Fathers Make Their Mark On Daughters

I was 32, newly divorced, and worried about my future (financial and otherwise), when my dad co-signed a loan and helped me buy my own apartment. “I have faith in you,” he said. “You can do this.”

There could not have been any sweeter or more reassuring words at that difficult point in my life. I knew my father loved me, but this was the first time he’d shown that he believed in me as an adult. The memory still warms me because he died, swiftly and unexpectedly, of lung cancer, just a few years later. I’ll always be glad we had enough time to make the transition from a relationship between Daddy and his little girl to a more balanced one between adults.

Although the mother-daughter bond has been endlessly dissected, psychologists say the importance of the connection between grown daughters and their fathers is often overlooked. “I call it the ‘Let me get your mother’ syndrome,” says Cathleen Gray, Ph.D., professor of social work at The Catholic University of America and a therapist in private practice in Washington, DC. “A daughter phones her parents; Dad answers and immediately turns over the receiver and the communication to Mom. A lot of women would like to be closer to their fathers but don’t know how to break out of old patterns.”

A father and daughter can create great bonds through the years.

A father and daughter can create great bonds through the years.

Gray suggests that an ideal time for an adult daughter to reach out to the first man in her life is when she’s in her mid-20s through her mid-40s. “This period offers a big window of opportunity,” she notes. “For one thing, a lot of older men simply have more time than they did when their children were growing up. They may regret not having been at home more, and want a closer relationship with both their adult children and grandchildren. It’s never too late to get to know a Father better–whatever the relationship was like in childhood.”

Patricia Bilitzke Johnson remembers her father, Joe, as a strict, often unyielding disciplinarian when she was growing up with her older sister and two brothers in the small town of Okemos, MI. But the 45-year-old mother of two, who now lives in a Detroit suburb, says her father has become “softer, more tolerant, and a better listener” as he has aged-and that means she’s able to talk to him in ways she never envisioned when she was younger.

“I’ll give you a small but important example,” she says. “My dad has always taken the attitude that fish and guests stink after two days. When my husband, kids, and I go to visit my parents, Dad is glad to see us, but after twenty-four hours he’ll start asking, `So when are you going to leave?’ It’s a joke but not a joke.

“A few summers ago, I sat him down and said, `Look, this hurts my feelings, and it hurts the kids’ feelings.’ I could see him listening and taking it in, and he did change his behavior.

“I was never afraid of my father, in spite of his gruff manner, but I wouldn’t have spoken up at an earlier stage in our lives. We’ve both changed.”

Most family therapists agree that it’s usually up to the daughter to make the first move. “As a group, older men are used to having the women in their lives initiate emotional closeness,” says New York City psychotherapist JoAnn Magdoff, Ph.D., M.S.W. “It may not be fair, but the father-daughter relationship probably isn’t going to move into a new stage unless the daughter gets things started.”

For many women, getting things started can be as simple–and sometimes as complicated–as making the effort to do something alone with their fathers. “It isn’t always easy at first,” says Gray, who used to take her father off to the hardware store for private time when she visited her parents at their home in New Jersey. “One day I suggested we have a quick bite of lunch because we were having such a good conversation, and he immediately proposed that we `go home and get your mother.’ I said, `Why don’t we let it be a father-daughter lunch?’

“To be honest, I was a little scared about whether we’d just fall silent across a table without my mom there. That didn’t happen, but it took a while for us to be as comfortable a twosome as we were a threesome.”

Gray points out that a mother may need reassurance that a closer father-daughter relationship will not threaten her bond with her daughter-or husband. One of the best ways to provide such reassurance, she notes, is to make sure father-daughter time isn’t “deducted” from the time a daughter usually spends with her mom.

Many daughters carve out time with their fathers by sharing an activity their mothers are eager to avoid. For 36-year-old Andrea Perez, that means occasionally attending San Francisco 49ers games with her dad. “He taught me to appreciate football when I was a kid,” she says. “My mom loathes the game, so this is something special we do together.”

Like many women, as a child Perez spent more time with her mother than with her father. “My mom and I had always talked one-on-one,” she notes. “With a dad, it’s sometimes easier to talk if you’re already in the process of doing something else–like screaming your head off in the stands. I think it increases your appreciation of both parents when you share experiences with them as individuals, not just as Mom-and-Dad, always joined at the hip.”

Another point of contact for fathers and daughters–one that in the past was reserved for fathers and sons–is the shared experience of work. In his later years, my father frequently talked about how he felt he’d shortchanged his children because he worked such long hours as an accountant while we were growing up. I was able to tell him honestly that I’d never felt shortchanged-and even if I had, I was now able to understand the pressures on a man trying to support his family.

Peggy Hallinan, 43, an adoption caseworker in Yakima, WA, remembers a talk she had with her father, a retired forester, when she was working for a social services agency and had to fire an employee. “It was difficult for me, because it was the first time I’d had to deal with something like that,” she says. “My father was very interested in what I was going through, and he told me about a similar situation he’d encountered as a supervisor many years ago. There’s a kind of bond in that for both of us, above and beyond the love between a father and daughter.”

For women already secure in their fathers’ love-like most of the daughters interviewed here-expanding the father-daughter bond is basically a matter of creating openings for greater intimacy. But for those who have been deeply wounded by a father’s coldness or neglect, the process is much more complicated–and doesn’t always have a happy ending.

“The purpose of revisiting a troubled relationship isn’t to rewrite history,” points out Gary J. Oliver, Ph.D., a Family therapist in private practice in Siloam Springs, AR. “The healthiest thing a grown daughter can do is to extend herself, go the extra mile, so she knows she’s done everything possible. For a woman who had a distant father, reaching out is a way of claiming an active role–something she wasn’t able to do as a girl.”

Eileen Gordon(*) had almost no contact with her father between the ages of 12, when her parents divorced, and 38, when she became a mother. As a child, Gordon had accepted her mother’s version of why she never ,saw her dad-that he didn’t care about her. As an adult who had come to realize that her mother had long been an alcoholic, she was beginning to question everything about her upbringing.

Gordon, who lives in Connecticut, phoned her father in California, where he lives with his second wife, and asked if she could visit him. “It took just about every ounce of courage I had,” she says. “l had my husband’s support, but mainly I did it for my child. I didn’t want her to grow up with a mother who was still so bitter.”

Over the past three years, Gordon has seen her father several times and has finally begun to come to terms with what he did-and didn’t-give her as a child: “As I half expected, things weren’t nearly as clear-cut as I used to think they were. My mother made it very hard for my father to see my brother and me, and her drinking played a big role in the divorce. On the other hand, he eventually stopped trying.”

Although Gordon still isn’t close to her father, she does talk to him regularly–and she appreciates the fact that he now takes an interest in his granddaughter. “This isn’t a TV movie in which everybody falls into one another’s arms at the end,” she says. “But my dad is a better grandfather than he was a father, and my daughter is going to grow up knowing about his side of the family.”

One of the most complicated dilemmas for a grown daughter–the reverse of Gordon’s situation–is the need to come to terms with the imperfections of a father she has placed on a pedestal.

“Sometimes a daughter learns things that challenge her perfect image of her dad precisely because they’re getting closer and developing a more grown-up relationship,” says Magdoff. “And it’s a real test of maturity, whether a daughter goes on loving a man who’s just human instead of larger than life.”

Susanna James,(*) who had to drop out of college at age 18 when her father went bankrupt (she wasn’t able to go back until she was 28), only recently learned that his gambling was the source of the family’s financial problems. “He told me himself, I guess because he’d always felt guilty about it, and my first reaction was that I didn’t want to know this about my dad,” she recalls. “I was angry because I’d had to work so hard at a time when other women my age were finishing college and having fun–angry at him both for what he did and for telling me.”

It took James several years to forgive her Father, but she ,says their bond is stronger than ever now. “You’d have to realize how much I idolized my dad to understand how angry I was at him,” she explains. “But now I see that he told me the truth because he’s the kind of man who can’t go on lying to someone he loves.”

For many women, one of the greatest pleasures of a more grown-up relationship with a father is the recognition, often belated, of the ways they resemble each other. “Boys and their dads often have more to do with each other the older a boy gets,” says Gray. “But most fathers, however much they love a daughter, back off when she hits puberty. They feel the mother must be the one to guide a girl through her teen years. So when a girl becomes a woman, being with her father means reconnecting with what he and she shared in the past, but in a new and more mature way.”

After Patricia Bilitzke Johnson became a mother, for instance, she was surprised to discover that she–like her father before her–turned out to be the disciplinarian in her family. “I’m more like my dad than I imagined I would be when I was younger, and I’ve told him this,” she says. “I’m more affectionate and demonstrative with my kids than he was, but I’m definitely the parent who sets the limit, s. Somehow, I think it takes longer for a woman to see something of her father in herself. There were times I’d be laying down the law to one of my kids and I’d think, `You sound just like Dad.’ It’s kind of startling.”

The closeness between a father and daughter can also deepen when they recognize a shared character flaw. Because my father and I both had a tendency to yell first and ask questions later, he was always the one person in my life who could impress me with the need to control my temper. As I moved into my 30s and he moved into his 60s, he became more specific about what his temper had cost him, pointing out that my mother still remembered angry words he’d long forgotten. “Now you’re old enough to understand the consequences,” he would say, “and I’m old enough to tell you what they are.”

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  1. Tina Branch says:

    I cannot say that Dad did not leave a mark on me. But because he was always out and all he did was work, it’s my Mom I was more exposed of. Mom was a remarkable woman and admire her for that.

  2. Samantha Middleton says:

    I can relate to this. I am a Daddy’s girl and I love learning things from him. He is truly making a mark on me but I am proud to say that his influences are all positive.

  3. Vicky Spears says:

    My daughters are obviously following the footsteps of their Dad But it is not something I am jealous of. He is a great man and my daughters will surely be admirable ladies in the years to come.

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