I Was Estranged from My Father for Years. Here's What It Taught Me

And apparently I'm not the only one

estranged from my father: illustration of disappearing man and child
JakeOlimb/Getty Images

This month, I drove into Manhattan where I’d spent most of my adult life. It’s one of the first Father’s Days since my dad passed away, and I’m not proud to say I hadn’t spoken with him in the year before he died, when he’d slipped into being bedridden and rageful. His caretaker later told me he’d repeatedly suggested, “We should call your daughter,” to which my dad replied, “Leave it.”

The last time I visited my dad across the country was years before, after he’d had a serious fall. As I left that day, I knew it would probably be the last time I’d see him. How had this shrunken baby bird in a hospital bed replaced my strapping 6’2” blond-haired golfer of a father? I was in equal parts acceptance and devastation.

I thought back to that day as I pulled into my beloved Manhattan, the city my dad introduced me to, a city that agitated his nervous-natured Southern demeanor. And now my dad was gone, after years of stop-and-start estrangement.

Family estrangement is trending, according to a 2022 study that, not coincidentally, reveals that dads are cut off from their children four times as often as moms. According to Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict, it’s been labeled a silent epidemic by therapists including the author, Joshua Coleman, who says that the contemporary broken multi-generational family has a few disparate social markers, including:

  • rising rates of individualism
  • increased cultural emphasis on happiness
  • growing economic insecurity
  • contemporary perception that parents impede rather than facilitate personal growth

And the topic seems to be everywhere. On Broadway, I watched Jessica Lange playing a mother estranged from her two gay kids in Paula Vogel’s The Mother Play. (Vogel’s previously won a Pulitzer for dramatizing family trauma, so I trust her to have her finger on the pulse.) Newspapers are reporting that Shiloh Jolie-Pitt petitioned the court to remove “Pitt” from her name, a public indicator of, if not actual estrangement, then some sort of serious rift in the family. (One X post hinted that for insight into this situation, reflect on how Angelina Jolie is not named Angelina Voight—i.e., Jolie herself was reportedly estranged from her own dad, actor Jon Voight, for years also).

My own story is one of generational boom-and-bust. My father—a Southern scion of a socially prominent surgeon and his wife—presented as a charmingly polite ne-er-do-well who married my mother as they were headed to college. They had me at 22. They never finished school. He drank and behaved badly. She left. I didn’t see him again until years later when he reached out after my mother’s second divorce, when he was working as a merchant marine and offered to send me to private high school and college. We became friends, and I called him Bill, since he hadn’t been there during the years when you learn to call someone dad, which just felt awkward to say. He looked like me, but he wasn’t easy for me to understand: He retreated into novels, football season and beer and basically worked as a sailor, instead of being a guy with a home and family like other dads. Some semesters, when he’d had a few bad weeks of poker, he’d be late paying my high school tuition.

But ultimately my Jimmy Buffett character of a father came through. The memory that stands out was one weekend in high school, when I’d had a particularly bad week—I’d been booted from the cheer squad for being caught with champagne—and he played the divorced dad to a tee when, instead of scolding, shaming and grounding me like my mom did, he took me to spend the weekend in New York, which he knew from the Seafarer’s Hall, and I knew from Madonna videos and Dorothy Parker short stories. He took me to a Broadway show, and we had tea at the Plaza.

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And ahead of this Father’s Day, it occurs to me there’s one last thing my difficult, estranged father gave me: A reason to try harder with my own child.

After I graduated from college, we spoke less often. He traveled for work, I traveled for work, and then suddenly months had passed and then years would go by, and we hadn’t spoken. Our estrangement was a funny thing, how it happened. It brings to mind what Hemingway wrote about how you go bankrupt—slowly, then all at once. After a few years I came to the cool-eyed assessment that my father and I didn’t like each other very much—that on some level, I made him nervous, with my urban pretensions and sobriety, and he made me angry, with his complaints about being “the last Anglo left in Texas” and his woozy inability to develop a life beyond his recliner post-retirement. In one of our final conversations, I reminded him how much that New York trip had meant to me, how I’d found a place in the world in this big dirty marvelous city.

“Well, you certainly took to it like a duck to water,” he chuckled. Now that I look back, I appreciate how, in some small way, my father saw me and could appreciate me, even if I wasn’t his cup of tea politically, geographically or personality-wise. And he could appreciate how he had been a part of someone squaring their circle, even if he hadn’t quite been able to in his own life.

And ahead of this Father’s Day, it occurs to me there’s one last thing my difficult, estranged father gave me: A reason to try harder with my own child. My teen son is in many ways just as much of a diffident rebel as his grandfather was. His growing up was complicated by a father who died two weeks before his 13th birthday, just as a pandemic isolated him from any community. My father’s and my relationship shows me that a lack of any bend in the parent-child relationship, especially when fueled by Don Draper-level cocktails, hurts everyone. I’m trying to lean into the whole parenting-the-troubled person narrative, even though in my worst moments I fear a genetic lack of emotional intelligence is going to replay it all forever, turtles all the way down.

I’m choosing to interpret my estrangement from my dad differently: Not to just let family happen. To work for it as its own accomplishment. To help foster family connection in ways that are uncomfortable, like setting boundaries, but still regularly having the awkward phone calls and expensive visitations. I’m striving to be what he wasn’t, and to teach my son by example that, even when we don’t agree or have much in common, our relationship is its own reward. Though funnily enough, here I am again, wanting to say Happy Father’s Day to Bill, but not knowing exactly where to reach him.

dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...