There are a lot of people out there in the world who have grown up without one or both parents. Naturally, these people crop up in fiction on a reasonably regular basis. Children’s and young adult literature seems especially fond of the orphan, but people with deadbeat or otherwise absent parents show up every so often too. Today I would like to discuss in particular characters who are fatherless, and the fact that they are almost always depicted abysmally.
I grew up without a father myself. In my case, the reason is that my father didn’t react well to the news of my mother’s accidental pregnancy and fled for the hills before I was even born. I’ve never met the man, and aside from a one-year period where my mom had a boyfriend who lived with us, I never had any sort of adult male presence in my life on a daily basis (I never even had a male classroom teacher in elementary school).
Coming from that standpoint, there is little in this world that infuriates me like the premise of Disney’s third Aladdin movie, Aladdin and the King of Thieves (shut up–I was an Aladdin fanatic as a kid, and no one can tell me it isn’t amazing…sans sequels). In the movie, Aladdin and Jasmine are about to get married, but suddenly Aladdin realizes that he can’t marry and start a family of his own because he won’t be a whole person until he gets to know his dad, whom he has never met, and obtains his blessing for the wedding. His attitude is summed up in this, the first musical number of the film:
Here is what I would like to make perfectly clear to the creators of this film and everyone who has ever written or thinks they might write a character without a dad (and also, just to be thorough, everyone who says “I’m sorry” when I tell them I don’t have a dad): I AM OKAY. I am not emotionally crippled. I do not stay awake at night contemplating the GIANT GAPING HOLE in my sense of self that will only be filled when I track down my father and have a heart-to-heart conversation that results in tears, hugs, and touching character growth on both our parts. Am I curious? Yeah, okay, a little. But mostly I’m just disgusted and honestly kind of thankful that I dodged that bullet. About the only time I regret not having a dad is when a doctor asks about my family medical history and I have to tell her that I can’t rule anything out because I can only account for half my genes.
When I was a toddler, my friends at daycare couldn’t understand the concept of not having a dad, so I told them that the homeless man who walked past the house every day was my dad, and every day we would gather at the screen door and wave at him as he passed by (or so I’m told–I have no actual memories of this). If this were the typical representation of fatherless children in fiction, this would be symptomatic of some deep inner turmoil, an indication that I was desperately searching to fill the fatherless void of my tragic childhood with the nearest male. But, you know, I’m pretty sure I just wanted my friends to shut up about the whole dad thing. Or maybe I wanted to fit in, since they all had dads. I doubt I even really understood the concept of fatherhood, since it’s not something I had ever experienced.
Maybe it would be different if I had started out life with two parents and then lost one, but I have never felt like my home life was lacking. Indeed, the most wretched part of my childhood was the time my mom had a serious boyfriend, because suddenly there was some strange man monopolizing the time and attention that had previously belonged solely to me. I felt that my relationship with my mother suffered, and life for my pre-adolescent self didn’t feel right again until they broke up and I had her to myself again. This brings me to a second point: Families with one parent are not inherently inferior to families with two parents. They are different, yes, but not lesser. Indeed, to this day I can hardly imagine a better home life than the one I had. There is pretty much nothing about the way I was raised that I would change, and that includes the fact that I only had one parent. Our whole family dynamic would have been different if I’d had two parents, and I like my family dynamic the way it is, thanks.
Okay, sure, I was interested in meeting my father when I was younger, mostly so I could ask him why he abandoned my mom when she was pregnant. I found this behavior puzzling, and wanted to get his take on it. Point number three: I never, EVER blamed myself for my father not sticking around. I didn’t once entertain the thought that I was somehow responsible for breaking up some great love affair that would have ended in happily ever after if I hadn’t come along to ruin the party. I never thought that if only I had been a better fetus, he would have hung around to meet me. (This particular part of the rant brought to you by this scene in CW drama Hellcats. Start at 2:10 for the infuriating part.)
So the next time you’re thinking about creating character conflict by having your fatherless character set out to discover her long-lost dad, don’t have her reasoning be just that she just won’t be a whole person until she has a dad. You can do so much better. Examples of good reasons: She needs a kidney or some bone marrow. She thinks she might be the long-lost heir to a vast fortune. She has just discovered that she has the power to move through space and time, and she certainly didn’t inherit it from her mother. You can write totally awesome fatherless characters, and even write about their fatherless state without turning it into some kind of self-worth thing. While I can’t speak for every fatherless child to ever walk the earth, I can tell you that I, for one, have absolutely zero percent of my self-worth tied up in the fact that my father didn’t feel like raising me.
And just for the record, creators of Aladdin and the King of Thieves? If I ever get married, my father totally isn’t invited to the wedding.
(P.S. If you’re doing research, the only really acceptable work of fiction I’ve encountered that deals directly with the issue of absentee fathers is Paul Fleischman’s YA novel Seek. It’s quite an odd novel in other respects, but the representation of the main character’s inner relationship with his absent father rang true for me, and the resolution was also very well done.)