Peggy Drexler Ph.D.

Our Gender, Ourselves

When Daughter Passes Dad

The evolving relationship between fathers and high-achieving daughters

Posted Dec 12, 2011

You don't have to spend a lot of time with the statistics to see the liberation of female possibility in everything from advanced degrees to corporate career tracks to single mothers by choice.

Progress has caused considerable commotion in the genders.

While the post-feminist rebalancing of power between working men and women is the topic of ceaseless debate over meaning and progress, there is another gender issue that has largely escaped the discussion.

What has a new time of female achievement done to the centuries-honed relationship between fathers and daughters?

My studies of fathers and daughters provide some clinical evidence that the answer is complex, and not always easy for either.

Today, father as judge and law-giver is as relevant as courting and chaperones, but the days aren't far past when the template for paternal responsibility was to protect, prepare  and provide daughters for the eventual hand-off to the care of another man.

The template has crumbled under the force of a new balance of power.

It's very possible that daughters are earning incomes beyond what their fathers achieved - or could even imagine. And with that income is the possibility to experience a world far beyond the reach of the man who raised them.

There are also stresses on the relationship between achieving daughters who can live the same life, there may be issues of control - particularly the success-driven variety accustomed to granting permissions.

In my interviews with high-achieving women, I found many who adjusted to the era of female achievement just fine - with dad the same joyful supporter and cheerleader he was on the soccer fields, with his daughter driven by his confidence and basking in his pride.

For others, it's proved to be a rougher passage.

Some daughters felt guilt that their lives had so dramatically escaped the orbit of their father's experience.

One of my interview subjects was Janice, an African American graduate of UCLA and Harvard.  She is the co-founder of a start-up investment firm that, just a few years out for school,  is already generating a six-figure income.

Her father, divorced from her mother and living in his native Mississippi doing small repairs. He can neither read nor write.

She's made her way with the help of male mentors in the business world. She goes to them for advice on things her father could never understand, in places he'll never see.

She has a relationship with him now, but doesn't feel the need to make it stronger. "It's horrible to say. But I think the gap is just too large between our lives. When we talk it's just generic stuff. He knows life, but there just isn't that much for us to talk about. I hate feeling that way, but our lives are so different.

Some fathers - say the daughters - are proud of their achievements, but struggle with the reality of daughters who have the resources to do what they want, when they want - with fatherly review and permission not a major factor in life decisions.

Emily, a well-educated, highly-paid technology executive, said father is a self-made man who built and runs a collection of businesses around the world. As she puts it: "He's tough as nails, a workaholic, and fought for everything since he was very young. He's the alpha male that the other alpha males try to impress."

With his global travel, and her boarding school education, she has few memories of him before the age of 15, when - for reasons still unclear to her - he  asserted himself in her life as if she were an acquired company.

He was involved, but less than supportive.

With every education and career challenge, he would predict failure. And she would go on to prove him wrong. "I tried to tell myself it was motivation," she said. "But I think it's more about control. He wants me to succeed, but he wants it to be success that he made possible.  So in a weird way it's competition: the things I accomplish myself, versus the things I accomplish because he helped."

Two examples at the opposite sides of the spectrum of the evolving relationship between fathers and high-achieving daughters; two lessons in the reordering of the worlds of fathers and daughters.

For some, finding relationship equilibrium in that new world comes easily, even naturally.  But my work tells me that for others, there are adjustments that test the essence of one of nature's most powerful bonds.

I have honored my promise of confidentiality by changing names and disguising identities.

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

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