Emmy Rossum on growing up without a dad: ‘it still causes me pain’

Emmy Rossum and her fiance, Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail (Sidenote: have any of you watched that past the first season? The twist made me mad so much I stopped), were in the audience recently for an interview on Katie Couric’s show with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Sandberg’s cowriter, psychologist Adam Grant. Sandberg is promoting her new book, Plan B, which details how her life changed after the sudden death of her husband, David Goldberg, in 2015. Sandberg became a single mom to two children and that experience profoundly changed the way she viewed opportunities for women, causing her to realize that her first book, Lean In, ignored the role of single parents in the workforce. Rossum, who was raised by a single mom, was moved by Sandberg’s interview and she penned a long essay on Facebook about coming to terms with her childhood. It’s unclear what happened to Rossum’s dad and why he wasn’t in her life, but she writes that she still finds it painful to be without a father and that she’s gone through therapy to try to deal with it. Her openness is refreshing and you can tell she’s still processing her feelings. The essay is long and I’m just going to include some of it but you can read the whole thing here.

As public people, there is struggle with how much to share. How much to hold sacred within ourselves. Also, as actors, we ask ourselves is it better to hold some of ourselves private so that people might forget about the real “us” when watching a character?

If we’re being honest, though… as people, public or not, it’s sometimes hard to share. With anyone. Even those closest to us. The idea of butting up against and sharing our own vulnerabilities — not the ones we can cloak behind a character — is intimidating. What if they don’t really like me anymore? What if they see this as weakness? If I say this, I can’t take it back.

So this morning as I woke up thinking a lot about the talk and how it affected me personally — I cried a few times listening to Sheryl and Adam speak! — and with the strength of Sheryl’s story guiding me, I felt compelled to write this post.

The talk really hit me hard when Sheryl and Katie Couric (who lost her husband Jay to colon cancer when her daughters were 2 and 6) spoke about suddenly becoming single moms. How they never realized how hard it really was, how ostracizing it can feel for children. How hallmark holidays like “Father’s Day” and activities like the school “Father Daughter Dance” which once seemed like happy, easy, fun traditions suddenly became almost suffocatingly painful.

When they talked about this, I reached over and grabbed Sam’s hand and squeezed.

I had a single mom. I have a single mom. This isn’t a secret. Growing up in a school — and a world — filled with mostly two parent units was difficult for me. Father’s Day still is difficult for me. I’m not really sure how to celebrate. In the weeks leading up to it, I sense it coming like a wave approaching. Sometimes I try to ignore it — but the ads in the paper or online banner ads for “Macy’s Fathers Day Cologne Sale!” and restaurants selling “Father’s Day Brunch Mimosas!” can make that pretty tricky. Sometimes, I take my mom to brunch and get her a present, to show her how much I value her. She really was both a mother and a father for me. I don’t like her to know that it still causes me pain — 30 years later — lest she feel somehow that she wasn’t enough. She was always enough. She is enough. She wasn’t perfect, no one is, but for me she was the best mom ever.

Katie Couric said after Jay died she tried to get the school to get rid of the title “Father Daughter’ dance, and call it “Friend Dance” or anything else that would feel more inclusive. The school said it was tradition and kept it “Father Daughter Dance.”

Some of these traditions are really hard for those of us who don’t have. Even today, the idea of no father/daughter dance at my wedding. No father to walk me down the aisle. All of these “traditions” are painful reminders that inadvertently re-injure us, causing a feeling of loss, jealously (of others who have what I didn’t), anger and confusion. Usually leading to us feel somehow inadequate.

But if there’s any upside to this widespread loss — it is knowing that there are more kids that are LIKE YOU. And LIKE ME. And now there’s a place to talk about all this stuff. And lots of other stuff…

So I suppose this is a public thank you note of sorts. To my friends, who write me on father’s day and check in to see how I’m doing. To my therapist, who has helped me through things in my life and bolstered my spirit and self-confidence. To my mother, who was and is enough.

[From Facebook]

There’s a kind of power in being open about your issues and I bet that’s doubly true for famous people. You get the impression that this is a big step for Emmy to put this out there. This is the type of thing I might write on a whim, put on Facebook for my friends and then delete it after I thought about it. Emmy heard Sheryl speak and it touched something in her that she wanted to share. It’s both freeing and scary to be open, but the more I try it, and the more celebrities do it, the more I realize that those deep seated problems only have control over me when I keep them secret. This isn’t an issue I have faced, I was raised by both parents, but I imagine all the people who are nodding as they read this, just as Sheryl’s talk resonated with Emmy. Sharing our secrets and fears can bring us together.


photos credit: Getty

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44 Responses to “Emmy Rossum on growing up without a dad: ‘it still causes me pain’”

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  1. Bitsy says:

    Love love that dress with the flowers!
    And I didn’t realize Sandberg had retracted her sentiments on the very patronizing and tone-deaf Lean In. Thank goodness

  2. Sam says:

    As someone who grew up without a father…I agree. It never ever gets easy and everyday you wonder if he’s thinking about you the way you think about him.

    Having said that, I had an amazing mother and was fortunate that she showed me the love and support of both parents

  3. nemera34 says:

    The Best IMO is to have 2 parents that love you in your life. Regardless if they are in the same house. Kids need both parts of themselves. Yes people make out without either; but doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter

  4. detritus says:

    i was also annoyed by Mr Robot’s twist and stopped watching. We did maybe 4 episodes into the second and gave up.

    • Celebitchy says:

      Spoilers for Mr. Robot season 1
      Yes exactly. How can you introduce a characters and then they’re not real? It’s like you question all the scenes up until that point and wonder which parts actually happened.

      • AnotherDirtyMartini says:

        Celebitchy – I thought the new characters were all real but he had imagined them in a different setting & capacity…am I forgetting someone that wound up not ever being a real person? Because Season 2 did confuse the hell out of me. It bored me too. And that’s an odd mix – being confused and bored. :/

  5. PIa says:

    I really want to adopt, and pursue that even if I do not get married, as a single mother.

    But then I read things like this. There are still “Daddy-Daughter dances”? In addition to widows, other single moms, and lesbian moms are also left out, as are grandmas raising their grandkids.

    • Eleonor says:

      A friend of mine grew up without her father: he left the house.
      Years later he came back, it did not go well, and when she walked down the isle she walked on her mother’s arm. She might have walked with a cousin, an uncle, but she chose her mother.
      It was one of the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen

    • noway says:

      As a person who didn’t choose to be a single mom, my husband died when my daughter was 5, I hope this doesn’t discourage you from adopting, even if you are single. Yes there will be things that your child will feel excluded from, but there are others where they are not, and it happens to all of us in childhood in some way or another. A single parent family isn’t the ideal, but it can be very fulfilling and a loving single parent household can be a godsend to some , although it is very hard to not have a partner to share in the joy and burdens, some times option B is amazing. I know my daughter and I share a bond that may be stronger than most, and not having her would have been totally unbearable. As long as you think about it long and hard and you decide this is the way you wish to create your family, your family will be fine.

    • aenflex says:

      The world needs more good parents. Children need good parents. One good parent is better than two bad, or even two mediocre. I’m 37, have never met my father, and it hasn’t haunted me. My picker is not broken, I don’t have daddy issues.
      I think if you’ll be a good parent, you should adopt. Regardless of your sexual preference or marital status.

  6. LizLemonGotMarried says:

    I grew up with two wonderful parents, but my husband lost his father at 12, and while he has an amazing older brother, and his mom made sure to give him other strong male role models, he really never had a dad-he loves getting together with my dad and just hanging out and doing “dad” stuff.

    As for writing your feelings out publicly-that can be so freeing. Good for her. When Emperor Bigly’s tape came out last year, I finally came out publicly as a survivor of sexual assault-it was incredibly freeing just to put that out in the universe.

  7. Lillian says:

    My brothers and sister often joke that my dad left because of me. They were kidding but it still got to me. I was probably seven or eight when they first told me. Have an incredible mom but wonder what it would have been like with a dad

  8. Jess says:

    I grew up with a single mom and a dad far away so I can relate to all of the little traditions that presume the stereotypical two parent Herero household and how it hurts if you don’t fit that stereotype – esp as a kid just desperate to fit in. I haven’t read either of sandberg’s books but I am glad she’s finally realizing how hard is to lean in as a single parent or if you made the mistake of marrying someone who can’t or won’t give you the support needed to lean in.

  9. Doodle says:

    I grew up with two excellent parents. My husband grew up with divorced parents – his mom loved him and his dad, who I think has Asperger’s, was pretty hands off. My husband is just fine. Not all kids need both parents around all the time to turn out ok. If you want to adopt a child who needs a parent, go for it.

    • Patty says:

      I know you don’t mean it in a bad way, but I really dislike this dismissive attitude. It’s great that your husband is fine and everyone’s circumstances are different. But for too many people growing up without a father because your dad just wasn’t there, or left the family is hard and difficult and it does leave scars on many people. Some people don’t even realize the impact until they are much older and struggle to create healthy relationships of their own or struggle with parenthood.

      And it will depend on the circumstances, someone who has had a parent abandon them or just leave or be in out of their life will likely feel different than someone who had a parent die or who suffered from illness.

      • Lafawnda says:

        I don’t think she is being dismissive. It’s her opinion based on her husband’s life. Not everyone suffers irreparable damage from an absent parent. In fact, some people’s lives are all the better for it. Trust me on this.

      • noway says:

        @Patty I see your point, but do you realize you sound a bit dismissive of people whose parent have died. That people have scars when a parent chooses to leave, but what about death of a parent. Yes these leave different marks, but trust me the wounds are just as severe. I don’t think you mean to sound like that, just as the above commentor wasn’t dismissive of the wounds when a parent chooses to leave. Grief by death or absence is different for people. The fact that she knows someone who flew threw the experience doesn’t really surprise me. I think she was just trying to be encouraging, because I also don’t believe that the fact that you would be a single parent prohibits you from being a great family and adopting a child. Yes it is a factor as you won’t be the ideal family type, and it is harder, but it shouldn’t be a deciding factor.

      • aenflex says:

        It’s a subjective opinion that Doodle stated. I feel like you are generally reading wayyyy too much into it and perhaps being over-sensitive.
        A child who has been put up for adoption will already carry baggage. It’s inevitable. Emotional pain during childhood is inevitable. Emotional pain in life is inevitable, whether you have one parent, two, or 10.

  10. Bettyrose says:

    Can we also agree that Rossum carries Shameless? The other kids are great too. I love Macy as an actor, but his character is only enjoyable to watch because we see him through the eyes of his children.

  11. thaisajs says:

    I’m a single mom raising a child without a dad and her essay is literally my worst nightmare. I worry all the time about whether my daughter will be scared for life because she doesn’t have a dad. There’s not much I can do about that, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling awful about it.

    • Arpeggi says:

      I know it’s cliché, but kids are resilient. As long as you answer whatever questions she might have about about why she doesn’t have a father or where her father is, answer truthfully and make her feel that not having a dad is in no way her fault, your kid is likely going to be alright. No family is alike and the traditional, nuclear family model is not something everyone experiences and that’s just how it is. It’s rough sometime to have it shoved that model in your face, but having a loving, caring family (even if the “family” is made of friends and extended relatives or you alone) is more important than having one father and one mother around.

      I’m sure you’re doing your best to provide her with the best life she can have, and kids tend to understand that much more than we credit them for

    • noway says:

      I admit it is my worst nightmare too, but if you read it she survived and does seem happy and fulfilled. Yes she misses not having a father, and I guess I just see it as this is her thing to carry through life just as my daughter will have to. I’ll do my best to teach her how to be resilient. I agree honesty and talking about it helps.

    • Marianne says:

      I dont think Emmy is really scarred though. Yeah, there are things she has missed out on but she’s otherwise she’s doing well for herself relationship wise, career wise. We dont hear about her going to rehab. Im sure your kids will turn out fine too.

      Theres always going to be something that your kids miss out on.

  12. Arpeggi says:

    My dad died when I was 7 after being sick for about 3 years. Before that, he often worked long hours so while he was very hands-on when he was around, I really hardly spend time with him. I truly hated the Father’s Day card-making activities in elementary school (I’d make something for my granddad if I really had to, but they usually made me skip it). I noticed that strangers tend to always ask questions about a kid’s parents, and I’d always knew that there’d be that awkward moment where they’d ask about my dad and I’d have to say he’s dead (he also died of AIDS, so the convo would get really awkward if they asked what he died of; it was the early 90′s and I had to lie most of the time). Seriously people: don’t assume that every kid has two parents and that those parents are one mother and one father, it’s just plain wrong!!!

    My older brother has had a much harder time dealing with my father’s death than I have. My mum handled the whole thing like a champ! Of course she made a few mistakes here and there (what parent doesn’t?), but she’s been pretty amazing. We had granddads and uncles and family friends so I never felt like I lacked father figures. And I have my brother who is awesome. It’s still hard sometime, but it doesn’t define us. The only thing I notice is that, to this day, I’m really close to my best friend’ dad and I tend to bet along better with my friends’ dads in general

  13. Lilith says:

    Get the f over it.

    Both my parents were highly abusive. One good parent is all you need.

  14. None of us have perfect lives. My mom left and my father raised us. I gave Mother’s Day cards to my aunt. I’m surprised that K. Couric wanted to get rid of Father Daughter dance, that struck me as extremely self centered.
    My brother is terminally ill with 10 year old twins. His wife is a breast cancer survivor. The extended family will be there for them and while it is not the same, it is love.
    I’m reminded of a study done on widows after WWII. Overwhelmingly, they said they went on with life never pitying themselves. They didn’t have the luxury since many other mothers were also widows. So I think it’s about resiliency and recognizing that we all have our own crosses to bear.

  15. Barb says:

    I am soon to be 79 and have never been able to say Dad. I had 4 step fathers over the years but I never called them Dad. I saved saying Dad until I found him. Then a few yrs ago came a call from a half-sister I had found back East to tell me my father had died. I broke down in tears for a man I had no memory of. I knew when she said died I would never never be able to say “Dad”.

    • antipodean says:

      Oh Barb, your comment resonated with me, and my heart breaks for you. It just goes to show that whatever age we are, we still want some connection to the persons who contributed to our biological existence. It is a deep primordial need, but one that often cannot always be achieved. It is a testament to you, and others who have commented here, that in spite of that lack of connection we grow, thrive, and live meaningful lives. Maybe the love we give out and surround ourselves with is more than enough compensation for that lack of a maternal/paternal connection. I had a totally useless, narcissistic father, and a mean narcissistic mother, and I always yearned for a loving connection that was never there. I like to think that I have not repeated that cycle, and that my daughter, husband, and myriad friends and family know that they are loved, cared for and treasured with all of my heart, and it is an endless supply, I have found. It is true what they say, the more love you give away, the more love you have to give.
      I hope Barb, that you are also fortunate enough to have loved ones in your life that will help to heal that hurt from the thing you never had, but wished for. I am thinking good thoughts for you.

  16. Ss11 says:

    Well grow up, you’re a big girl now. So did I and I turned out fine and do not whine about it. Idiot…

    • Jank says:

      Oh my gosh what a horrible thing to say. What gives you the right to say she is whining and calling her an idiot? Talk about lack of empathy on your side, Remember not everyone is fortunate like you,
      I grew up with a single mother and a father who lives in another continent. Yes we communicate through calls but I have only seen him twice in nearly three decades. I am thankful I have a father, I love him but I also resent him. Like she said above about her mum, my mother was always enough continues to be enough for me too.

    • lol says:

      I don’t feel sorry for Emmy, but I feel sorry for her mother. She knows her mother doesn’t want to hear it, but she said it anyway. Now I know why Emmy always sounds bitter and jealous.

  17. Someone says:

    I get all of this. I grew up without a father, not because he passed, but because he chose to not be there. It’s something I’ve always struggled with, still do, and will continue to struggle with for a very long time. What this whole thing boils down to is a parent creating you but ultimately not wanting anything to do with you. Despite how wonderful and loving your single mother can be, it can still really mess you up and have a lasting impact.

    I really dislike people telling her to get over it, stop whining, grow up, etc. You’re invalidating someone’s feelings. And even if you’ve been in the same position of having a parent choose to not be there, it’s not right to say “Well I’M okay, so YOU should be too. We’re adults now.” You don’t get to tell people that they should grow up and get over their parent not wanting them. Not when they’re reminded everyday by the world around them. People raised by single parents should be able to one day be at peace with it – not because they’re getting older and growing up but rather because they deserve the mental peace of knowing how much love they’re already surrounded by and that none of what happened is their fault.

    • lisa says:

      this is my exact situation and my exact feelings on it

      it’s very painful to me still

    • Marianne says:

      And to all the people who say “get over it, I had it worse”. So what? Im sure there is someone out there who had it even more worse. Does that suddenly negate your feelings and emotions? Does that suddenly not make it any less crappy what you want through? What she went through?

      Besides, everyone is a different. One person’s bump in the road is another person’s mountain to climb.

  18. Angela says:

    The comment about who would give her away at her wedding resonated with me. My father is in my life, but only one step removed from being an absentee parent. He didn’t want to come to my wedding in Vegas, so my little brother gave me away. It used to bother me a little that my dad didn’t come, but 5 years later, I honestly don’t care now. I never asked him why he didn’t come.

  19. ell says:

    two parents in the same house is only the ideal if they have a happy marriage, otherwise you’re all better off with being in each others’ lives and living in different spaces. i’m a child of divorce, and while i lived mostly with my mum (she kept the house so there was just more space there, and my dad moved to a two bedroom apartment), my dad was very much part of my life weekly, and they both attended important events in my life while being cordial to each other. so yeah, parents who love you and want to be involved is the most important thing.

  20. Kelly says:

    Ell yes! My parents stayed married and stayed in the same house until I finished high school, but the hatred between them was palpable. I appreciated that they tried to put on a good face for me, but it would have been better for them to divorce and move on with their lives.

  21. WTW says:

    @Ell, yes, I totally agree. My sister has not left her abusive marriage because she doesn’t want to be a single parent. Meanwhile, it has messed up her kids royally. I think her marriage is like the relationship Nicole Kidman has in “Big Little Lies.” She won’t say he hits her, but says she’s hit him. Regardless, it is a very toxic relationship, and her husband is abusive and a misogynist. Yet, she says she won’t leave because her children need both parents. Honestly, I think I could have done better with no parents. My parents split up when I was a baby, and my father didn’t come back into my life until I was almost 13. He’s had several marriages and children with each, and is just dysfunctional. My mother has signs of NPD and was very emotionally abusive. My stepfather resented my presence and when I reached puberty didn’t molest me but was very inappropriate. So, while it hurts for people to have just one parent, if that parent loved you, be grateful. There are plenty of people like me who didn’t even have one loving parent.

  22. AnotherDirtyMartini says:

    Agreed. Kids know when their parents are having marriage problems even if they try to hide it.

    Mine didn’t try to hide it. They stayed together too long, and it was a living hell – violence, drinking, drugs, multiple affairs, abuse galore. To this day I do not have a relationship with my father although I tried on & off until I was 29. I have serious relationship issues with my mom, but it’s eased up a bit recently. This is awful, but her second husband died recently and she’s much nicer to me now that I’m reallly all she has.

    Anyway, to this day it’s difficult. I feel like, at my age, I should be over it…but maybe not. It’s always going to be painful. When you’re treated poorly by your parents, people who are supposed to love you, it really frames the way you see yourself. Not good for the old self esteem.