How Not to Become Your Absentee Father

by A Manly Guest Contributor on March 15, 2013 · 65 comments

in A Man's Life, Fatherhood, On Manhood, Relationships & Family


Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Andy Harrelson.

In 1969, then governor of California, Ronald Reagan, signed into law the country’s first no-fault divorce bill. Many other states quickly followed his example. Whether his signing the bill was the cause of the skyrocketing divorce rates that were to come in the next decades or merely a reaction to the already increasing divorce rate is up for debate. However, I strongly suspect the latter supposition to be true.

By the time my own mom and pop got together and conceived me in 1973, divorce was almost a rite of passage into middle age. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I encountered and struggled with the hardships brought on by our changing cultural values; hardships that I share with many other men my age. I didn’t know, for example, how to defend myself from the bullies who wanted to test my resolve on the playground or in the halls of my high school. I have also had more than my fair share of trouble relating to the opposite sex. Heck, I even had to learn how to change the spark plugs in my ’84 Bronco II from a Chilton manual! The primary cause of these deficiencies in me and many others were due to divorce or just plain old absenteeism. You see, we didn’t have fathers around to teach us the virtues of behaving as proper men. Chances are, a lot of you reading this can relate, although even without a father figure around, you hopefully had enough sense to avoid the mistake of buying a Bronco II. That one was all mine.

My mother and father were divorced by the time I was 3 or 4 years old. He wasn’t especially interested in continuing his relationship with me afterwards, either. My mother never re-married, and I’m an only child, so not only did I grow up without a father, but without any other immediate family. I had my work cut out for me, but through it all I think I gathered enough experience to achieve one very important goal: how not to become my deadbeat father. If you, too, want to avoid this or if you think you might be taking on the traits of your own absentee dad, maybe I can help you drop those bad habits before they hurt you or someone you love.

Modern studies conducted by the Family Research Council now indicate that about half of American kids won’t reach adulthood without seeing the breakup of their parents. To be precise, only 45.8 percent of American children reach the age of 17 with both their biological parents married.

These statistics reflect that our culture is in need of a serious overhaul, and the job of fixing it falls to each and every one of us to do our part. The aim of this article is not to delve too deeply into the how or why of what got us to this point. Rather, I hope to bring your attention to several characteristics or personality traits possessed by men who had an absentee or abusive/alcoholic dad growing up. If we can identify the garbage in our own characters, we can take steps to throw it out before it overflows and we end up passing our unhealthy traits on to someone else.

Adult children of absentee and/or abusive parents are as varied as any other demographic group on the planet, but it has come to the attention of Dr. Janet G. Woititz and other researchers that this particular group shares certain characteristics in common. I’m going to go over what I feel are the most important and potentially damaging of these characteristics. I’ll tell you how these traits negatively affected me, and then tell you how you, as an alert and responsible man, might avoid these pitfalls in your own life and thus become better prepared for fatherhood yourself.

Adult Children of Absentee, Alcoholic, and/or Abusive Fathers Tend to:

1) Need constant approval to feel validated.

This is where it all started for me. There was no dad to teach me the value of assertiveness, so mom became the gateway to personal validation. Don’t get me wrong, I love and respect my mother. It takes a strong woman to be able to raise a son singlehandedly, and I wouldn’t be half the man I am today without her guidance. But she ended up being the gatekeeper for me even into my young adult years. What I needed from a father figure was the confidence and self-esteem that would enable me to make important decisions on my own. Instead, I ended up compensating for a lack of confidence by seeking counsel from mom for everything from my diet to what kind of shoes to wear to job interviews and everything in between.

Breaking the habit: Are you the kind of person who obsesses and needs validation over every little decision? Chocolate or vanilla? Staple or paper clip? I was like this, too. Please believe me when I say that this kind of thinking does no good for anyone, least of all you. You know all those jobs you’re thinking about applying to that require “independent thinking?” Well, that’s not a description of you if you’re going to be constantly running to the boss with trifles. You know deep down what’s good for you and what’s not; what constitutes work well done and what amounts to a shoddy job. Do you really need to seek someone else’s opinion for such trivial matters? Take stock of the situation and the information at hand and make a decision. Be your own man. You’ll savor your victories even more.

2) Be harsh self critics.

Something was wrong with me, there must have been. Why else would all the other kids go home after school to houses with both moms and dads, while I walked back to an empty house or a babysitter because my mom was busy working 10 or 12-hour shifts to support us? It’s easy for a kid to get down on himself without the proper support, and trying harder to correct your perceived faults isn’t the answer. In fact, trying harder to “fix” myself probably just contributed to my self-loathing, since, given that I was not the cause of the problem, I was predestined to fail at repairing it.

Breaking the habit: So you’re a harsh self critic? So what? It’s not all bad, you might be thinking. That punishing, inner critic can actually spur you on to great accomplishments. But you’ve got to be careful. Would you offer criticism to other people with the same harsh voice you use to critique yourself? Probably not, unless you wanted to burn some bridges and end some friendships. The negative self-talk adds up, even if we’re just talking to ourselves. If you know you’re good at what you’re doing, then cut yourself some slack and enjoy life. Like the old saying goes: “Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.”

3) Value loyalty to the exclusion of common sense.

You know all that attention that dad wasn’t giving me? Well, I found it somewhere else. All of the relationship building that should have been happening between my father and I was instead happening with people who did not have my best interests at heart, to put it mildly. But because I was so eager to find acceptance, I couldn’t see straight, and I put my faith and loyalty in people who did not deserve it. Every kid makes some bad choices regarding friends when growing up — it’s all a part of learning to judge character. But when the bad relationship choices extend into your adult life, you’re inviting disappointment and outright heartache.

Breaking the habit: Friendships are two-way streets and they are built on the commonalities between two people on equal footing. If you find yourself giving and giving without getting anything in return, if you take a close look at your “friends” and find that you have little in common with them, if you find that you and the ones to whom you give your loyalty are from radically different walks of life — then it might be time to re-evaluate who your real friends are.

4) Have difficulty finishing what they start.

This one probably hurts the most. Looking back on my youth, I can’t begin to count the number of opportunities I missed out on because I hadn’t yet learned how to follow through. Dad wasn’t around to show me that when things get tough, you need to lower your shoulder and run through the sh*t. Instead, if things didn’t work out for me right away, I was more inclined to just drop what I was doing and move on. This is no way to experience life, as a young man or a grown one.

Breaking the habit: This is purely a matter of willpower and self-discipline. Most people have no trouble recognizing all of the half-finished projects scattered around behind them, so the only real obstacle is apathy. It’s difficult if you’re attempting to overcome this later in life, but I think the only answer is to take a stand. No more coulda, shoulda, woulda. When you start something, you finish it. Period.

When evaluating your character, it’s important not to play the blame game. It’s good to be able to identify your own deficiencies and how they developed, but in the end, it’s you alone who are responsible for fixing them. For advice on how to start owning up to your mistakes, check out this AoM article on cultivating personal responsibility.

For even more enlightenment on the subject of absentee or abusive fathers, there are a couple articles from the AoM archive you might want to read: 6 Lessons I Learned About Being a Man from Growing Up Fatherless is pretty self-explanatory, while A Generation of Men Raised by Women is more about the reasons behind the phenomenon.

What lessons have you learned from having an absentee, alcoholic, or abusive father?


Andy Harrelson grew up in the desert southwest of the United States, where he now lives (barely) and works (too often) as a starving writer. Visit him at

{ 65 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nigel Hunter March 15, 2013 at 2:41 pm

1-Read the Art of Manliness blog. Seriously, this has been an invaluable resource for things that other men can’t or won’t talk with me about.

2-Join a Gospel-based church. Get involved with men who will love you as your father should have but won’t let you put on them what you should put on him as well as show you that God always intended to be your perfect Father.

2 Joey Espinosa March 15, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Great article. Thanks for being honest about your upbringing.

I work in a high-poverty area (10th poorest county in the nation). We see the effects of fatherlessness all around, especially as I coach football and we run programs for kids.

A great book about engaging the fatherless around us is “Fatherless Generation” by John Sowers. Here are some of my thoughts on a key point, called “Angry Boys.”

3 Andrew March 15, 2013 at 3:31 pm

It’s crazy how I can read articles such as this and “6 Lessons I Learned About Being a Man from Growing Up Fatherless” and find so much of my self, my struggles, and my thoughts in them. I never would have related the fact I ask my team lead way too many questions to things I know the answer to and am just looking for approval on to the lack of a father growing up, but putting some thought in it now it makes perfect sense.

I just wanted to say that these articles have helped me out quite a bit in realizing that I am on the right track to who I want to be, I still need to work on my self a lot, but I will get there.

These articles were also the final things that pushed me to realize I need to start on my goals in life and stop wasting time. By this time next year I will be enrolled in college to be a Mechanical Engineer, something my mother always saw me becoming.

Thank you.

4 JustAnotherScientist March 15, 2013 at 3:49 pm

This was a very insightful article, and a good read to boot. Thank you for writing it!
I do, however, have one small problem with it: the study you referenced article has some serious flaws.
Teens who have lost one or both parents would tend to be categorized as coming from broken-marriage environments. This could be caused by the death of a parent and their other parent’s subsequent remarriage, or the death of both parents and their subsequent fostering, adoption, or moving in with relatives, no matter what marital circumstances they ended up in.
Furthermore, A teen who had been adopted at any stage of life after being put up for adoption for any reason would be classified as coming from a broken-marriage situation, even someone adopted as a baby by a married couple.
Marriage is not a prerequisite for a nurturing environment, but children living with unmarried parents, even if both biological parents were present, cohabiting and nurturing, would be counted as coming from broken homes. Children who have had the misfortune of living in a group setting, including disabled children in nursing care, would be counted as having “divorced parents”.

One is entitled to one’s own opinions on the Family Research Council (I personally am not a fan), but let’s not forget that, as a lobby group, at the core of their operations is the grinding of a political axe. One should be vigilant about verifying studies commissioned by partisan groups on either side of the left-right divide before accepting their findings.

5 BC March 15, 2013 at 4:05 pm

My parents divorced when I was 7. Everybody was always saying things like “oh, you poor kid, from a broken home”. Ummm… no. Not at all. To be honest, it was probably one of the best things that happened to me. My dad was only around every-other weekend as was his “duty” but even if he’d been there every day, he wouldn’t have really “been there”.

Dad’s answer to everything was to throw money at it and it’d go away. He didn’t learn how to show love as a kid so he had no idea. The way he loved us was to buy us things. Yeah, when you’re a kid you think that’s cool but even then, in the back of my mind, I knew it was a little off. Thankfully, I got to spend a lot of time with my maternal grandparents since my mom had to work quite a bit.

They didn’t have a lot of money, but thanks to disability from a bad back (life-long underground coal miner), my granddad had a lot of time on his hands. He could build or fix darn near anything. He taught me how to shoot a gun, how to hunt, how to drive, how to survive in the woods and most importantly, how to spend time with your kids and family and make sure they know how much you love them.

There are a ton of lessons he taught me that I remember, but there’s one that stands out over any other, and still makes my hand tingle. We were strolling through the woods behind his house as we usually did when we started down a fairly steep hill toward a creek. He went first & about half way down he stopped, turned to me & pointed to a Devil’s Walking Stick ( “You’re going to start down this hill and it’ll be fast. You’ll want to grab this to slow down but don’t. It’s the easy way but it will be painful. You can stop on your own or keep sliding, but don’t take the easy way out & grab this stick. You’ll be sorry.” Guess what I did?

As he gently pulled my fingers from the barbs on the stick, he chuckled and said “See? The easy way out is usually pretty painful.” At that moment in time, I knew he meant grabbing the stick sliding down the hill, but I’ve thought of those words a million times in my life as I’ve made decisions. Sometimes, I’ve still taken that easy way out (and usually paid the price) but more often than not, I’ve remembered that pain & decided to work a little harder at what I was doing.

Last Thursday, 3/7/13, we lost my granddad to a long battle with dementia. He laid the foundation that I needed to become the man I’ve meant to be and for that, the only way I can ever repay him is to be as involved with my daughters as he was with me. I know I’ll never be the man he was, but I will die trying.

Thanks for an amazing site & posts like this. He would be truly proud to know that there are “real men” still around these days.

6 David Robert Wright March 15, 2013 at 4:26 pm

One important thing I would like to add to this is that if you find yourself struggling with these types of issues, it would be very helpful to find a counselor or therapist. Your minister or doctor can refer you to a good one.

While it’s true that it’s important to be able to stand on your own two feet, we are also social creatures and it will be difficult to overcome these issues without the support and help of another person. They can ask you questions that help you discover your own feelings and provide the stability that you need to make lasting change in your life.

7 Matt R March 15, 2013 at 4:39 pm

I think this is a very good article and it surprisingly hit close to home with me. Not because my father was physically absent, but rather because he was dealing with PTSD from his service in Vietnam and was emotionally absent.

8 Jim March 15, 2013 at 5:14 pm

When I read pieces like this, and reflect on the hurt of guys who grew up without dads, it’s just hard to believe there are people out there who deliberately decide to have kids knowing the dad will never, ever be in the picture — lesbian couples, single moms. It’s one thing for a married couple to go into having a kid fully believing that they’ll always be married, and then it doesn’t work out, and another thing, to decide to have a kid when you know there’s zero chance of the kid ever having a dad in their life, not even for weekends, or summers, or anything, It just seems like such selfishness to me. Every kid deserves at least the chance of having a dad.

9 A.Y. March 15, 2013 at 5:55 pm

My parents separated when I was around 2, and although I pretty much only saw my dad every other weekend, we had an amicable relationship. My parents were nice and friendly to each other, and I’m a lot closer to him than many people in similar situations are to their fathers.

I can definitely see some differences between my mother and my father. For example, I’m 19 and am about to graduate my country’s “high school” (18-19 are the normal ages to graduate) and am choosing colleges. My mother wants me to stay in Stockholm, the capital, which admittedly has some of the best universities in my country. She wants me to stay here and continue living with her and my half-brother (whose father my mother is divorcing). It’d be way cheaper and easier for me, really. But I want to study in another city, and my father is very supportive of this idea, as he thinks it’d be great for me to experience living alone in a different town, experiencing “college life” on my own. But me moving out to another town seems to seriously be bothering my mother, bless her heart. In any case, this experience has shown me a lot in how my mother and father differ in their parenting.

Also, your last point is sort of relevant in my life. I remember as a kid trying different sports but really never sticking to them and getting myself involved. Football, swimming, handball, judo. Football I played for the longest time, from maybe around age 7 to age 11-12. Eventually I’d quit them. I didn’t exercise and became obese as a teen. I picked up wrestling/mma for teens 16 year old and up and quit it after half a year because it was just a little too inconvenient with school – a really bad excuse since I could’ve made it work.

I don’t want to blame my mother for anything, nor do I feel anything other than the deepest of gratefulness for my mother and her parenting, which ultimately formed me into the person I am today. She was only trying to please me, because I was the kid who’d give up after all. But sometimes, I can’t help but think that if my father had had a more direct role, if he’d been there to spur me on and lay it thick for me and tell me how nothing in life is easy and that you just have to deal with stuff sometimes, my childhood might have been just a little better…

10 LF March 15, 2013 at 6:05 pm

My husband always worries about continuing the cycle of being a ‘barely there’ dad. His dad was involved… barely. I think one thing that helped him was having a step-father who spent a lot of time with him and helped raise him. Props to the men who are dads when they don’t have to be! Also, if I could give advice, don’t have sex until you’re sure you want to be with that woman for life and she’s said the same thing. Wait until you’re in your mid-20′s if you can to get married, and wait until you’re married to have sex. That 50% divorce rate is MUCH MUCH lower if you have more education, waited until after 24 to get married, have a religion in common, aren’t pregnant or have a child before marriage, and basically are sure you want to be with this person for life, just the two of you, before you even think of bringing a child into it.

That 50% divorce rate is so faulty it’s going to break the San Andreas’ record. Real divorce rates are around 33%, and lower as you do some of the risk-lowering behaviors I mentioned. Don’t expect your marriage to fail simply because of faulty stats.

11 jerry March 15, 2013 at 7:25 pm

allow me to recommend a book for all men…Wild at Heart.

12 James March 15, 2013 at 7:50 pm

I had basically all the same problems except relying on others for advice. My insecurities drove me to try to dominate those around me and make them see that I was right about everything. My dad was mostly absent and when he wasn’t he was a horrible example being an overgrown boy himself. Still is today. I totally agree though after 18 you are responsible for yourself and it is time to grow up no matter what your childhood was like. Although, I know men that waited until their 60s to grow up. They are very happy today. It is never too late.

13 Long-lost Friend March 15, 2013 at 9:33 pm

This article angers me to no end, for the simple reason that it lays the blame for “absentee fathers” on so-called “deadbeat dads.”

I suggest that the author do his homework a little more thoroughly to realize that in a vast number of cases (and maybe even in his own) that divorced mothers and a mother-friendly family court system often work in collusion to KEEP fathers out of the picture. Some dads give up, not because they do not desire to be a part of their children’s lives, but because their spirits and their finances are destroyed in the process of trying to prevent the very outcome you illustrate here.

14 Tac March 15, 2013 at 10:10 pm

I find that overall the article matches my experience at work (as a cop). These days I deal more with the 16-17 year old range, as they’re considered adults….and most of the ones I put in jail or prison come from mother-parent families with truly absentee dads. They have a lot of the issues shown.

As for the FRC, you should take their studies in context. However, I don’t think they’re far off base. Most of the people that might be reading this article likely come from a certain sect of society that holds to more traditional values and such. I also come from it….and until I started the job, I figured that numbers like that were wrong. Now, I think that if anything, half is probably too low for the number of broken-family children. Most 2 parent households of any description (married or not) only have 1-3 kids. Single parent or Social Services-Parent households trend towards having 3+ children, especially in certain areas/demographics. It’s ugly, but it’s my experience living in it day in and out. And it really sucks for the children.

The biggest thing that wasn’t quite mentioned in the article is that a traditional father-figure provides Discipline. That IMHO is the most glaring issue in mother-parent households. Moms try, and some of them succeed, and I’m not belittling their efforts and sacrifice. But most of the juvenile offenders out there would likely not be if they had a solid male figure to institute discipline. It’s a natural male trait, something AoM notes from time to time, to be stoic, disciplined, and standing in the river rather than drifting along. That’s the biggest thing a father can provide his children, especially sons. An example of discipline and respect, and unwavering, stoic, but loving correction when needed.

To A.Y.:

I would agree with your Dad that getting some time out on your own will be very beneficial to you. I grew up in a very traditional Southern household. Mom, Dad, brother, and a big family in driving distance. As I neared my twenties, I was drifting a lot in college….and doing poorly. I had spent a long time trying to please all the various relatives, especially my mom, and it wasn’t working well. I was also living at home, and the older I got the more and more problems arose between me and mom. I joined the Marine Corps, got some time away from home and did my tour. Worked wonders for me growing up and starting to make independent decisions. When I got out I went back home for a semester to go through the police academy. Me and mom really didn’t get along, as she was trying to treat me like things had been, rather than me being a grown and independent man. As soon as I started working I moved out on my own. Even though I lived only a few miles from my parents, I was determined to be my own man. It’s a big learning curve. But it’s worth it, there’s just a sense of accomplishment in going it on your own. And my relationship with my parents, especially mom is much better for it.

I know it will scare the crap out of her for you to leave and go off on your own, but if it’s financially doable, I think your dad’s point is sound. You’ll learn more about self-discipline and motivation when you have to manage your finances, buy groceries, clean, cook, wash clothes, and do all your college stuff as well. And you’ll feel better in the end, you’ll feel well… a man.

15 Devon March 15, 2013 at 10:37 pm

I have to say that typically I am someone who will defend sociological generalizations that tend to ring true. But from my perspective, these do not. I’m actually rather confused and I believe that these may simply be your (astute, admirable) self-criticisms and evaluations and a search for their causes in your upbringing–but not accurate behavioral profiling for the sole, male children of single mothers. If you indeed have a creditable, research-based source for these, I’d actually enjoy a follow-up post about that and any other conclusions there. Absent that, I have to say that my experience and fairly well-read research on this subject contradicts the four generalizations you’ve made.
I think to some extent, the jury actually remains out on whether there are indeed any generalizations to be made that exceed the superior variables of a mother’s personality, socio-economic level, and values, followed by her offspring’s variables of the number of children, ages apart, intelligence level, and their individual behavioral profiles. Your generalizations would indeed be contradicted anytime there are two or more sons from a single mother, as there is next to a zero percent chance that those brothers share the behavioral profile you are describing; siblings never do share the same behavioral priorities, no matter what their parental situation.
Indeed, the traits you are describing are only consistent to one of Socrates’ traditional four behavioral profiles of human beings, which psychologists have consistently confirmed to be universal to all populations and socio-economic levels throughout the centuries into modern day-behavioral profiling. In other words, you may be making generalizations about your own native behavior profile’s priorities (and focusing on some of its weaknesses), and then linking them rationally but perhaps not accurately to an absent father figure.
I think perhaps I can stand as a comparison–admittedly, just a single example, but worth considering. You and I were born at the same time (1974 for me) and our parents divorced at the same age (3). My father was absent, other than the occasional yearly visitation, from that point forward. Also an only child, I grew up experiencing some of the same social pressures you describe–bullying, insecurity about masculinity, etc.–but I can say honestly that the flaws or traits you lament here are not mine. Indeed, they tend to be close to the opposite of my inclinations.
That is not to say I don’t have major flaws. While I tend to be very decisive, I trust my own instincts to a fault, often acting impulsively or with an unrealistic or rash mis-judgment of the impact upon others. I am overly optimistic to the point of being unrealistic. While I care enough about the opinions and loyalties of others enough to be diplomatic, I tend to devolve into a dictatorial steamroller when I fail to convince those in my sphere to get on board. I do not have difficulty finishing what I start, but I do struggle with procrastination in general until the last minute. I do not need constant validation from others (or my mother, who I also respect greatly), and have always been fiercely independent to the point of self sabotage.
I never messed around out of insecurity–but that’s not entirely good. Because of my particular behavioral profile, I looked at my mother’s struggles early on and recognized that her business and hard work demanded my being responsible, straight, and supportive–or we both would fail. I never had a single party, drank a single beer until after I turned 21, or did anything fun or interesting whatsoever until I was on my own. I never lacked for an identity or searched for one through rebelliousness, bad friends, or poor decisions. But I refused to do anything fun for quite a while, other than getting out into the woods or water. I missed a lot of good times when I was young because I simply didn’t take the risk–but this was not about decisiveness or confidence. It was about being overly conservative in my choices for fear of causing trouble.
Now, I’m a prosecutor and I absolutely love my wife of 12 years and two kids. I don’t feel diminished by my single mother / absent father upbringing. I feel empowered, inspired, and fortunate–because I have seen how much a strong and loving woman can accomplish and I have great respect for my own dynamic wife, and because I believe I overcame a lot and achieved a lot to be where I am.
Having said all this, I thank you for this topic and your contribution, because it’s an important topic and you are clearly introspective and focused on self-improvement. I would enjoy seeing some enhanced attention to other variables relating to an absent father, and your take on any legitimate research out there on the topic.

16 Devon March 15, 2013 at 10:40 pm

Well, now I see that indeed you do reference a study in your article, so I apologize for assuming the opposite. I’m sure the author is more qualified than me in terms of throwing out generalizations, but I guess I have to say that they all ring pretty hollow still, both from my own experience and that of other single-mothered, only children males I know (including a best friend). So if you read my comments, I guess I’d invite your thoughts nonetheless. Thanks again.

17 Devon March 15, 2013 at 11:07 pm

One last post Andy–I did a little research on Dr. Janet G. Woititz (who apparently died in 1994). I’m not sure she would indeed be the most reliable resource on the types of generalizations you’re summarizing. Indeed, it’s difficult to discern any basis in her biography–her education, expertise, publications, or research–for anything related to these types of conclusions being specific to single-mothered only children. Her claim to fame–and it is an obsolete book from 1983–is adult children of alcoholics. I note you tended to conflate the alcoholic / absent father together in your article, and she apparently may also; is that a juxtaposition validated by legitimate research? Personally, I’m highly skeptical. While I think it’s tempting to make generalizations in order to understand our own challenges and the reasons behind our traits, I don’t think these are accurate and even if she said this, I see nothing that would legitimate her viewpoints with regard to studies or research. But again, it’s a fascinating topic and I do applaud you for focusing on it and creating the discussion.

18 Andy Harrelson March 16, 2013 at 2:24 am

The comments so far are very insightful. I’ve been a quiet reader of AoM for a while now, and I’m always impressed by the quality of the thoughts I see expressed here.

My intention in writing the article was to give form to my own personal experience in being raised without a father (or any other male substitute). I was not attempting to imply that every boy growing up in a similar situation should necessarily experience the same hardships as I did, or be able to overcome them the same way. Different strokes for different folks, I figure. The evidence I cite is not what I would call scientific, nor am I a psychologist. I thought that by sharing my experience, I might bring into focus several ways (out of many, no doubt) that someone might identify and cope with the challenges of growing up fatherless. I’m not trying to establish any kind of consensus, and it’s not an exhaustive examination by any means, but it worked for me.

To Long-lost Friend: It was not my intention to offend, but it’s obvious that I did, and for that I am sorry. I agree that some dads could very well be shut out of their children’s lives due to no real fault of their own. Perhaps I should have mentioned this in the article. However, this was not the case with my own father, who simply “skedaddled.” No child support, no weekend visits when I was growing up – nada. This was a very personal issue for me, so I could only choose to write about it in a personal manner. If I left out anyone else’s perspective, it’s not because I think it has no value, but rather because I wrote from my own experience and the experiences of others I was close to growing up. I’m glad that you bring this point up; this is what the comments section is for :-)

I’d also like to second the point that, as David Robert Wright points out, talking to someone about these issues can be a great help. It’s not the easiest thing to do, opening yourself up to someone else, but it can be very liberating.

19 Robert March 16, 2013 at 6:38 am


Great article. I connect strongly with the author, having grown up without any father figure, and being an only child.

It’s good, even now, to be piecing things together.

All good wishes,


20 KWelcome March 16, 2013 at 6:55 am

Very good article that hit close to home

21 Alex R Fontes March 16, 2013 at 7:26 am

I’m from Brazil and I truly enjoy the AoM.
Very interesting, useful and insightful posts.Thanks also for this one. My parents did not divorce but I had an absentee and alcoholic father too. It was a surprise to see some many troubles in common when I read the post. Thank you and keep it up.
All the best,

22 F March 16, 2013 at 9:12 am

Thank you so much for this article, I’m a 25 years old man and I never have met my father, so this kind of “guides” helps a lot, no just as a guide, but also as a proof of that is possible be a correct man without a paternal figure in our lifes.

P.S.: Sorry for the bad english, I’ll keep working on improve it

23 Tim Dahl March 16, 2013 at 9:37 am

I appreciate your article. Thank you. I grew up as a step-son. My biological father died two months before I was born. My dad (step-father) did the best he knew how to do. But, even he grew up with a present-but-absent father. You know the type, not invested in his kids. Always on the outside. Never focused on the kids.

My dad did basically the same thing. It wasn’t until much later in life that we connected. I’m trying to be the man God’s called me to be, the father he’s called me to be, and the husband he’s called me to be.

What that looks like (for me), is this: 1) Take care of my self. 2) Sacrifice for my wife; making her dreams come true to the best of my ability. 3) Give my children a daddy who loves their mommy. Spend intentional time with them. Participate in life with them.

I’m still trying to figure this stuff out. I don’t know of many other 39 yr olds feeling so newbish as me.


24 Brandon Elijah Scott March 16, 2013 at 9:47 am

Great site!!

25 Josh M March 16, 2013 at 10:02 am

Amen Nigel, the art of manliness has helped me in many aspects of my life. Also, we need not forget Psalm 68:5 “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” I’m not talking about religion at all; I’m talking about a relationship with a loving God.

26 Eric March 16, 2013 at 11:16 am

This article brought tears to my eyes. My worst fear is that I’m “losing” my kids as a divorce turned bitter rages on. As men we are supposed to be “bulletproof”, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are humans just like women and I can tell you that a woman can virtually destroy any man,(at least temporarily) if she is vindictive enough.

Once lawyers get involved, you become another pawn in the system. My wife & I were fairly amicable while we sorted out things for a year, but then a boyfriend enters the picture, convinces her to hire an attorney, file a bogus restraining order etc.,etc.

The result is a living hellish nightmare that has decimated the entire family at all levels. What remains is tens of thousands of dollars wasted, and much worse than that is the emotional toll it takes.

The “Family” Court system is designed to destroy families, from the biased judges, draconian laws, attorneys whose only goal is to milk clients dry, it’s something out of the Middle Ages if you’re a man. Unless the woman is a drug addicted prostitute you’re basically screwed.

The “Family” court is the only court where all of your rights are discarded, you are presumed guilty, common sense doesn’t exist, etc.

Women will use any trick in the book in an attempt to extract revenge. The most damaging is the brainwashing & alienation of children used as pawns in a warped attempt to be a “supermom” so they can “claim their title”.

Sadly, either for legal reasons or for my own sanity & self preservation I do not see my children as much as I would like to while I navigate this abyss and restructure my mind.

27 qwerty March 16, 2013 at 12:59 pm

There are a lot of divorced dads out there like me who get blamed and shamed. Some have to fight with social workers to see their kids in a normal setting. Now that I am divorced, I meet so many fathers whose ex-wives give them a hard time. I know a lot of dads that make a great effort to see their kids.I woudl hate to think that all divorced dads get painting as deadbeats.

28 Luke Lesufi March 16, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Thanks you for tackling this very sensitive topic. I was fortunate to grow up with dad there but I think on the other side one issue that I feel is overlooked at times is the “uninterested father”. I speak to a lot of guys my age (23) who often tell me that dad was around but “he wasn’t around”. Either because dad just wasn’t interested or he was working hard to support the family, paying bills, etc, which is noble. But I ask is it wise to work hard all the time so we can buy bigger cars and houses only to spend less time with our families?

Also if I may can I add that when dealing with childhood issues it is wise to deal with them not from a place of anger. It’s funny how one can say “I will never become like my father” out of an attitude of anger but end up becoming the same, I certainly saw it in my life. Weird how that works! If you really want to be free, forgiveness is a good place to start because it unhooks you from the mistakes of other people.

All the best wishes :)

29 Sebas Alva March 16, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Nice. This site is great! I am in the process of becoming a man at my 28 years and I love these articles. Having a father at home is no guarantee of becoming a “man”. I had one at home all the time and there are a lot of things I have to learn by myself, even at adult age. I would say it is a mistake to say that your problems would be solved if you grew up with your father.

Greetigs and keep it up!

30 Andrew March 16, 2013 at 7:37 pm

I come from a family where my parents are still together. My father is an excellent role model. As a 20 something young man, I can attest to the power of positive male influence in my life weather it be from my father, or the other men that I look to for inspiration. I think I saw this quote here “a boy without a role model is like an explorer without a map”

31 Robert M March 16, 2013 at 8:16 pm

Thank you for writing this. I was surprised at how much I related to your story and the personality traits you describe.

32 Ben March 16, 2013 at 8:23 pm

I think this article was very well written and very thought provoking. As another person who grew up without a father, I found this VERY relatable.

A lot of these criticisms aren’t making much sense to me. Why are you looking for hard scientific facts, data, and evidence in a narrative based on personal experience? This is AoM, not Scientific American.

33 claude March 17, 2013 at 7:13 am

I just want to add this: Keep the door open for your absentee father. I didn’t know my dad until my late teens. Nothing can make up for the lost time together, but we’ve both gained alot from our patched up relationship. I don’t really think of him as a dad, but he’s become a pretty good friend.

Fantastic work, Brett. Again, you’ve written what I feel, but have trouble expressing.

34 Dan T March 17, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Great article and a I see a lot of the issues I deal with on here. My father was also absent and he’s gone now (and I’m not sad about that, he was a miserable person.)

Just in the future, don’t cite the Family Research Council, bunch of bigots they are.

35 Robert M March 17, 2013 at 6:41 pm

To Devon and Andy:

Devon, you mentioned being skeptical about lumping together absentee and alcoholic fathers. There are probably good reasons to make these distinctions in research. But one reason I was surprised by how much I identified with the article is that my parents never divorced and, except for a couple of years in my early childhood, my father was always there. But he drank heavily when I was young and even after he stopped, he wasn’t emotionally present when I was growing up. I hadn’t thought before about how much I might have in common with a man raised by a single mother.

36 Skweekah March 17, 2013 at 7:32 pm

I love this article, not cause my dad was a bad guy, but because I need to be reminded, especially as I now am a dad. And, even though my dad was around, I see myself with these faults, as I think most men do, whether there’s a father figure in their lives or not. It’s just part of being human. But, a great motivational article. Thanks.

37 mike March 17, 2013 at 9:36 pm

Thank you

38 Daniel March 17, 2013 at 11:08 pm

The Family Research Council is a TERRIBLE source to cite. They have no credibility as researchers and only exist to advance religion disguised as family protectionism.

Nigel Hunter, joining a religion seems like a valueless proposition. Sidestepping the debate about the existence of deities, good men are everywhere and are certainly not limited to a particular flavour of a particular religion.

Join a charity where good men volunteer, spend time with a family friend, find someone in the community who is actually doing good, manly things and not just talking about them. Good men are often quiet. You just need to look a bit harder to find them.

39 KierO March 18, 2013 at 11:29 am

1) Yes – Until recently.
2) Yes – still to this day.
3) Not so much.
4) Yes.

My parents divorced when I 4-5 years old. For much of my life I have struggled with simple “manly” tasks (DIY, Car Maint etc etc) and with deeper emotional issues because I grew up without a male role model. My mum was, is and always will be fantastic, her role of support being continued by my equally fantastic wife.

When I was 14 my mum re-married, to my dead-beat idiot step father, whose idea of “fixing things” was to shout at it and hit it with a hammer. He too, like my father, is history.

Until fairly recently I have had issues with a need for constant validation, until the birth of my son. At which point I saw that I was a good man, and a good father and no longer needed that constant pat on the back. I become much more confident as a person.

I have always been my own worst critic. I get very annoyed at myself for not being able to do things, even If I have a valid reason for not being good at it. Although I am still harsh on myself I find that research (AoM being a fantastic resource among many others) and practice help me perfect many things. Simple things like shaving and car maintenance to name but a few.

And yes I was for many years someone who would struggle to finish things as soon as it became challenging. This is something in myself that I have disposed of through nothing but inner determination and not wanting to be seen as “flaky” among my peers.

I had many failings because of my father, but it was precisely because of my father’s absence that I wanted to change these things and be a better person then he ever was.

I intend to be a good father to my son (and to my second child when it arrives in September) and a good husband to my wife, all because my father was NOT there when I was growing up.

I am a good man, not because of my father, but in-spite of him.

40 Eric Champagne March 18, 2013 at 11:29 am

Bret/Andy, my father is an alcoholic, and I can absolutely relate with all of these things, most profoundly the follow thru or lack there of. When my father became sober, about a 1-1/2 years ago, I began to look for ways to heal also. I ended up finding Al-Anon. What a wonderful resource and place of healing it has become. There are many different groups where work on these exact subjects can be done, I encourage anyone who is curious to check it out @

41 Dave March 18, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Congratulations Andy. The first step to resolving a problem is admitting that it exists. However, in the words of Jim Malone (Sean Connery): “What are you prepared to do?”

This is one of the categorical differences between men and women I’ve observed in nearly four decades of life. Women want to understand something and empathize with it. Men seem to have a genetic need to fix a problem.

Perhaps the question should be: “How are you going to improve the situation for your kids?”

As for the byzantine workings of family courts, I’ll agree that there are some horror stories out there. The system isn’t perfect. Granted, I’ve seen a good number of dads who were blindsided by the fact that their philandering/abuse/drinking/drug-taking/neglect/any combination of the aforementioned constituted grounds for divorce and the removal of custody, but I’ve also seen men whose wives just got bored lose everything because married life doesn’t work like a movie or television program.

I can give a reasoned suggestion, but I wouldn’t be speaking from a point of personal experience. That having been said, men, even if they’ve been wronged in the courts, rarely appeal the decision of a judge. When the divorce battles begin, men rarely come to the table with the understanding that their spouse is legally entitled to half, regardless of her contributions. Is there a bias against men in the courts? You betcha, but just announcing that something is wrong is not enough. Whether it’s avoiding the passage of our psychological issues to the next generation or it’s fighting the misanthropy of family courts, the solution comes down to one question:

What are you prepared to do?

42 Naomi March 18, 2013 at 4:39 pm

This is so right-on.

43 John March 18, 2013 at 5:16 pm

Great article and many valid points.

I must say however, there is another side to this. Growing up with an absentee father, I believe, gave me the opposite of these characteristics. Now I am a super-aggressive, self sufficient, type-A who mows over anything in my path to get it done at all costs, regardless of validation and the feelings of others. And although this has benefited my career for the most part, it has negatively affected me personally. Because of my personality I have the tendency (although lately I am working hard to reverse this) to not concern myself with the feelings of the people in my way, around me, support me, etc. Or my feelings for that matter. I become so wrapped up in the “mission” (this is used in a general term, I am a civilian) that everything else better look out. As a result, friends are few, and thank god every day I have the most incredible woman by my side who is willing, and able, to keep me in check when needbe. So there is probably another article to write about my experience but I just figured I would share.

44 D March 19, 2013 at 12:16 am

Gee, my mom never wanted my dad to see me even though he’s a great man. So, he was forced to be absentee. I notice that I definitely gravitate towards father figures and older brother figures. Weird.

45 Frank March 19, 2013 at 12:21 pm

This post really hit home. I’m in the same situation: only child to a single mother who divorced when I was 4.

I’m in my 30s, and only in the last few years have I even acknowledged that I have many of the traits you describe. Even though I’m happily married and have great friends, sometimes I feel that overcoming these issues is insurmountable because no one I know can relate. I’m surprised there are no support groups for this. I guess I never looked; “a real man just gets it done and stops whining”.

It’s a huge relief to see these traits written down with actionable solutions. Sometimes becoming a father scares me; I don’t want to turn into mine. Thank you, and all the other commentors who share their experiences.

46 Denis March 19, 2013 at 12:48 pm

This article and all the comments are heart touching. I feel not alone, and that makes me feel good.It is not by accident we are on this website, we are striving for things that some are missing. While growing up, my father was away on the other continent, and I have learned to self check and attempted to correct things that seemed to be bad in my behavior and personality. Ultimately to compensate for not having father in my early life, I have found other figures that I think represented “real man” and mimic them. As it turned out, I think it wasnt all that bad, I certainly did not learned my fathers negative habits. One advice I want to give to all of you who has found this subject close to home, is never to expect the love and trust which mother has for you onto any other person in this life. Nobody would truly care for you in this life like she cares. Some might try without even being aware of it to find a partner that would resemble their mother’s care. We live in very egoistic society dont expect much from anyone. Last thing is Be Strong!

47 Timothy March 19, 2013 at 4:21 pm

Loved this article. Loved the comments. In my view, the author’s dead right, and I don’t need peer-reviewed studies to recognize the truth, because it hurts.

Don’t feel quite so alone after reading this and the other commenters’ stories, so maybe you might feel better reading my own.

My dad had two kids with one woman and dropped her fast. Then he had two with my mom, dropped her even faster though remaining legally married. Finally he had two more with a third woman who knew all too well how to put him in chains, and that’s where he is today. Far, far away.

He was in my life very rarely, and I raised myself with some help from mom and maternal grandma, but that never seemed odd. It was just like dad was away on a short vacation and about to return home. It’s so easy for a child to fool himself.

This went on until I reached puberty. Then it was announced that he had a baby with some strange woman, and would marry her and divorce my mom. Divorce me and my sister too, of course. That was a bullet to my brain. What it did to my personality I’m only beginning to understand after 25 years.

Naturally my supreme goal became not doing this to my own children. How terrified I was that I might insensibly follow in his footsteps.

But it turns out that it’s not so difficult to be an attentive father. Whether times are easy or challenging, when I look at my two young sons I can’t imagine ever turning my back on them. Seems like it would take a lot more courage to be a heel. But my father never seemed like a courageous man.

Getting over the need for constant validation is rough. It’s a habit. I keep thinking it’s gone and it pops up again. I don’t recall a single sincere validation from my father — until just recently, to my great surprise. Not for being a productive adult, or for my happy marriage, or for raising his grandchildren. No, it was because of my minor success as a bodybuilder.

I realized that his validation didn’t matter at all. How silly to have craved it for so long.

What does matter is raising my own children. To accept my own imperfections, to experience true loyalty, to never give up on life’s most important project.

My boys will grow up never knowing what it means to have an absent father. And then maybe I can forget about it, too.

48 Killian March 20, 2013 at 8:38 am

I struggled with all this issues growing up, and at 21 I still do to some extent, but when I took up playing rugby, it filled the void of a strong male role model, with three excellent coaches, and great friends who all looked out for each other. I recommend the sport to anybody struggling through their teens. You don’t know loyalty until you are in a scrum, with your life in your best friends’ hands.

49 Jonathan March 21, 2013 at 1:04 am

This article hit home. I have all for of the afflictions, I feel like a statistic. Calculated and predicted.

50 Rusty March 21, 2013 at 9:44 am

Matt R March 15, 2013 at 4:39 pm wrote: “I think this is a very good article and it surprisingly hit close to home with me. Not because my father was physically absent, but rather because he was dealing with PTSD from his service in Vietnam and was emotionally absent.”

Echo! Thank you for the diagnoses, Andy. I wish I had’ve read such an article a few decades ago.

51 c.w. March 22, 2013 at 8:42 am

I joined the Masonic Lodge around 25-26. Having this network of other men that I could talk to and the support of a fraternity has been of tremendous benefit for me as a male with an alcoholic and absentee father.

It gives me an environment where I can just ‘be a guy’, I have made new friends and found mentors and role models.

52 JasonG March 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm

I thought this article was something different (don’t get me wrong, it’s good!).

Could we get an article for divorced dads up here? I’ve been divorced a little over 5 years. I see them as often as time/distance/money affords (usually every other weekend, and a good 90 % of school holidays), but I always feel like I’m doing something wrong. Or that I’m not around enough…things like that.

How can I make sure I’m still a positive, present influence on my children’s lives (one son, one daughter) when I can’t be there but want to?

Or, to refer back to what I thought I would read here: even though I’m divorced, how do I NOT become an absentee father?

53 Mark March 25, 2013 at 4:03 am

This is a tough and personal subject. The Author has found the manhood trait of recognizing his environment and looking inward to be sure he’s doing the right thing.

I’m a 45 year old divorced father. It was the one outcome I feared more than anything because of my children. The more I tried, the more she seemed to enjoy the power she felt. In the end my children lost and she is lost in completely different way.

Unfortunately I had to take a job away from my children to keep out of prison by sending child support money to the ex-wife.

Society turns against a divorced Father. Preschool teachers, Judges, Lawyers, relatives, friends, Police other women. The assumption is that you are no good.

Divorce with children is taken too lightly. There are tremendous life changing obstacles for Divorced Fathers that in many cases can not be overcome.

54 Tim Bowen March 25, 2013 at 11:19 am

Wow, an article written just for me! Thank you for this.

55 George March 25, 2013 at 7:46 pm

Wow spot on.

My dad moved out the day before my 13th birthday and my parents’ divorce was pretty bitter, lasting a solid 5 years.

One thing I think this article missed is intimacy problems. A prevalent theme for me and others I think is being torn between a need to be close out of fear of abandonment and a need to be distant out of fear of being hurt.

Being a harsh self-critic has probably been the hardest for me and I trace this back to both my parents portraying the other in a negative light. Both our parents make up a large chunk of who we are and to see them cast in a negative light is to see a part of ourselves that way, especially during those, “Oh sh%^ I am my parents” moments. I encourage divorced parents to really try to avoid this.

I’m 27 now and it’s only been in the last few years that I have started to feel grounded. That being said, I think it has spurred me to blaze my own path and evolve. One of my personal adages is “The sh***iest experiences are the best teachers.” Another good one I heard a couple years ago is that to be a man is to overcome your childhood psychology.

56 David March 27, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Thanks for this article. My wife and I are finally deciding to have children, and having grown up without a father one of the things I constantly find myself afraid of is that I’ll end up being as bad of a father as mine was. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to check out the rest of the articles that were suggested.

57 Manny El Hefe March 28, 2013 at 6:36 pm

This is so spot on. I can definitely relate to the part about the tendencies of adult children of absentee/abusive/alcoholic fathers. These things have always been a struggle, even to this day for me, and I thank you for the tips.

58 Julie March 29, 2013 at 7:24 pm

In case you couldn’t tell by my name, I am a female reading this website. I grew up with my father in the house, but he really didn’t participate in my childhood. All that child-rearin’ was my mother’s job and since he worked all day he just wanted to be left alone goddamnit. Reading this article, I was shocked to see that I embody all four traits of adult children of absentee/abusive/alcoholic fathers. So I just want to say to all the good men out there who are thoughtful enough to be reading these kinds of articles and the comments, please keep in mind that ladies, even ladies who grew up with their fathers around, can also turn out this way. Just wanted to add that so that we may all have a little more empathy toward one another. Cheers!

59 J Nelson April 12, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Thanks for sharing this, especially the personal testimony. I am right there with you from a personal standpoint, and hopefully a lot of us can learn from the mistakes of previous generations.

60 JT Syracuse April 16, 2013 at 1:21 am

As a young man (23) raised by nobody other than my great grandmother, this really hits home. From personal experience I can say that this advise is some of the most valuble I’ve found online. Great article.

61 lory May 15, 2013 at 5:24 am

Oh wow, this article fits me like a tailored suit. Every single trait, damn.

62 David June 22, 2013 at 4:05 pm

I have avoidance personality disorder, I’m socially anxious and always prefer the way which requires as less communication as possible. My greatest regret was not visiting my Grandpa on my dad’s side in another country before he died of cancer, and I haven’t seen him since I was 8. I had a great goddamn opportunity to visit him, I could have taken time off school, but my mother’s anxiety to see my father again and my own irrational avoidance fused to make me finally decide to visit him, but he died a few days before I came. It was such a stupid case. I had so much chance to visit him but I was scared of it. My own goddamn Grandpa had cancer and my childish brain could not comprehend that I need to visit him, urgently. I feel now only guilt and sorrow and I can’t look at my father, or anyone from my father’s side in the eye without it. If I lived with my father, he would naturally force me to visit, but probably would also make me less anxious and avoidant. Well now I learned to never let my avoidance get in my way in social interaction, but it still kicks in from time to time.

63 Hébert June 23, 2013 at 3:29 am

This is a great article, I was raised by my mother alone, and as a 23 years old man I’m facing this issues myself. Thank you.

64 Rachael July 23, 2013 at 12:25 am

This is a good article for women who grew up without a father as well. I appreciate the solution suggestions.

65 Cheryl Wilson November 18, 2013 at 8:10 pm

Lovely article Andy, this is a profound and delicate topic, I give you praise for attempting to tackle it with dignity rather than anger or blame or self-pity.

I wonder if you’ve run across any articles, web content, or lit that discusses community involvement in the lives of wayward youth abandoned by their father. The reason I ask is, I recently found myself something of a mentor to two neighborhood boys who both have tragic relationships with their fathers (I’ll spare you the details). It was very rewarding, and the difference in their personalities is truly amazing.

They both are being raised by single moms, both due to abusive circumstances. Their moms are loving and do the best they can, but generally are ill-equipped to handle the enormous responsibility of being role model, as well as breadwinner and caregiver. So with the absence of a decent father figure, it falls on the rest of us in society.

Given that most single parent homes are headed by women, and that many are alarmingly poor, and that this trend is increasing year-on-year (lets not get into theories in this post, please), and that many of the children have little to no relationship, or respect, for their fathers, it should not come as a surprise that so many boys (and girls) raised by single moms are lacking in direction (for reasons stated above).

My burning desire is to see more people, men specifically but it doesn’t have to be, provide other people’s children with the direction and leadership they so desperately need. I know it is idealistic to imagine anyone teaching someone else’s children self-discipline, but honestly, the rewards would be enormous!

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