The word ‘parent’ has broad and varied meanings. Mothers, fathers, religious figures, a company that controls subsidiaries — even God himself is considered our universal parent. But as we understand it, ‘parent’ means the people who raise us, the people who take care of us, even after we’ve fled the nest and maybe even become parents ourselves. As most mothers and fathers will tell you (usually without prompting), being a parent is a forever thing. But we all know that that isn’t an objective truth. Some parents just don’t care for all that ‘forever’ stuff.
It’s 2020, and that means that the issue of deadbeat dads and mums isn’t exactly a secret. No doubt it’s been an issue since time began — I mean, there have been people having babies when they definitely were not prepared to have babies since…always. The fact that birth control as we know it didn’t come in until the 20thcentury attests to that. But compared to our historical counterparts, we actually acknowledge the issues of absent parents as real problems, with real effects on the children involved.
As of 2019, there were 2.9 million lone parent families in the UK, around 14.9% of total UK families. It may not seem like much at first but when you really stop and think about it, that’s a lot of kids missing a parent.
There are a never-ending number of reasons for why a parent is absent in a child’s life. Death, prison, bad blood between the mother and father, mental illness — these are all reasons for absent parents that I’ve experienced first-hand from people I know, and they’re all equally valid. While the reason matters to an extent, however, an absent parent is an absent parent whether they’re dead, or deadbeat. After all, this isn’t The X Factor. You don’t win any medals for the most touching backstory.
I became part of the above statistic back in 2008, and not because my father died, but for a number of complicated reasons that I won’t go into here. The easiest explanation is that he suddenly stopped caring and, just as suddenly, stopped seeing us. At 14 years old, I was adrift. I completely lost my footing in the world. I suppose it was inevitable, considering one of the most fundamental things I’d always been taught — that the love of a parent is unconditional — had just been stamped on.
I’m 26 now, and over the years, I’ve learnt more than a few things from the situation -some painful, some inspiring, and some even confusing. The common link between them is that they’ve all served to shape me into who I am today, and luckily, I quite like who I am.
Here are some of the most important ones.
You’re not doomed to become them.
The idea of turning out like someone who has been absent for a large part of your life might sound strange, but it’s a real fear that I still think about. To an extent, we’re all conscious of not becoming our parents — there’s a lot to be said for being your own person and laying your own path in life. Nobody wants to be a duplicate of anyone else. Most of the time, though, that doesn’t come from a place of fear and for some people, it might not even be something they think too much about.
The thought of becoming my father — more specifically, manifesting all the negative behaviours I associated with him — has always troubled me. After all, I might not have seen him for 12 years but I still had regular contact with him for 14, and that’s more than enough time to have picked up any mixture of his worst traits. As a teen, I agonised over it — that fear that I was doomed to inherit, or adopt, his selfishness, his immaturity, his paranoia.
But it’s not that simple. The older I got, the more I came to understand that things are never quite black and white — that inheriting any of those traits wouldn’t necessarily mean I was becoming him. After all, I can be selfish, immature and paranoid. Anyone can be those things. Those traits are not exclusively my father’s, and they’re not exclusively mine. Even if (God forbid) I am ever all three of those things at once, it doesn’t mean I’m becoming him. He is infinitely more complex than that, and so am I.
Being the child of a less-than-stellar parent is not a guarantee that you’re doomed to repeat their mistakes. What it does guarantee is the chance to learn from those mistakes and be a better person for it. And whether you decide to shoulder that burden or not, you’re always your own person in the meantime.
Escapism is okay — in fact, it’s necessary.
Escapism is often thought of as a coping mechanism exclusively for people who lead particularly miserable lives. While many unhappy people do turn to escapism, so do many generally happy people. Escapism is something that everyone partakes in, no matter the state of their lives. Some people partake more than others, but reading a book, playing a video game or watching a movie are all forms of escapism, and we all know just how popular all three of those pastimes are.
At 14, my chosen form of escapism was art — I took it at GCSE and chose to pursue it in college, and having something to throw myself into really helped me through some of the toughest years adolescent me would experience. Not only did I enjoy it but eventually, when I was ready, I used it to express the way I felt about my father in a healthy way. It was instrumental in reaching a better place, emotionally, but it took me years to get there.
Like anything, too much escapism can be a negative thing. We should always aim to enjoy our real lives just as much, if not more, than the fictional lives we follow in media, and what we choose to escape to shouldn’t be harmful. But escapism, in and of itself, is not negative at all. Sometimes we need to take a break from life, so to speak, to step away for a moment, especially if we’re going through a particularly hard time. Doing so isn’t shameful, or weak. While we should certainly face our problems eventually, feeling ready to face them is often a process that may take weeks, months, or even years depending on a lot of different factors. These things don’t come with user manuals or set schedules. There’s only one rule: have patience with yourself.
You can still grieve an absent parent who isn’t dead.
This might sound unlikely, but believe me when I say that grief does not always come hand-in-hand with death. In fact, you do not have to have experienced death to have experienced grief at all. My grandfather died when I was 12, and I grieved less for him than I did for my father, who is, to the best of my knowledge, still living. What grief does go hand-in-hand with is loss.
Whether or not the absence of a parent is due to death, grief will still very much be part of the process of learning to live without them. It’s not guaranteed to be less difficult if they’re still alive, just as it’s not guaranteed to be more difficult if they’re not alive. If someone’s parent died when they were very young, that often precipitates a grieving process. If someone else lost contact with their parent just the other week, that often precipitates a grieving process that’s just as difficult.
I’ve often heard it said that when someone has an absent parent who is still alive, that suggests the possibility of reconnection, and therefore, makes the situation easier. While this could be true for some people, reconnection with someone is a complex and personal process that many won’t, and don’t, ever feel prepared for, particularly if that someone chose to bail on you. For me, the fact that my father chose to leave was where the worst of the pain came from.
The bottom line is that there’s no criteria you need to meet to determine whether you’re grieving or not. You have a right to that feeling, no matter what your circumstances are, whether you’ve lost someone through death or other means.
You can still love them despite everything.
Just as you can grieve someone who isn’t dead, so too can you still love someone who has hurt you. Now, love is a tricky word and an even trickier emotion. For some, the feeling for an absent parent may be less like love, and more like nostalgia for who they once were, or respect or admiration left over from better times. It might even be guilt masquerading as something like love. The point is, if you suspect you still have good feelings towards an absent parent, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Love, and nearly every other emotion, is not something you can switch on and off at will. Just as the real feeling is often built up and strengthened over time, it will similarly take time for that feeling to diminish, and it’s never guaranteed to diminish completely.
After all, nobody is all good, or all bad. Most people fall somewhere safely in the middle and our feelings often reflect that. Negative feelings are a given when somebody, especially a parent, hurts us, but emotions (and people) are complex. It can’t be watered down to simply hating bad people and loving good people, because as human beings, that’s just not how we work.
Still loving someone who has done something bad to you sounds paradoxical, but it isn’t really surprising. Love for our parents is built into us from birth. That love is reinforced through good memories with them. By the time I turned 14 I had plenty of good memories with, and good feelings about, my father, and some of those good feelings persist today. I’m not at all saying that you should go rushing to reconnect with someone just because there’s some positive feeling for them. What I am saying is recognising that those feelings are natural — even towards someone who has hurt you — and accepting that they have their place, is important.
You might never get over it.
This one is a bit of a downer and, for me at least, was the hardest of the pills to swallow. In fact, it’s very much an ongoing process. Therein lies the problem with this particular lesson — it’s not really a lesson. It’s not even advice. The best word for it might be reassurance.
As a society, we’re obsessed with getting over things — overcoming challenges, coming out the other side, moving on with our lives never to speak of that particular negative thing ever again. We have our moments of sadness, anger, or grief, then we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and carry on. We observe mourning periods, the implication being that there will eventually be an end to said mourning.
But grief isn’t nearly so linear. While there’s a starting point, there isn’t really a finish line. Grieving does of course get easier over time, but it stays with you. It doesn’t fade away completely but shrinks, bit by bit, fitting itself into the little nooks and crannies of our lives. Eventually it becomes manageable, something we learn to live with. After all, many, many people have experienced grief, some to unimaginable degrees, and live whole, fulfilling lives despite it — or, perhaps, even because of it.
And that’s the crux of this last point. Those days where you wake up missing an absent parent more than usual and have no idea where it’s coming from are perfectly normal. Even after 12 years, I still have days where I really struggle with the loss of my father. It doesn’t stop me going about my day-to-day life but I am constantly aware of it, some days more than others. Acknowledging that those days do exist is okay.
So, really, what I’m saying is we aren’t forced to become our deadbeat parents, it’s okay to escape into another book or tube of Pringles (all in moderation) and, most importantly, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for our feelings, whatever they are. Loss is painful enough without anything or anyone else also jumping into the fray, and losing a parent is surely one of the most difficult losses to navigate, no matter how it comes about.