A little over a decade ago, as a young mom, I was sitting on a playground bench with a group of other women. As we watched our little ones climb and swing, the conversation turned to parenting—the healthiest way to raise kids, how to avoid pitfalls, and so on. I listened carefully and agreed with many points of view until one of the women said something that surprised me.
“All I know is that if a girl has problems with her father, she will always be screwed,” said the woman. And with those words, I immediately felt like one of them and felt like an outsider.
To my surprise, the comment met with great approval. Many shared how their positive experiences with their fathers made them the people they are today. The implication was clear: how could you be a good parent if you didn’t have a solid foundation yourself? What they obviously didn’t know was that among them sat a woman whom they felt was destined to be defined by a relationship over which she had no control.
I sat in silence, increasingly ashamed of my own story, and wondered: Could they be right? Was I really different from them? Would they be better parents just because they had a strong bond with their fathers growing up while I didn’t?
My father was an alcoholic and constant idiot who was often absent but when he was present he would berate him. Over the years, I’ve listened to variations of this playground conversation more times than I can count.
The term “dad issues” is often associated with the ideas of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. But the term itself is not a true medical term and is not recognized as an actual disorder. A quick Google search would tell you otherwise, as there are tons of articles titled like 8 Signs You Have Dad Problems and What Are ‘Dad Problems’ And How To Fix Them In A Partner recognize?” Women who suffer from it are said to be clingy, jealous, possessive, promiscuous, emotional, and needy, always getting involved with the wrong partners.
I will not deny that my father’s actions influenced me. I developed trust issues, chronic insecurity, and a propensity for self-destructive behavior, some of the classic traits attributed to girls growing up with absent, abusive, or neglectful fathers. When you grow up in an environment where love is random and judgmental, it’s easy to fall into these patterns.
I dropped out of college when I was 19 and moved across the country to live with my boyfriend. I thought I was running away from my traumatic childhood, but in reality I was escaping into a relationship that replicated what I experienced with my father. My boyfriend has often put me down. When the relationship became physically abusive, I figured my own shortcomings were the reason. I thought if only I was different maybe he wouldn’t hurt me.
That feeling stayed with me even after we broke up. I wondered if somehow “dad issues” would always be a part of me. It wasn’t until I had a healthy relationship with the man who would eventually become my husband that I began to understand that there was an alternative. I began to realize that something wasn’t missing in me, but in the quality of the love I was receiving. This changed the way I saw myself and helped me gain agency over my life and the people I let into it.
When I became a mother, it became even more important to heal the wounds of my past. Through therapy and my writing, I was able to better understand how my relationship with my father shaped me and, more importantly, how I wanted to raise my own children differently so that they understood their worth.
As a 49-year-old woman who has been in a stable marriage for more than two decades and has raised two healthy children, I know that the phrase “dad issues” means little. What I ask myself today is, if I—the child of a strong, supportive single mother—had never heard that phrase, would I have seen myself differently? Would I have believed the truth – that my family was still whole and that I was too?
I no longer sit in silence when someone utters the phrase “dad problems.” Now I’ll tell you my own story. When I choose to share my story, the question I get asked most often is, “How did you do so well?”
The questions I asked in return are, “Why do we judge women for being affected by men’s bad behavior?” Instead of stereotyping those who had no control over their situation, we shouldn’t acknowledge their power and celebrate changing the narrative?”
Any form of trauma, no matter how challenging, offers an opportunity to grow, learn, and ultimately become a stronger person. As a child I had to navigate a landscape full of potential landmines and I’ve grown into an adult who can more easily recognize and deal with them when they are found. Rather than negatively affecting my parenting, my experiences make me more aware and aware of raising my own children. I have greater empathy. I’ve learned to use my imagination in ways I could never have done without those times in childhood where I dreamed of other circumstances.
I’ve learned that I’m not defined by an outdated, sexist, and misguided label. It seems more likely that the adults causing so-called daddy problems are the ones who may never change. Not my father. But it didn’t matter either way – because I could.
Do you need help? For substance use disorders or mental health issues, call 800-662-HELP (4357) in the US National SAMHSA Helpline. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
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