Daddy was usually the first man in our lives. By his presence or absence he exerted a lasting influence on us. We may not realize it, but the relationship we had with him during our formative years affects how we see ourselves as women and how we relate to men in our lives.
Helen, a successful real estate developer, happily married for 26 years and the mother of four grown children, reveals: “There was just my brother, two years older than I, and myself. As soon as I was able to walk and talk, I remember my father taking us out together and sharing with us the wonders of the city. He treated as differently, but never one better than the other. For as long as I remember – and even now – I could go to him and tell him anything, and he would listen, try to understand and be helpful. Sometimes my mother was too busy to be bothered, so he would help me with my homework. He used to carry me around piggyback until I got too heavy, but even when I was in my late teens, he would knock on my bedroom door at night, come in for a talk and hug and kiss me good night. I always felt safe and loved when he was around.” Although such a relationship did not guarantee Helen a happy marriage, it could certainly be considered a contributing factor. Helen feels she was conditioned from early on to react favorably to men who treated her well.
Pamela tells a different story. She is sitting upright and uptight on her therapist’s couch, trembling slightly. Her luminous dark eyes, behind expensive designer glasses, are brimming with tears, and she’s fighting with spillover. Attractive, 34 years old and twice divorced, she holds a high management position at the local TV network. Right now, she’s having difficulty maintaining her usually calm, unemotional delivery. Her words begin to pour out nonstop in a torrent of jumbled phrases and breath-stopping sobs: “He was a real bastard! He really crippled me!”
“In what way did he cripple you?” asks her therapist. “He lied to us. He said he’d never leave us, but he left me anyway!” (The therapist notices the change from “us” to “me.”)
“You feel as though he removed your support system?”
“He didn’t give a damn about me when I really needed him. After he left, when I was a teenager, and I would go to see him, it was always only if it was convenient for him. Him and his women! He always made me feel as though I was imposing on him… and I was his child!” A 13 year-old Pamela has emerged screaming in uncontrollable anger at her therapist, who notes that Pamela may have to relive more such painful scenes before she can put forth her relationship with her father in proper perspective.
There are many variations on the father/daughter theme, but most exist in the larger context of family relations. How we interacted with our mother and how we saw her interact with our father is certainly part of the picture. She is usually our first role model and has a profound influence on the women (or men) we become. Unfortunately, however, because mothers are the primary caregivers in most families, girls don’t get as much of an opportunity to preview what men are like as boys get to learn about women. Society expects women to assume the major responsibility for raising children. And while daddy may not be around on a regular basis to be a pal and a dispenser of TLC (Tender Love and Care), his comings and goings have a great impact on the household, as we can see from Pamela’s and Helen’s stories. Often the daily, active power of Mama seems to diminish when he is home; she often defers to him when it comes to decisions she previously made.
As children we are quick to pick up on the power structure within the family circle. Young girls under ten are often as assertive as boys, but girls learn very quickly that their personal worth and survival do not depend necessarily on taking direct control of their own destinies. Rather girls learn that being attractive, demure, soft, flexible and tolerant are the qualities that make us more acceptable to society – especially the society of males. This is one of the early and basic lessons we usually learn at our fathers’ – and mothers’ – feet.
Then there are those of us who grew up without our fathers around. The effects of such an absence can be as diverse as the attitudes our mothers had toward their absent men. In other words, if our mother projected a positive attitude toward men, exposed us to positive experiences with men and helped us feel good about ourselves, we probably function as well as anyone from a two-parent family.
If our parents stayed together throughout our childhood, and we have mostly fond, positive memories of our father, our experiences may have a lot in common with Helen’s. Some of us, however, like Jeanette, developed patterns of low self-esteem as our relationships with our fathers evolved.
“When I was little, I remember my father was really nice to me. But when I got to around 12 or 13, he just wasn’t interested in me except to yell at me. I was afraid of him, so I’d stay out of the house longer than I should, and then, boy, would I catch hell! He either ignored me or played father with a capital F” she says. “He and my mother didn’t get along very well, and he was gone a lot. I thought he hated me.” Jeanette was obsessed with the turnaround in her father’s behavior and associated it with her emergence into young womanhood. Subtly and over a long period of time, she had gotten used to the idea that she was not worthy of her father’s love. Later it took many months of therapy to help her understand that she was in no way diminished as a person because of her father’s rejection of her.
More than a few women who have had problems with their fathers can trace the beginnings back to the onset of puberty. Many women, like Jeanette, complain that after they become teenagers their fathers discouraged hugging, kissing or sharing confidences by being unresponsive or even becoming mean and overtly strict with them. Often, a talk-to-your-mother attitude prevailed when the subject of sex or how to deal with boys came up.
Fathers and daughters are, after all, male and female; and sometimes fathers are reminded of their once-youthful wives, in their blossoming daughters. This is natural, but many fathers can’t put such sexually motivated feelings in proper perspective, so they overreact by withholding all affection – as if they don’t trust themselves with it. Sometimes they turn their feelings – which may involve guilt – into gruff avoidance. And sometimes they become tyrannical, restricting their daughters’ social life or subjecting them to harsh physical “punishment.”
Teenagers are, after all, still children in many ways and usually don’t have enough life experience to analyze such complex behavior from a parent – to them it feels simply like rejection and gets translated into feelings of unworthiness. Some of us, on the other hand, are lucky enough to have parents who are comfortable with their sexuality and who feel free to express their affection for each other in front of us. Such emotionally mature fathers help us feel more secure about ourselves in turn. This is because we can identify with the person receiving such affection – our mothers.
What has all this got to do with the here and now? Probably a lot: Many of us move through our adult lives allowing a childhood relationship to trap us in behavior that may not be beneficial to us as adults. We act out old scripts, really living in the past. We may find ourselves always gravitating to men who fit a pattern that has little to do with what we want as women but who instead play roles unfulfilled from our childhood. If our fathers treated us negatively, we may find ourselves inexplicably seeking out men who do the same. Or on the contrary, we may demand “perfect,” treatment from our mates.
Take Myra, for example. As a youngster, her father beat her at least once a week. “It didn’t take much to make him go off. You’d be amazed at the things he hit me for!” She says. According to Myra, this lasted until she was 18 years old, when she finally escaped the ritual by going off to college. By then, Myra had buried a great deal of anger against her father. When it came to choosing a man, she picked one who was the exact opposite of him in looks, opinions, behavior and so forth. In so doing, however, she still locked into the old pattern of resisting her father. Holding her lover, Sam to this ideal opposite of her father got to be hard on their relationship. Whenever Sam agreed with or showed any similarity to her father, Myra and he had a terrible fight.
Keisha, on the other hand, was inevitably attracted to very handsome men – like her father. She usually endowed them with qualities they did not have. “He’s so handsome and has so much to offer – it’s got to work out this time!” She would say. It soon became obvious, even to her, that she needed these men to meet the standards her father had never fulfilled. He had floated in and out of her life with attachments to different women during Keisha’s preadolescent and young-adulthood years. Invariably, she would heap all her unmet expectations on her current lover, who was completely unaware of the role she expected him to play.