Experiencing Father's Day without a Father

I never remember when it is Father's Day —it's always a surprise. It just creeps up on me and reminds me that I've never really had a father. Well, one worth celebrating anyway. I didn't meet my father until I was 17 years old and by then, I felt like I didn't need him anymore or maybe he was just a disappointment, I'm not sure. But every year, when this holiday comes around and I see tearful remembrances and nostalgia, with pictures of fathers and daughters, it just makes me feel empty.

My mom was quite young when she had us. She told me that she was naive and was thrilled to move out of her small town in 1966, when she married my father. He was in the Air Force. As the only child in his family, he was not sent into combat but rather, they were stationed in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. My sister was born there. My mother was 19 and found the whole prospect daunting. It wasn't the move. She liked Puerto Rico. She had no idea how to take care of a child and long distance phone calls, let alone visits from family, were expensive and relatively inaccessible. But she made due and for a while, the marriage was good.

However, when he returned home to his family, his mother reminded my mother daily that she was not good enough for her son. My mom wasn't Italian enough. She wasn't dutiful enough. There was a myriad of failures. My father became quite abusive and angry. After having a second child and while being pregnant with a third, my mother fled. Yes, she tried to make it work but I only found out later that one of the reasons she finally insisted on a divorce was that he and his mother tried to deny that I was his biological daughter. He begrudged my mother a twenty five dollar a week court-ordered settlement but even avoided that responsibility. Back then, parents who did not want to pay child support could just fade into the background and never be heard from again without any real consequences.

I didn't hear from him for years. I never got a birthday card. A phone call. Any indication that he was alive and thinking of us. In a fury, my mother had cut up all his pictures before I could remember so I had no idea what he even looked like. There were ways that he was mythical. That my mom's life with him was a story of a completely different family.

There is a term for this in psychology, called "Ambiguous Loss." Coined by Pauline Boss, this loss can constitute a "physical absence but a psychological presence." There is no certainty around this type of loss. Is it a real loss? What does it mean? There is no closure—the grieving is never over. Society doesn't allow you to really mourn. It's almost indefinable. Yet as a child without a father, you become the representative of society's downfall. There is almost never anything written about children of single parent families that don't remind you that somehow your family is diminished in the eyes of society.

I always focused on resenting that I was denied any real access to my Italian side of the family, which means, I can't really claim part of my own ethnic heritage. Italian-Americans remind me all the time how I'm really not part of the club. I can understand their feelings but it still hurts. It hurts in a way that I don't feel like I even have a right to articulate.

I've probably seen my father less than a dozen times since I met him at 17. I found him disappointing. To be honest, he seems like a person who would abandon their children. He is not willing to deal with the really complicated feelings that his children have or the implications of his actions. He has said that he wants to be friends but I'm not sure I even want that for myself.

There were times that I really could have used his help. My mom had married an abusive man for a number of years. We could have used our father's help and care but he let years go by and never even bothered to see if we were okay. And then when he found out that we weren't, he just couldn't handle the emotions. He didn't feel any responsibility for our well-being. He just isn't family.

I push these feelings of loss out of my mind most of the time. I love my family. I'm very close to my mom and my siblings. I have close friendships and feel like my life is fulfilling and meaningful but every June, the vague feelings of sadness return. I think someday, we need to come up with a ritual of how to honor those of us who grew up without fathers, who don't really even have memories to sustain us. Rituals and holidays matter. Social recognition matters. All of it gives form and meaning to experiences. And I think it would give me some closure for this lifelong absence.

Pic from Piers Cunliff Photography