Source: Kelli McClintock/Unsplash.
Paradoxically, it is both easier and harder to discuss the effect a verbally abusive or emotionally distant father has on the developing child than it is for a mother with the same behavior. On the one hand, fathers and fatherhood don’t have the equivalent of the mother myths—the ideas that all women are nurturing, that mothering is instinctual, that all mothers love their children unconditionally—to impede honest discussion. Culturally, we’re much more comfortable talking about how men fail at fatherhood than we are when we talk about women and motherhood.
Many years ago, when my book Mean Mothers was published and Oprah Winfrey still ruled the sales of books, we did an analysis of the number of her shows devoted to men and their failures—cheating husbands, deadbeat Dads, guys who hit, etc.—compared to women and theirs, and the results were eye-opening. It appeared that women were basically off-limits.
But, while it’s easier on a personal and cultural level to talk about fathers, it’s also harder in some meaningful ways, especially when it comes to the role the father plays in the household.
Generally, because they spend more time devoted to child-rearing, mothers’ behaviors affect the child more directly; much depends on the role the father plays in the family dynamic.
Long Live the King
Traditionally, the father was seen as the breadwinner who made the economic decisions as well as the disciplinarian; as the “head of the household,” he was likely to value respect and obedience over dialogue not just from his children but also from his wife. While this model has been undercut by the rise of women in the workforce and more egalitarian visions of both marriage and parenting, it certainly still exists. This role is the one that is most easily corrupted by the power inherent in it and is the wellspring for verbal abuse such as shaming, denigrating, gaslighting, and scapegoating. You’d think that because there’s so much overt abusive behavior it would be comparatively easier for the child or young adult to see, but, as my interviews for my forthcoming book on verbal abuse demonstrated, that’s not always the case. Here’s what Dan, 43, wrote:
My father always prefaced whatever nastiness he handed out with either the words “I am doing this for your good” or “If you hadn’t done x or y, I wouldn’t have had to be so hard on you.” And because I wanted him to love and admire me, I really believed that he wasn’t behaving badly or hurting me but that it was somehow my fault. I didn’t believe my first therapist when he said my father was a mean bastard either; I kept defending him. I thought my wife didn’t understand that he was well-intentioned despite his tone. But when my father unloaded on my kid the way he had on me, a thousand lightbulbs went off in my head. And when I faced him down, he called me disrespectful. I haven’t spoken to him since.
The daughters and sons of these fathers eventually come to a moment of recognition of how they were abused; along with it is a reckoning of how their mothers behaved. Did they aid and abet or did they do what they could to shield their children?
The Disappearing Act
But the King of the Castle isnt the only role a father can play; some abdicate their roles to the extent they can either because they want to or because the balance of power within their marriage requires it when it comes to raising the children. While egalitarian models of parenting are undercut by maternal gatekeeping, gatekeeping may also affect a father’s responses. That was true in Karen’s family; Ultimately, her parents divorced:
My mother is a perfectionist who needs everything done “right.” She’s the kind of person who reloads the dishwasher the “right” way because your efforts were crummy. She undercut my father at every turn—called him a “slob” and “useless” when he helped in the house—and he basically checked out. He didn’t fight back or even try anymore. He spent as little time as possible at home and then disappeared into his shop in the garage. The sad thing is that he doesn’t know either of his kids; he didn’t when he lived with us and made no effort to see us when they divorced. As difficult and demanding as our mother is, both my brother and I grew up fatherless. His inability to be confrontational set a lousy example and both of us have been in therapy to try to untangle the mess. I am 40 and my brother is 45.
Almost as damaging as the tyrant who frightens and verbally abuses is the father who stands by as his wife—the children’s mother—engages in abusive behaviors. Sometimes, the loyalist plays the appeaser, telling the son or daughter that the mother’s intentions are pure and that her anger or rage is just “the way she is”; that was true for Joanne whose father took her mother’s side not just in childhood but long into adulthood:
In a way, his behavior was actually worse than my mother’s because while she couldn’t own how hurtful her behavior was to me—she had total denial—my father actually did know how much pain I was in but his loyalty to my mother trumped all. Looking back, he betrayed me more and disappointed me more than her cruelty did.
The Loyalist may also join in, becoming an abuser in his own right, leaving the child or children to figure out how to cope with two sets of sights trained on them. When this happens, sibling relationships are likely to splinter in an “every kid for him or herself” kind of way as each child tries to stay out of the direct line of fire. It’s not unusual for a sibling to join in on the bullying, loyalty to the parents, or to tattle or do what he or she can shift blame onto another child. In adulthood, these siblings may become deniers and defenders of their parents’ narrative.
The Cultural Take
Accepting that some fathers are abusive isn’t really a taboo; There are plenty of examples in literature and memoir to make the admission palatable and far less loaded with shame than a similar admission about mothers. That said, being able to talk about it is the first step in healing the damage.
This post is drawn from interviews for my book, Daughter Detoxand my forthcoming book on verbal abuse.
Copyright © 2022 by Peg Streep