Peggy Drexler Ph.D.

Our Gender, Ourselves

Fathers and Daughters and Moms: Is There Room for Everyone?

Even into adulthood, daughters' relationship with their father is complicated.

Posted May 16, 2012

My father died of a heart attack when I was 3 years old. I went to sleep with a father, and by the time I woke, I no longer had one. My mother, in her grief, subsequently removed all traces of him. There were no photos on bookshelves; no fond holiday remembrances. Asking “What was Daddy like?” drew a vacant response: “He’s gone. It doesn’t pay to talk about it.” What I learned about him I learned from poring over a trunk filled with his old photos and letters. I’d sit on a wooden box at the bottom of the basement stairs, staring at the photos, rereading words that I could quote by heart, recreating his life from the fragments he left behind. For a while, I convinced myself that he wasn’t really gone at all.

Many years later, as my husband held our daughter in his arms for the first time—the look on his face loving, intense, all-encompassing—I looked on and knew that I’d never know that gaze myself. Not from a dad, anyway. It was hard not to feel sadness and a little self-pity, even as I was realizing one of my greatest dreams: becoming mother to a beautiful baby girl.

I was delighted for my daughter, of course, as I watched her grow into a child who was adored, supported, and wholly loved by her father. But I was also jealous. As a preschooler, she was afraid to ride her bicycle without training wheels, and so my husband eagerly set aside a Saturday to teach her. But when the day arrived, my daughter was nervous. She had a stomachache. I told her she could stay home if she wanted—there would be other days to learn to ride the bike. But her father pressed her: “No,” he insisted. “I’m sure you can do this.” They went and she returned ebullient, a broad grin on her four-year-old face. I was fulfilled by her obvious pride—until I heard the voice inside my head. “Wouldn’t it have been nice if you had a father in your corner? Someone who believed in you?”

A daughter’s relationship with her father is complicated, even through adulthood. In my work, I’ve found that even the most successful, independent women have difficulty liberating themselves from the need for their father’s approval—even those women who might have grown up without one. Then we have daughters of our own, and of course we want them to enjoy relationships with their dads that were as happy as, or happier than, ours. But can a mom truly encourage a daughter to be close to her father without comparing her daughter’s experience to her own or feeling left out entirely?

As my daughter grew, I watched as her bond with her father intensified. She was interested in his work; they shared similar tastes in music. One night when he’d taken her to work with him, my husband came home without our nine-year-old in tow. He caromed around our kitchen, pumping his fists in excitement. What on earth? Rather than returning home with her dad, he told me, she’d insisted on staying until the project was complete. No father could have been more proud. And again I wondered, Why not me?

Complicating matters was the fact that as mom I was, by and large, the family’s primary caretaker—all things to all people. Though my husband was an involved father, it seemed like his efforts were more of a favor to me—an effort to ease my burden—than a commitment to dual responsibility. I, on the other hand, was on-call 24/7. Which made it more difficult to watch when he and our daughter developed their bond separate from me. When our daughter was a teenager, my husband stopped working for a few months and insinuated himself into her life in the ways I had always occupied alone. Only better and more. After having breakfast with her every morning, he would take her to school, go on all class field trips, pick her up every afternoon and take her to practices or home to play with friends. For so long I had gently (and sometimes not so gently chided) him for not doing his share. But now I felt shut out of their closeness, and sad about it. It had been my province to know the names of all of our daughter’s playmates as she grew up. She talked to me about friendship issues and difficulties in school. It was I who knew her food preferences and clothing preferences. Suddenly, I felt displaced and peripheral.

As a mature woman, I realized that my husband’s break from work created a great opportunity for her and our daughter to spend time together. I knew how much it meant to each of them, how much the experience was worth. But I had to work hard not to resent, feel jealous of, and envy his now very central role in her life.

It was a natural reaction. As much as we can begrudge being forced to fly solo as parents, or do more than half the work, the power or prerogative of being a mother is also something that we want to protect. Often anyone trying to contribute can be seen as intruding on our turf. Even when co-parenting equally, ultimately you want to be the one that your child calls to if he falls down. So as a mother, you’re pulled by complicated and opposing emotions. On the one hand, you want help and don’t want to feel on-call emotionally or physically all day, every day. On the other hand, you also crave the validation and connection that comes from being number one in your child’s life. Let’s face it. Most mothers feed off of being such a primary presence—the person their children call in the middle of the night, because that’s the one they feel safest with.

The simple fact is that more time for one parent almost always means less for another. Furthermore, mothers and daughters are wired for conflict, because it eases their inevitable parting. Intellectually, I knew all this. But emotionally, it’s hard to take. And if it’s true that the parents we had are the parents we’ll be, there’s a gap in my resume.

Yet as our daughter has grown older, so have I. I no longer wonder whether it’d be nice if I’d had for myself what my daughter enjoys today. Because in many ways, I do. Watching my husband parent her has given me a deeper appreciation for what fatherhood is all about, to experience it through her eyes. Because I consciously idealized a father for myself, ascribing him attributes that soothed me, I particularly treasure those qualities when I see them in my husband. I’ve told our daughter that her grandfather had a lot of energy, warmth, liked to laugh and was so loving, just like her own dad. I’m fortunate to be able to make that connection.

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

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