A few years ago I worked as a social worker with disadvantaged teenage girls, many of whom had never gotten even a whiff of their biological fathers. I also, had never known my real father and I picked up on particular distresses these girls and I shared. It was hard to be around them. The needy desperation seemed cavernous and infinite, the desire to prove themselves, to be praised – there was nothing subtle about it.
Of course there were other issues these girls were facing besides not having a father, but it was the lack of a father that I couldn’t help thinking about. I remembered whole years of my life desperately seeking approval and attention from men, in jobs and in relationships, all the time trying to replicate some idealised version of fatherly love.
Sometimes I’d sit with a girl I was meant to be helping and this hopeless, heavy feeling would come over me. I’d think about how desperate and angry and alone some of these girls were going to feel for huge stretches of their lives. How they’d be trying to fill an unmet need for male attention and love, how that need could never be filled. None of us could go back and fill it. All the time and energy that would be wasted.
It almost made me nauseous with the longing and endlessness of it all. I would come home and crawl into bed, weak and unable to think anything positive, terrified for this world full of girls so desperate for the littlest bit of what they should have been given freely in the first place: non-sexual male love and approval.
I was about six years old when a chubby boy on the playground asked me about my dad.
‘I don’t have one,’ I said.
‘You have to have a dad,’ the boy informed me.
‘I only have a mum.’
‘You need a mum and a dad, everyone has a dad.’
He seemed put out, I can’t remember how the argument ended but it was the first I’d heard of this dad business. I thought I just came from my mum, she could do most things by herself, why not make a child?
As I continued though primary school, I realised the extent of my lacking. Nearly everyone else did have a dad. Having a dad also meant you had all these great stories about the dad. I had some good grandma stories, but dad stories always trumped.
When I say stories, they were really playground one liners: ‘My dad drives a truck, his truck is as big as that building over there.’ The audience of mesmerised children would look in awe at the building, then back at the storyteller. I wanted some of that attention. I wanted the excitement and bravado that went with having a dad around.
As I grew older and was invited to sleepovers, I noticed the kids with dads lived in better houses, in nicer parts of town and drove newer cars. ‘You don’t have a family,’ a kid said to me once, ‘it’s just you and your mum.’
I never invited kids over to my house as a rule – there was my overall sense of inadequacy, and the fact that we seemed poor in comparison. But it wasn’t just a monetary lacking, it was a sense of volition and entitlement that I perceived missing. Whenever I was in the presence of a man, I found myself buzzing with awe and overcome by a giant need to show off. I started to wonder what was wrong with me that I didn’t have a dad? Did we lose him? Did we do something wrong? I knew better than to ask my mum, who became awkward at the very mention of the dad question. I started to see her – stressed and struggling financially- and myself as deficient in our dadlessness. I started to think the problem was us.
One afternoon in the playground I announced, ‘My dad lives in Hong Kong.’ A lie, I thought Hong Kong sounded exotic, was bound to draw a crowd.
‘What’s Hong Kong?’ My schoolyard friend asked.
I’d been looking at pictures in my grandma’s National Geographics and answered, ‘Oh it’s probably the biggest city in the world, it’s got the biggest sky scrapers, and when he visits he’s gonna bring me lots of presents.’
This was the beginning of many dad fantasy stories. Lying, to myself and to other kids, made me feel better, it made me feel powerful and important. Throughout primary school I often elaborated on the story and kids would refer to my Hong Kong living, skyscraper building, present buying dad. I had become acutely aware that having access to a man was a big plus. Dads owned things, dads built things, and in the rural town I grew up in, most importantly, Dads worked. To compete, it seemed, you needed a dad, and if life was, as it appeared to be, some sort of competition, I didn’t want to be on the losing team.
Often I tried to recreate ‘dad figures’ in the men around me. I was ten when a long lost uncle announced he was visiting from London. I created fantasies about the cosmopolitan, fun, male role model he was going to be. He was an engineer and I studied the corresponding Encyclopedia Britannica section in the hope of dazzling him with my engineering knowledge. I memorised facts and figures and directed an endless line of questioning at my mum about him.
When he arrived at my grandmother’s house, a towering, thin, grey man, I was too awe struck to speak to him. When asked to tell him how I was, to say hello etc, to ask all the questions I had for him, my terror turned me mute. He looked, not at me, but in my general direction with a grimace. He had this way of looking into the distance above your head, as if everything below his eye level (most people and things) was irrelevant fluff. He snorted then heaved a sigh of exhaustion as he looked back at the newspaper in front of him. He had no time for children, especially mute girl children.
In that moment I felt something inside me, some bubble of hope, collapse.
My uncle and London were as foreign to me as a Hong Kong skyscraper.
I had built him up to be larger than life, a big influence and I could tell I meant nothing to him. It was like, with the flick of a wrist, ‘I’ or my version of ‘I’ could be wiped away like an Etch-A-Sketch. It felt like I’d have to spend years drawing myself in again.
Thinking about the teenage girls I worked with and my own experience, I started to see that fathers, or male role models are in some ways more important to a child’s self-esteem than mothers. Fathers, because of male privilege, mostly have a choice whether they want to be in a child’s life. Mothers often don’t. That choice tells a kid everything. That choice is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ that stays with them their whole life.
I often undervalued my mum, blamed her, hated her, pitied her. It’s not uncommon given how sexism is internalised. But I am also grateful that I was given, early on, a picture of how resilient and adaptable women can be. They are doing the work, they are changing the world, I’ve seen it, I’ve benefitted from it.
The one time I did invite a friend for a sleep over it was my best friend Joanne in high school. She had been pleading to stay over since we met in year five. We stood in the bathroom one afternoon playing around with make-up in front of the mirror and she said: ‘I can’t believe your mum built this house by herself.’ She snorted in amazement. ‘Without even a husband.’
It was true, our little transportable house had basically been put together by my mum. I looked around, she had tiled the bathroom, she had installed the second-hand basin and cabinet, she had painted all the walls, she had made the curtains. Outside she had created a garden, planted trees and concreted a patio, she had built fences and installed a washing line. Everything in the house she had done.
‘It’s pretty amazing’ Joanne said. And I had to agree, it was.
Image: Nick Wilkes
Nadine Browne’s interests include ending sexism and examining the death throes of ‘late stage’ capitalism. Both ‘isms’ loom large in her writing. She writes fiction and non fiction and her work has appeared in Overland and Westerly. She currently has a co-authored book of short stories out with Fremantle Press.