“Sometimes I wish I had cancer so that my dad would give me some attention,” confides my friend.
I should be surprised by her dark sentiments, but I’m not. In fact, I understand completely.
My friend’s parents divorced when she was 10 and ever since her father has been, at best, an absent presence in her life. For most of the year the pain of rejection is a dull ache, but for those big celebrations, like Christmas, the grief and loss come crashing through.
While I haven’t imagined myself with cancer, I have nurtured fantasies in which my dad recovers from a near-death experience and re-evaluates his life priorities.
In my dreams, my father, confronted by his own mortality, realises what he’s been missing and starts the process of reconnecting with his children and makes time to see his grandchildren.
I know that my fantasies are likely to remain just that: fantasies. All the research shows that daughters pay a high price for their parents’ divorce.
Research shows that girls’ and women’s relationships with their fathers suffer much more after divorce than their relationship with their mothers. Daughters also suffer more rejections than sons.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage found that college-age daughters “are less likely than the sons to think that their fathers wanted to spend time with them”.
These daughters also report being less satisfied than sons with the amount of time they had together with their fathers and are less content than sons with their current relationship with their father.
Daughters are less likely than sons to reconcile or come closer to their dads even years after the divorce.
I have too many friends and acquaintances who bear out the research. The “relationship” – and I use that word loosely – that they have with their fathers is a strictly one-way affair.
One friend says her father seemed to simply up and walk away from her family. Any effort to connect with her dad had to be on his terms – and his terms only. No allowance was made for her to adjust to him having a new partner or even to sit down and talk about the divorce. Any attempt to see him alone was interpreted as a sign of disloyalty to his new partner.
It seems that unless daughters enthusiastically and immediately embrace the new partner and their father’s new life choices, they will never be fully permitted back into his life.
While the details are different, the basic pattern is the same. Fathers seem to think that their job is over after their daughter finishes puberty. As my dad told me when I asked him why he no longer had time for me, “I was a good father to you when you are young”.
I no longer need a father to tell me to do my homework or pick me up from parties. But I still crave the love and support he once offered me unconditionally. I will never be too old for the love that parents are supposed to offer their children no matter what.
And even though I now have a family of my own, I feel the rejection from my father like a knife in the heart.
On so many Christmas and special occasions since my dad left mum for another women, and subsequently remarried, I have turned into a labrador. I bound in with stupid optimism, my tail wagging, and I roll over in the submissive position hoping for attention, approval and love.
But it never comes. Every year I leave with my tail between my legs, and indigestion from the scraps that I had been tossed to appease and shut me up.
But this Christmas I’m going to try something different. I’m going to take the advice of a psychologist who told me: “I have seen many fathers divorce their kids but kids never seem to be able to divorce their parents.”
“Your dad is never going to be the father that you want. The only healthy thing you can do is accept it and move on. As long you keep hoping that he will change you will always be hurt and disappointed.”
I’m quite sure this psychologist is right. I’ve tried everything to reconnect with my dad. I’ve been hurt, angry, sad, vulnerable, happy, indulgent and yet I remain nothing more than an inconvenience from his past life.
This year at Christmas, I’m going to try to focus on the loving relationships that I do have rather than dwell on the ones that I don’t. I don’t think the wound of my rejection will ever heal. But neither do I have to rub salt into it every year.
Because after all these past Christmases, the best present I’ve had is the realisation that false hope is a bitch.