The Dad Stays in the Picture

Movies love a single dad with no mom in sight. Though such families are uncommon in real life, every family can learn from those portrayals.

Collage of single dads in movies
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Disney Enterprises, Inc., Netflix, A24, and Paramount Pictures.

When your teenager initiates a conversation about pop culture, you stop everything. My 16-year-old daughter observed that in four movies she saw this year—The Kissing Booth, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Hearts Beat Loud, and Eighth Grade—the main character is a teenage girl being raised by her father, with her mother entirely out of the picture. “Why is there no mom around in any of these movies?” she asked. “Is the only way they can show a girl being close to her dad is if there’s no mom?”

She made a good point. The exquisite fireside scene between Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton at the end of Eighth Grade reminded me of the touching conversations between Molly Ringwald and Harry Dean Stanton in Pretty in Pink. These scenes echoed other heart-to-hearts in motherless movies we thought of: Clueless, She’s All That, 10 Things I Hate About You. And on TV, Veronica Mars and Homeland. This fall saw the sweet bond between Lady Gaga and Andrew Dice Clay in A Star is Born; this winter, Ben Whishaw’s winsome widower in Mary Poppins Returns. Could these close relationships only exist because the mothers don’t?

It’s actually rare for a father to be parenting entirely alone. If a dad is single, he’s usually divorced, not widowed or abandoned, as depicted in these films. Susan Skoog, a filmmaker and screenwriting professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, understands this prevalent daughter–single dad relationship on screen. “It’s a ploy to make the main character more sympathetic,” she explained, “and the dad more heroic.” In real life, dads don’t need to be heroes, but what do they need to be?

In my own family, my husband and daughter are close, and I consider my husband an equal partner in parenting. Still, I’m usually the one to talk with our daughter about her social and emotional life. I ask a lot of questions, which starts a lot of conversations. If I take a cue from these on-screen pairs, does my very presence in our household prevent them from being as close as they could be? Do I unintentionally usurp the emotional caregiving of our children? Until now, I haven’t actually used this term when considering my role as a mom. In turn, I haven’t thought of my husband as fulfilling this role less. When I read this op-ed to dads about why daughters shield their fathers from their experiences with sexual assault (sent to me by my distressed husband), I wondered: What can we as parents do to change this de facto dynamic?

Victoria Goodman, an individual and family therapist in Mount Kisco, New York, explained, “We assign roles because that’s how we get through our busy days. Can we do it differently and less predictably? Yes.” In fact, she said, “Dads should be talking about their emotional world.” There’s room in almost every family for fathers and daughters to have these intimate conversations, even with a mom at home. Goodman encourages it. “Even if it doesn’t come naturally, it will resonate with a teenager that her dad is interested in her emotional life.”

The life of Brad Fujisaki of Portland, Oregon, resembles one more familiar to us on screen. He has been raising his daughter, 12, and his son, 8, alone since his wife, Stacie, died of cancer in 2013. In the face of daunting and unexpected single fatherhood, he depended on the parenting he knew best: his mom’s.

“I know what it’s like to be a good mom,” he explained. “I flipped it around. Even though I’m a dad, I can parent like my mom did. There was no need to compartmentalize roles. I stopped filtering ‘a mom thing’ or ‘a dad thing.’ I think, What do they need?

Bo Burnham, who wrote and directed Eighth Grade, also took inspiration from his mom to shape the father in his film. “So much of [Mark] is my mother,” Burnham told me. “Of course he’s a father, but I really do think of him as a parent first. … He has both parts in him, a maternal and a paternal instinct.”

The scene by the fire between Kayla and Mark at the end of the film is one of the most moving I’ve seen. And not because it’s a father and a daughter, but because it’s a parent emotionally connecting with his child at a time she needs him most. I want to be that parent. I want my husband to be that parent too.

“I view her as incredibly lucky,” said Burnham, “to have attentive parental love in the house.” I told him I’ve imagined the scene by the fire, but with a mother inside, perhaps observing her husband and daughter from the kitchen window. I see her clearly. Burnham didn’t seem to mind.

Women are often more fluent in the language of tuning in, and fathers may find it difficult to access such exchanges with their daughters (and sons, too). But Goodman urges dads to just dive in. “Conversations with our children change as they grow,” she said. “Relationships, sex, changing bodies—men may feel they don’t know how, but it doesn’t need to be prescribed.
Kids are resilient and forgiving.”

After his wife died, Fujisaki realized he needed to learn to braid his daughter’s hair. He found videos online and soon became known for her elaborate updos at her soccer games. “They can’t believe my dad did my braids,” she would tell him. What if dads everywhere, even with Mom home, sat down behind their daughters armed with a how-to video, a brush, and some hairbands? My French braids are mediocre at best; maybe my husband’s would be better.

Fujisaki has learned through loss how capable he is as a father. He suggests to co-parents, “Talk to each other about roles. And decide, not default.”

The role of dads has undergone a sea change from even one generation ago. “My father was very loving and supportive but we weren’t sitting down having really emotional talks like I was with my mother,” said Burnham. “It was a much more traditional emotional divvying up of responsibilities. I think those lines are blurring now.” In a contemporary two-parent household, emotional caregiving is just one of the day-to-day needs of children that can be shared between parents. Dads who keep themselves in the conversations, who start the conversations, raise kids who know no different. And while having both parents emotionally tuned in doesn’t mean being a teen will be any easier, it can mean twice as many people at home to lean on.

Most moms of a teenage daughter are familiar with the light knock we give to the door before entering her room. But if I’m being honest, I don’t know the last time my husband knocked, went in, and sat on her bed just to talk. This should change. And with me alive and well in the same house.