I Learned the Hard Way the Difference a Dad Can Make

One woman’s story of coming to grips with the men in her life.
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One woman’s story of coming to grips with the men in her life.

One of the most stressful choices I had to make about my wedding had nothing to do with dresses, music, or cakes—instead it was deciding who would walk me down the aisle. My mother assumed it would be her husband, a man I refer to as my stepdad even though he adopted me. I cringed at the thought of locking arms with him for the fifty-yard journey. My biological father was out of the question because, well, I’ve never met him.

I made plans to have my grandfather walk me down the aisle—the only man from my childhood I ever genuinely liked—but everyone threw a fit. So I reluctantly agreed to be “given away” by a man I never really belonged to. And the transition from his arms to my groom’s was as satisfying as a mint julep’s kiss of sugar after a lifetime of sipping poison.

You see, at that moment, I finally took a leap from the kind of men I was raised with to the man I would marry—and these two entities could not be more different. I consider it almost a miracle. Because thanks in great part to the lack of my biological dad in my life and the negative influence of my stepdad, for a long time I had messed-up relationships with men.

Most of my life before I met my husband, I hated men. Learning to appreciate them and committing to one in particular forever—and I mean, really, forever—may be my life’s greatest accomplishment. My husband is self-disciplined, generous, kind, and constantly toiling for my best interest. He respects me, and he respects himself. Had we met any earlier than we did, though, he would have gone running for the hills.

The Power of a Bad ‘Father Figure’

My mom was a busy woman, and she had bad luck with men. This combination can prove toxic for daughters such as me. Her first husband paid me little attention, which only meant that I watched way too much TV and ate poorly in his care.

Her second husband arrived on the eve of my pubescence. It was difficult for him to behave appropriately living with a teenage version of his beautiful wife. My stepdad regularly said inappropriate things such as “all sex is good sex” aloud in my presence. I couldn’t wear anything remotely form-fitting around the house because he would always comment on my figure. When I took showers he would always peek in at me, finding very lame excuses to barge in and look at my body. Must I really be made aware of soaring gas prices at the very moment I’m rinsing my shampoo? He thought so. Once during horseplay he put his hands on me—cupping my barely there breasts and lower regions. I told him to stop. He said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

My way of expressing my distaste for my stepfather’s actions was less verbal. To protect myself from this domestic terror, I transformed myself into a caustic and unattractive person. I dyed and cut my hair unflatteringly. I gained weight (partly because I didn’t dare move my body or wear athletic clothes in his vicinity); my language turned foul and unpleasant. I let him know how much he disgusted me.

The misandrist inside me was growing. What is misandry, you ask? According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is “the dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against men.” That’s a rather mild definition; my misandry played out as follows.

During college, I hated men so much that upon choosing my major I avoided pursuing what I really was interested in and chose fashion primarily because I anticipated more safety and peace in an environment dominated by women, or at least gay and effeminate men. I went to great lengths to avoid the typical, cisgendered, heterosexual males, whom I perceived to be evil. In my color and design classes, the abscess of my disdain and animosity surfaced through mosaics of injured female genitalia and rape scenes.

People would comment. “Wow—you really don’t like men, do you?” No, I did not.

The Power of a Good Father Figure

Years ago I would have told you I didn’t like men because they’re mostly a bunch of murder-bent rapists. Today I would say I am a recovering misandrist because I’ve never met my biological father, and his absence left me unguarded, exposed, resentful, affronted, and enraged.

I have since forgiven my stepdad, but I will never be able to treat him as my “real” dad. I don’t want to see him on holidays—in fact, I wouldn’t be sorry if our paths never crossed again. Perhaps that’s why I’ve moved to the opposite side of the country—so that I have a good excuse to avoid visiting.

Years and years of self-help books and personal reflection later, I can’t help but think that a lot of my hurt and misguided views of men would have been different if my biological father had been around and loved me like a father should.

Biological dads generally protect their children from predators. Research shows that youth face increased risks when they share the home with a nongenetic male. A 2014 study published in Evolution and Human Behavior found that children who grow up with a stepdad have more behavioral problems than kids raised with both biological parents or even just a single mom. According to the data, both stepfathers and biological mothers invest less in children when a stepfather is present.

On the flip side, studies show that biological fathers are much less likely to be a threat to their children than stepdads. Research bears this out in what’s been known as the “Cinderella effect.” When comparing stepparent homes with natural-parent homes, researchers found that “the former routinely report much higher rates of both physical and sexual abuse.”

When I learned this, it made me angry. I wasn’t unique in my experience; I was a statistic. Suddenly stories such as those of Woody Allen and his adopted daughters don’t sound like outliers; by the numbers, they’re unfortunately relatively common. News stories such as Jerry Sandusky make me even more sick—virtually all of his victims grew up in homes without their biological fathers. Not all predators may seem as scary as Sandusky up front, but data shows that predators often use stressful situations (such as divorce) to get in, help out, and gain trust of unsuspecting and newly vulnerable moms.

An extensive national survey done between 2006 to 2010 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrates that on nearly every indicator of well-being, children from intact nuclear families do better by strides. After reading findings such as these, I wish that people worked harder to make it work with their child’s other natural parent.

Now this doesn’t mean that every non-bio dad who enters the picture for children is a threat to them. Of course that’s not true; many stepdads and adoptive dads are bonafide heroes in the lives of their kids. But I don’t think this fact means that anyone should hush the reality of the threats that do occur to a number of daughters such as myself. Had I had an adoptive father who was worth his salt, my life might have been radically different. But as it stands, I carry a lot of regret for the life I didn’t have—a life with my real dad. And I’m now fiercely protective about my family.

Due to the sensitivity of the subject, even researchers have acknowledged that “most stepparents try hard to treat their stepchildren fairly, and extreme negative outcomes, despite being much more prevalent than in genetic-parent homes, are infrequent. That said, however, it is also important to recognize that Cinderella is no fairy tale.”

Of course I can’t change the world; I can only change myself. People will continue to start and end marriages for good or bad reasons ’til kingdom come. What I can do is focus on keeping mine intact. And I can tell my story. I’ve come a long way from my old days of repellent behavior and toxic hate, and I’ve healed my former misandry.

I see now that there are good men who stick around for the whole woman, not just sexual gratification—men who use their strategy and skills to nurture life, master and conquer their baser tendencies, and protect children’s innocence. I have met, fallen in love with, and married an amazing man. My husband and I are resolute to stay together in good times and in bad, and if anything were to happen to him, I would grieve immeasurably. Learning what I have from men—both the good and the horrible—has made me a stronger woman. I’m confident that my life and my family will only get better from here. I share that hope for all women and children.

Photo Credit: Manchik Photography