The 4 Roles Fathers Play When Mothers Are Unloving

Taking a close look at how Dads shape their daughters

Posted Jun 10, 2014

Photo by Drew Hayes. Copyright free.
Source: Photo by Drew Hayes. Copyright free.

The stories daughters tell of unloving, rejecting, distant, or hypercritical mothers have different details, of course, but share common themes.  In broad strokes, how their mothers’ treatment affected them and their emotional and psychological development are of a piece.  But when it comes to describing the roles their fathers played in childhood and adolescence, there are often marked and significant differences.  To look at the bigger picture of what happens to the daughter of an unloving mother, we also need to look at the impact of her relationship to her father. (Many of these observations also apply to sons.)

It’s only been forty years since the influence of fathers on child development has been studied systematically; when the first textbook to address the issue was published in 1976, editor Michael Lamb notes that “most social scientists doubted that fathers significantly shaped the experience and development of children, especially daughters.”  Even now, while no one questions that the quality of maternal connection is central to a daughter’s sense of self and everyone acknowledges that a broken or toxic connection can do great harm, fathers are rarely discussed in this context.   

Research shows that in healthy families, fathers contribute to a child’s development in significant ways, through actions, words, modeling of behavior, and displays of affection.  Paternal influence may be key in teaching a child to regulate emotion—through the rough-house style of play which fathers tend to favor—as well as helping a child form a cognitive perspective on empathy in childhood and adolescence.   In a healthy family, the dyad of husband and wife is actually strengthened by the expansion to include the child in a new triad.

Something else happens when a mother is unloving or rejecting.

When we become parents, each of us—whether it’s the role of mother or father we’re about to take on—brings to the table not just our own childhood experiences but our ideas, all of them untested and many of them not totally articulated, about how best to rise to the challenges of parenting and the desirable or “proper” role each parent should play. 

The childhoods of daughters and sons raised from the 1940s to the 1970s were shaped by traditional views of the father as the breadwinner, rule setter, and disciplinarian and the mother as in charge of raising children and running the home.  For these daughters of unloving mothers, the role of the father was culturally and socially marginalized which had real-life consequences.

But recent research reveals that even now, the involvement of fathers continues to be limited since even in more enlightened times, mothering is seen as more important than fathering, and raising children continues to be a woman’s turf as does the care of the home, even in households with two wage earners.  It turns out that mothers end up deciding whether or not and to what degree fathers are involved in childrearing, a phenomenon called “maternal gatekeeping.” When a mother gatekeeps, she criticizes, disparages, or discourages her husband’s efforts at childrearing; as a result, fathers are likely to withdraw from active roles.

Almost twenty years ago, Mary De Luccie’s work revealed that both the stability of the marriage and the wife’s support were strong predictors of paternal involvement with their children.  Interestingly, the more negative the mother’s experience had been with her father, the more eager she was for her husband to be an active parent.  Daughters of rejecting fathers were also more likely to be supportive and happy with their husbands’ efforts.   More recent research, including that of Sarah Schoppes-Sullivan, sees maternal gatekeeping as a significant factor when co-parenting fails.

Unloving, rejecting, and controlling mothers tend to be described by their daughters as expert gatekeepers.

For some daughters of unloving mothers, the father’s mere presence at home helps to de-escalate the criticism and hostility; for other daughters, though, their closeness to their fathers will heighten the conflict with a jealous or competitive mother, or a narcissistic one.  Here are my own thoroughly unscientific descriptions of the roles fathers play in daughters’ lives when their mothers are unloving or detached.  They are based on the interviews I did for my book Mean Mothers and the many conversations I’ve had since.  These categories aren't always mutually exclusive; fathers may demonstrate a blend of roles or take on different roles over time.

1. The Yes Man

Whether he does it consciously or unconsciously, this father becomes a co-conspirator with the mother.  In some cases, the mother makes sure that she doesn’t say or do anything hurtful to her daughter in her husband’s presence; in others, where the behavior is witnessed, the mother quickly shifts the blame onto the daughter.  No matter what rationale is offered—the child needed discipline, was disobedient or disrespectful, is too “sensitive”—the father buys into it.  The Dad’s joining team Mom makes it easy for the daughter to consider herself responsible for her mother’s lack of love; many daughters spend years thinking that they are undeserving and unlovable, leaving a well-spring of self-doubt that takes years to unravel. With Mom and Dad teamed up, the daughter may be wary of all relationships with both women and men. 

Some Yes Men don’t team up with their wives but end up playing The Appeaser role, which is a variation on the theme.  Their commitment to the marriage and their own acceptance of how their spouses act (“That’s just who she is” or “She means well. She’s doing it for your own good”) trumps all and leads them to actively encourage their daughters to do the same.  These men may have love and affection for their daughters but consistently take their wives’ sides, since their first allegiance is to Team Spouse and Marriage.  Their consistent lack of support results in emotional confusion and more complicated issues of trust since Dad is there for his daughter in one sense and not in another.   

2. The King of the Castle

Sometimes, a father’s closeness to and love for his daughter is the catalyst for conflict since the mother perceives the attention being given to the daughter as rightfully hers.  Jealous, competitive, or narcissistic mothers, as well as detached and insecure ones, will see the daughter as a potential rival for what she sees as her throne by the King’s side. Mothers who competed for their fathers’ attention as daughters—my mother was one—are especially susceptible to feeling threatened.  These mothers will escalate the warfare by amping up the criticism of their daughters and doing what they can to turn their husbands into Yes Men.

The more unstable the marriage is, the more the father’s affection for his daughter looks like a threat to the safety of her mother’s world.  Sometimes, the daughter becomes a stand-in for “The Other Woman,” real or imagined.

As daughters tell it, the King of the Castle scenario is very toxic and impossible to resolve.  Jealousy spurs on a mother’s meanness.

3. The Absentee

Sometimes, daughters discover that both parents are equally emotionally unavailable, even if their parenting styles are very different; some daughters report that their controlling mothers controlled their husbands as well, and these fathers tended to disappear into the woodwork.  While the Yes Man joins team Mom, the Absentee simply stays out of the fray as much as he can. 

In troubled marriages, fathers often emotionally vacate the premises long before they leave (and some of them don’t ever leave), and spend more time at work, out of the house, and shift their attention to hobbies and sports outside of the familial circle.   Extramarital affairs remove them even farther from the emotional center of the family and. of course, their daughters.  The emotional pain inflicted on daughters by the lack of maternal love is compounded by the sense that their fathers have abandoned them and failed to protect them, leaving them alone and at their mothers’ mercy.  Daughters report a great deal of emotional confusion when fathers are absent, and if their mothers end up abandoned by their fathers, they may actually align themselves with their mothers, creating another kind of inner conflict. The need for mother love rises to the surface, and loyalty to the mother in these circumstances sometimes outweighs the need for self-protection.

Parental divorce creates a special conundrum for daughters of unloving mothers who usually end up living with their mothers;  daughters of enmeshed mothers will find the going very rough as whatever slight boundaries once existed disappear under stress.  An older daughter may be able to recognize that her father has left because he’s been treated the way she has been, and that can lift the burden of feeling responsible for the failure of the maternal relationship and create an enduring alliance with the father, even if the time spent with him is scanty.  Even though these fathers are physically absent from their daughters’ lives, they are nonetheless emotionally present and caring.  When the daughters reach adulthood and begin to set boundaries with their mothers, their bonds to their fathers remain strong.

4. The Rescuer

While few daughters report feeling totally protected by their fathers from their mothers’ treatment—there doesn’t seem to be A White Knight—many do feel that their fathers’ presence “rescued” them in important ways.  For the daughters of hypercritical mothers, paternal encouragement of pursuits and acknowledgment of their talents and abilities acted to counterbalance their mothers’ focus on failures and shortcomings.  Daughters of rejecting or emotionally distant mothers often find a safe haven in their fathers’ company and affection, even when it’s relatively limited in scope because of maternal gatekeeping.  Many daughters—and I count myself in that number—received validation from their fathers which permitted them to begin to understand, even at a relatively young age, that they had done nothing to provoke or deserve their mothers’ treatment.  In some families, especially if the unloved loved daughter is the eldest or the only child, the father can become a gateway to the outside world as he encourages her to try new things or persist in pursuits he considers valuable. 

Unlike the Yes Man, the Appeaser, or the Absentee, the Rescuer tends to act more like a free agent, navigating between his love and loyalty to his wife and daughter.  Many daughters with Rescuer fathers often end up walking in paternal footsteps when it comes to work and career.

It’s important to realize that even having a Rescuer father isn’t a version of the Out of Jail card in a board game.  The daughter is still left with a boatload of emotional baggage and a journey of healing ahead of her.

While the relationship to the primary caretaker—usually our mothers—determines whether we are securely or insecurely attached and how complicated and difficult our emotional futures will be, there’s no question that our fathers influence and shape us and our sense of self both by their presence and absence.

With that, let’s add a splash of honesty to the cocktail of Father’s Day wishes.

Copyright© Peg Streep 2014

These observations became a part of my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.


READ Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt

Lamb, Michael E., ed. The Role of the Father in Child Development. Hoboken, N.J.:John Wiley and Sons, 2004.

 Koestner, Richard, Carol Franz, and Joel Weinberger, “ The family origins of empathic concern: A 26-year longitudinal study,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1999(, 58, 709-717.

Miklikowska, Marta, Bart Daries, and Bart Soenens, “Family Roots of Empathy-Related Characteristics:  The Role of Perceived Maternal and Paternal Need Support in Adolescence,”  Developmental Psychology (2011), vol. 47, no.5, 1342-1352.

 Allen, Sandra M. and Alan J. Hawkins, “Maternal Gatekeeping: Mothers’ Beliegs and Behaviors that Inhibit Father Involvement in Family Work,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, (February 1999), vol. 6, no.1, 199-212.

De Luccie, Mary F. “Mothers; Influential Agents in Father-Child Relations,” Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs (August 1996), 122,no.3