Most of us want to understand ourselves better, and this inevitably means taking a look at where we came from and how that’s influenced us today.
Our parents are a vital part of our story. I have spoken about the effects our mothers can have upon us and now I’d like to shine a light upon our fathers too.
First of all let’s get it out there – and prevent, or at least reduce, the backlash…
Yes… there are indeed some really great dads around!
These are the men who wanted to be a dad (or at least they do when the child arrives); they’ll fight to see their kids if their relationship with the mother breaks down; they are willing to sacrifice their career and bring their child or children up single-handedly if mum isn’t around; they help out with the smelly and stressful stuff of bringing up kids; they are kind, generous, loving and they want the best for their kids; they spend time with their beloved children and show them the ways of the world. They are the sort of dads who, when their kids have grown up, pop round and do odd jobs for them and help take care of their grandchildren.
This good dad may have been the child’s rescuer and saviour, and provided the buffer between the child and its cruel or uncaring mother. This may sound like the stuff of fairy tales – but I’ve heard from many clients over the years that this scenario really does get played out in real life all too often.
These dads are cherished and greatly missed when they die, and they leave a gaping hole that nothing else can fill.
Dads can be a loving ‘hero’ to their child. But sadly there are many different dads around who may be absent – either physically or emotionally – or even cruel and abusive.
To have had a kind and loving childhood with parents who wanted the best for you is the most wonderful start in life – the gift that keeps on giving.
If you had a great dad this article might baffle or even annoy you.
There can be a downside to having had a loving, caring dad – strange as that may sound. Having such a positive ongoing personal experience can often leave those fortunate children unable to really understand, empathise, support or even believe the pain that others have suffered from having a different type of father to their own.
They then respond to any unpleasant anecdotes about bad fathers with such phrases as ‘no-one does a perfect job…it’s in the past so put it behind you…you can’t change it so just get over it…no-one had it perfect…stop blaming your parents and make your own life…’
Such insensitive comments only add to the feelings of shame of living in a father’s heavy shadow.
Those of us who have uncomfortable feelings and memories of our dad, just don’t know how it feels for you luckier kids either – we only wish we did!
We can feel irritated and envious of your social media posts about how great your dad is, and how sad you feel without him since he died years ago. It leaves us wondering how different we and our lives would feel if we’d had a dad like yours.
Fathers day can brings problems for us too. There are mixed messages for school-aged children – many of whom are from one parent families with an absent father. There are still many assumptions that our relationship with dad is a good and loving one. So we avoid any painful self-disclosure to the contrary, and we tolerate the mismatch of society’s message with our own truth and experiences.
Wounded children need someone to be tolerant and patient enough to listen, accept their truth, stay around and offer help through the tough times – like when they see you happily reminiscing about your father or having a happy time with him. Your joy can activate our pain of not having that bond with our own father. It’s not your fault or ours. It just is.
So for all of you who had a much loved and cherished dad I am deeply happy that your mother found a good man to be your father.
However, without wishing to be unduly negative, even some of these good dads can still cast a shadow upon their child’s life.
The shadow of the good dad – a hard act to follow:-
We see this in cases of ‘daddy’s little princess’ and the special bond they have. This might evoke jealousy from the mother, or step-mother, who doesn’t hold such a special place in his heart.
The daughter finds it hard to find a man who matches up to dad. One that loves her unconditionally. One that indulges her, puts her needs first and goes out of his way to make her feel happy and cherished. She feels disappointed and cheated. She want a man just like daddy.
Perhaps she will find a man of dad’s age, which brings with it a mixed bag of compensations and feelings – like his protection and wealth, as well as the despair at the inadequacy of the substitute ‘dad’, a man with whom a sexual relationship can feel inappropriate or awkward.
Boys of these good dads can feel the shadow as one of their own inadequacy – of never meeting the exacting standards that dad set; of never reaching dad’s level of success and accomplishments.
He may have been brought up as the son and heir, and a chip off the old block – but he’s always been waiting in the wings for his call onto stage, to follow in his father’s footsteps. Those wings are a dark and shadowy place to be left waiting in.
For these sons there can be a nagging fear of ‘who am I apart from being your son?’ This can interfere with their own developing identity – particularly if they have been given the same name as dad, or are referred to as ‘junior’ or the ‘second’ (as in Mark junior, or David the second).
The Other Type of Dads
And what about the other sort of dads? The ones that none of the above apply to. They not only exist, but there are a lot of them about, and their deficits get handed down to their impressionable offspring.
When those bad dads leave or die there is no deep sadness or mourning – instead there are mixed feelings of relief combined with the sadness of knowing that their dad never did change into the one they’d wished for.
We know from abundant research into emotional attachment over the last few decades that about half of us leave childhood with an ‘insecure’ attachment style. Admittedly this results from our interactions with both parents.
We can deduce from this that many insecurely attached dads are not giving their children enough of what they need both emotionally and physically. Perhaps because they can only pass on what they know and have themselves – and as this is limited it doesn’t best serve their offspring.
These are the dads whom therapists hear about most often in the privacy of the therapy room. A good mother can reduce the damage caused by such a dad, but it takes finding a much better male role model for the child to internalise, for it to make a significant impact upon the dark shadow left behind by a deficient and ‘bad’ dad.
The ominous shadow of the bad dad
There is a spectrum that I’ve noticed. It ranges from those dads who are absent (for whatever reason) and their shadow is felt as one of aching emptiness and curiosity.
Then there are the dads who are present – but they come and go and the child can’t ‘pin them down’ and form a stable relationship with them. The young child can only blame themselves for this – they must maintain the ‘fantasy bond’ with the father by taking on the bad feelings and blaming themselves.
There are also the dads who are physically present but not psychologically or emotionally available. This may be due to mental illness, personality disorder, their ambivalence about their relationship with the mother, their extra-marital affairs, dependency or addiction – including addiction to work, gambling or sports which eat up their time and resources.
Perhaps they are focusing upon their own resentment at feeling trapped and having a burden of responsibility. Their lack of emotional intelligence and expression can leave the child feeling emotionally detached and isolated – unless the mother or other care-givers can make up for the deficit. As an adult the child of an emotionally unavailable dad may seek out partners who are unavailable too – which only re-enforces the emotional pain.
They will probably become fearful of being abandoned, dread being alone, be suspicious, needy, clingy or manipulative as an attempt to coerce their partner to never leave them. They substitute sex for love and affection. Real emotional and physical intimacy is avoided because it feels too ‘deep’, awkward and scary.
The weak, ineffectual or pre-occupied dads don’t prevent the mother or other carer from badly treating their child. They step aside and leave the child vulnerable to the actions of a bad mother, step-mother or other carer who’s poisonous comments and toxic behaviour instill fear, self-doubt and shame into the child – about the child’s physical appearance, personality and of feeling worthy and lovable.
There are then the dads who are cold harsh disciplinarians. Like a narcissist or sociopath they have no care or remorse about how they treat their children. Being shouted at is registered like a slap to the child’s brain. This ignorant dad may be physically and verbally abusive in the name of ‘it never did me any harm’, and ‘you need toughening up’.
Perhaps they are dishing out the threat of punishment made by the mother in such phrases as… ‘wait
’til your father gets home.’ The child fears the father and the pain he will inflict. The bond is lost and replaced by fear, anger, deep sadness and profound disappointment.
An ignorant bigoted father may feel intense anger at the gentleness and sensitivity of his son – and his narrow views get in the way of him appreciating his son’s attributes. He may fear his son being gay, and see this as a reflection of his lack of ‘proper parenting’, and decide to either ignore his son’s declaration of identity or try to ‘knock it out of him’ – as if this could make his son into one he would then approve and be proud of instead.
Sons may be called a sissy – particularly if they seek comfort from their mother (which may evoke jealousy in their bad-dad – from both the present time and as a reminder of the comfort he didn’t get himself as a boy in the past.)
The bullying father may use name calling and mind games to oppress the child and gain superiority. The girl is made to feel inadequate as a female, and undesirable to men. The son is made to feel impotent and useless. There are two children in these games and only one of them is small. The father hasn’t grown up!
Children of harsh cruel fathers feel overwhelmed by his strength and power. They can’t fight back until they have the physical strength, and enough rage, to risk doing so. They leave as soon as they can.
At the extreme end of that shadowy spectrum is the intentionally abusive father who uses his child to meet his own needs – whether to work for him, attend to his physical needs even though he can do so himself; and in the terrible occurrence of sexual abuse – made even worse when the mother is complicit and fails to prevent it and protect her child. In some instances I’ve heard of the father passing around his child in a ritual abuse ring – a piece of meat thrown to the dogs.
The children of such bad dads grow up learning not to feel – or at least not to show their feelings. Never to show weakness and to treat others the same way. Otherwise they might collapse from the pain and have a breakdown, or rather a breakthrough to become who they are in spite of their father.
There are too many fathers who have no empathy, compassion of sense of fairness or kindness towards their vulnerable child – and may well themselves have been the victim of that same experiences in the past.
Therein lies the problem – trans-generational trauma and abuse. I’ve seen this most often in parental mental health problems, harsh military families, abusive boarding school experiences, and when religious dogma is forced upon the child. Cruelty is overlooked and/or encouraged.
Does your father’s shadow still cling to your life?
Any dad can cast his shadow over his children – without even realising it. If he was already aged when he became a father there might be the shadow of embarrassment when the child’s peers think he’s their grandfather.
Or there may be a shadow of responsibility and duty – to take care of him due to his declining health. For an adult who has had a loving bond with a father that decision comes easier. If the relationship with the aged or infirm father is weak or dysfunctional then the shadow feels like a burden which can bring resentment, frustration and disappointment – and a further sacrifice of personal choice and identity.
Some fathers cast a shadow of shame – and the child tries to cover up their father’s alcoholism, philandering or perhaps their mental heath problems.
The beaten girl may cloak all future men with her father’s bullying shadow and expect history to repeat itself… and she usually gets what she expects. The shadow from the past can cling both to the present and the future.
If you can now see how your father – whether ‘good or bad’ has cast his shadow over your life then the next step is to find out how to ‘Cast Off Your Father’s Shadow’ (which just happens to be the name of one of my therapeutic weekend retreats!)
Work on shifting that shadow by first bringing in the light of awareness upon it – and accepting that your dad was flawed. He may have been a good dad who meant well. On the other hand he may have been somewhere else on the spectrum.
Whichever dad you had you can C.R.E.A.T.E. a life free of his shadow…
CONNECT with your inner child who absorbed your experiences without a filter, and formed beliefs about what they should expect in life based upon those early experiences.
RE-PARENT your inner child – which is the place of deepest wounding and greatest healing. Imagine adopting yourself and giving yourself a fresh start and taking care of your own needs – and not hoping or expecting someone else to do that for you. Develop self control, a sense of inner security and safety with yourself. Happily like and love yourself right back from the time you were a baby and out into the future!
ENSURE that you remain emotionally strong and robust enough to continue to protect and nurture your inner child by yourself from now on. You cannot let them down!
ACTIVELY seek out good men and role models from current times or literature. Notice the differences between what you can glean about them and what you know of your own father. Remain objective and get things into perspective. This is meant to be a way of seeing the difference for yourself not to make you feel worse!
TRUST that as an adult you can now attract good, kind, emotionally stable men into your life – in a variety of relationships such as work colleagues, teachers, friends and partners. Keep yourself and your inner child safely held by you and give yourself your deep trust – knowing that you can and will take care of yourself. Also knowing that you can handle any disappointment if this trust it betrayed by others who don’t know how to act any better towards you.
EMPOWER yourself as both a partner and parent. If you do become a parent yourself you can use what you have learnt to give your child a better start than you had – even if your dad was one of the good ones with only mild flaws. There’s always room for improvement when we have insight and self-awareness.
Whether your father’s shadow is light, or dark and heavy, it’s always better to live a lighter life without it!
Maxine Harley (MSc Psychotherapy)