To say that someone has ‘daddy issues’ is a somewhat rude and humiliating way of alluding to a very understandable longing: for a father who is strong and wise, who is judicious, kind, perhaps at points tough, but always fair – and ultimately, always on our side. It would be so understandable if we were to feel we wanted someone like this in our lives, especially at moments of confusion and chaos.
The longing for a strong father has been a recurring theme in history. Most religions have conceived of their central divinities as male parents. In ancient Greece, Zeus was described as the ‘father of men and Gods’; in Christianity, God was the heavenly father; in Germanic mythology, Odin was the Allfather, the father of all other gods. The longing has been no less present in secular culture. In the US, the individuals who led the war of independence and drew up the constitution came to be known as the Founding Fathers; Garibaldi, the dignified and authoritative man who fought for the unification of Italy in the 19th century, earned himself the title of the ‘father of the fatherland’.
In early childhood, we are all immensely weak and in need of protection. We can’t understand the world, we are so fragile, we could be killed by a moderately sized dog; so much feels mysterious and outside of our control. A hunger for a ‘daddy’ is – in the circumstances – wholly natural. A grown man inevitably and rightly seems immensely impressive to a small child. They appear to know everything: the capital of New Zealand, how to drive a car, how to say a few words in a foreign language, how to peel an avocado. They go to bed mysteriously late. They’re up before you. In the swimming pool, you can put your arms around their neck and rest on their back; they once kicked a football so high, you nearly couldn’t see it; they take you on their shoulders and help you touch the ceiling. It’s beyond astonishing – when one is four..
The paradox of daddy issues is that those who have them are – almost always – people who didn’t have very good fathers when they were small. Perhaps one’s father was strong but ultimately cruel, bullying or disinterested. Perhaps he was more interested in another sibling or in his work. Perhaps he wasn’t around much, left the house after a divorce or died young. The adult longing for a father is not the result of having had a good father in childhood: it’s a consequence of abandonment.
The longing can incline to us some tricky patterns of behaviour. However mature and sceptical we may be in most areas, in relation to the idea of male protection, we remain a little like the young child we once were and haven’t been allowed to mature away from. We secretly yearn for a man to step in and fulfill an unquenched fantasy role. They’ll take charge; they’ll make the big decisions, they’ll be tough and certain and make our problems go away. They’ll make sure the money side of things is sorted, they’ll get angry and aggressive with anyone who hurts us; they will be proud of us and love us as we are. We’ll be looking out for daddies in friendships, at work and, not least, in politics.
The danger is that these ‘daddies’ may in the end hugely damage our trust, for it isn’t in anyone’s power to assuage the sort of longings we bring to bear on them. They may know very well what we want, and naively or cynically promise to provide it for us, but gradually – too late – we stand to realise that they had a thousand flaws, as we all do. We may realise that they are bullying rather than noble; that our enemies haven’t gone away; that they couldn’t help us; that there isn’t in fact enough money in the world to do what they promised; and that – in fact – they didn’t really love us at all.
The fantasy ‘Daddy’ figure of adulthood isn’t in fact a good father for one big reason: truly good humans know they aren’t that powerful and are happy to admit to the fact cleanly and honestly, just as soon as we are ready to take the news, which is normally when we are around twelve years old and conscious of new powers and capacities. A good father doesn’t – beyond that age – pretend to be all powerful, they confess they can’t solve all our problems and can’t magically save us from a myriad of dangers, no matter how much they wish they could. The good daddy disappoints us just as soon as we are strong enough to bear reality. Out of love they deflate the idea that there could ever be a perfect, ideal daddy. They try as best they can to help us grow up.
If we encounter someone who has daddy issues, the temptation is to get frustrated, tell them to mature, mock them and – in particular – poke fun at the particular daddy figure they might have identified. This isn’t either a very wise or ultimately a very kind strategy. It simply tends to entrench their devotion – because, whenever we are attacked, we of course feel ever more intensely than ever the need for the protection of an idealised father.
What we really need to help us out of our daddy issues is something more like the actions of a genuinely good father: someone who truly acknowledges our suffering and our fears, who deeply wants what is best for us and isn’t reluctant to say so; but who, at the same time – out of love – wants to help us come to terms with a messy and essentially disappointing world; a man who – out of love – will encourage us to be independent and, specifically, not to fantasise that anyone, however outwardly imposing, can ever do the impossible. Good daddies allow us to bear the truth that there are, in the end, no ‘daddies’.