Italian American Fathers and Daughters: Love and Loss

An exploration of Italian-American fathers and the impact they've had on their daughter's lives.

By: ISDA Contributors, Donna H. DiCello, PsyD. and Lorraine Mangione, PhD.

“When I was in grammar school, I developed a little interest in astronomy. My father went out and found me a scholar’s telescope and he subscribed to Scientific American for me, which I couldn’t understand at all, but I liked the pictures. He was trying to say to me, “Be what you want.” I think it was because he couldn’t be what he wanted. Whatever it was, he didn’t get a chance.”

What images come to mind when you think about Italian American fathers? When you think of your dad, the dads you knew around you growing up, and the dads you see today, who is that man? And what does he bring to fatherhood from his own Italian or Italian American culture and tradition? Do you see men actively involved with their kids, playing baseball or helping with homework, or are the dads so exhausted from working long hours that they have little time or energy to spend with kids? Is taking care of children “women’s work” or are the dads present and involved? Are there strict dads arguing with teenagers in those age-old struggles over control? Or is the dad quietly filled with concern and a sense of protectiveness for his children in those sometimes difficult teen years? Does he see his girls as vastly different from his boys? Do you see fathers in long conversations with their children as they are becoming young adults? Or is that transition rockier as the two negotiate the young adult growing up, perhaps marrying, perhaps going away to school or for work? What about the dad as years pass, and he takes on new roles as grandfather and maybe even has more time to spend with family, whether they live close or far? And how do the media stereotypes of Italian Americans and fathers fit in here—the tough guy, the absent dad, the controlling father, the “old world” dad, the mother as the head of the household?

Talking about our Dads

These are just some of the questions that we explored in our research on daughters and dads throughout the lifespan and even after the dad has passed away. As two psychologists who had been very close to our own Italian American fathers, and who felt inspired and encouraged by them across a lifetime together, we became interested in the topic of Italian American daughters and dads after we lost our much beloved dads. With our own memories of dads who taught us to swim or who discussed history and politics with us, dads who believed in their daughters, and with the field of psychology finally moving toward acknowledgment of the positive influences fathers can have on their daughters rather than only focusing on the negative aspects of some father-daughter relationships, we wanted to discover what other women had experienced. We embarked on a year of in-depth interviews with Italian American daughters who had lost their fathers, daughters who were growing up in the second half of the 20th century through the first decade of the 21st, and we asked questions about the whole of the relationship from the very early years until after the father was gone. We could not have imagined how much we would relish and treasure each interview, and how profoundly moving and meaningful each woman’s story would be. What we found were more women wanting to be interviewed than we could accommodate, so we focused on 50 interviews and on the rich spectrum of dads and the relationships between daughters and dads, as well as the crucial interweaving of Italian American culture, values, and traditions within the relationship.  And while we asked that volunteers be daughters who had not experienced abuse or abandonment from their father, we did not stipulate other details of the relationship, and felt we interviewed a great cross-section of Italian American daughters. So while our work does not represent all Italian American daughters and dads, it does offer a bountiful sample.

This article first appeared in La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s 28-page monthly newspaper, which chronicles Italian life, culture and traditions. Make the ISDA pledge and subscribe today!

Italian American Dads: Who were they?

Who were the dads in their own right, as Italian American men? One dad graduated from Boston College when Italian Americans were not so plentiful there, and kept his love of Latin and philosophy alive throughout his life as he worked as a small business owner in East Boston, something that always puzzled his daughter who saw a contradiction between his daily work and his intellect and philosophical interests. She understood it by realizing how important it was to her father to have a business that could employ family members, and how her own deep interest in learning and knowledge grew from the conversations with her father. Another father, humiliated by his lack of English in an American grammar school, left school behind but went on to become a local political leader through his hard work and his love for the community, which inspired his daughter to enter that same realm. A dad who was the unofficial “mayor of Pittsburgh” welcomed everyone, regardless of race or background, to their home at a time when that was not the norm, and shared his food and his love of his garden and grape arbors, opera, and wine-making with family and friends. His daughter brought ripe figs to our September interview. A father started one of the Italian societies in Albany, New York, a club that gave help to newcomers and provided a sense of belonging and community as well as a way to continue Italian traditions through festivals and gatherings in their new country. His daughter continues that work.

These men, in different ways, were deeply invested in family life and in being fathers, and in the extended family or community through their generosity and helpfulness. They wanted to make life better for their children through their own examples of hard work and using one’s intelligence as well as through their encouragement of education and opportunity for both daughters and sons. Both the commonalities and the singularity of each story struck us, how it is impossible to stereotype real Italian American men in the ways they have so often been stereotyped. While we can find some general themes across the men’s lives as we just noted, and can see the strong influence of Italian and Italian American culture, we should never lose track of what full and multi-faceted individuals each of these dads was.

Italian American Men as Fathers

When it comes to what the men were like as fathers, the stories were also deep and evocative. One woman spoke of her dad running her around on the tennis court, teaching her to be competitive and to “get the lead out of your feet”.  Another woman detailed the special Sundays in the park when the whole family would gather for games and fun, talking and eating, with pots of spaghetti cooking outside, and her father presiding over it all and playing with the kids.

For this woman, her closeness to her father started in those early years:

“In the summer we would go to this private beach. My brother and my mother would just sit there, sun worshiping or doing something else, and my father and I would just run into the water and swim out to this big wooden thing… It was our time together. We had similar interests: we loved cold water; we loved to swim; we loved to swim fast…The more I think about it, the more I realize we were just one.”          

In the teenage and young adult years conflict and disagreements surfaced over boyfriends, curfews, school, and career choices.  We found that most of the women and their dads ultimately negotiated their way through the conflictual areas, while for a few those ruptures remained active over subsequent years. More than one woman spoke of a greater closeness with her dad than with her mom, and even felt that the dad “ran interference” with the more strict mother. Some dads could really talk issues through with their daughters in ways that may seem surprising, such as the dad who apologized to his daughter for his initially negative feelings about her gay friends after he got to know and understand them better. Other fathers were the spiritual guide to their daughters and helped foster their sense of connection to Catholicism or to spirituality more generally, another surprising facet of the relationship. And that question of the value of daughters versus sons came up at least a few times with women speaking about how they questioned their worth in their father’s eyes and learned, sometimes through challenging that assumption with the dad or else just through experience, they were just as loved and valued.

One woman caught the seeming contradictions of her relationship with her father in this way: “Even though we were at loggerheads, I felt he made tremendous effort to understand who I was and to speak to me. Some folks talk about Italian fathers who were working all the time and closed the door to you – absolutely not. We had a conversing relationship throughout our adult lives, which I really cherish, and, I always say, I miss.”    

Losing the Father

As might be expected, the father’s death was hard for these women, whether it had happened six months or many years before the interview, and whether it was sudden and shocking or the result of an ongoing illness in which there might be a sense of relief at the ending of suffering. Psychologists and others who work with grief and loss have moved away from a model of grieving that insists that the bereaved person “get over it” or “find closure” or “put the person to rest” in some prescribed manner that all grievers must follow. Instead, the ideas of many paths through grief, and finding one’s own way of continuing connections with the deceased, have become more common perspectives. In fact, the comment that “Italians tend to keep their dead with them” by social worker Joseph Giordano (2005, p. 617) seems an excellent description of this “new” way of thinking as well as what we had experienced in Italian American culture growing up and what many of the women in our study described.

Keeping the Father Near

There are many different ways to honor, remember and memorialize one’s father, and to keep the relationship going after death. The women we interviewed offered a variety of practices such as saving his favorite anginetti cookies for him at Christmas, establishing a scholarship in his honor because he encouraged his daughter to become an engineer, listening to the opera the daughter and dad used to love together, writing poetry or memoir about him and the loss, committing to leadership in an Italian American society, continuing to talk about him with family and friends, and continuing to talk to him, or welcoming dreams and “visits” from him, especially when in need of a little advice or comfort from dad. Many women felt their Italian identity deepen after losing their father, or perhaps they had come to understand it more.

As one woman stated: “It’s hard to separate out my mother from my father, but in terms of what you are writing about — my father, the influence of his sense of right and wrong, his love, just reveling in being an Italian, an Italian American, the values of family, and the responsibility of hard work and giving back something — that’s who I am now because of what that background, that legacy, gave me. It is the fabric of my life — what propels me forward. That’s the grounding. It’s who I am. This is the best way for me to say it, the best way for me to explain that relationship [with him].”

Engaged Fathers

In the past few years we have seen a description of current fathers as “engaged fathers” as they take more of an interest in their children, involve themselves in their children’s lives more, sometimes become stay at home dads, and are offered paternity leave.  While all of this seems very positive, there is an assumption that fathers were formerly “disengaged” or not engaged with their children. As we have sat with women who have felt deeply loved, valued, and inspired by their dads, as we have heard of these men as dads, with their own strengths and weaknesses, we have to comment that, in fact, many Italian American fathers were, truly, already engaged fathers.

The preceding excerpt was contributed by the authors and appears in their book, Daughters, Dads, and the Path Through Grief

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