways women and girls are expected to perform femininity in a world built on patriarchy. As women, we are socialized to believe that our worth is dependent on our ability to have a man, as a female child your lack of a father is said to influence your ability to obtain said man. If you don’t have a father you are then obligated to perform society’s idea of being a daddy-less daughter—wandering the streets, aimlessly searching for your features on the faces of strangers. What kind of girl/woman are you if you don’t perform longing and brokenness?
It didn’t matter that I was OK. It didn’t matter that my mother worked hard to provide for me. People needed the stereotype to comfortably explain my existence.
The Lie Takes Root
I remember one incident. I couldn’t have been older than 13. My mother and I were staying at my grandparents’ house. One of my mother’s sisters was staying as well. For some reason or another, my mother and aunt began arguing about something. I forget what. As I was preparing for bed and knowing not to get into “grown-folks” business, I stayed quiet and just listened to what they were arguing about. For some reason, the argument escalated. My aunt raised her voice and said, “At least my kids know their daddy!” I blinked in shock and began to cry. Through my tears, I saw a look of horror on my mother’s face. I felt as if I had been slapped. What on earth did her children’s knowledge of their father have to do with me? I was just minding my business! Now I understand this comment was meant to slut shame my mother and speak from some perceived sense of superiority. My mom and my grandmother rushed to comfort me as I cried from the emotional injury. My aunt apologized. At that moment, I was reduced to nothing more than a bastard child who had no status in the world. I felt like Jon Snow before there was a Jon Snow.
As I got older and began dating, the getting-to-know-you conversations would always include a brief mention of how tight my mother and I were. Eventually, they would ask about my father and I would respond with, “I don’t know him. Their relationship was pretty brief.” Sometimes, they would ask a follow-up question, and that would be it. But on more than one occasion, I had men respond with breathy anticipation, “Do you want to find him?” You could almost see the images of a long-lost reunion playing in their minds. Then, without waiting for my reply, they would offer their investigative services to help me find him. When I dispassionately declined their offer, I was met with stupefied looks and questions about why I wasn’t concerned with knowing more about him.
I would think about the comment my aunt made from time to time; along with all the looks of pity and dashed hopes at the performances of a daddy-less daughter. I began to think maybe there was something to this connection of not having a father in one’s life and not having lasting romantic relationships. My love life had taken a hit and I was tired of wondering why no man wanted to commit to me (never asking myself if I was interested in committing to them). I held on to that notion for a few years. Hearing the repetitive thought, “If the first man who was supposed to love you never did, why would anyone else?”
Privately, I sank into the thought, but after a foundation-shaking event took place in my life, I began to question everything I had begun to believe about myself, romantic entanglements, and why they often fizzled wildly for me after a few weeks ultimately leaving me with the aftertaste of cheap, flat soda.
Why had I become insistent on reducing my entire life, and all my accomplishments, to the fact that one man chose not to be there? Why should the hard work my mother put into raising a confident and capable woman be diminished because the guy she dated didn’t want to know his kid? Why should I believe for one more second that I was incapable of a loving relationship because I had not known the love of my “dad?”
That new story I had adopted after years of resistance, was nothing more than patriarchy masquerading as my feelings. Rather than placing the responsibility of integrity and honesty on the men who have both financial and emotional obligations to their children, women and their female offspring are continuously held responsible for the decisions of the men around them. It’s a snake eating its tail.
We are all indoctrinated into patriarchy, and I hope more women without fathers (or with crappy ones) take the time to think more about how society has demanded you perform brokenness for their comfort. We should be supported in figuring out who we are without being saddled with the burdens of the men surrounding us. Having a father, a good one, must be fun. Having that experience as I transitioned girlhood to womanhood might have been cool, but I’ll be damned if I participate in the daddy-less daughter trope just to make people feel better.