Life

“My dad left when I was a child – and it still stings every Father’s Day”

Father’s Day can trigger women for all sorts of negative reasons, including the absence of a father who walked away. Here, Stylist writer Hollie Richardson reflects on the dads who do this – including her own – and celebrates the single mums who stayed to pick up the pieces. 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wished that Mrs Doubtfire was my dad.

Sure, Mrs D is actually middle-aged divorcee Daniel Hillard. Sure, he’s disguised himself as an elderly woman in order to convince his ex-wife to hire him as a nanny to their three children. And sure, that’s more than slightly problematic. But, as someone whose dad walked out when I was five years old, I’ve only ever seen Mrs D as a man who really, really loves his kids.

It’s no big deal to be estranged from a parent these days. Around 42% of marriages in the UK end in divorce and a quarter of families are led by a single parent. And divorce isn’t always a “bad” thing: some family relations just work better when parents go their separate ways. But for many other families, including my own, the fallout from divorce can be awful. 

Research shows that single-parent families are more likely to live in poverty, and that children of divorce are twice as likely to experience mental illness. It’s also worth noting that, perhaps unsurprisingly, 90% of the time it’s the mum who sticks around as the child’s primary caregiver. I visited my dad every other Sunday and received minimum maintenance payments from him, but it was my mum who brought me up and made me feel loved. So much so that, after I turned 18 and we weren’t obliged to sporadically see each other any more, me and my dad stopped speaking completely. 

So, for me, Father’s Day easily triggers years of confused, angry and sad emotions.

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Every year, I feel embarrassed and withdrawn as I listen to friends moan about having to go home for the weekend for a family meal or scold themselves for not going out to buy a present at lunchtime. I think up vague, deflective answers to any “have you sent your Father’s Day card yet?” questions in the office. And I instantly delete all marketing emails or turn away from any adverts.

I’d love it if I were able to overcome the shame. If I could explain that, no, I won’t be celebrating Father’s Day because my dad and I haven’t contacted each other in over 12 years. Then again, the last thing I want is sympathy or pity. It’s funny how, even though I know it’s statistically very likely that nearly half the people in any given room that I’m in grew up with divorced parents, I still worry about making others feel uncomfortable by talking about it.

As I grow older, however, I’ve realised that this isn’t my shame to carry, and it never has been. There are things that my dad and I have both missed out on in our unfulfilled father-and-daughter relationship, and I wonder if he ever takes a moment to reflect on them at this time of year as I do, feeling the same searing frustration and regrets over conversations that should have happened.

I think of all the times I impatiently lurked in the school hallways, peeking into the room as my mum sat next to an empty seat which should have been occupied by a proud dad (apart from when she spoke with my French teacher and the vacant seat was very much reserved for an angry dad). Proud or angry – I just wanted a dad who cared enough to be there. And sure, he’d perfunctorily ask how school was going and read my reports, but he never truly knew my passions, ambitions or dreams of being a writer.

Growing up, I used to feel guilty every single time dad dropped me off in his shiny, silver people-carrier at one of my mum’s many rented houses (she could often barely afford to keep them heated). I’ll never understand how he could drive away each time, knowing how little money we had compared to him and his new family. I craved the warmth and security of his detached suburban house, then hated myself for not appreciating my mum for giving us the best she could afford.

I recall every Christmas and birthday when I’d open presents from him, all of which I was so grateful to receive. But, underneath the excitement, I felt uncomfortable because these gifts proved just how little my dad knew me. I’d honestly have swapped all the toys, best-selling cartoon videos and hastily bought clothes for just one personal gift that proved my dad saw me as a teenage girl growing up to be a woman with my own interests, personal style and favourite books, music and films. I don’t remember a single time when he made an effort to find out what any of them were. 

Father's Day
Preparing for a new start after university. 

I consider all the underlying insecurities and lack of self-confidence I felt when moving to a new city to start my career after university. Despite being so excited about what was ahead, I constantly worried about not having the safety net of a Bank of Mum and Dad, which others around me did. But it wasn’t just financial support I lacked. I wanted a dad to be there and take care of things if they went wrong, soothing my anxieties about doing a good job at work and having a roof over my head.

Then, there are all the boyfriends I have never and will never introduce to him, despite the fact that the cheesy “protective dad looking out for his princess because no guy is worthy of her” trope is something I’ve always secretly wished for. I can’t join in conversations with friends about the whole “meeting the parents” thing because it’s an experience that I know nothing about. Instead, I find myself unable to meet partners’ parents, terrified they won’t like me – there’s only so much daddy rejection one person can take.

All of this becomes more of an issue as I reach an age where many of my friends are getting married and starting their own families.

Maybe one day I’ll decide to do the same. I’m not a big believer in marriage – no prizes for guessing why – but the night after going to a wedding, I always have a sore jaw from smiling so much. Deep down, I am always so happy for the bride and groom. My best friend from high school recently had a wedding and, knowing that she too had a troubled relationship with her dad while growing up, it was lovely to see him walking her down the aisle. Despite their history, he came through for her, because he loves her.

But, the more I think about it, the more I know I’ll also have the best person possible by my side if I do decide to get married one day.

Because, actually, my mum has been there all along, somehow playing the role of two parents.

She let me drench her top in snot and tears as she held me close to her chest all those times while I cried about guys who she’d repeatedly refer to as “that insipid loser”. Although she can’t afford to keep a spare room for me, she always has a duvet, a cup of tea and the TV remote waiting for me whenever I need to go home. My graduation photo takes pride of place on her living room wall. And she has always been my biggest career cheerleader.

Maybe one day I will decide it’s the right time to share these thoughts and feelings with my dad. But, right now, I’m dedicating this Father’s Day to my mum.

After all, as Mrs Doubtfire well and truly proves, women make the best dads.

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