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Daddy's Girl 

Out of grief comes growth when daughters lose their dads

By the time they reach 50, half of American women will have experienced the deaths of their fathers -- a familiar rite of passage, it would seem, but in the annals of popular psychology, not a familiar subject.

When author and Boston Globe columnist Clea Simon lost her dad, a protective, sometimes domineering and well-respected physician, she noticed certain distinct changes taking place in her life.

As she explains in the introduction to Fatherless Women, "The inspiration for this book came from a series of changes that I noticed in my life after my father died, then witnessed again in the lives of friends as they also lost their fathers. These changes appeared small at first, but what I saw was that within a few years of our bereavements, their cumulative effect was overwhelming."

Simon noted career changes, changes in the style of work pursued, changes in relationships, and changes in self-image among women in their 30s and 40s who lost their fathers. Granted, these changes could be associated with age and experience as well as the death of a male parent, she notes, "But over all of the changes we've experienced hangs the shadow of our fathers, or perhaps the sudden absence of that shadow, an experience I've confirmed with dozens of women and with psychiatric professionals who work with families and with women going through transitions."

Compounding the impact and influence of the loss of our fathers, says Simon, is the fact that the current generation of women at the prime age of father loss is a "hinge generation."

"We were their girls," said Simon in a recent interview, "their ballerinas, their little princesses. They wanted to protect us. They lived in a world where they fulfilled traditional gender roles, but we came up in a feminist, post-feminist time when we modeled ourselves after them career-wise. We got these mixed messages. We wanted them to love us, but we couldn't be the people they wanted us to be."

For some women, then, the death of a father, while compacted with loss and grief, also meant a release from expectations, either real or imagined. In Fatherless Women, a hybrid of memoir, self-help and psychological study, many women, including the author, come away after the grieving process feeling free to pursue avenues in their lives that they feared might have drawn derision or disapproval from their fathers.

Embedded in the grief process, says Simon, is an ambivalence born of confusing, dynamic times.

"My mother was a serious artist and a doctor's wife," she said. "She had gallery representation, all the marks of success as an artist. But the much more important role in my family is that she was the mother and the doctor's wife. How could we not soak up some of this ambivalence around gender roles and success? Our generation of women played out the ambivalence with our fathers, and we have a lot of trouble sorting that out while they're alive."

Written in short, chatty chapters, Fatherless Women is an easy, hospitable read that invites the reader to imbibe a bit, then put the book down and think about what it says, usually in the spirit of recognition.

"It was my editor's idea to break the chapters into small bits," she said. "The good thing about a book is that it's not a piece of fruit. You can put it down for a week and it doesn't go away."

For women who have lost their fathers, the book holds many recognizable truths that are communicated in a comfortable mix of first-person prose and reportage, the same style Simon used in her first book, Mad House, an award-winning account of growing up the youngest, normal child in a family with two schizophrenic siblings. In that book, like this one, says Simon, it's not that her experience was the "most important story," but "there are a lot of us out there with similar experiences that we never got to share."

"What I think of when I'm writing," she said, "is that I'm talking to a peer, being as honest about what I think as I can possibly be. My readers are like the next-door neighbor I haven't met. We've all been there and had similar experiences. I'm just asking, 'Isn't that what it was like?' "

In the case of losing a father, the author is clear that this primal relationship and the ongoing ramifications of it are central to a woman's life and don't end when Daddy dies.

"Emotionally, I would like people who read the book to feel like they've been heard, that they are part of a conversation, that these little changes, these deep emotions, these repercussions are shared with other women," said Simon. "I want them to feel connected and heard.

"Intellectually, I'd like people to go away from this knowing that out of their grief, out of their loss, there's a great potential for growth. No matter how late in life, there's a chance to re-evaluate this primal relationship and to blossom in new ways. Growth and change is possible, and can come directly from this crisis."

Fatherless Women puts that crisis in a perspective that provides recognition of mutual, sometimes profound change, even in the face of great loss.

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