An Open Letter to Girls Abandoned by Their Fathers

6 min read
Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

You may have to work harder to learn to love yourself. But it is possible.

Source: Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

​I was climbing the side of a mountain. I had never had any training, yet there I was, stuck to the side of a large mound of rocks, miles in the sky, attempting to locate my father. I found him just out of reach on the mountainside when, like magic, the mountain grew and expanded, prolonging my journey toward him. I continued scaling the mountainside but while I seemed to get closer and closer, the hoped-for reunion was always just out of reach.

If I told my dream to Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, they would make easy work of analyzing it: Like many survivors before me, I was attempting to navigate the trauma of abandonment and the obstacle of trying to heal from it by getting closure. Climbing a mountain is a common metaphor for the difficulty of both.

The first few years after my own abandonment, I was in denial. I figured we would talk eventually; my father just needed time to cool down. A decade later, I began to realize that was never going to happen. Even now, as I counsel tearful survivors through their own healing, steadfast in my efforts to help them decrease their own self-blame, I still struggle with understanding that his leaving was not my fault.

When I sat down to write the letter below, I thought it would be for myself, to help me process my trauma on my own healing journey. As I wrote, I realized it was for anyone abandoned by a parent—the answers never coming, never truly making sense—who lies awake at night wondering, “Why?” For those readers, perhaps this letter can help: (Note: While this letter is gendered due to it’s personal nature, abandonment is not gender specific- it can happen to anyone, by any parent.)

Dear Survivor,

After the abandonment, you probably wanted to know, “Why?” Questions came in fast: “Don’t they wonder where or how I am? If I’m safe, hungry, healthy…happy?”

Time passed and, without answers, you replaced these questions with your own internalized explanations of why he left: self-blame.

Initially, you might feel resentment, especially during birthdays, holidays, and times when everyone else seems to have a happy family life. You might feel invisible during such times, most prominently during major moments when you should feel the best and most proud: When you cross the stage at your graduation knowing he is not among the crowd. Your wedding, when he isn’t there to give you away. The birth of his grandchild, who may grow up never knowing their granddad.

To escape these feelings of invisibility, you may act out in immature, unhealthy, or even dangerous ways: Being noticed in a negative light may feel better than being invisible.

Years might pass when all you feel is anger. Other people might find you difficult to be around or you might push them away. You might spend years self-medicating, punishing yourself with substances, behaviors, food, relationships — anything to fill the void and stop the pain, even if only momentarily.

You are grieving, though you may not know this yet. Many people associate grief with death but, in a way, this was the death of someone who was supposed to care for, love, and protect you.

Trying to explain this to others—from extended family and friends to those who just don’t understand—will be difficult. They may offer well-meaning, but victim-blaming comments like, “But that’s your father!” emphasizing the devastation you already feel. You might want to reply, “I know he’s my father. So why did he leave?”

Misinformed extended family might even blame you, the child, for the actions of a parent leaving. This is their way of making sense of a senseless behavior, but they are wrong. You were a child. Even if you were over 18 and technically a legal adult when a parent left, you were still their child.

When parents abandon their children, they leave because of their own struggles with mental health, substance use, or legal concerns—not you. No, you were not a bad kid. You were not mentally unstable, a behavior problem, difficult to deal with, or any characterization they gave you to justify their actions. You were normal—a growing human being with the complexities that come with all growing human beings.

The reason they left had nothing to do with you and there is nothing you could have done to prevent, heal, or stop it. Them leaving you was never your fault. Try to let go of the idea that it was.

At times, you may seek validation from outside sources, thinking to yourself, “Maybe if I can prove I am worthy, I will believe it.” Career advances that offer recognition and people who say, “We’re proud of you,” might make you feel better. But these feel-good moments are fleeting and unable to stand in for the person who left — the person you want to notice you but who is unwilling or unable.

You may have thoughts of envy for those whose parent(s) have passed, and even immediately feel guilty about these thoughts, thinking only a horrible person would rather someone dead than alive. This is normal. Many survivors of abandonment believe navigating the grief of such a definitive loss like death must be easier than knowing a parent is out there, somewhere under the same blue sky, not caring to know you.

Days may pass when you feel unloved, unnoticed, and uncared for. With its constant feeds of carefully selected pictures of happy family gatherings, social media can make those feelings worse. On these days, give yourself permission to get off social media or take a solo holiday. You owe no one an explanation. Remind yourself that you are valued and cared for, and that your life has meaning and purpose. Write it on a sticky note, put it on the mirror, and read it every morning as you brush your teeth, or set a daily reminder on your phone to read these affirmations daily.

If you have spent years punishing yourself for what you believe was your fault, know that it was not. You deserve healing and sobriety and all the comfort and support that comes from feeling safe and loved. It may take more work than for others who never experienced abandonment trauma, but it is possible to learn to love yourself.

With love and understanding,

Another Survivor

To find a therapist licensed in your area who understands family dynamics, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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