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Relationships • Parenting

Fatherless Boys

There is a particular category of human for whom life is never going to be easy but who has much to teach us and who can be an especially tender companion and friend: the fatherless boy. It might seem foolish to group into a single category a range of people who will necessarily display a wide variety of traits, but it may still be fruitful to speak of certain things that many fatherless boys can be expected to have in common.

By ‘fatherlessness’, we mean – firstly – men who never saw their fathers while growing up, perhaps because they were dead, or on another continent or entirely alienated from their children. But we also mean men who grew up with a father with whom they did occasionally spend time, but with whom they never formed a solid bond, perhaps because he was divorced and had another family or – more poignantly – because he was too psychologically damaged to cherish and connect with the son who slept under the same roof as him every night.

Two Boys In A Boat, George Percy Jacomb-Hood, 1887, Wikimedia Commons.

If we had to single out one trait that fatherlessness bequeaths a man, it is self-doubt. Any boy who grows up without his father’s love is left with a host of questions that, even with enormous subsequent efforts, can never entirely disappear: What is wrong with me? What have I done? What’s missing in me? Why did he reject me? Fatherless boys almost never – as they should – blame their fathers. For a long time, they may not even think of their father at all. They turn their longing for their approval into self-hatred, they convert their neglect into reasons to find fault with their own being. They tear themselves apart rather than redirect the hatred to where it more fairly belongs. 

Whatever success they achieve in later life, however much they may one day present to the world as – by all accounts – accomplished men, there will always be a little boy inside them wondering how they have failed to measure up – and sensing that they must in some way deserve the neglect they were accorded. A feeling of being ‘wrong’ or ‘at fault’ never departs. A part of them will always be arrested at the age they were when they first looked around for paternal love and found only a void or contempt.

In other words, fatherless boys are fated not to feel like ‘real men’, as they themselves intuit the term. They may do a range of prototypically masculine things, but inside them, there will be ongoing puzzlement and diffidence. This presents a huge psychological hurdle for them, but it also gives them some very distinctive and frequently cherishable traits.

Not for them the machismo that comes so easily to other men; not for them the automatic disdain of vulnerability or anxiety. Those who form relationships with fatherless men may notice – perhaps with relief – an absence of the entitlement and arrogance that can flow too easily from an acute sense of one’s right to exist. The fatherless man is likely to be modest. One notices the self-doubting child in their eyes. The fatherless man will probably laugh very easily and often at themselves – and all their errors and idiocies; they won’t be overly proud; they may be sadder than the others but also more apt to see and value the sadness in you. 

They might, given the masculine absence, have spent an unusual amount of time around women with whom they can identify especially well; after all, they have had powerful, first-hand experience of what it is like to be badly hurt by a man.

They may also make unusually good fathers, for what better father can there be than someone who appreciates in detail what it’s like to have had a terrible father? They carry in their psyches a precise map of what their own little boy will need; the exact converse of what life gave them.

Fatherless boys often spot one another in social life. They sniff each other out, they can tell – perhaps by small signs of modesty or self-deprecation – those who have the same wounds as they, on the basis of which unusually deep and warm friendships can be built.

We would never wish fatherlessness on anyone. But nor can we ignore what uncommon and estimable men these unfortunate forlorn boys will often grow up to become.

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