“It is a wise child that knows its own father.”
“It doesn’t matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was.”
He was a name on my birth certificate. He provided my cushioned German build and sanguine disposition. He co-founded an ad agency in the Mad Men era, wrote silly love poems to my mom, and bought her a sporty black convertible—or was it pale yellow? When she went into labor, he gulped a raw egg in sheer nerves; when I was born, he sealed himself into a phone booth with a jar of dimes and called everybody he knew. Once he snuck away from the office to buy me a big pink bunny, then interrupted designers on deadline to ask if they thought I would like it.
That is what I know of my father—and most of it is hearsay. He went out for his usual golf game and died of a massive heart attack when I was eight months old. Years later, when I asked if I could see pictures of him, my mom said the movers had lost that one box.
It took another decade for me to realize that in a young widow’s hysteria, she had probably pitched every reminder. As though it would hurt less if no proof remained.
But here I was: big pink proof. By college, I was looking up old Washington University yearbooks to see what he looked like and checking old newspapers to make sure she had not spun a fling into a marriage. He was legit. I was legitimate. And there my search ended. I rarely spoke or wrote about him; how much can you do with a ghost? Sure, Hamlet worked—but Hamlet knew his dad. For me, the relevant fact about my father was his absence.
He went out for his usual golf game and died of a massive heart attack when I was eight months old. Years later, when I asked if I could see pictures of him, my mom said the movers had lost that one box.
It was good I never knew him, I decided, because that left me with no person to grieve, just a demographic category. Besides, there is nothing attractive about lucky people waxing wistful, and my mother loved me enough to make up for five fathers. It felt disloyal to dwell on his absence
Only now that she is gone am I willing to wonder how his absence shaped me. How the absence of what is expected shapes any of us.
• • •
Eagerly, I scan sociology research, finding all sorts of penetrating insights into growing up without a father—if you are a young Black male. Little White kids seldom lose their father to death. They lose their father to divorce or booze or wanderlust. Much is written about that, too. But I find only a handful of books and articles about daughters growing up without fathers, and only one that tackles dead fathers.
Taking a deep breath, I read on. The women interviewed are, like me, intrigued by “the very idea of a father—of what fathering may mean.” They miss growing up with access to a male perspective, “a sense of toughness,” “an ally,” a teacher of practical knowledge. They do not necessarily distance men, but they feel distant from them.
Its title feels slightly eerie—Fatherless Women. I picture us hovering in midair, untethered. “A father’s premature death may have influenced our development in quiet ways,” the author writes, “altering years later how we work and whom we love, basically intruding into all aspects of who we have turned out to be.”
Taking a deep breath, I read on. The women interviewed are, like me, intrigued by “the very idea of a father—of what fathering may mean.” They miss growing up with access to a male perspective, “a sense of toughness,” “an ally,” a teacher of practical knowledge. They do not necessarily distance men, but they feel distant from them. “If a father can die,” they reason, “perhaps no man can be trusted.”
For me, that stayed an open question for a long time.
• • •
I began thinking about fatherlessness not in a rush of therapeutic drama but because just for fun, I was listing favorite old shows. Family Affair. The Rockford Files. To Kill a Mockingbird. Veronica Mars. Favorite Shakespeare? King Lear. Favorite books as a girl? Nancy Drew. Even in The Chosen, my favorite scenes were the kid and his father sitting at the kitchen table sipping tea through a sugar cube, talking politics. And in adulthood? I loved Louise Erdich’s Night Watchman. Michael Chabon’s Moonglow.
My brain had tagged father stories. Good fathers, missing fathers, surrogate fathers—they were all there. I had been searching all along.
• • •
“If mothers are the air we breathe but cannot see, the mirror that shows us everything but itself… what is a father?” asks writer Ellen Vrana. “Fathers are a field of vision. A scope of what is possible (although not always desirable). A horizon.”
The observation ought to be dated, now that mothers have big, interesting jobs, too. But by tradition, fathers dwell in a larger world, visibly detached from domesticity, sprung free from chores and hairbrushings. Had I been able to enter, I would have heard camping tips, sports scores, cussing DIY household repairs, political opinions launched from a sacrosanct armchair. I would have owned a man’s approval, unconditional, from the start. There would have been a little more social normalcy, fewer shrugs and awkward explanations. I could have had a break from my mom’s nurture and fuss, somebody to siphon off some of that attention and introduce a little grit.
But I am forgetting something important: “Dads tend to see their role as a child’s playmate.” Even with infants, fathers “provide staccato bursts of physical and social stimulation, whereas mothers tended to be more rhythmic and containing…. American fathers tend to engage in more physically stimulating and unpredictable play than mothers do.” In his 1913 Letter from a Father to His Daughter Entering College, Charles Franklin Thwing writes, “I also want you still to have room and space and time for play.”
By tradition, fathers dwell in a larger world, visibly detached from domesticity, sprung free from chores and hairbrushings.
What am I good at? Conscientious, quiet, introspective work. What am I lousy at? Politics, competitive sports, DIY household repair, and rowdy, guilt-free play.
• • •
I want to find clear tubing and demonstrate quirks of the circulatory system. My mom, who has no idea how to find clear tubing or pump the blood, blanches and suggests I just draw it instead. My friends show up at the science fair with cool, three-dimensional projects obviously engineered by their dads. Who also coach them in sports, while I keep sneaking to the back of the batting line to avoid my teammates’ groans of despair.
High school’s fresh hell is the Father Daughter Banquet. People are so kind. Nearly always, the other girl’s dad remembers to buy you a corsage too. He even dances with you—but first with his own daughter, of course, and it is hard to sit alone at the table and harder still when they return, flushed and laughing. Their banter looks so easy, but when you try to join in, it is like a tricky game of jumprope and you cannot catch the rhythm.
In college, I surprise myself by majoring in philosophy. Does it help that the Jesuits who taught those classes could be addressed simply as Father? I like other professors, too. But there is an atmosphere, a general sense of being ruled and schooled by a fatherly order of men.
I suspect a shrink would say I found it comforting.
• • •
In “Fifteen,” Leslie Monsour writes about …
The boys who fled my father’s house in fear
Of what his wrath would cost them if he found
Them nibbling slowly at his daughter’s ear….
I secretly envy girls whose fathers insist on meeting their boyfriends. The dads stay low-key, offering an amused, manly rapport, but they drop in a few questions designed to puncture any cockiness. My mom offers the boys snacks and compliments their sweaters. Any reservations, she voices later, in private.
Decades later: she comes to live with us, to die with us. Every night my husband turns down her sheets and makes the room ready for her. Near the end, as I tuck her in, she whispers, “He’s nice. I could never have left you if—” She has watched over me like a hawk her entire life. Why did I ever think I needed that primal and ridiculous gesture, a father willing to deck somebody for me?
I secretly envy girls whose fathers insist on meeting their boyfriends. The dads stay low-key, offering an amused, manly rapport, but they drop in a few questions designed to puncture any cockiness.
And yet, when my husband’s jaw sets and he staunchly defends me against some online idiocy, I feel a little breath of calm. Is this proof that deep inside, a little girl got stuck? I watch tall men scoop up their little ones and imagine what it would have felt like to be held so safely. The rumble of a deep voice, the scritch of a day’s beard against my cheek. Getting tossed into the air, flying, never a doubt that he would catch me. My mom was all love, but she was skinny and tiny and frail, and I am so glad my husband is taller and broader-shouldered than I am. Can I admit that? Have I just lost all feminist credibility?
Biology traps us, setting up irrational equations. Could I have fallen in love with a short, skinny guy with sloped shoulders, or a restless, boyish, inattentive one? I am honestly not sure I could have. How embarrassing.
• • •
I ply a friend, Kathy Gilsinan, with beer and Scotch eggs and ask her what it was like growing up with her dad, a warm, affable guy I always liked. What difference did his presence make in who she became?
“I think because of my particular dad, I know not to take myself too seriously,” she begins. “Dad just always teased me. One time I was drinking my cereal milk and he said, ‘Oh, no! Kathy can’t go to school today because she has a bowl on her face!’ I was only seven, and I started crying. But as an adult I am so much less sensitive than so many people.”
Ah, the teasing—I envy that the most. My mom was way too careful with my feelings.
“My sense of humor is very much my father’s,” Kathy continues. “I have his interest in the news. His stubborn streak.” They have cozy rituals, like shows they both watch—“We did The Wire together, and now it’s Better Call Saul”—and the pandemic ushered in Rob Roy Fridays.
Kathy had broken up with a longtime boyfriend and lost her job at The Atlantic just as lockdown started. She flew home, grateful for the refuge, and quarantined for two weeks in the basement. One afternoon, her dad heard her down there sobbing. He made her favorite pancakes, and they ate together outside. “He just sat there with me. It was what I needed.” She pauses. “And he knew this guy was a piece of shit all along, and he could have said, ‘I told you so,’ but he never did.”
Which is better, my adult self realizes, than decking somebody.
• • •
“Dad” makes a great adjective: dad rock, dad bod, dad shoes. It signals somebody you can tease and get teased back; somebody you are proud of and embarrassed by all at once, in that daughterly way that is secretly not embarrassed at all.
“Dad jokes,” Kathy adds, and when I ask what “dad” conjures for her, she says, “Solid.”
Something pings inside me. My mother loved glass and pastels and fragile, tropical beauty; I always hungered for stone and wood. Scottish castles, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Solid stuff.
My hunch is that having a father around would have secured me in place, given me more confidence in navigating the world. He would not have worried about pleasing people as much as my mom did, or yearned to be handed clear answers to life’s problems. Fathers know best. They build scaffolding for us. By providing indirect rather than direct help, they show us how to sail over obstacles.
“Do you think having a dad made you more confident?” I venture.
“No,” Kathy says, surprising me with her vehemence. “I worked on this in therapy! I had a disgustingly wholesome childhood, but I am a deeply insecure person.”
“But you seem so sure of yourself,” I say, trailing off. Then I confess my theory. While I am not as much of a mess as I sound, telling it slant for the narrative arc, the extent of my self-doubt has always bemused those who love me.
My hunch is that having a father around would have secured me in place, given me more confidence in navigating the world. He would not have worried about pleasing people as much as my mom did, or yearned to be handed clear answers to life’s problems.
“Well, we as women are socialized to do the modest thing,” Kathy points out. “And a Midwestern female? Omg. And raised Catholic? And maybe”—she is being kind now, having trashed my thesis—“especially with not having a dad.”
I also romanticized fathers who fly to their daughter’s defense, I tell her. Jim Gilsinan is far subtler. Kathy says his strongest warning about her recent relationship was, “If you are with this guy, you are always going to be second fiddle.”
Oh? I tug the edge of my thesis back from the Dumpster. He sounds bracing.
“Did your dad influence your career choice?” I ask. Many of my female friends wound up in their father’s field—the daughter of a judge became a lawyer; the daughter of an ob/gyn became an ob/gyn. I tried advertising, but it was a lot less fun than it had been in his era.
Kathy is nodding. “Originally I wanted to be a college professor like him. And I think I get my love of storytelling from my him.” She grins. “He gets excited when he watches Washington Week and I know the people on the panel!
“I want to have impact in the world,” she says a minute later. “I want people to notice when I’m gone.”
This woman has plenty of confidence, I decide. Hers is an insecurity of ambition, and what looks like self-doubt is just a sharp-tongued inner critic. What I have is closer to cowardice: a need to please anyone in the vicinity by being as nonthreatening as I can, going limp the way small animals do to fool the predators.
In Teach Your Daughters to Fly, Corletta Vaughn writes about “father hunger”—is that what I have? “When this need is unfulfilled, a woman will be under-developed in areas of courage, worth, stability, and competitiveness. She is unsure of herself, and this lack of confidence will carry over into most every area of her life.”
In Mark Jarman’s tender poem “Dressing My Daughters,” he writes: “I’m not their mother, and tangle, then untangle/ The whole cloth—on backwards, have to grab it/ Round their necks….” A dad’s clumsiness is not a bad thing: it lets his daughter school him in girlhood. “No, Daddy, it goes like this!” she announces with thrilling sureness. She has been initiated into rites that mystify him, and this gives her an edge.
A list of “reasons why girls need a strong father” notes that “when we fail to receive this approval, we find fault with ourselves. We will continually blame ourselves for things out of our control, and our self-confidence will dwindle.”
If I had grown up with a father, even for a few years, maybe I would have been bold enough to separate more from my mother in my teens, go a little wild, stop worrying so much about her feelings.
If I had grown up with a father, maybe I would have felt free to admit how much I missed having a father.
• • •
For years, social scientists assumed that fathers played only cameo roles in their daughters’ lives. But in the seventies, research began to paint a different picture. When girls had supportive fathers, their IQs were higher (even after controlling for socioeconomic differences). When girls had loving dads, they had a greater sense of well-being and related more easily to their schoolmates. “Recent studies show that fathers appear to have a greater impact than mothers” on how their daughters navigate education, career, romance, and life stresses, observes Anna Machin, author of The Life of Dad: The Making of a Modern Father.
A psychoanalytic article about “The importance of fathers in relation to their daughters’ psychosexual development” catches my worried attention. It suggests that “ideally, for a woman to arrive at a satisfactory psychosexual or gender identity, there needs to have been an erotic element to her relationship with her father. However, the incestuous nature of the relationship needs to be metaphoric and not literal for it to remain helpful rather than damaging.”
Skipped all that.
At least I never experienced the sense of abandonment Sophie Freud writes about, the sting of realizing you are no longer your father’s “little princess.” Even without psychoanalytic trappings, a daughter’s first crush is often her dad. A lot of fathers still have a hard time figuring out how to connect once she outgrows that flattering crush, especially if she has adored him since age two.
Two is the age when many children begin to show a preference for their fathers—so I missed the mark by sixteen months? I am absurdly disappointed. But then I remember that my dad was around for seventeen months, not just eight. “Even before a child is born,” we now know, their father’s attitudes regarding the pregnancy, behaviors during the prenatal period, and the relationship between their father and mother may indirectly influence risk for adverse birth outcomes.” I feel a delightful little spurt of gratitude. More than any DNA printout or genealogical tree, this reminds me that I was wanted, that I came from love.
• • •
In December 2020, Jackson Reffitt reported his father’s suspicious activities to the FBI. On January 6, his father was captured in video storming the Capitol.
When the FBI called, Jackson said dryly, “Your timing’s impeccable.” Later, he told a reporter how often his father used to say to him, in threat, “I put you in this f’ing world, I can take you out.”
Knowing that my dad snuck out of the office to buy me a pink bunny feels like a feast compared to that kind of starvation.
• • •
The trope is that you marry your father. But the father I heard cute stories about was frozen in 1961, and who wants to marry a relic?
If you can draw any conclusion from the mélange of men I dated, it is that I had no type. Which has its pluses, but at times felt a bit…haphazard, as though I were trying to assemble a future without an instruction manual.
For sons there are hero myths; for daughters there are fairy tales. Most of which involve a powerful king finding his daughter a suitable prince. My mother organized no quests or jousting contests, and she had no kingdom to dangle as bait. Suffice it to say, the notion of marriage felt blurry to me, and therefore a little ominous. It took a long time to find someone I knew would allow me (allow! That I still use that verb!) to be thoroughly myself.
When I did find him, a French farce ensued. Abruptly, my mother announced that she was going to marry the man with whom she had happily lived in sin for seven years. They married as she wished—in tennis shoes, at the top of Art Hill, music provided by a grizzled old guy who happened by with his saxophone. And a few months later, my mom and I went to order my wedding invitations.
For sons there are hero myths; for daughters there are fairy tales. Most of which involve a powerful king finding his daughter a suitable prince. My mother organized no quests or jousting contests, and she had no kingdom to dangle as bait.
I was firm about the wording—none of that “give her away” language. She looked up sharply but said nothing. Once we were outside, she started to laugh. “You know, that’s why I got married.”
I blinked. “Excuse me?”
“You know, so your invitations could read, “Mr. and Mrs. request the honor of your presence at the wedding of their daughter….”
I think I asked if she was fucking kidding. This line of reasoning had never even occurred to me. When my best friend heard the story, she said, “So you changed the wording on the invitations, right?”
But I had not.
Tucking my hand through the stiffened arm of a father who had raised and loved me? I gladly would have let him walk me to Andrew, recasting the gesture as affection instead of ownership. But I had not gone without a father all those years just to hand the role to somebody I barely liked.
• • •
“How am I different than women who had fathers?” I ask my husband.
“You don’t bristle at maleness,” he startles me by replying.
He means the oldschool conventions that some women find patronizing—holding the door or their chair, offering to carry heavy stuff, walking them to their car if it is dark outside. But I also love the way he and his male friends tease and joke, their rough affection with one another, their raw energy.
Patriarchy is, by literal translation, “the rule of the father”: he is handed the ability to judge, to lay down the law, to uphold values. Eighteenth-century child-rearing manuals were usually addressed to fathers, and it was fathers who corresponded with their children when they left home.
“Also, you’re more open about sex,” Andrew continues, “and I wonder if that’s because you never had parents you had to hear or wonder about.” Other kids instinctively found their parents’ sex life gross; I was fascinated.
In Shakespeare’s Fathers and Daughters, Oliver Ford Davies groups the young women into four categories: dominated (Ophelia, for example); defiant (Juliet, and all the Lear girls); androgynous (Beatrice, Portia, Rosalind); and redeemers (Innogen, Perdita, Miranda). Which would I have been? Depends on what my father was like, I suppose.
Most often, Shakespeare wrote of a father’s failed attempt to control his daughter. How much fun it would have been to rebel. To smash headlong into something strong enough to take it. Traditionally, fathers wield power, that “mysterious quotient, the ability to make something happen or to keep it from happening.” Patriarchy is, by literal translation, “the rule of the father”: he is handed the ability to judge, to lay down the law, to uphold values. Eighteenth-century child-rearing manuals were usually addressed to fathers, and it was fathers who corresponded with their children when they left home.
Mothers have drawn their power straight from nature, and their nurture is intimate. But fathers wind up standing for entire cultures, for ideology, for society, for authority. Unfathered, I learned about founding fathers, church fathers, God the Father. Christianity is an excellent psychologist, neatly filling in our familial gaps. Play it right, and I can still be a child of God at ninety-three.
• • •
In her dark, harsh poem “Daddy,” Sylvia Plath writes of her father as “marble-heavy, a bag full of God.” Too solid. And yet he left, and in his absence, she tried to be perfect to keep her mother happy. Me, too.
• • •
Sometimes I scan my life, wondering what my mom would make of it. She would want me to be a little thinner, keep a cleaner house, fuss more over my husband. She would be glad I am home more, even if it is because a virus still rages. She would not mind if I stayed safe in our hobbit house and never traveled again.
Christianity is an excellent psychologist, neatly filling in our familial gaps. Play it right, and I can still be a child of God at ninety-three.
What, I wonder suddenly, would my father have said? I know he traveled at least once, to Germany; I have the music box he brought back for my mom. And he was full of fun and mischief. Now I wish I had thought more about him when I was young, let him at least be a voice in my head, urging me toward adventure. Instead, I let him slip into silence.
Only now can I let myself miss him, maybe because by now, he would be dead anyway.
But if this is the time to grieve him, I need to know more.
• • •
His first wife died in a tragic car crash, and my mother was his young second wife, barely yet established in his life. Insecure, shy, and proud, she felt sure his family would not want to have to “keep up” with her after his sudden death. Nor did she know how to be a mother to an eighteen-year-old stepson still grieving his own mother’s death. Reminded that she had a baby to live for, she blurted that she didn’t even want me anymore. (Her sister wrote to remind her of this years later, wanting some credit for helping her through those days. By then my mom was ill, so my stepdad gave me the letter instead.)
My father’s lucrative stock shares all reverted to the ad agency, so my mom, still half in shock, swiftly sold the house and moved us to a studio apartment, leaving a lot of people hurt and dizzied by her withdrawal. The teenage stepson was one of them. I only came to know Richard Batz in my fifties, and though I adore him, I have never dared raise too many questions.
“What was our father like?” I ask now, stumbling over the wording. It is a phrase I have only ever said in prayer. Our father, who art in heaven.
“He used to take me swimming,” Richard begins. “At that point we lived in New Jersey.”
Jersey? He was born in St. Louis and started the ad agency in St. Louis; I never pictured him anywhere else.
“We always had dogs,” Richard continues, describing “a German shepherd—Baron, for the Red Baron, and then a wire-haired terrier because I loved the Thin Man movies.”
“So do I,” I blurt, wondering just how granular DNA is.
I feel a tiny flutter of pride. How weird is it, to be proud of a ghost?
There were bedtime stories, and always books around the house. This makes me happy. Our father being a conservative Republican does not. “I probably would have fought with him,” I say.
“Oh, I’m sure you would!” Richard says, laughing. They were not an arguing sort of family, though: “At dinner we talked about something that was of interest, maybe something in the news or something I’d read about or something new that was discovered. I was a question box, and he was smart enough that he always pretty much had an answer.”
I feel a tiny flutter of pride. How weird is it, to be proud of a ghost?
He drank bourbon, not Scotch. Me, too. He did indeed love to travel, and not just to Germany—they went west to see Yellowstone, Montana, Colorado. Richard remembers fly fishing, golf, bridge, trips down the White River, poker nights. “And they would go square dancing—I remember them coming back laughing about the mistakes they made. There was a lot of laughter.”
His hobby was woodworking; we chuckle about him drilling holes into the Christmas tree trunk and adding branches to make it fuller. “All of a sudden it was there Christmas morning,” Richard remembers. “I think that might have been a German tradition. Christmas was always pretty—there were decorations that had been in the family for many, many years, and all of them had a story. I don’t know where any of them are now; I didn’t take them when I left.”
I stay silent, praying my mother did not clear them away in her frenzy.
“He was an Eagle Scout,” Richard says a minute later, and I grin because I am not surprised. A picture is emerging.
“What kind of disciplinarian was he?” I ask.
“Whatever rules there were, were followed. But he was a kind father. There weren’t rules like the Gestapo. There were things I was able to get by with and never got caught, and those would have been the worst!” His laugh fades, and he says thoughtfully, “There was a lot of expecting. Not how-to, but just: you don’t get in trouble. You do the right thing. And you strive to do better—he always did that. He was Phi Beta Kappa, first in his family to go to college.”
“Did he give you lots of wise advice, guide you?”
“He always supported anything I chose. After he died, I didn’t have any direction. There was a lot to muck through.” A long pause. “I was very fond of your mother. But I felt sort of abandoned by her.”
Soon after we talk, the Father’s Day ads start running, and I find myself thinking up presents I might have given him: a gorgeous book on woodworking, an antique globe, a bottle of Blanton’s small-batch bourbon if I could afford it.
His voice is calm, free of blame. I am glad we can be honest. Glad to have a brother. Pieces of me are settling into place.
It is not only fathers who can catch you.
Soon after we talk, the Father’s Day ads start running, and for the first time, I find myself thinking up presents I might have given him: a gorgeous book on woodworking, an antique globe, a bottle of Blanton’s small-batch bourbon if I could afford it. Even my list smells tweedy, leathery, like a dad. I was raised by somebody who smelled a lot like me. Maybe difference is part of what I have missed. Space between us, and love enough to close the distance.
• • •
What if my father could come back right now? How appalled he would be by his bald baby’s gray hair. I could not crawl onto his lap; I would crack his spine. It is too late for us to meet.
So I piece together who he might have been and hold that image close. Stereotyped, romanticized, uncontested.
Whoever gets loved exactly as they would choose anyway, in exactly the right configuration of family? Adulthood is largely about filling in the gaps.
For example, here are things I regularly nag my husband to do: barbecue; build a fire; fix stuff; take me camping. Play more. Only now do I see that they are all things a dad might do. My mom bought us a little plug-in grill, and the meat tasted like its Styrofoam tray. This is my chance to experience what I missed, and I press those I love into service and make no apology. We are all still raising each other. The key is only to know it.
A new computer game, Alter Ego, lets you reinvent yourself. At each life stage, you answer a set of questions, steadily molding a new self. I start out with 94 percent confidence—woohoo—based on a questionnaire I fill in as though I am the person I want to be. It feels good, bold, and different, and my blood zings. I wait eagerly for mentions of my father so I can shape our interactions.
I piece together who he might have been and hold that image close. Stereotyped, romanticized, uncontested.
He comes up only twice, reading me a bedtime story and taking me to the park. Nearly always, it is the mother that my little alter ego is dealing with, and I feel myself sliding into my old, tractable passivity. “I am curious why you don’t explore your environment more and get into things a little bit,” the game says.
Everything shapes us. Everything we have, and everything we miss.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.