Until recently, I’d never been on the website AskMen.com, I suppose largely because I never had the occasion to ask a man anything. The site’s tagline touts that it is a place where men can become better men, though on my first visit I’m already suspicious that any of my questions will be answered or that I will become a better man.
I’m hoping that the site will help me find answers to my questions about our modern understanding of “daddy issues,” but I learn within moments that AskMen.com is the kind of men’s rights-enthusiast-run site full of chum content that sits and waits until a dude without a brain needs to know how to bring his girlfriend to the Big O as he masturbates near an open laptop. That’s okay, though, because I’m still learning something. I’m learning what a pick-up-artist-type guy thinks of when we talk about a woman having daddy issues. AskMen.com is still an important resource, i.e. the second result when you google the term “daddy issues.”
“Are her daddy issues to blame?” asks the post I land on. In it, the author describes the symptoms of diagnosable daddy issues, which your girlfriend or hookup partner may be suffering from, adding that he plans to advise you on how best to “handle” them if you are tasked with the daunting, unfortunate task of reversing years of neglect and mistreatment from a woman’s father.
Sexual aggressiveness is listed as a the first symptom of daddy issues, excessive flirting the second, and clinginess the last, all of these comprising the holy triumvirate of characteristics you do not want to see yourself dealing with in a girlfriend. If you end up with a woman who exhibits any one of the these behaviors, you do your best to curb them, as with a dog:
Every woman wants care and assurance from her partner and, of course, girlfriends want to spend quality time with their boyfriends. But a girl with daddy issues wants those things in excess. She may throw a fit whenever you make plans without her. She might beg and bargain whenever you try to leave her apartment. It’s important to keep her daddy issues in check by establishing strict boundaries. Stick to your guns and maintain a separate social life. If you give in to a bout of clinginess once, you’re sunk forever.
Sunk forever, broham, is not where you’d like to be.
As I’d expected from even my first seconds on AskMen.com, this was grade-F male-advice “locker room” pandering, the kind that seems almost too perfect to be true or available for the casual reader of the web. Because of its home, there was no reason for me to be taking any of this seriously or thinking of it as a representative of what most rational people would conjure up when the term “daddy issues” arose.
But for reasons beyond myself—I found the page threatening. If this was the second result when googling “daddy issues,” then there was one of two things going on: either the idea of “daddy issues” had been downgraded to low priority in our modern vernacular or this was our best resource on an outdated, monstrous, and completely wrongheaded idea.
And of course, the first result when googling “daddy issues” is Urban Dictionary. Here’s a little screenshot of what that page looks like:
Slut. Sluts. Cougar. Sugar daddy. Attention whore. Bitch. Usually to the chagrin of any poor male in their life.
While it goes without saying that AskMen.com and Urban Dictionary are the last resources anyone should use to determine historical integrity or background on any term, they do serve a significant purpose in understanding popular culture, which affects even the people who think they know better. In an informal poll of the Gawker.com staff, the term daddy issues was batted around to mean several related things: it could mean that a person sought attention sexually or that a person was eager to please their partner or that a person was often jealous or angry or mercurial or spastic in relationships. This person was almost always a woman.
None of this is particularly surprising, even as I thought about my own understanding of daddy issues. The term “daddy issues” has been so ingrained as to become commonplace, almost forgotten—one of those colloquialisms that no longer seems significant or relevant. It can be brushed aside and dismissed almost as a joke, a Lana Del Rey song so obvious that it’s surprising. But the connotation is still singular. Unlike a man who’s a “mama’s boy,” a woman with “daddy issues” has nothing soft or pleasant circling the problem. If you have daddy issues, you are certainly, without question, fucked up. Don’t ask me—ask men:
If her dad failed to show her love and affection, she might grow up expecting the worst from men. If you find her blowing up over minor screw-ups, it might be because your mistake reminds her of her father’s poor parenting.
The term “daddy issues” originates from Carl Jung’s theory of the Electra complex, a counteracting theory to the Oedipus complex that suggests women want to compete with their mothers in possession of their fathers. It’s cropped up again and again in pop culture, most notably in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy,” where the author claims to be through with her issues surrounding her father after killing them at the conclusion of the poem.
“Daddy issues” may not be the hottest term in psychobabble right now, as women are encouraged to Lean In and take responsibility for themselves despite what their fathers have wrought, but something about how normalized the term is is troubling. When it appears that we’ve let this concept slide relatively unnoticed through our cultural dialect, is there ever a way to correct and reverse that harmful language—or is it like this forever? When “she might grow up expecting the worst from men” is written down as symptom of a problem women suffer, who exactly is to blame?
Let me back up a bit. I’ve been thinking a lot about daddy issues because, well, like lots of women, I was wondering if I had them. I was roped in by this patriarchal narrative, so subtle it haunted me like a ghost. It’s incredible the paranoia that women live with every day—Do I act this way? Am I crazy? What is crazy anyway? Who is responsible for the way I am? Is the way I am right or wrong? Should I be this way or that? Did I do the right “womanly” thing today? Was the “womanly” thing the way the men wanted me to act or the way the women wanted me to act? Was I true to myself and was that enough? Who am I at all?
Am I a good woman? Do I have daddy issues?
So I went to Scotland at the end of last year to see my estranged father, who—to put it plainly—is an alcoholic narcissist who has lived his life spitefully resenting every decision he’s ever made.
I went under the auspices of a reconciliation tour, as we have not had a relationship for most of my life. The long, complicated mess of this relationship is not condensable to one essay, but I flash back frequently to being on the phone with him when I was 11 years old, begging him on behalf of my mother to pay child support, because we were a struggling single-parent home and my mother was stretched thin. He plied me with excuses and was condescending and cruel, spitting out drunken curses. He made me feel responsible for our lack of connection, which was mostly predicated on the fact that he only loves two things: to drink and watch sports, and throughout our short relationship, I was a young girl who did not.
Even then I knew he treated me differently than he did my brother. I theorized eventually that I reminded him of a precocious version of my mother, whom he resented, whom I looked up to and still do. He had no clue what to do with a woman, let alone how to parent one. I was 13 years old the last time I spent any real time with him; that experience ended with me requesting of my mother that I never have to see him again.
But as an adult, I convinced myself that perhaps I’d been biased. I wanted desperately to see what I’d missed out on all these years of feeling ruthlessly unforgiving toward him. My eventual decision to visit Scotland to see him was to seek answers about whether or not my bias against him was based in fact.
Then, when I saw him in Scotland, a lot of feelings about our lack of connection came back to me—most of which had prevented me from trying to reach out to him in the first place. He was a bitter old man who had hate in his heart. He treated me with disdain, choosing to bury his face in drink rather than have conversations with me. When we would talk, he would tell me stories of bringing women back to his hotel rooms when he visited me in America, or get into arguments with me about my mother and her apparent transgressions, calmly explaining that I had been an impossible daughter. During one particular heated moment at a pub, during which he was drinking and I was not, he said very plainly—on the brink of inebriated tears—“I wish I’d had different kids.”
I was 27 on this trip. This was a telling age: the age when a lot of female acquaintances of mine were warming up to men, forming long-term relationships, getting married, finding love and happiness in significant others. I, on the other hand, was not only not doing that, I was finding commitment difficult. I was not ready for long-term relationships. I could not find a boyfriend that I liked. I did not want to be with anyone for very long. I did not find men tolerable, interesting, or worthwhile. It took me a long time to trust any man, let alone imagine myself committing to them for a lifetime, and the thought of having a child (a CHILD!) with one of them felt scarier than jumping off a bridge. I had, some might say, the opposite of daddy issues. I thought that perhaps in seeking some closure or stability in my relationship with my dad, I’d be able to solve my problems in relationships. I believed I’d cure my daddy issues by making up with my daddy.
But I found something else entirely in Scotland, something even more freeing than giving my dad the permission to “cure” me of my “daddy issues.” Instead, in our fights and our inability to connect, I was able to put those feelings back on him. The narrative I’d been told my whole life—that because I’d been neglected and mistreated by my horrorshow of a father, I would suffer forever from daddy issues—was actually a complete lie. The person who suffered from daddy issues wasn’t me. I was actually quite together. I had a friendships, goals, a career. I had a full heart, I was eager to give, I was trusting.
By simple principle of the fact that my dad could not handle being a dad, he was the one who had daddy issues, not me. I just happened to be raised in his crossfire.
Our understanding of “daddy issues” has been defined and controlled by what men think are women’s failings. But it’s the ways in which men have failed that have made things this way. It’s on women now to define and understand our suffering, so here’s a try. Daddy issues: the issue of men finding it easy to throw away the responsibility of fatherhood, the issue of all of us excusing them. We locate the problem of abandonment in the abandoned. Turn that around, and then we can talk.
Contact the author at email@example.com.
Images via Married... With Children and Mad Men.