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Much has been written about mothers and sons; mothers and daughters; fathers and sons. The topic of fathers and daughters has received less press for a number of reasons. The relationship between fathers and daughters has been deemed less important than the others because, sadly enough, daughters have, throughout history, not been as important. They couldn’t inherit wealth or titles. They couldn’t own property. They couldn’t vote, for gosh sake. So how they grew up or what character traits they exhibited just didn’t matter. It was the son who was the “chip off the old block” or the “apple not falling far from the tree.” So, yes, we have analyzed the father-son relationship. Sophocles, Tolstoy, Freud and all those bearded prophets of the Old Testament have had their say.
Now Freud, bless his little misogynist heart, knew that there was something going on with women that he didn’t understand. Remember, he famously said, “What does a women want?” He wanted to make the relationship with the father the critical piece of the child’s development. He didn’t really want to know about the intensity of the mother-child relationship and how impactful it was on children of both sexes. So he more or less skipped over all that messy stuff and called women’s issues “the dark continent.” So much for Freud! We have to give him a nod because he was the pioneer who started all of this fascination with the psyche and the inner world.
Freud realized that mothers were important but only from the (male) child’s point of view. He discovered what artists and scholars have known for centuries, that is, that little boys fell in love with their mothers. Then whoops! Somebody figured out that mothers were not as innocent as we had hoped. Jocasta, mother of Oedipus in the Greek Tragedy by Sophocles, was the first but certainly not the last to feel sexual desire for her son. So we spent a lot of time and ink and pondering on the relationship between mothers and sons.
But then in the 70’s we began to understand that the mother-daughter relationship was vital to our understanding of the development of girls and women. (Women were starting to become important!) It provided a wealth of material that affected for good or ill the growth of female children. We discovered that women (like me) could spend much of a lifetime trying to extricate themselves from the bonds of what passes for love between mother and daughter. I will have more to say about this crucial and temperamental relationship later.
But the father-daughter bond has not received the attention that has been accorded other parent-child relationships. That is, as I said, in part because girls and their inheritance in any form were just not as important. But there is another reason that is even trickier and that is, the sexualized component that inevitably exists between fathers and daughters. Logic tells us that it is present but how do we talk about it? More importantly how do fathers deal with it?
Fortunately for all of us the most important component of the father-daughter dance is love. It is the key to all that is best in any parent-child relationship. So let’s start with love but let’s assume some important parameters. It must be love without a price. It must be unconditional and unselfish love. It must be love without a hidden agenda just as it is for mothers and daughters and all other parent/child combinations.
So next week we’ll talk more about the steps that make the father-daughter dance a nurturing and growth-promoting experience for girls and their fathers!
Raising a daughter is more complicated than merely telling her that she can be anything she wants to be. It is important to tell her that, don’t get me wrong. But even in the 21st century, in the age of “lean in,” there are a thousand messages that place limits on her aspirations.
Let me share some examples, both blatant and subtle, that affect the life of a girl as she grows to womanhood. We are all aware of the barrage of advertising that portrays women as sexual objects. It conveys the message that a woman’s body is not her own. It becomes an appendage rather than an integrated part of the self. It is part of our job as parents to teach girls and boys that their bodies are their own. The way that they dress and present themselves to others should be an extension of who they are inside. There is nothing wrong with being well-groomed and attractive but the presentation should be a representation of one’s unique spirit and essence.
Another more subtle example comes in the differing ways that we handle boy and girl children, beginning when they are babies. We have all been exposed to the notion that “boys will be boys” and that is, I believe, reflected in the greater physical freedom that we afford boys to explore the world. We expect that they will climb and run and pursue daring activities and we applaud them for doing so. Girl children, on the other hand, are far more restricted in the physical freedom that is allowed them. It is our expectation that they will sit quietly and will not attempt risky stuff. Of course, there are variations in the ways children are raised and in their innate activity levels as well. But we have a higher expectation of and tolerance for rambunctious behavior in boys. I know that my sister and I were expected to be quiet and demure for what seemed like unending hours of the day. Ann incurred my mother’s wrath whenever she challenged the boundaries.
Apocryphal stories have it that I was kept in a playpen or high chair until I was three. I know I was never allowed to play on the floor. Those messages of restraint have followed me all of my life.
My upbringing in the mid-twentieth century may have been more controlled than most but it couldn’t have been that unusual. Remember our culture didn’t provide girls with competitive sports until the 1970’s. It might never have happened at all were it not for the resourcefulness and determination of women like Jean Ledwith King who saw to it that Title IX became the law of the land. Title IX ensures among other things that women’s sports will be funded at the college level in a manner that is on a par with men’s sports. Competitive sports are a great blessing for girls and women in teaching them that they can control their own bodies and that wins and losses and competition can be an exhilarating part of life.
I am saying that the restrictions that we place on girl children run deep. It is not just a matter of the toys that they play with or the clothes that they wear. It is about our expectations of them. It is about the manner in which we connect with them both physically and emotionally. It is about the ways that we help them interpret the often destructive cultural messages that all of us receive.
The relationship of parents to a daughter is similar in many ways to that of a son but, it seems to me there are important differences. The basic elements of a healthy parent/daughter relationship are, sadly enough, not something I experienced in my own upbringing. As I said last week my mother raised me as though I were an extension of her. In some ways I benefitted from that self-love. She had the resources to give me material things that she didn’t have as a child—clothes and dolls and a frilly bedroom. But it also meant that she treated me as though I were identical to her, that is, I couldn’t have thoughts or feelings that differed from her own. I was in fact a very different person but was never able to explore and express those differences until well into adulthood.
My father was involved in his career and seldom engaged with my sister and me at all. It was typical of many fathers of that day. There were times that he wanted to be with us but I really don’t think he knew how. So my memories of him are as a distant figure with a few spotty moments of time spent together. I remember seeing a movie with him. It was Bad Day at Black Rock—a great film with Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan. Tracy played a man with one arm that was disabled. Another man was taunting him in a diner. He took it as long as he could and then proceeded to beat the crap out of him. My Dad and I mutually agreed that we would watch movie again just so we could see that scene. I don’t even remember trying to please my father. That ship had sailed before I could even remember.
So the supportive engaged relationship that I am advocating in my book Family Entanglement: Unraveling the Knots and Finding Joy in the Parent/Child Journey (www.createspace.com/4008162 was simply not present. Next week I want to talk about the elements of a healthy relationship, particularly with a daughter.