Toxic Fathers and Their Legacy: Seeing the Damage Done

Source: Photograph by Kat J. Copyright free. Unsplash

From the outside, their family looked perfect—and that was very much by design. A man and a woman, both of them from poor backgrounds, making a success of their lives. Five children, all of them good-looking, athletic, and high-achieving students, born in two batches. The first two separated by a few years were Wave One; the next three were Wave Two, the first seven years younger. The family had all the hallmarks of a good life: A prosperous and well-respected father, a mother of both personal and professional accomplishment, an enviable house, and prestigious boarding schools and colleges for each and every child. Picture-perfect, save for one detail .As the oldest son, his father’s namesake, puts it:

“My father was a tyrant. Forget ‘my way or the highway.’ There was no highway. Only his vision of what we each should be. Who each of us was was of no concern to him, or to my mother who ducked the question. Love? Earned. How much love? How well you did. I failed because I didn’t want what he wanted and that was enough for him to toss me overboard. My Ph.D. was meaningless because it wasn’t the M.D. he wanted. He played favorites too, depending on how closely you honed to what he wanted but going after his love and support—if you can call what he was capable of by those names— was both a thankless and potentially ruinous task as one of my brothers discovered.  He became a success in my father’s eyes but the pressure was relentless and, for a time, consumed him. He became a raging alcoholic. My father didn’t really know any of his five children. That’s the truth.”

Perhaps most telling is that “Bob’s” recognition of this truth came relatively late in life, during adulthood and after he’d had children of his own. This isn’t unusual; all children normalize their experiences, believing that what happens at their house happens everywhere. Recognition of toxic behavior is usually slow in coming. 

Literature is full of these fathers—the raging King Lear, the tormented James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Great Santini’s Bull Meacham—who loom large and scary over their small children, in stark contrast to the caring Atticus Finches of this world. Just as children extrapolate their first ideas about what all women are like from the first woman—their mother—they come into contact with, so too sons and daughters form their first impressions of men and maleness from their fathers. The narcissistic and authoritarian bully, like the one described by Bob, is one kind of toxic father—unbearably present, sucking the oxygen out of the air and the life out of his children.

Then, too, there is the absentee—the man who isn’t there either literally or emotionally. He shapes his children in different ways. This is the story told to me about her father by a daughter, Babs, now 51, whose mother was not just unloving but combative and hurtful:

I think he chose to not see it. He was a shift worker and therefore not there at important times of the day to witness things. I think he tried hard to keep me out from under Mum’s feet when he was around, not sure if that was to protect me or keep her happy. I would like to think he would have had private conversations with Mum about her treatment of me and its inappropriateness. As an adult it was something that was never ever discussed as if it never happened, and in the hope that I would perhaps have no memory of it, which is far from the truth. I think shame on their part was a big thing. Both of them. Mum for being the abuser and Dad for choosing to do nothing.

If there is a theme that emerges from the stories of adults who grew up in dysfunctional or toxic households, it is the failure of the other parent to protect and help them from their mother or father’s abuse. This perceived betrayal may shape their vision of trust and closeness associated with the parent’s gender in myriad ways, as Tim, 45, explained:

My mother made excuses for my father’s bullying and violent temper and encouraged me and my sister to accept him as he was. In some ways, the example she set was far worse than my father’s behavior. She taught us to mistrust our feelings, to ignore our thoughts, and to suck it up to keep the peace. Is it any wonder I’m so uncomfortable in intimate settings with women as an adult?

Exploring the depth of paternal influence

For years, fathers were under-studied; the children’s roost was ruled by Mom, and men were largely relegated to the provider role. It’s extraordinary in some ways to realize that the first professional textbook on fathers edited by Michael Lamb was first published in 1979; now in its fifth edition, the psychological understanding of the roles fathers play in children’s development is decidedly more nuanced. That said, the research shows the paternal influence isn’t just different from how mothers shape their children’s development but, indeed, not as significant. Note that “not as significant” does not mean “without significance.”
Obviously, fathers don’t experience pregnancy or birth firsthand but, that said, studies do show that new fathers experience hormonal changes when a child is born. The reality is that mothers spend more time with infants generally, both because of nursing, the roles the parents have decided to play, and maternal gatekeeping; it’s been shown in many studies that despite the prevalence of both parents working, women tend to gatekeep the traditionally female domains.

What studies do show is that fathers tend to interact with their infants, toddlers, and children differently than mothers do; most of the interactions involve play, and most fathers play differently than mothers. The rough-and-tumble kind of play fathers engage in appears to be a kid favorite, researchers note; children are more apt to choose Dad over Mom when it comes to playtime. Just as mothers do, father tend to adjust their speech when they’re talking to infants, speaking more slowly, with repeated phrases, and the like.

Not surprisingly, how attuned and sensitive a father is to his child’s cues affects the relationship. Good marriages make for good fathers too, studies show—and that’s not a surprise either. Good fathers model behaviors that their wives may not and may demonstrate problem-solving behaviors that offer growing children more options. Studies of children of divorce who don’t have their fathers in their lives show that their socio-emotional development is affected, especially in the realm of acting out or indulging in risky behavior; this is especially true of boys.

There are fathers like Atticus Finch who open up their children’s world in positive and affirming ways. The toxic father does none of that.

Societal onus and emotional confusion

“How can you tell if it’s your father or mother who was unloving? I can’t tell. I don’t remember either of them connecting to me in any meaningful way. I was ignored, a chore they had to deal with, someone who needed food, clothes, and shelter. But I blame my mother more. Is that fair?”

This was a question posed to me by a reader last week and I found it interesting and revelatory. The culture is far more willing to stomach the idea that fathers can be unloving and uncaring than mothers; that’s a testament to the power of the mother myths—that women are by nature nurturing, that mothering is instinctual, that all mothers love their children—as well as the conviction that being a father isn’t as “real” as being a mother. To a society used to tales of deadbeat Dads and Madonna Moms, criticizing your father in public doesn’t immediately carry with it the onus of being called an ingrate or a fabulist.

Anecdotally at least, daughters tend to report being absent as their fathers’ greatest flaw while sons report more aggression. But generalizations aren’t always true, as this story related by a reader makes clear;

He wanted so badly for me to be perfect and avoid making the mistakes he made.  At a very young age I learned to fear him (and most other adults for that matter) and I learned to do things so as not to get in trouble, instead of doing things intentionally and from the heart.  My dad did not engage with me emotionally either.  When he started yelling I would cry, at least in the earlier years of my life but as I aged he increasingly held to his words of “stop crying or I will give you a reason to cry” so I eventually learned to hold in my tears.  It’s taken a lot of therapy and study to get those tears turned back on.  My dad treated me like an animal that needed breaking and the worst part was when, after he had poked or pulled or spanked me, he would force me to give him a hug and he would say he loved me.  I hated him for that.  I never felt like he knew anything about me or even cared to.  He had an idea of who I needed to be and would do whatever it took to make sure I got there.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting the best for your child, of course, but this is something else entirely. And, yes, it’s emotionally confusing.

Bad is stronger than good: A cautionary tale

My own father wasn’t toxic; in fact, many of my strengths as a person can be traced back to him and there’s no question that he loved me in his way. But he died when I was fifteen and I suspect that had he lived, his not having my back—and joining Team Mom which I believe he would have done—would have become a real issue. Did my father not see how she treated me? I believe he did, alas, and accepted it. The sad truth is that I suspect I would have ended up divorcing them both in the end.

We like to think of the good outweighing the bad; that the presence of one reasonably loving, attentive, or even vaguely supportive parent will outweigh the effect of a toxic one. Alas, that’s simply not true in psychological terms. We are, thanks to evolution, hardwired to pay more attention to bad things which we store in an easily retrievable part of memory. Yes, the same place our forebearers stored the helpful observation that lightning killed someone standing under a tree is where we unconsciously park our father’s dressing us down for no reason or playing favorites with our brother. As one famous piece of research put it, “Bad is Stronger than Good.”  Similarly, even though we like to think that the affection of one parent can somehow buffer us from the effects of the abusiveness of the other, that turns out not to be true either. According the work of Ann Polcari, the abuse leaves its mark nonetheless, untouched and unmitigated by the affection offered by the other parent.

Recovering from a toxic father, mother, or both

Working with a gifted therapist is the best route but, of course, you have to recognize your woundedness first which requires you to stop normalizing your childhood experience. As I explain in my latest book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, recognition is just a preliminary step and recovery is less about identifying your parent or parents’ toxic behaviors than it is about understanding the ways in which you adapted to their treatment of you. Understanding how those maladaptive coping mechanisms affect you in the present and learning new behaviors that will help you thrive are at the heart of recovery.

Thanks to my readers on Facebook for sharing their stories.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2018


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