father daughter

Ryan and Tatum O’Neal

It was the second time in a matter of weeks that I’d heard a woman open up about her relationship with her father. The first was a movie star on national television. The second was during a writing workshop, when one of my students — a woman whom I assumed to be in her 40s — mentioned she was back in college, making up for lost time and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. She was in my class because she said she had lots of funny stories to tell and she wasn’t sure where to start. The more she spoke, the more I sensed something that wasn’t humor at all, but a mask for what was hidden — something painful, and it was only now beginning to surface.

When we were in the middle of a group exercise designed to draw the students out, I took a leap of faith and asked her if she had a father who was fully present growing up. If she’d had what I called “father love.”

You could have heard a pin drop.

“No,” she said flatly.

Then she went on to explain that her father, who was emotionally unstable, had left when she was very young. He resurfaced when she was a teenager, and she tried to help him by being his caretaker for many years.

Suddenly the room full of 15 women and one man — most of whom were middle-aged, many of whom were empty-nesters who had never met one another previously — began to open up.

And as they spoke, the subject of fathers stirred the most emotion. Some talked about how their fathers were alcoholics, others that they were absent, or angry, and yes, some were loving. All of their fathers impacted their lives in ways they wanted to explore in their writing.

The idea that the father/daughter relationship is as important if not more so than the mother/daughter relationship, was not spoken about much among my parents’ generation. This may be because of the more traditional role mothers played in the past, raising children. Most women of that era didn’t tell their husbands what they expected of them as a parent.

Years ago, I heard a pediatrician interviewed on a radio show talk about father/daughter relationships. She said that a girl’s experience of parental love with her dad pretty much serves as the model to what male love is all about, and if it’s a positive experience, she’ll do better later in life — that his love can help make or break her self-esteem.

After teaching essay-writing to adults for many years, I’ve found that the majority of my students are over 40, female, and have had less than ideal father/daughter relationships. These women are in search of their voice and don’t want to spend another decade keeping it bottled up. Sometimes the classes are liberating for them; other times, the exercises and the process of writing about their experiences and feelings proves too painful.

I can relate. I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. And over the years, I’ve spoken with women friends whom I’ve considered to be very successful in love and career, but who, it turns out didn’t view themselves that way. And each time, it was not their mother/daughter relationship that they talked about affecting their self-esteem and the choices they made in life as much as their father/daughter relationship — or lack thereof.

Ideally, as we get older, we learn more about who our fathers were as people, not just as fathers, and it can help us put some of their behaviors into perspective. Not excuse them, but put them into perspective.

A friend once told me she purposely avoided marrying anyone she thought might become an alcoholic, like her dad. What she didn’t realize was that her father had other equally serious character flaws that she didn’t fully understand until she had been on her own and then married for a while. “My dad never finished high school,” she said. “He joined the Marine Corps when he was 19, and fought in the South Pacific during WWII. After the war, he worked at a Jeep factory, and at one point he worked for the Post Office. Then he became a salesman for a number of companies. The alcoholism really influenced his career, and his work ethic lessened every year. I never respected him much while I was growing up, although I always knew he was funny. Then, when I attended a funeral several years ago at Arlington National Cemetery, the young Marines were so elegant and strong and disciplined. For the first time I was overwhelmed with pride for my father. At some point, he’d been one of these guys, and he tried to do what was right. Who knows what changed for him.”

By contrast, another friend had a very different experience growing up. A New York City police officer, her father had never shied away from hard work. He worked his way up through the ranks, studying hard and taking written promotion exams for each level, at the same time he attended college and was actively involved in raising his four children, one of whom had Down syndrome.

When I asked her if she thought her relationship with her dad influenced her choice of mates she said it absolutely did: “I looked for a man with principles, and a sense of humor, someone who would want to make decisions with me, team up with me — all qualities I saw in my father. I witnessed my parents’ loving relationship and their ability to go through life together, and that was a model for me. So, it isn’t just the relationship between me and my dad, but my observation of the relationship between my parents that really influenced my decision about who I wanted to marry.”

Studies have shown that women do generally marry men who are like their fathers; whether they are nurturing or absent, women take their cues from the most important man in their formative years and how he treats them. Women also tend to keep quiet about difficulties at home while they were growing up. It’s not that families have a conversation about doing this, but women sense that they’re not supposed to tell. The result is that these girls grow up ashamed, thinking that whatever transpired was their fault — and decades later, they’re in writing classes and various forms of therapy, coming to terms with their feelings.

As a writer, teacher, daughter, and newly empty-nester in search of my future, I’ve learned a lot about self-esteem and of the power of love. If I could pass along a message to all my sisters out there who’ve felt the pain and shame of a poor father/daughter relationship, the message would be in two parts:

    1. It’s not your fault. You were just a kid. All kids deserve to be loved and protected. Don’t blame yourself for what your father did or didn’t do.
    2. Write about it, talk about it — turn it into art. By sharing our wounds we open up our hearts and healing happens. I know, I’ve seen it firsthand.

The bottom line is this: A negative relationship with your father will only come to define you if you let it. Don’t let the past determine your present, and your future. As mature adults, we have the power to set the course of our lives. Remember that — we have the power. Let’s use it.

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