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Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads

Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads

by Clea Simon

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Elegant prose ... sheds new light on the father-daughter dynamic
-Boston magazine

Praise for Fatherless WOMEN

"If it can be said about a book on loss, Fatherless Women is a pleasure to read. Clea Simon is a warm, honest, intelligent, and trustworthy guide, not only for grieving women but for the men who support them. Simon's insights about


Elegant prose ... sheds new light on the father-daughter dynamic
-Boston magazine

Praise for Fatherless WOMEN

"If it can be said about a book on loss, Fatherless Women is a pleasure to read. Clea Simon is a warm, honest, intelligent, and trustworthy guide, not only for grieving women but for the men who support them. Simon's insights about father-daughter relationships are profound."
-Neil Chethik, author of FatherLoss

"Clea Simon deepens our understanding of the complicated emotions daughters feel about fathers, both during life and especially after death. This book will help heal rifts and set stuck energies free."
-Beth Witrogen McLeod, author of Caregiving:
The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss, and Renewal

"Unusually candid and often provocative . . . Simon's book is immensely thought-provoking about a topic that all of us will face."
-Pauline Boss, Ph.D., author of Ambiguous Loss:
Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief

There is a special bond between a father and a daughter, and when that bond is broken by death, a woman's life can change in profound and unexpected ways. Clea Simon, critically acclaimed author of Mad House, explores this crucial meeting point of grief and growth by delving into her own experience and those of other women to paint an illuminating portrait of the father-daughter relationship and its lifelong ramifications. Filled with moving stories of real women, this poignant, comforting, and insightful book paves the way for all women to make peace with the past, with the adults they have become, and to courageously face the question: what happens next?

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
When fathers die, says Simon (Mad House), a Boston Globe journalist, their daughters may experience crucial changes in their lives. Some will feel freed of their father's expectations and strictures. Some will want to have a baby. Some will already have worked out their issues with their dads years earlier and will simply feel grief at the loss of a parent. Some will forge a whole new relationship with their mother, if she's still living. Everything is possible, and may depend on the daughter's sexuality and age, on whether the parents were divorced or unhappy with each other. Or none of these things may happen, or if they do, they may not depend on the aforementioned factors. Such rampant indeterminacy is meant to sound embracing and supportive; instead, it reads like equivocal psychobabble. Despite plenty of valid and judicious observations ("When we lose a parent, we move up a step in the generational hierarchy"), the narrative feels flat and unsubstantiated. Simon writes mostly based on her own experience of her father's death and has also talked to friends and read some popular psychology books on fathers and daughters and on death and grieving. Her friends' experiences are used to illustrate some of the ways paternal death affects daughters, while experts are invoked to give the book some clout. (Oct.) Forecast: Too anecdotal to pass as scholarship, and too dull for popular appeal, this book will need a lot of big-name endorsements before anyone's going to buy it for herself or a grieving girlfriend, the only conceivable market for this strangely unaffecting volume. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Boston Globe journalist Simon draws on her own experiences, as well as those of women she has interviewed, to examine the relationship between father and daughter and the changes that occur when a father dies. Although interesting for its personal insights and backed by the interviews and a bibliography, this is not a scholarly work and should be read as the author's personal reflections. Chapters explore the grief process and the life changes that can follow, affecting marriages, work choices, and bonds between mothers and daughters. Readers are also shown the complexity of father-daughter relationships and how daughters learn to reconcile sometimes opposing influences after a father's death. Because the author was 31 when her father died and her interviewees were mostly in their twenties, thirties, and forties, many of the emotional changes cited here could have come about simply as a part of maturation. Those who lose their fathers very early in life, as well as the 50 percent who lose them after they turn 50, would probably not experience a father's death in the same way. Suitable for large public libraries. Kay Brodie, Chesapeake Coll., Wye Mills, MD Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Turner Publishing Company
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.57(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Speaker wire doesn't usually faze me. A music fan since childhood, I'd run the plastic-coated copper down dorm halls and up stairwells and in a dozen empty rooms. I knew how to strip the ends, and twirl the wire inside to a fine solid contact. But six years ago, faced with a mop bucket of shiny coils, of plug-in connectors and double-headed inputs, I found myself giving in to that deep fatigue that, for me, is the final embodiment of grief. You see, the last time I had tried to set up my stereo, my father had been there to help me.

    had recently retired, relocating from our big family house several hours away to a nearby condo. And I had just gone through one of those crushing breakups that always seemed to outweigh whatever good the original relationship had held. My father had time on his hands, I was temporarily incapacitated, and so he had come over with his wire cutter and staple gun and taken over the installation of my stereo system. He had hooked up the tape deck and turntable, arranged the speakers for maximal stereo separation, and then worked his way down my new apartment's long hallway, tracing molding and doorways and neatly affixing the wires out of sight so that my back room would have the same sound options as the front of the narrow flat. I'm not sure how much his work that day went toward soothing my broken heart, but I know that every time I noticed his handiwork—when I finally replaced the turntable with a CD player, when I upgraded those back-room speakers—I felt his presence. My father had taken care of me. He had been there to worry about the details.

    prostate cancer that left him shrunken and angry, and robbed him of his jovial can-do attitude long before it took his life. And although I had mourned him at his death and kept my loss in the front of my mind for months after, the stupid ache of grief kept sneaking up on me regularly, draining me of my energy. By the time I had finally ripped up those neat double tracks of wire, I had thought I was past the worst of it. Then something like this, a bucket of speaker wire, would set me off. My father wasn't going to take care of me anymore. My daddy was gone.

    at that bucket of wire, or even if I got around to the task that day. But I do know that before the week was out either I, or the boyfriend with whom I had rented the apartment, had laid that wire out, had connected the speakers, the tape deck, and the CD player. Even the old turntable was fixed into the system, ready to play the boxes of vinyl that neither of us had the heart to replace. And somewhere in there it began to dawn on me: My father was gone, and I sorely missed him, but I was doing okay. More than okay, actually. The apartment I was setting up was the first I had shared with a man, the first time in my thirty-three years that I felt secure enough in a relationship to begin to build a home with someone. The speaker wire might not be as neatly laid down as if my father had done it, but the apartment was comfortable, big and airy. And I needed the music system to be hooked up because I was settling down to write my first book, the kind of project I had long dreamed of tackling. No matter which angle I looked at my life from, it seemed I had grown up a lot in the two years since his death, from pampered daughter to self-sufficient adult. I remembered a retort he had once snapped at me, overcome by what he saw as my naivete when dealing with an abusive boss: "When are you going to stop being such a good girl," he'd asked me, "and start being a smart woman?" Maybe it had taken his death to free me to do just that.

In so many ways, we measure ourselves by our fathers, especially once they are gone. "He was very proud of me, but we never got along," one woman tells me, recalling the distant, stubborn man who died three years before. "We were really similar—very, very stubborn and very opinionated. We butted heads on everything."

    way to deal with stuff," explains another. "He couldn't stand it when I cried when I was angry or upset, and all my life he would say sharply, 'Stop crying!' And that of course just made me angrier and more upset." These conflicts and contests stay with us, so that even when the opposing voice is silenced we hear the words, the angry or critical or sometimes adoring tone in our heads, and we continue to respond.

    that most of us will have to answer in our lifetime; U.S. Census figures report that by the age of fifty more than half of us will have outlived our fathers, twice as many as will have outlived our mothers. More than a quarter of us will be adults before this loss, and that blurs our issues, mutes in some ways our reactions to the deaths of the men who have been our parents. Long before our fathers die, for example, we will no longer be looking to them to fulfill the traditional role of parents, to feed or clothe us, shelter or protect us, as we had as children. Ideally, many of us will have grown past the conflicts that led us to defy them or that challenged us to grow and thrive despite them. We no longer fear our fathers, or worship them as gods, at least not consciously. But for most of us our fathers continued to loom large in our lives. No matter how close to or distant from our fathers we were at the time of their deaths, they were important to us. Their loss changes our personal cosmography. Our worlds are no longer warmed by the same sun or shadowed by the same dark planet; however they exerted their force, the gravity that pulled at us has shifted.

    look, for the first time perhaps, at who our fathers were, and at what they meant to us. As simple as this sounds, there has not been much examination of this relationship in traditional psychology. What research there is primarily concerns itself with child development, and usually looks at mothers' influences or at parental interaction with children of either gender. Very little formal work examines the lifelong impact of a father on his female children.

    virtually abandoned the study of fathers' effects on their girl children when, confused and apparently repelled by his female patients' tales of incest and sexual encounters, he rejected what these women were telling him. Although he twisted these revelations into the "penis envy" theory, he did finally acknowledge that his own explanation was flawed. Still, his inexact and frightened work has been taken as the basis for much subsequent theorizing, most of it built around our supposedly unresolved Oedipal (or, for our gender, Elektra) complexes, which have us still wanting to seduce Daddy as a major goal in life. More recently, feminist theorists and psychoanalysts, such as Jessica Benjamin and Nancy Chodorow, have tried to distinguish between the gender of our parents and the roles they played, showing how, for example, it was not our fathers' penises that we wanted for ourselves as much as their independent lives.

    shrift. Most works on bonds and influences (such as the theory of attachment championed by John Bowlby) consider fathers distinctly less important than mothers as active, involved parents, especially in relation to their female children. More contemporary researchers, such as Henry B. Biller and Michael Lamb, have spent the last few decades catching us up on the role of the father in the family, particularly in the education of infants and young children. Both, however, have focused more on general child-raising, without distinguishing much between daughters and sons, and neither have dwelt on lifelong effects. As a result, we must reexamine the basics. We must decipher, for example, how our fathers differed from our mothers in terms of their roles in our lives and their influences on our behavior.

    psychological literature. Shedding the sexist language that clouds much of this early work, the theory is simple: While our mothers often melded with us—their children and especially their like-gendered girl children—our fathers usually represented some form of opposition. Disciplinarian or taskmaster, doting daddy or indulgent sweetheart; in some ways, most family therapists and theorists agree, our fathers were the first others in our lives, the first people who were clearly not a part of who we were in the same intrinsic way that our mothers so definitely were. They stood apart from us. We saw ourselves in their eyes, and defined ourselves by who they were, who they wanted us to be, and who we wanted them to be. Unlike our mothers, they were clearly separate from us. We grew up, in part, learning to define our own independence against them. When they are gone, we are forced to look for new rules, new standards against which to measure our freedom, our accomplishments, and our goals.

    see the fathers that we have lost. Often the first things we see, once our grief has lessened, are the specific details that separated us. The differences between who we wanted them to be and who they actually were. Irascible, stubborn, and sometimes bullying, or weak, overly sensitive, and somehow flawed, they were our dads. Whatever degree of adult objectivity or maturity we had achieved while our fathers were living, we may find magnified. This is our opportunity to view our fathers as multifaceted, as people who played out different roles in different contexts, as husbands to our mothers, as sons to their parents, as men in the adult world, as well as fathers to us.

    suddenly recognize the pressures that made our fathers overly strict or simply overtired. Conversely, we may for the first time perceive flaws and faults that in retrospect explain undercurrents that we never understood.

    husband," one woman says to me. "Since his death I'm less likely to see him as either a victim or a villain and better able to understand him as a complicated person," adds another as soon as we begin to talk. In short, once they are gone we begin to see them as people, just like us.

    wonder how I ever reconciled these with the utterly benign image of the "good daddy" that I clung to into adulthood. While he was living, I never could seem to recall him acting frustrated, only kind, generous but not mean-spirited, and I dismissed all the evidence of my senses, all memory, to the contrary. He was my father, the closest thing to a family god I ever was to know. And while some theorists will point to this failing as a flaw in my own stumbling climb to adulthood, I'm not sure how it could have been much different. To be sure, some women learn to see their parents truly, warts and all, while they are still alive. But our fathers carry so much weight in our lives, they have so thoroughly taught us fear if not respect, that many of us are unable to make this perceptual leap while they are alive. After talking to so many women, I no longer trust the self-help books that would have us believe that it is the rare woman who recedes into girlhood awe or passivity around her father. I believe nearly all of us do, at some place in our hearts, and that not until our fathers are permanently, finally removed from us do we get the opportunity to step beyond what Australian author Carmel Bird calls "their long shadows" and see the men who have been towering over us.

I know that my image of my father has grown in complexity since he died. With his death, I have seen not only my own contradictory illusions, but also the human motives that can reconcile what I remember. In my case, I have begun to see a man who believed strongly in a particular code of ethics, a strict set of behaviors, which kept him on a particular track for good and ill throughout our family's many misadventures. This must have been sorely tested, for example, when two of his children developed serious mental illnesses and his one son killed himself, but my father held to his principles. He kept what was left of the family together, he stayed with his grieving wife, and supported his surviving children as best he could. No wonder his patience sometimes wore thin with me, as the usual scrapes of childhood and adolescence grated on his stoic demeanor. No wonder he sometimes flared up for what at the time seemed like no reason. I no longer remember him as the perfect dad, the wonderful bringer of treats. But perhaps I better understand why.

    his absence and only with time, as my need and nostalgia for the false image of him fades. And as he becomes clearer to me in memory, so too does his influence over me. Indeed, this is the second focus of the increasing clarity of vision that I am learning is common among those of us who survive our fathers. For me, it is a mixed vision. Looking back, I can begin to make out how he helped me grow in ways that continue beyond his lifespan. I can also see also how he forced me into stagnation, out of fear or out of hope of an impossible outcome, tying me to a standard in which I did not myself believe. He was such a big figure in my life that only now, eight years after his death, can I begin to see who I am beyond his shadow, what I am "after Daddy."

    impact of parental death on adult children for decades. In general, their studies have focused on the death of both parents, and the realization, by the adult, that she or he is no longer anyone's child. Along with the grieving and the reevaluating of familial roles that occur, for many this orphaning serves as a great impetus to action, and to growth. "The loss of a parent rouses the need to progress, to mature, to be potent," writes Lily Pincus in Death and the Family. "The death of a parent can be a catalyst for important changes," reiterates Lois Akner in How to Survive the Loss of a Parent. Author and journalist Victoria Secunda has written a book concisely titled Losing Your Parents, Finding Your Self.

    loses a parent may be understood in the light of theories of personality development. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung, for example, talked about our separation from our parents (the process he named individuation) as the means by which we learn that we are our own people, capable of setting our goals and boundaries. This process, ideally, lasts throughout our early adulthood and may be complete by middle age. Otto Rank, who followed up on Jung's work, believed that most people do not complete this process and instead remain stuck in the first step, at which we accept our parents' and our society's goals and ideals as our own. Many psychologists and psychoanalysts since have discussed ways of finalizing the process, usually through the self-examination of therapy, during which we can explore and finally untangle the knots that have held us back. But for many of us, the shock of death may serve as a powerful impetus what psychologist Patricia Reis calls a "motivating disaster"—that jars us out of complacency and allows us a rare chance to look at ourselves in a fresh light.

    startling and even freeing. Consider the specific roles that fathers have played in our lives, and we can see the range of changes that suddenly become possible. Our work lives and sense of self-esteem are freed from decades-old ghosts. Our feelings about the families we have formed in adulthood, through ties of love and birth, and feelings about our families of origin may be sifted and sorted out in ways we never before thought possible. We may be freed from duties that have not been appropriate since adolescence. We may find ourselves dropping outlived rebellions and rediscovering long-buried parts of ourselves. We may find ourselves newly able to open up to others.

    changes may be most deeply felt. Our fathers loomed so large in our lives, after all, that they often left little room in our hearts and minds for other romantic partners. Not that our closeness to our fathers was unhealthy in the expected dramatic ways; for the vast majority of women I've spoken with, incest was not an issue, although its vaguer emotional counterparts—a father's inappropriate interest in our appearance, or overly possessive attachment to us—may have been. But the emotional heft of our relationships with our fathers often weighed us down. Many of us spent so much time looking for men like our dads—or avoiding those who at all resembled them—that we had difficulty finding men who could meet the needs of who we actually were, of the grown women we had become.

    down as a grown woman in a relationship of her own until the loss of her father. For Rona, as for many women like her, romance had always been difficult, relationships with men short-lived. Now easing into her mid-forties, she had grown up knowing her father doted on her, convinced that he found her lovable. If anything, he was overly involved in her life. He was never inappropriate, but in a thousand small, intrusive ways he made sure he was the focus of her life, that he was necessary to her happiness, if not her survival.

    as a "Jewish mother" type who always asked if she had eaten, always checked to make sure his "girl" was all right. He never said he wanted to be the center of her life, but while he was around she was unable to let any other man in. Now, after a five-year dry spell, she finds herself involved with a man. Although they have just begun to talk about moving in together, she notes that this relationship already has a different feel to it. And she wonders how much her father's presence, well-intentioned as it was, had kept her from the love she sought.

    emotions," she says. "This emotional growth has helped in my ability to start the relationship I seem to be in now. In a weird way, it's been freeing. Not so much knowing that my father's not here to take care of me as just understanding the role he played in my family, and in my life."

The ripple effect of our loss reaches every aspect of our lives. Women who had already established stable, lasting relationships talk of experiencing a power shift, a flip between their partners and parents, or between themselves and their partners. Such shifts, when they happen, may be immediately apparent and then fade away within a year or even two, the balance corrected. Sometimes the changes that come about may be longer-lasting. Rikki, a social worker and the mother of three boys, tells me about separating from her husband after her father's death. Losing her father, she explains, started her thinking about the power plays that had ruled her parents' marriage, and this led her to examine the interactions in her own. Once her father's powerful presence no longer towered over her and her mother's life, she could clearly see how she had unconsciously adopted patterns and beliefs from their marriage, relics that didn't fit her image of herself as an adult. She and her husband have since reconciled and had a fourth child, their daughter, through a decision that they reached together. But for Rikki marriage—and her own assumptions—will never be the same. "I'm in a completely different place now," she explains. "I've decided to more demonstratively articulate the issues within my marriage that bothered me."

    career paths, others follow Rikki's lead and find ourselves reevaluating our lives in ways that may be subtler, but no less real. Other personal interactions may change for us as we move beyond the gravitational pull of our fathers. Sometimes these changes catch us unaware, and they can turn our worlds upside down if we are unprepared. Our relationships with our mothers, for example, may have seemed solid and independent. But few of us have factored in the influence of our fathers on this seemingly private bond, the weight of the third corner in the parental triangle. Even those of us who anticipated some change in our relationships with our surviving parents often report with surprise how the connection with our widowed mothers varies, particularly after the first crush of mourning has passed. Those of us whose parents separated or divorced often find this relationship changing as well. Especially if our fathers had remarried, we may find ourselves reevaluating the layers of connection and intimacy between ourselves and our stepparents, affiliations of affection but not of birth. Some of us will watch our widowed moms launched into singlehood with all the giddiness of sixteen-year-olds, a change that can be as heartbreaking for us as it seems to be invigorating for them. Others get to see women we had considered elderly and frail learn the confidence and joy of new independence.

    my view of—my mother has changed," says Jill, whose father died four years ago. "To see the way my mom has flowered—she's now seventy-five—has been amazing."

    shifts in our roles within the family. We may take on new responsibilities, their responsibilities, toward family members. For example, we may find ourselves becoming the caregivers for disabled or incapacitated siblings or for elderly mothers. We may also don, with these responsibilities, the strengths and capabilities that we had previously attributed only to men, or particularly to our fathers.

     I was the 'man' of the family," says Ellen, whose father died three years ago. An only child, Ellen had been used to getting her own way. Athletic and assertive, she'd always been independent and free-spirited, several times leaving secure jobs on a whim for new cities and new adventures. And yet she automatically assumed the role her father left her before she realized that she had a choice. "I became very protective of my mother and I realized that, yes, I had to learn to do this stuff I had depended on my dad to do. Suddenly, I had to become a businessperson."

    manner, letting ourselves shed familial expectations and burdens as we try on roles and lifestyles we'd never previously dared dream about. Often our awareness of the passage of time, of mortality, makes such experimentation a priority. "A year after he died I began writing creatively and attempting to be published," says one woman who introduced herself simply as "a homemaker" when we first began to talk. Her father had been a journalist, and during his life his accomplishments discouraged her from entering the field as a novice. "Right after he died, I aggressively sought out a more creative job," adds another, whose father had often denigrated her work in design.

    college nearly twenty years ago, the death of her father four years ago has allowed her reevaluate her ready acceptance of her family's concern with stability. "Since my father died I have felt more urgent about freedom, about taking risks," she says. Childless by choice, she has few responsibilities to tie her to the stringent work ethic that she inherited from her large working-class family. "I've never wanted a nine-to-five job," she says now, and, for the first time in her life, she has felt free to research options. In the years since her father's death, she has been taking classes in stand-up comedy and jewelry making, and is now searching for a part-time position that will allow her to follow her heart.

Excerpted from Fatherless Women by Clea Simon. Copyright © 2001 by Clea Simon. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Clea Simon is a Massachusetts-based writer, journalist and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Ms., Rolling Stone and Salon.com. Sheas the author of three nonfiction books, She lives in Cambridge, MA, with her husband, the writer Jon S. Garelick, and their cat, Musetta.

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