We’ve all heard of daddy issues—the all-encompassing term for issues involving trust, abandonment, and commitment. The stereotypical bearer of daddy issues is often cis-gendered, heterosexual, and female, but it’s a phenomenon that affects many—regardless of gender or sexual orientation. In fact, men with daddy issues are a popular archetype in quite a few American sitcoms: Chandler Bing in Friends, New Girl‘s Schmidt, Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Jake Peralta, and How I Met Your Mother‘s Barney Stinson. Growing up, I identified with these characters—internalizing my own issues only to regurgitate them as comedy later in life, just like them. But while humor is employed to characterize men with daddy issues, the opposite is often true for women whose unresolved daddy issues are credited as the source of sexual promiscuity, insecurity, toxic romantic relationships, and an unhealthy obsession with older men. I internalized these characteristics too.
And what’s the most commonly cited cause of daddy issues? An absent father.
When you grow up surrounded by other children whose fathers are—to varying degrees—absent, it can be easy to dismiss divorce as normal. Through pop culture and conversations with friends, I realized that I wasn’t alone in my experience and at times that came as a comfort—but it also meant I dismissed the whole thing as something most kids go through. I didn’t feel I had the right to be upset about something that simply seemed like a part of growing up. But no ten-year-old is emotionally equipped with the tools to process trauma in real time or understand that a lot of people going through the same thing doesn’t make it any less difficult. Divorce is normalized because of its prevalence and stigmatized because of its association with troubled children and haggard single mothers (because the problem is never the man who leaves, but the woman and children he leaves behind). It wasn’t until I went to therapy at seventeen that I realized what my experiences really meant in the grand scheme of my then-crippling insecurities.
Of course, I’m aware that many live with unhappily married parents and that the nuclear family is ostensibly a pipe dream sold to us by capitalists. Still, I can’t help but yearn for the dreamy reality sold to us by TV and advertising companies: family dinners, board games, BBQs, and holidays. All the things that might add up to a mundane, domestic normality represent a kind of inaccessible happiness to me—a utopia where familial love rules unconditionally. Even before my parents’ divorce, I longed for siblings who would “complete the set” somehow. I wanted what had been presented to me as normal.
There’s nothing normal about witnessing the breakdown of a marriage. We can’t expect ourselves to adapt, move on, and grow from experiences without acknowledging the fact that they were painful. Having a parent suddenly leave your life and thus seeing life as you know it completely upturned isn’t normal. Within the context of day-to-day life, it’s not something anyone would consider a minor inconvenience—it’s not a spilled drink or a missed train. It’s life-altering, sometimes heart-shattering, and it’s hard.
So what do you do once you finally realize that you went through something, but it’s ten years later and now everything’s pretty much fine? You’re no longer listening to your parents fight, cry, or negotiate custody agreements. They may never speak again, but that no longer affects you—it just means you get the high of revealing good news twice and the low of breaking bad news twice. Oh, and there are the two birthdays, two Christmases, and—as my dad jokes—two weddings. It’s been a decade, so what’s left to be mad about? In my case, everything.
Unlike in Marriage Story where they sit the son down to reassure him that the divorce has nothing to do with him, I was thrust into a single-parent living situation without so much as a word of warning—let alone an apology. There was no beginning, middle, and end—no narrative, no explanatory backstory, no resolution; he was there and then he wasn’t.
What followed also wasn’t Academy Award-worthy; it was messy and confusing in a way that I’ve only begun to comprehend ten years later. At first I cried a lot, but in private, because I didn’t want my mom to feel any worse than she already did about something that absolutely wasn’t her fault. I was ten and I’d grown up; I felt emotionally responsible for someone other than myself. As a teen, I went through phases of gratitude; I figured there was no point in being angry, and that may have been mature of me—or perhaps naïve.
These days, my relationship with my parents is perfectly amicable. But simply continuing on with family life while refusing to talk about things has got me to a point where there’s a whole corpus of unsaid shit just waiting to sublimate any day now. It could be an outburst at the dinner table, a drunken cry for help, or even a passive-aggressive piece of writing immortalized on the internet. Who knows what I’ll do.
One thing I have done is exactly what I’d advise anyone in my position to do: talk about it. Admittedly I was inebriated, but I opened up to my mum about how the divorce affected me in my adolescence. My incoherency didn’t matter; expressing my feelings in any way was a step in the right direction. She told me not to expect an apology from my dad and bluntly told me I’d never get one. And to be honest, I’m not sure how much good the formalities of an apology would do me now.
Cynical as it may be, sometimes the best way to get over something like parents’ divorce is simply sitting with the facts and accepting that what happened was shit, but that it was out of your hands. The opening lines to Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be The Verse” summarize my feelings pretty well: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.” These lines have been important in my coming to terms with what happened ten years ago. Accepting that perfect parents in perfect relationships is an idealized myth has been a saving grace in removing the bitter taste from my mouth. Hearing Larkin’s lines read out in English class was the palate cleanser I never knew I needed.
If you’re reading this and you’ve witnessed the end of your parents’ relationship, here are some things I’d like you to know: you’re allowed to be angry, you don’t have to minimize what you went through because “others have it worse,” and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for not being over it. Personally, I’m still learning; I still cry about it; I’m still bitter. My resentment comes in waves and I’m not certain about what controls that tide. I don’t hold all the answers on how to deal with delayed emotional responses to one’s parents fucking up, but one thing I have learned is that we aren’t our parents—which means we can’t allow their malfunctional relationships to impact our own. Yes, daddy issues are a real thing, but—like all stereotypes—they don’t define who a person is. It’s okay not to quite know what to do with all the pent-up stuff for now—especially if you’re not sure if opening up is going to feel like the gentle easing of pressure or the detonation of a bomb.
But we probably should learn to talk about things.
By Alice Garnett
Illustration by Tina Duong for Fem Magazine