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Fatherless Fern - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Fatherless Fern
Okay. I'm going to do it.

There are a lot of issues in my life, most of which I'll talk about ad nauseum, ad absurdum. Educational issues? I'll go on forever. Heck, I started a community for them (edurants). Writing? You've seen that here and many other places. Quality of movies? Of critics? Of books? Check. I'll talk about work, I'll talk about politics, I'll talk about religion.

But the one thing I almost never talk about is something that's shaped my life from the moment I was born, and it's important, and I want to talk about it.

I've never met my father. At all.

I'd love to say that when I was a small child, before being exposed to society and its prejudices, I never thought anything of my family situation, but given that I've heard stories from the time I learned to talk about looking for father substitutes--I once asked a stranger in a bank if he'd be my daddy--I can't very well pretend that it's so. I would pretend my father was a king (or maybe a movie star; I didn't make a big distinction between the two), and that he would someday remember I was there and give me all the things I didn't have.

The truth is that my father was a nineteen year old kid when I was born (he turned nineteen only a month before). My mother was also nineteen. He was going to college and planning to go to medical school. I know that when I was nineteen, I wasn't prepared to be anyone's parent, so a part of me wants to be compassionate and generous to him.

But here's the thing: When I was nineteen, I had already mastered the mechanics of the zipper on my Levis, the only surefire birth control I know of. (Well, it's been known to fail, but if it does, my child would certainly have bigger worries than being a bastard.)

So I'm torn. The part of me that's a thirty-three year-old woman who knows better thinks, "Aw, the poor kid. Got into a situation he couldn't handle." But there's another part of me, which is always a lonely child, that says, "You're my father, you ass... where the hell are you?"

Well, I know where he is, actually. I've written to him, quite civilly. And, despite being far more than nineteen now, he has never written back. You see, his philsophy was that a "part time father" would far worse for me than a completely absent one. Ergo, once he paid my mother's hospital bills and ascertained that she really meant it when she said she didn't want to put me up for adoption or abort me, he turned away and never looked back. (At least not as far as I can tell.) His name isn't listed on my birth certificate (though everyone involved knows it) and to the best of my knowledge, I'm legally prohibited from naming him. I know I have two half-brothers and one half-sister, all three of whom I'm reduced to googling to find out who they are. (Total knowledge: One of my half-brothers plays the double-bass. No, seriously, that's it. I found him googling orchestras and feeling like some weird stalker. I also found a cousin's journal this way, and realized that I had no way whatsoever to explain how I happened to come across her.) I call these half-siblings my father's "real children." No amount of persuasion--my own rational mind or others--can change this designation.

I keep hearing things about how single motherhood is a mark of women's empowerment and sexual freedom--who needs committment?--and I keep biting my tongue, because I don't like fights about this particular issue. I don't want to be put in a position where I'm saying, essentially, "Yes, we should go back to stigmatizing out-of-wedlock births."

But you know what? That's exactly what I, as a bastard, am saying.

I had two loving uncles, and a mother who went beyond attentive to positively doting. She put everything into raising me. But the uncles weren't an everyday part of my life, and my mother was not, well, my father. She couldn't make herself that half of me that was rejected.

Here's what I've learned about life as a father-abandoned child:

  • Women are perfectly capable of being self-sufficient.

Here's the rest:
  • Women have to be self-sufficient, because men are impermanent. They come and go as they please, and don't make that much difference while they're around.
  • I am not worth sacrificing any comfort for.
  • I am not worth answering letters or phone calls from.
  • I have to prove that I have some right and reason to exist.
  • Because by all reasonable measures, I was a mistake that should never have been made.
  • I must hide and never admit my parentage, because my existence is an embarrassment to my blood family.
  • Money is always short, and no matter how jealously it is guarded, there is not enough.

Most of all, I have learned that I am unwanted by the male element in my life. It was a lesson learned early and learned well, and no amount of good mothering (or good uncling, or for that matter good friending) can make me unlearn it. It all crashes on the basic rock of my life when it comes to men: My father never sent me a card, never answered a phone call, never responded to a letter. He knows exactly where I am (I make sure his mother has the information, and I send it to him even though he won't confirm receiving it). He knows about my life. And he doesn't, as far as I can tell by any practical expression, give a damn.

Now, there is a perfectly rational corner of my mind--most of my mind, most of the time--that says, "Yeah, that's because ol' Tom is an ass, not because of anything I did." But there's not a lot of rationality at three in the morning, sitting in the dark and thinking, "My own father doesn't want me."

I feel like I'm whining (bad) and not expressing myself well (worse, since I'm a writer).

How can I explain the sense of being ripped in half, with half of myself buried in the muck of the late sixties? How it feels to know that even now, at thirty-three, I don't dare write the name I should have had at birth, partly because I don't want to offend my mother (who earned the right to have a descendent with her name) but mostly because I think my father's family isn't above dragging me into court and calling me a lot of nasty names if I do so. And I feel terribly guilty that this is the main reason... shouldn't I be more worried about the first part? Shouldn't I be, as a modern woman, more concerned with giving credit to my mother than with having the right to use my father's name? I sometimes think about who the girl with that name might have been, what she might be like. When I'm feeling all right with myself, this is just an intellectual exercise, but when I'm feeling low? That sense that there's another life that I could have had, another name that could be mine (a cute alliterative one, too... and one that I have every moral right to use but don't dare), just seems to nag at my consciousness.

Just a few more things before I seal off this very whiny and personal post:

1. I used to look for fathers. When other little girls got crushes on older men, I used to wonder if they would adopt me. I mentioned the stranger in the bank to whom I proposed on my mother's account. I also looked for fathers in books, movies (Luke Skywalker was always my favorite father), and random celebrity fantasies (at six, I believed that I could get the Beatles back together, and they would, in gratitude, be like fathers to me; they were the first, but not the only, hapless celebrities to whom I attached in this way).

2. It's through exceptionally good mothering that I'm as stable as I am. I can't help my occasional irrational bursts of anger and loneliness, but my mother, Lord bless her, did the very best she could, keeping us fed and getting me through school, and teaching me morals well enough to keep me out of the kinds of trouble other fatherless girls have been prone to. We never had to go on welfare or any kind of public aid. I credit her exclusively with stopping the cycle of dependency before it started. And trust me, when someone said (in an approving tone) that she was one of the early pioneers who paved the way for single moms now, she wasn't thrilled. She said she was glad to have me and wouldn't change her decision for the world, but that going it alone is an incredibly stupid way to do it when there's any choice involved. (She didn't consider adoption a choice, although she didn't object to other people doing it. It's just a law in the family: "In Our Family, We Do Not Give Our Children Away.")

3. Occasionally, even now, I'll become desperately curious about my father's family, googling and searching for even the slightest scrap of information. When I found an actual, honest-to-G-d picture of a cousin, I wanted to run around and shout it--Hey! It's my cousin! He's studying to be a math teacher!--but I realized it might sound ever-so-slightly-unbalanced if I did that.

4. When I was very small and went to the church that my father's family founded a hundred and fifty years ago, I used to look at a portrait of the pastor who was my father's great-(great?)-grandfather (I have pastors on both sides of the family, and a handful of Catholic priests on tangential lines). It was strange. Here was this severe old German man, to whom I couldn't admit a relationship, and he had my eyes. I don't mean they were a little similar. I mean they were the same shade, the same shape, the same everything. It was like looking in a very strange mirror, in which Little Girl Me saw what she would look like as an old man. As I've gotten older, I've started to look more like my mother's side of the family (though my eyes are still from his side), which is probably good, but I remember just wanting to stare at that portrait when I was little, to trace the lines of his face, and most of all, to look at those eyes--my eyes, set in someone else's face. No one else I knew had those eyes, and I sometimes wonder if I will turn a corner someday and walk into someone who has them and think, "Wow... this is one of mine."

Oh, I don't know. I suppose it's not that important in the long run. I'm not the first bastard in history and I certainly won't be the last, and I probably should stop making such a big deal of it. It's not a slur I would mind bearing if it meant that fewer kids would grow up fatherless, but no one seems to care anymore, and fatherlessness just keeps on soaring, no matter what I say, do, or feel. And the culture is such that I'm frequently made to feel that I dare not question the wisdom of this... after all, you wouldn't want to make people feel stigmatized, would you? Just genetics, right? What's the big deal about where the other half of the chromosome came from?

I don't want to see kids stigmatized, and I know it can hurt. And I logically know that genetic material can come from anyone. But I also want to try and re-establish the kinds of social safeguards that used to get fathers for a lot more kids. That's my genetic material, dammit, and I should have the birthright that comes with it: the knowledge of my past and my extended family, the recognition of my existence. I very sincerely doubt that I'm the only fatherless person who feels this way.

I'm talking in circles now and not reaching conclusions, and I'm sorry if I've bored readers, but I'm not going to lock the post, because it's something that's of the utmost importance to me, and I've never addressed it directly in public before. Maybe it's time to start.

Oh, just to end with a bit of irony: My father, who couldn't spare a bit of attention for his own firstborn, is a pediatrician these days.

I feel a bit...: contemplative contemplative

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persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: March 6th, 2004 10:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
I wish there were anything helpful I could say. I'm fairly sure there isn't. It's clear enough that you've been told before and that you know yourself rationally that you are worth attention even if he doesn't see it.

Perhaps I'm not being kind or fair, and perhaps I'd be nicer about it if he were in a book (if largely because I'm perverse like that sometimes), but I can't find much sympathy for his not being able to handle it when your mother was nineteen and took a much more responsible route. ...My parents were eighteen and twenty when they married, however, so perhaps I expect people that age to be more grown up than some do.

I'm confused about your father's philosophy supposedly being that it would be better for you not to know him at all, but there being some kind of legal barrier to your saying who he is. (And something seems very wrong with that anyway. I suppose I can see his wife and kids not liking the idea, but I'm not even involved and it irritates me deeply to think of his being protected in that way.)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 6th, 2004 11:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm confused about your father's philosophy supposedly being that it would be better for you not to know him at all,

You're not the only one. :) I've gotten a kind of garbled version of it, but it seems to be based around the idea that having an expectation of a father that was constantly disappointed would be a repeated pain, while not having one at all would remove the expectation. Or something. As my counsellor said, dropping her professional detachment, "That's a convenient philosophy for him, isn't it?"

Anyway, thanks.

The name thing... all I can say is that they can afford better lawyers than I can.
mafdet From: mafdet Date: March 6th, 2004 11:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I really, really wish there was something more helpful I could say other than a) vent all you want, that's what journals are for, b) in our society, fatherlessness is often painful for the child involved, and c) your father has to be one of the biggest tools on the face of the planet. Sorry but I don't believe that "I'm only 19 and too immature to handle it" is a good excuse. If he couldn't handle it he should have jolly well kept it zipped.

And oh yes, it's natural to feel bad but - the fact that your father wanted nothing to do with you is Not. Your. Fault. You didn't fail, he did. You were just a baby.

I'm a good little liberal, and know several single mothers, and I don't for one minute believe that single motherhood or out-of-wedlock childbearing should be stigmatized like in the "good" (ha) old days. There are many reasons why women become single mothers, and I don't feel as if it's my place to wag my finger and be all judgmental. I do want to wag my finger and be all judgmental at men who inseminate and walk away, though. It's not right for the woman to be left "holding the baby" - after all, it takes two to make a baby, therefore, the baby is the responsibility of both parents.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 6th, 2004 11:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
It does strike me that the wrong people were stigmatized. I'd love to think that, while the women were running around with scarlet letters, the men were all, like Dimmesdale, secretly scourging themselves by embroidering on their own skin at night... but I have a funny feeling that a whole lot of them, including my father, just shrugged and didn't look back. Might make a lot more sense for runaway dads to be the ones who have trouble finding work or being respected.

Thanks for the support. :)
silverhill From: silverhill Date: March 7th, 2004 12:23 am (UTC) (Link)
Wow. I can't relate at all through experience. But I can imagine how that must be hard.

I am not worth answering letters or phone calls from.

It says a lot more about his worth than about yours. (And I know the logical, non-3-a.m. part of your mind knows that.)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 9th, 2004 11:15 am (UTC) (Link)

The logical part of my mind does know it. But it tends to kick in when someone I've met doesn't call or whatever. I never assume they've lost my number or just forgotten. I always assume, "Oh, he didn't like me and is doing the cut and fade routine, so I won't bother him anymore."


I can tell myself rationally that it's not true--but I couldn't pick up the phone and call without beginning the conversation with, "I'm sorry to bother you but..."
awelkin From: awelkin Date: March 7th, 2004 04:27 am (UTC) (Link)
Parents leave us with so many burdens if they are bad. I'm very sorry that your father was.

I understand your views on why you feel it might be better if you hadn't existed. I've had those thoughts about myself and my brothers, given my parents' constant abuse of us. I too miss having real parents, but in an entirely different way.

All I can say is that you've been given a chance to be someone, and you've done a good job, in spite of your dad. It's very natural to resent and regret. You go right on doing it.

I find karma very comforting during these sorts of moods.

And I'm glad you're wise enough to not turn all this onto yourself.

Thinking of you,
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 9th, 2004 11:17 am (UTC) (Link)

For all I know, he's a great father to my younger sibs, and I just hit the jackpot on his particular brand of nastiness. Unfortunately, I have no way at all of knowing one way or the other.

Karma is good. I like karma. :)
ashtur From: ashtur Date: March 7th, 2004 04:47 am (UTC) (Link)
Ouch. The sad "fact" is that biology gives men the "opportunity" to cut and run, where the opportunity for women to do that is so much more limited. Yet, what is far deeper than that "fact" is that I am constantly shocked at the willingness of men to do that. I know you've heard it, and thought it, but it speaks volumes of your father (by the way, I don't care how technically good a physician he may be, I don't see how he can be a decent doctor, especially for kids). It also speaks volumes about your mother, and the rest of your real family that you've come out the way you have, and those volumes are good and positive.
ivylore From: ivylore Date: March 7th, 2004 08:09 am (UTC) (Link)
The 'convenient' excuse he came up with back then (if it helps at all), is not so acceptable these days. Fatherlessness may be soaring, but paternal accountability is on the rise too. It wouldn't be so easy for him. However, I know that's all surface stuff. A reciprocation of curiosity (AT LEAST for heaven's sake about his own offspring) or an iota of concern for how your life has turned out are in no way equal to forced financial support.

That sucks. I mean, it does and it's perfectly all right to come out and vent about it, or say it. (If I were you I'd be forever wondering what will happen if you ever became a well known author and how would you handle it if he decided to contact you 'then.')

I really can't begin to imagine what it would be like to grow up wondering, with the questions you've had to face. In contrast, I have happy memories of my father from my childhood, and a... well a disaster spread across the last decade. I guess you could say I'm fatherless now, but I did have him growing up.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 9th, 2004 11:22 am (UTC) (Link)
If I were you I'd be forever wondering what will happen if you ever became a well known author and how would you handle it if he decided to contact you 'then.'

It's a fantasy. :)

(Pleasant daydream moment.)

(Back now.)

I was raised on Beatles stories, and the one I liked best was about John Lennon having exactly this happen after the Beatles hit it big. He threw the dad out. But I guess in the end, it's Stephen King I identify with most. I don't remember where he said it, but he said that if his dad suddenly showed up, he might punch him in the teeth once, but he's not going to, like, obsess about it. :) I have thought about making him get a hotel and wait an hour for each year he managed to skip, though. That would be fun.
alphabet26 From: alphabet26 Date: March 7th, 2004 09:16 am (UTC) (Link)
About his "philosophy"...my father was the "part time" father (he and my mother married and then produced more children for him to neglect--not that my mother was blameless in that either) and I won't say it was worse for my siblings and I, but it certainly wasn't better than not having one, except in monetary terms.

Did you ever see The Royal Tenenbaums? When it comes to our father, I'm the Ben Stiller character and my youngest brother is Luke Wilson.

It was convenient for your father, indeed; I'm not even trying to excuse the idea of just dumping your kid. However, from the other side, it is also hurtful to have hopes constantly crushed--and you just can't help hoping.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 9th, 2004 11:23 am (UTC) (Link)
Wouldn't it be nice if they all felt the right approach was to, I don't know, commit or something? You know, like not have kids until they want to be fathers?

Grumble, grumble, grumble.
From: leeflower Date: March 7th, 2004 10:06 am (UTC) (Link)
hey, there.

As someone who's sort of on the other end of this (I have cousins I don't really know because my uncles divorced/conceived children out of wedlock/etc), my only advice is this: just because your father doesn't want to contact you doesn't mean that his family doesn't. I have a very good relationship with two of my cousins, and my uncle barely speaks to them. Don't let him deprive you of a good relationship with your family-- and it is that: YOURS. They're your cousins as much as they are his nephews, and you have a right to know them. I'm closer to my two cousins and their mother than I am to many of the cousins I'm actually legally related to, and I'm glad to know them. My uncle doesn't have the right to keep them from me any more than your father has a right to keep you from them.
So go leave a post in your cousin's journal. You may find a friend you never would have known. In the end, it's really up to you to decide if you want to take the risk.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 9th, 2004 11:28 am (UTC) (Link)
I'd like to. I have no idea how much they know about me, though. That side of the family wanted me put up for adoption and not acknowledged at all (if I had to be born), and it's quite possible that the adults just treat it as an unfortunate incident that the kids didn't need to know about for any special reason--you know, like a shoplifting spree, or getting suspended for three days for a fist fight.
youths_soldier From: youths_soldier Date: March 7th, 2004 01:20 pm (UTC) (Link)

I can relate in a way

I think you did well in writing a post about your feelings.I think it helps in manyways.Im practically fatherless too.My Dad didn't leave my Mom when I was a kid but he never approached me or establihed a father-daughter relationship.Im happy you had a good Mom by your side because I know it helps in really big ways.
Most people would say its not a big deal but it is inside of us.A part of us will always be broken somehow.
I guess the reason I decided to reply to this ws because I understood what you felt and thought that I should say it.

I hope for the best in your life .Have a nice day.
katinka31 From: katinka31 Date: March 7th, 2004 02:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
A pediatrician? o_O I certainly wouldn't take my kids to him.

Thank you for sharing this. You have every right to talk about it. The media's glamorization of single-motherhood really bothers me -- as if it really is oh-so-easy to get babysitters, maintain a well-paying career, gallivant around, and still have oodles of time for oneself. I know that some women are not single mothers by choice, and that some are better off without abusive husbands, but I just wish people would acknowledge that it makes a difference if a loving father is in the home. As a military wife, I've been on my own with the kids for months at a time, and things are markedly different when their father is here -- and I don't even have the burden of solely providing an income.
katinka31 From: katinka31 Date: March 7th, 2004 04:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
Forgot to applaud your mom.

*claps enthusiastically*

She sounds like a wonderful lady.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: March 7th, 2004 03:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
Fern, first of all I wanted to say that I'm really sorry. It's an odd subject, because nobody would wish that you were other than you are - you seem to have come out spectacularly, thanks to your mom - but OTOH that doesn't mean that you can't be sad for the loss of someone you should have had. I'd imagine it's kind of like missing a limb - you can do well without it, but you shouldn't blame yourself for sometimes wishing you had the whole package. And to reiterate what others have said, his no-contact attitude says more about his own moral cowardice than your own worth.

Padawanroo's got an excellent point, BTW. I know a few people who are much more involved with similar "fringe relatives" than they are with "official" ones. I think in a strange way it helped to be able to meet as adults, and not have the childhood memories of Thanksgiving quarrels and parents comparing their grades. So I'd see no reason not to leave a note for your cousin.

Siblings - if I had invisible siblings I'd be burning up to know more about them. Hell, I've been known to google high school friends to find out what they're doing now, so if you're a stalker, I'm a stalker twenty times over. I guess the question is whether they're still dependent on their father, and whether they know about you at all. It might be something they'd handle better once they're past college, but I don't know anything about it besides what you've written, so just contributing $0.02.

Good luck, and I hope things work out and you can establish good contact somehow. It's good to be discreet, but nobody rational would think that somehow you *ought* to be hiding.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: March 7th, 2004 03:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
One more thing - do you know if it's just your father who's hostile, or him and his surrounding family? I'm not sure what they could do to you if you weren't trying to get money from them - I mean, paternity can proven through genetic testing easily enough. Anyway, they sound like a harsh bunch; good luck, whatever you ultimately decide you want to do.
atropos87 From: atropos87 Date: March 7th, 2004 04:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wow, Fern. I don't know what to say - this is completely outside my experience, and from the looks of a lot of the other posts here I am extremely lucky for that to be the case.

If it makes any difference, you seem to have turned out fantastically well no matter what.
lazypadawan From: lazypadawan Date: March 7th, 2004 06:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm sorry to hear about your father. It's truly his loss but I realize how the feelings can be painful at times. I wish these guys who are going around knocking up girls left and right or divorce their children along with their wives would realize what kids go through.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 7th, 2004 08:03 pm (UTC) (Link)

We've crossed paths before

And here's my own situation.

I know my father, but I don't KNOW my father.

I have Three... no, FOUR half brothers and a half sister.

My sister and I are freinds, my one brother (both on my mother's side) and I are aquaintences. My Second brother (on my mother's side) and my other two brothers (father's side) are strangers (the latter two whom I've never met and never will.) I hear that I am an aunt (at least once). I know scraps about my father, barely enough to fill a page and yet I talk to him once a week.

When I go on vacation next month, I'll most likely (given the area) run into people who are part of my extened family... cousins, great cousins and what not but I'll never know. I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes one can be as close as say a portrait, and still not know where we come from.
ladyelaine From: ladyelaine Date: March 8th, 2004 05:37 am (UTC) (Link)
My own fatherlessness is through estrangement rather than abandonment. There's a lot of anger in my life, but I've gotten used to it; kinda like carrying around an invisible purse or backpack--no one else can see it, but it sure is a nasty load to carry.

Consider yourself hugged.
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