- My Father Left Me Ireland underscores the universal nature of father loss and longing and how deeply our relationship with our father is tied to our identity—regardless of race, class, nationality, or gender. Tweet This
- Michael Brendan Dougherty gives us several important lessons about the connections between fathers and their children that are worth considering as we honor fathers this weekend. Tweet This
- Regarding his efforts to see his son, Dougherty tells his father, “Please, never be ashamed of the things you did to know me and be known by me.” Tweet This
Who were you anyway? You were the man who showed up every few years. The man who wrote me letters about the latest developments in his household, the home in which I played no role. You were what my mother often reminded me: not here for me.
When I read Michael Brendan Dougherty’s beautiful little book, My Father Left Me Ireland, I was surprised to see a lot of my own experience growing up without my father reflected in his—including in the above quote, which could easily describe my thoughts, at times, about living apart from my dad. This resulted in some tears being spilled on the book’s pages, and at least one late-night text to tell my father how much I missed him.
But Dougherty’s story is not about a son who was abandoned by his father, a point he acknowledges in the book. “I was not fatherless,” he insists. “I had a father; I just missed him.” Rather, the book is a beautiful narrative of a father and son’s mutual longing for each other that spanned many miles, misunderstandings, and years—a father and son who, through great effort on both their parts, find their way back to each other.
My Father Left Me Ireland underscores the universal nature of father loss and longing and how deeply our relationship with our father is tied to our identity—regardless of race, class, nationality, or gender. Dougherty’s eventual reconciliation with his father also illustrates the healing power of the bond between father and child—even if it occurs after the child is grown. The book contains a few powerful lessons we can all take with us into this Father’s Day weekend.
Dougherty tells his story through sometimes heartbreaking letters addressed to his father—letters he probably wishes he’d written in response to the many unanswered letters his father sent him over the years. Born to an unmarried, Irish-American woman after her brief romance with his Irish father, Dougherty was raised by his mother in New Jersey, while his father remained in Ireland, got married, and started a new family.
That is where this story could have ended—with his father thousands of miles away and out of his life for good. But, unlike too many men in similar circumstances, Dougherty’s father did not fade out of his life; he kept reaching out, and ultimately, those efforts paid off.
Longing. Dougherty describes his father’s sporadic visits to New Jersey to see him as a child, as “[a] brief, suggestive interruption of a life I lived without you.” Those of us who have gone back and forth between divorced parents, enduring too-short visits with our fathers, can easily relate to how he felt when he writes:
We would meet. You would delight in your son. I would feel spoiled rotten, trying to soak up each moment together in all its detail. Then we would part. In the moments after, I would wail for want of you, before becoming quiet for days.
But his tears for his father do not end in childhood. He describes one heart-wrenching scene after his father visits him and his new girlfriend in New York. After they parted, he says, “I bawled my eyes out until sunlight. You leave. I cry. Again.”
The reason he cries, he says, is because he realizes just how much time he has missed with his dad. As he further explains:
Not ‘missed’ in the sense of having spent my time pining for your company or in mourning your absence… I had not been an emotional wreck. I had simply missed you, the way one discovers having missed an entire way of life when it is too late.
When his father announces during one visit that his wife is pregnant, Dougherty remembers wondering: “How was I a brother to someone who was not my mother’s child?” Although his father reassures him that nothing will change, he instinctively knows things can’t be the same, and silently expresses the desire of every child whose parents split up:
This announcement revealed to me the secret hope in my heart. All the things I didn’t quite understand made me think our family could be patched up. Your announcement revealed this hope in me by extinguishing it for good. For the first time, and from then on, I would never be deluded again. I would grow up a fatherless child.
But the book is not only about Dougherty longing for his absent father; it is also about his father’s longing for him. We see evidence of this in the letters he continued to send even when his son did not write back. After he is married and expecting his first child, Dougherty realizes in re-reading those letters that while he was missing his father, his father was missing him, too.
“I’m afraid I had it all wrong,” he writes, “that these letters, which I once passed over so casually, brim with longing—longing for me—just as my mother’s [letters] did for you. That is our history.”
His father’s longing is also evident in the efforts he took to connect with his son, including showing up unannounced one day at his school, without his mother’s sanction, an act that results in years of misunderstanding. They spend time talking on the playground, his father gives him an Irish t-shirt, and then leaves to attend the World Cup with a friend. Later, when Dougherty arrives home from school, he is questioned by his worried mother, who feared his father might kidnap him. She convinces him that his father only stopped by to see him on the way to his real reason to be in the States, the game. Dougherty is left feeling like “an afterthought.”
My Father Left Me Ireland is a beautiful narrative of a father and son’s mutual longing for each other that spans many miles, misunderstandings, and years—a father and son who, through great effort on both their parts, find their way back to each other.
Gatekeeping. My Father Left Me Ireland also provides a revealing look at the obstacles that many unmarried or divorced fathers must navigate to stay connected to their child. Though Dougherty's mother is intentional in teaching him about Ireland and desires that her son “know [himself] to be Irish,” she is also torn by her own heartbreak, and this interferes with her response to his father’s efforts to reach out to their son.
The challenges Dougherty’s father faced to stay connected to his son include attempts to arrange visits that Dougherty’s mother interfered with or outright denied. For example, his father once flew from Ireland to see him, only to be refused a proper visit by his mother, who said it would upset them both. It is only after his mother’s death, while he is going through some old letters she wrote to his father, that Dougherty discovers how she:
would lay into you. She would explain, in vivid detail, how every arrangement you proposed, every gesture you offered, was inadequate to the situation at hand … Over the years, I noticed she shifted to warning you to keep a distance. It was too hard for me, she said, to have a father drop in once every few years. But in truth, she was protecting herself as well. And noticing her feelings, I recruited myself into the project, giving you years of stony silence.
Though Dougherty does not use the term, his mother was engaging in a common practice known as maternal gatekeeping, where a mother can either inhibit or support a father’s relationship with his child. Nonresident fathers are more likely to encounter negative gatekeeping by a former partner than fathers who are married to their child’s mother. As we see in Dougherty’s case, gatekeeping can also influence how the child views and relates to the father. For Dougherty, the result is that he ignored his father’s letters for a decade and even briefly rejected his Irish roots.
Restoration. And yet despite these obstacles, his father kept reaching out. His efforts are a beautiful example of how a good father should pursue a relationship with his child from a previous union, and it reveals how sustained effort on the father’s part can make a difference.
In college, Dougherty ends “decades of silent treatment” by writing his father a long letter, detailing all his accomplishments: “This is who I am, I seemed to say, and the heavy implication was that you had nothing to do with it.”
Once again, his father reaches back, responding “as if it could be the basis for going forward.” He soon visits Dougherty and his girlfriend in New York, bringing along his step-mom and half-siblings to meet him for the first time. Over dinner, as his family comments on the similarities between father and son, Dougherty realizes, “that our relationship wasn’t a series of events but an unalterable and primordial fact. The events were just the record of how we coped with this truth.”
Later, during a visit to Ireland, Dougherty learns the real reason his father showed up at his school years ago: it was the only way he could see his son. Rather than being an “afterthought,” he was his father’s “only thought.” His father shares how his desperate actions to see his son made him feel “like a terrorist.” But Dougherty sees it differently: “in that moment, I learned you had made real sacrifices, taken real risks, to see me.” He reassures his father that these efforts helped restore their relationship and enabled him to find his roots:
My mother’s wish, expressed to you in a letter, was that I should know myself to be Irish. It was an absurd thing to hope for. But maybe a little ‘terrorism’ on your part made it true.
I’ve written before about the healing power of father presence. And this power is certainly evident in My Father Left Me Ireland: we see it in the continued efforts of Dougherty’s father to know his son and be known by him, but we also see it in Dougherty’s transformation when he becomes a father. “Fatherhood teaches me that if we let it, new life comes to restore us,” he writes. He yearns to be whole for his child’s sake, and that means reconnecting with his father and his Irish roots so that he can pass this history on to his kids. “My daughter,” Dougherty tells his father, “has sent me back to you.”
Whether he intended to or not, Michael Brendan Dougherty gives us several important lessons about the connections between fathers and their children that are worth considering as we honor fathers this weekend.
First, we should not underestimate the power of the father-child bond: as we have seen with adopted and donor-conceived kids, there is an innate desire in all of us to know who we are and where we come from. And father longing is an especially deep wound that can impact our identity and leave us half-empty and searching for fulfillment.
There is a lesson for mothers, too. If possible, mothers who are not married to their child’s father should put aside whatever differences they have and do their best to support their child’s relationship with his or her father. As a large body of research confirms, a healthy relationship with their father is better for children in the long run.
And finally, especially for non-resident fathers, the lesson is clear: don’t ever stop trying to connect or reconnect with your kids. Keep reaching out, knowing that even the smallest attempts at a connection might eventually result in restoration that can bring healing for both father and child. As Dougherty assures his father regarding his efforts to see him, “Please, never be ashamed of the things you did to know me and be known by me.” In the end, those efforts brought a father and son back together.
Alysse ElHage is Editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog.