Father's Day, Absent Dads and the Question of Marriage

After a number of years as a dedicated activist for social causes, I made a few fairly decisive moves outside of my comfort zone. I went to business school, flirted rather heavily with corporate America, bought a bunch of suits, and tempered my political views in some of the cliché ways expected of people transitioning into their thirties. Following this period, I suddenly found myself at a conference for activists working in media. I expected a few sideways glances and braced for a dose of judgment. However, I never thought that the main point of ire would be my support for what I thought was a reasonably progressive position: marriage equality.

I'd been recently doing media work promoting the inclusion of gay and lesbian couples in the institution of marriage. It was an issue that aligned with my values of fairness and human rights. Having become familiar with a number of families who would greatly benefit from being legally recognized, I thought this was a just cause. And as a straight woman, seeing the dynamics between same-sex couples actually made me rethink some of my own assumptions about the significance of marriage.

While I was celebrating the recently announced legislation allowing marriage for gay and lesbian people in New York State, a good friend of mine who'd brought me to the conference unleashed a torrential downpour on my enthusiasm. In what started as a friendly discussion with a gathering of women, some of whom were gay or bisexual, she accused me of defending a dead institution.

My friend, who has written on the topic, described marriage as an outdated and broken idea, and many nodded in agreement. I offered that I'd previously put very little stock in the notion of marriage, as someone from a family where women often never married or divorced. It was my interaction with gay couples fighting so hard for the right to marry that made me reconsider the value of formal legal unions between two people in romantic partnership. Some of the women looked at me sympathetically and others with open disinterest. Although I'd worried about feeling like the conservative sellout at some point at the conference, I never really predicted that it would be like this.

There's a bit of irony in this scenario. The diverging outlook that my friend and I have about marriage is rooted in the same source. We both were raised not knowing our fathers. Mine divorced my mother and abandoned us when I was a toddler. Her parents were never married and her mother chose to raise her without ties to her father, facilitated by child-rearing support from her sisters in what I picture as a “Little Women” scenario.

Whether we actively want marriage or quietly slither away from the bouquet at weddings, more often than not we share some degree of inner turmoil in navigating our relationships and setting down an anchor in a married union.

My mother and I, basically on our own, were like partners. I did things as a child like balance the checkbook, review bills and assemble furniture. As an active participant in my upbringing, I was painfully aware of how difficult our life was and subsequently became mortally afraid of ever becoming a single mom myself one day. My friend learned to see raising a family without traditional marriage as an act of independence – whereas I saw it as such a terrifying prospect that I would sooner avoid, than have it fall apart and find myself alone with a child. And while I was somewhat transformed by advocating marriage rights for others, I remain immobilized by ambivalence when it comes to my own prospects.

Us fatherless women may adapt to our surroundings in different ways but we do seem to gravitate towards each other. Many of my close friends through the years, across races and ethnic backgrounds, have been women with troubled or absent relationships with their fathers. One of them even wrote a one woman show about it. That same friend frequently sends me e-cards on Father's Day with jokes about us commiserating like Jewish kids during Christmas. And while this is not a scientific finding, I have noticed over the years that among us, whether we actively want marriage or quietly slither away from the bouquet at weddings, more often than not we share some degree of inner turmoil in navigating our relationships and setting down an anchor in a married union. 

Much (arguably too much) has been written about Black women not getting married, often coupled with a litany of statistics, including the high proportion without involved fathers. However, I often wonder if women raised with absent or neglectful fathers are our own unique demographic, regardless of race.

If we are, here is my Father's Day message to us: 1) send a loving message or thought to your mom 2) send a loving message or thought to your father (even if you happen to believe that he is a horrible human being) and 3) remind yourself that you are capable