#129: The Daddy-Daughter Dance #2

By Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

This week I promised to explain why the father-daughter relationship is so tricky.

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#128 The Daddy-Daughter Dance #1

By Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

shutterstock_137446907Much 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!

Father and daughter image available from Shutterstock.

#127 Mothers and Fathers and Daughters#2

By Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

shutterstock_32433679Raising 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.

Mother and daughter image available from Shutterstock.

#126 Mothers and Fathers and Daughters

By Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

shutterstock_32433679The 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.

Mother and daughter image available from Shutterstock.

#125 What Could I Have Learned From a Daughter?

By Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

shutterstock_202124182I would have loved a daughter. My fourth son was born when I was 37 and I knew we were done. Odds are that my fifth child would have been a boy—well-loved to be sure but not a daughter.

I have given a lot of thought to how I would have fared in raising a girl. It would have required me to re-do my relationship with my own mother in major ways. I sometimes feel that if we can will ourselves to give birth to one gender or the other I willed myself to have boys. My only sister had four sons as well.

With a daughter I know it would have been more of a struggle to raise her as a separate person and not as an extension of myself. In many ways I was raised as if I were a part of my mother—becoming for her the person that she had wanted to be. She reveled in my academic success as though it were her own. I was so lost in her perspective on the world that I didn’t know what was happening until long after I was an adult.

So I would have undertaken the task of recognizing my daughter as like me but her own person. She might have even looked like me but she would have had her own talents and her own ambitions. I would have wanted her to be a feminist but maybe she wouldn’t have had that particular fire in her belly. She might have excelled at the homemaking arts—cooking, sewing, crafts—which have always been a mystery to me.

Most of all she could have taught me about the closeness that I see between a mother and daughter. It is different in intensity from any other relationship. I can observe it with my daughters-in-law. If grown daughters don’t live near they still communicate daily by phone or the myriad of other means that are available now. The mother-daughter relationship at its best appears precious and caring and intimately involved with daily life.

I think this topic is on my mind because one of my dear daughters-in-law has just lost her mother. I witnessed her grief and the grief of her only sister. The loss of this  caring loving woman has caused me to reflect on how precious and irreplaceable this relationship can be.

Mother and daughter image available from Shutterstock.

#124 What My Four Sons Taught Me

By Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

shutterstock_202491277As I said last week my four sons gave me music. They also taught me about entropy as the driving force in the universe. Entropy is the continual degradation of matter and energy in a system to a state of pervasive disorder. I didn’t know that boys invented it till I had four of my own. You might say that I learned it from the “bottom” up. Most of all they also taught me about life and love.

I was the younger of two sisters, raised to be proper young ladies. We endured many if not all of the unspoken rules which restricted females of our generation. We were bathed daily and twice on Thursday after dancing lessons. We learned to be modest and polite; smart but not too smart; never boisterous or rowdy and certainly never using cuss words (though both of our parents swore like pirates.)

When I became a mother I was still seeing the world through my mother’s eyes. (Like it or not it’s how most of us see the world.) I thought all children—boys or girls—behaved the way my sister and I were taught to behave. I was in for a rude awakening. Boys did not sit calmly playing with dolls. They did not enjoy a quiet nightly bath with an inch of water in the tub. If they did submit to bathing it was meant to be a full out submarine war with water splashed all over the bathroom. Their games were not just noisy. They reverberated through the house. I learned to sit on the sofa with one arm over my face to protect it from unexpected flying objects.

Furthermore when I began this parenting journey my take on males in general was not too favorable. True, I had married one of them but I found him to be a mystifying creature as I am sure he did me. So I was truly unprepared when my first child turned out to be a boy. We had picked out “Jennifer” assuming it would be a daughter. But we never got to use that lovely name.

But what I really hadn’t counted on was that I fell in love with my baby son. Something inside me had opened up and my love grew with each boy that came to us. It was a give-and-take that I had never experienced before. They loved me unreservedly and I loved them back. I would have died for them. I gained a whole new vision of the world through the eyes of the little men I was raising.

In the next few weeks we’ll talk more about the art and science of raising boys.

Boys image available from Shutterstock.

#123 Creativity Above and Beyond

By Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

shutterstock_221865442There are times when creativity transcends time and becomes eternally fixed in our memories—a treasure to visit again and again. It’s as if the stars are aligned or the climatic conditions are perfect or God is in His Heaven and “all’s right with the world.” We become focused and yet unaware of the demands of daily life. A task is no longer a job but a goal beyond ourselves and beyond our normal capacity.

Training and groundwork have laid the foundation and now we are ready to soar. The moments become eternal, and yet, paradoxically, as delicate and fleeting as the bubbles from a child’s bubble pipe. Phrases such as “outside of time, isolated from the world, heightened awareness, in the moment, peaceful, unpredictable” come to mind.

When those moments occur, amid the chaos and clutter of child care, they give meaning and purpose to the back-breaking work. As the days of child-rearing pass–and pass they do—they offer oases of comfort within the memory, a living memorial to what we have accomplished. They provide touch points and stories for grandchildren and bind us together for generations to come.

They are often simple moments. I recall so well when my son Dan was about three and a half and we spent hours looking at the pebbles in a little bed of gravel at the corner of our sidewalk. He showed me many of them individually and noted with wonder the unique markings on each one. In that moment and many to follow he showed me the beauty of nature which I had never appreciated as he did and does to this day.

My sons all gave me music. They sing and play and compose. I am amazed at their musical gifts. As a child I could barely eke out a tune on the piano, hated practicing and became almost paralyzed at recital time. Granted my husband’s family is extremely musical. They sing opera and perform professionally in productions and choral groups. But my family had musical talent as well. It was not as highly developed and supported as was Bob’s but it was there. From my mother however I received the message that I couldn’t sing. My father could but the females– mother and sister and I—could not.

But somehow my four sons were all musical. Some of my fondest memories are of the music they created: Aaron playing his baritone horn to the Can Can; Matt in his clear pure boy soprano singing “I long to sail a path to the moon…;” David bringing the house down at the Kindergarten recital with his solo version of Rubber Ducky. I began to re-evaluate. I realized that the children of my womb were musical. They had half of their genetic makeup from me. Maybe my mother—God bless her—was wrong. I began to explore my own musical gifts which are indeed present.

So in the hard school of parenting I have come to a new appreciation of creativity: It is in and through our relationships with other people that the ultimate creative acts occur. We make a work of art and it connects us to those who observe it—art lovers everywhere.

Music speaks to us because it clarifies some human experience that we have lived. Creativity brings us face to face with a truth that we all can share. That makes parenting in strong contention for the most creative act of all. We create children and they create us.

Playing piano image available from Shutterstock.

#122 Shades of Creativity

By Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

shutterstock_202528174We’ve been talking about the uncanny ways in which important people—mainly parents—transmit the essence of who they are in ways that defy description. We find ourselves doing and saying and feeling things that are reminiscent of our parents, sometimes without realizing that we are doing it. Today I want to talk about the ways in which creativity is passed from one generation to another.
Creativity in itself is also hard to define. It comes in all different shapes and sizes. That’s one reason that I called this blog the “shades of creativity”. There are all sorts of variations and gradations of it. I am also referring to the “shades of creativity” because I think it has a supernatural, even spooky, quality to it. It doesn’t lend itself to objective measurement. There are tests to measure it. I am by no means an expert on what sorts of test are available, but I recall from my graduate school days a word association test. You were to come up with the word that connected three different items: tub, Saturday, salts. The answer is bath!
So yes! It’s hard to assess and yet we all know if someone has it. It’s an important trait for someone to have and it’s important to impart to our children. So how do we do it? Again I believe that we pass along this significant quality in uncanny ways. We may not know that we are doing it. But like so many of the important character traits that we want our children to have are they are transmitted, not so much in words, but in the ever-present example of who we are.
My friend Alane Starko, <@creativiteach.me.com> having just lost her father, has written a lovely article about her parents and the ways in which they imparted their creativity to her. I have quoted some of the article below.
I buried my father this week. He had as good a death as a person could wish—fully himself nearly to the end, surrounded by those who loved him. Spending those last weeks with him, I couldn’t help but reflect on how his creativity enriched his life to the end—and mine as well.
My father was the son of an Irish coal miner, trained as an engineer courtesy of the GI Bill. He started as a chemical engineer who solved problems using early plastics. He designed the plastic domes that housed the radar for some of the first AWAC planes. Somehow, over the course of a 40-year career, he evolved from plastics to designing robotic assembly lines and everything in between. But his creativity didn’t stay in the lab.
One day he brought home a piece of acrylic and said, “I’ll bet we could make an ice scraper for the car out of this.” I carried that chunk of acrylic in my car for years! Another time he said, “I’ll bet fiberglass would make a good boat,” and proceeded to involve his children in building a fiberglass canoe in the basement. Never mind that fiberglass in the house wasn’t the greatest idea. And never mind that the boat was so unstable we eventually gave it to the Boy Scouts for boat tipping drills and lifeguard training. We learned that ideas can be explored, and we learn from the exploration regardless of how successful it was.
We molded plastics in the kitchen and explored with chemistry sets. We experimented with cooking beans under the ground. I thought he could fix anything. Perhaps he could. He definitely spent his final days thinking about ways to redesign the hospital equipment.
My mother’s creativity was of a different variety. With limited resources and five children, she still wanted a beautiful home. She could create a centerpiece from roadside weeds, make Halloween costumes from whatever was available (including a memorable octopus with crepe paper legs), and invent recipes from whatever was in the refrigerator. She created a safe place for any young people who wandered in the door and cheered us in all our endeavors. With her, our ideas mattered.
Between the two of them, I grew up believing problems were to be solved, the world was to be made more beautiful, and they had confidence I could do both things. Were they perfect parents? Far from it. But still, theirs, above all, are the shoulders on which I stand.
So here’s to the people who make creativity possible. While some creative people have highly troubled childhoods, all human beings need someone who holds them up, recognizes their worth, and helps them believe in themselves. I was blessed to have such people in my home.
Well said, Alane. And thank you.

Paint brush image available from Shutterstock.

#121 Communicating Outside the Box

By Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

shutterstock_130843658Remember those ghosts in the nursery I was talking about? Well, those who have gone before us have an uncanny way of remaining with us.

Continue reading… »

#120 Ghosts in the Nursery

By Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

shutterstock_172731194It’s a good time to talk about ghosts, right? But I’m not really talking about the Halloween kind.

Continue reading… »


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