The relationship between a father and his daughter is often complicated because it reflects not just the father’s temperament and personality, his own emotional history, his vision of parenting, but his relationship to his wife, his daughter’s mother. The state of the marriage—and its dynamic—can sometimes be the driving force in how a father connects to his daughter or doesn’t.
The bottom line is that both in their presence and in their absence, fathers may mitigate the impact of a fractious or difficult mother-daughter connection or actually make it worse.
Social norms—some of them generational—also play into the father-daughter relationship since the vision of mothers and fathers co-parenting is a relatively recent phenomenon. In prior generations, fathers were largely seen as financial providers and figures of authority in the family, rather than front-line players in the raising of children. Even today, most studies and surveys conclude that 50/50 parenting by men and women remains largely unrealized for many reasons, including maternal gatekeeping. It appears that while women want and need help, they are often territorial about childrearing and housekeeping.
As recent research shows, fathers have their own sphere of influence. Daughters who enjoy close relationships with their fathers achieve more academically and are likely to be influenced in their choice of career. Daughters who have difficult or distant relationships to their fathers are more likely to suffer from disordered eating and have more difficulty navigating intimate relationships. During a divorce, father-daughter relationships are more likely to suffer or be severed than father-son relationships.
These are some of the most common roles fathers play in the family when the relationship between mother and daughter is fraught or toxic.
1. Player on team Mom
If the marriage is rocky or the mother doesn’t brook criticism easily, this father is likely to go along with anything his wife says, in part because he considers the kids her turf. It should be said that some mothers actively keep their husbands out of the loop as my own mother did, or provide elaborate justifications for why their treatment is justified. (“She’s insolent and needs reining in,” “She’s too full of herself and needs to be taken down a peg,” and more.) Daughters in this situation often feel a special sense of betrayal because of the father’s willingness to go along with any rationalization, no matter how outsized. As Jenny, 40, said: “My Dad was totally invested in keeping the peace what so he looked away from my mother’s treatment of me, no matter how unfair it was and how I was scapegoated. I actually called him out on it when I was about 16 and what he said hurt terribly: ‘Sorry, but I have to pick my battles. You’re on your own.’ I’m actually more disappointed in him than my mother.”
Some fathers end up appeasers and excusers—telling their daughters to accept their mothers as they are—which only undercuts the daughter’s thoughts and feelings even more.
2. The Absentee
Sometimes, a father may elect to be largely absent, even though he’s technically still part of the family. “My father hid out in his study, played golf, or built stuff in the garage when he wasn’t at work. I don’t think he ever asked me a personal question when I was growing up, honestly. He’s a gruff, armored guy with a quick temper and while he played sports with my brother, he never paid any mind to me,” Lydia, 38, emails. Another daughter, 45, reports that her father was a neutral zone: “He was like Switzerland, staying out of the fray. My mother beat him down at every turn and his answer was to withdraw totally. I blame him for not protecting me even today.”
Divorce is usually the most likely reason for a father to disappear from a daughter’s life, as studies show. Sometimes, the adversarial nature of the divorce makes it impossible for a father to continue the relationship; other times, especially if he remarries and starts over, the daughter is deliberately and hurtfully left behind. In either case, the damage is done and often difficult to repair, unless both father and daughter take extraordinary measures. Edna, 52, told me her story: “I always attributed my mother’s nastiness to my father’s leaving when I was 8, and I blamed him for how she treated me. He remarried and moved to another city and had no contact with me for many years. Then, when I was 25, he called me and asked to see me. Well, it turned out that she had abused him emotionally too and that was why he left. My mother denied it, of course, and was furious when I took steps to reconnect to him. Eventually, she cut me out of her life which says it all.”
3. The Supporter
Many unloved daughters attribute coming out of their childhoods in something that vaguely resembled one piece to their connection to their fathers. They talk about fathers who encouraged their academic efforts even as their mothers disparaged their talents, who cheered them on in subtle and obvious ways, and who spent time with them in shared activities. As Gail, now 60, noted: “My mother ignored me and while I felt neglected, she didn’t actively tear me down. My dad and I shared a love of the outdoors and sports, and I felt best about myself when I was with him.” “I was the first person in our family to go to college and I lay that at Dad’s feet. My mother thought it was a waste of money but Dad pushed and pushed. Today, I’m an accountant,” confided Aggie, age 38.
Ironically, a daughter’s close emotional kinship to her father can actually amp up the animosity in her relationship with her mother who may feel jealous or threatened by it.
Although science has been late in coming to consider paternal influence on a daughter’s development and even slower to look at the impact fathers have on the mother-daughter relationship, there’s no question that they exert both.
Photograph by Liane Metzler. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Barrett, Elizabeth L., and Mark T. Morman. “Turning Points of Closeness in the Father/Daughter Relationship.” Human Communication: A Publication of the Pacific and Asian Communication Association 15.4 (2013): 241-259.