Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

Walk Carefully Dad, Your Daughter Is Watching

As Father's Day approaches let's look at fathers and daughters.

As Father's Day approaches it's been a bad couple of months for fathers and daughters.

Cate, John Edward's daughter, accompanied her father to court when he was indicted on charges of using campaign funds to conceal his mistress and baby while running for president. Camille, daughter of ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is standing by her dad, helping him set up the property in New York City's exclusive TriBeCa district where he is under house arrest. And the much younger Sunny - whose dad Jesse James is locked in a fierce custody battle with her mother, Janine - while all she wants to do is spend some time with the woman who had brought some stability to her life, Sandra Bullock.

Pure gold for the tabloids, but as a research psychologist and someone who lost her own father at the age of three, I've been thinking a lot about Cate, Camille and young Sunny.

Edwards might believe that Cate, a lawyer, will understand his side of the law. Strauss-Kahn can convince himself that Camille is not cringing in shame as the paparazzi capture her exits from her father's building. Jesse might say he's moved his household to Sandra's town, and his relationship with his daughter is just fine.

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Sorry, fellas. You might think things are okay. But in corrosive encounters like these between dads and daughters, the daughters never walk away unscathed. They move on. But they don't forget.

I've seen it in the relationship problems of the many young women who have passed though my office. I've heard it in the many of hours of interviews I've conducted for a book on fathers and daughters.

The father-daughter dance is as delicate as it is charged with meaning.

You can argue the myth or reality that the first man the daughter falls in love with is her dad; or that girls look for their fathers in the husbands they choose. What you can say with far more certainty is that a father is the first man a daughter gets to know on intimate terms. And the idealization of daddy is very real. Dads aren't perfect. But for a time, they need to appear that way.

That idealization stage is critical for a girl's view of the mysterious XY side of the chromosomal divide. It shows a girl that men are loving, caring, strong and protective; totally, completely and unequivocally in her camp. Or it shows her something else.

When a father's imperfections become blazingly apparent early on - such as his destroying what seemed to be a perfectly loving household for sex with a tattooed lady - it warps a young girl's sense of place and security. She is left to try to make sense of dad's behavior. He doesn't love me enough to want to stay where we all were happy. I must have done something horrible (or be something horrible) to make him want to do something that hurts me so much. If he can be like this to my mother or my stepmom, will he be like this to me?

There is a sad irony here. As girls rush on to playing fields and into business, there is a new opportunity for a whole new kind of father-daughter bond. The traditional role of provider and protector has evolved, potentially at least, into a much richer job description: friend, coach and mentor. When a father squanders this new opportunity, the pain is even greater, confusion deepens and guilt sets in.

So, to fathers everywhere: be who you are, do what you will. But don't fool yourself.

Your daughters are watching your every move. And chances are very good that what they see will play a big role in the woman they become.

 

Portions of  "Walk Carefully, Dad. Your Daughter is Watching" have appeared in the Huffington Post.

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Dr. Peggy Drexler is a gender scholar, research psychologist, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and author of Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family (Rodale, May, 2011). Follow Peggy on  www. peggydrexler.com, Twitter and Facebook.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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