Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family

Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family

by Peggy Drexler


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Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family by Peggy Drexler

There's no denying that a woman's relationship with her father is one of the most important in her life. And there's also no getting around how the quality of that relationship—good, bad, or otherwise—profoundly affects daughters in a multitude of ways.

In Our Fathers, Ourselves, research psychologist, author and scholar Dr. Peggy Drexler examines the ways in which the father-daughter bond impacts women and offers helpful advice for creating a better, stronger, more rewarding relationship. Through her extensive research and interviews with women, Dr. Drexler paints an intimate, timely portrait of the modern father-daughter relationship.

Women today are increasingly looking to their dads for a less-than-traditional bond, but one that still stands the test of time and provides support, respect, and guidance for the lives they lead today. Our Fathers, Ourselves is essential reading for any woman who has ever wondered how she could forge a closer connection with and gain a deeper understanding of her father.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781605293608
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 05/10/2011
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 857,933
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

DR. PEGGY DREXLER is a research psychologist, author and an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. She has written Raising Boys Without Men which was a finalist for Books for a Better Life Award and a Lamda Literary Award. A former gender scholar at Stanford University, she speaks at colleges and universities across the country. She is an expert on the impact of gender on individuals and families and has appeared on and written for a wide range of national and international media, including: The Today Show, Good Morning America, NPR, The New York Times, USA Today, Good Housekeeping and Parents magazines. Her columns appear regularly on Huffington Post.

Read an Excerpt


Fathers and Daughters: What's Changed, and What Hasn't

I EMBARKED on my quest with several hundred hours' worth of conversations careering around in my head, ricocheting off the nuggets of wisdom I had gleaned from decades of working with families. I have spent my career studying men and women, boys and girls--who they are, what they want, how they act, and how they are changing. I'm an ardent student of how children are shaped by their relationships with the men and women in their families, and how these early forces affect their life choices: what work they do, who they love, how they behave, and how they manage their emotional and physical health.

As I reviewed the interview transcripts, my mind was clamoring with questions. Foremost among them were, how are today's fathers serving as models of strength and assertiveness for their daughters? How much of this example are their daughters observing, absorbing, and deploying in their lives? If a father imbues his daughter with faith in her ability to fend for herself, how much of a difference does it make in her life? And, if a daughter does successfully fend for herself, how does that affect her relationship with her dad?

We know all about the cataclysmic transformation the feminist movement hath wrought in the lives of girls and women over the last forty years, and about the ways it has upended traditional (and often oppressive) notions of sex and gender roles in the family, at work, and in society. Today, nearly fifty years after the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, women continue to be the change they wish to see in the world. With dogged persistence, women have gone from infiltrating to in some cases dominating institutions and professions that used to exclude them. During the 2003-- 2004 academic year, 49.6 percent of first-year medical students were women1- -an all-time high--compared to 28.7 percent in 1980--1981 and 11 percent in 1970--1971.2 (In 2009--2010, the percentage of female first-year medical students was 47.9.)3

The law profession's gender balance has also shifted wildly. Sarah Weddington, who with Linda Coffey successfully argued Roe v. Wade before the US Supreme Court in the early 1970s, graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1967; when she started, there were 5 women in her class of 250--a whopping 2 percent.4 Today, nearly half of all law school applicants are women.5

And it isn't just white-collar professionals who have risen in the ranks; their camouflage-clothed sisters are joining them in force. In September 2009, the United States Army Command named Sergeant Major Teresa L. King commandant of its sole drill sergeant school, located at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. She is the first woman ever to run an army drill sergeant school. This is no small thing: Sergeant Major King, along with seventy- eight instructors whom she commands, supervises drill sergeant training for the entire US Army. Her achievement is even more impressive when you consider that even though women comprise 13 percent of army personnel, only 8 percent of the army's sergeants major and command sergeants major--the highest-ranking enlisted soldiers--are women. Sergeant Major King, who was forty-eight at the time of her appointment, said that as a young girl, she declined her mother's offer to teach her how to cook, preferring to play basketball and drive her father's tractor. When one of her brothers or sisters got in hot water with their parents, she presented herself as a substitute spanking object (don't underestimate her fearlessness--she was one of twelve kids). "'When I look in the mirror, I don't see a female. I see a soldier,'" Sergeant Major King said.6

Not to be outdone by the army, the US Navy made some history of its own in April 2010 when it reversed its long-standing policy against allowing women to serve on submarines. Only three months later, it toppled another barrier when it appointed as commander of Carrier Strike Group Two Rear Admiral Nora Tyson, the first woman in history to be granted such a command. Rear Admiral Tyson's strike group consists of the USS George H.W. Bush., which is the navy's newest aircraft carrier, four guided-missile cruisers, six guided-missile destroyers, two frigates, and eight squadrons of aircraft. In talking with reporters after the change-of-command ceremony, Rear Admiral Tyson said, "'As far as the trailblazing piece, I understand I am the first woman on the job. . . . But I'm a professional just like my fellow officers are, and my fellow strike group commanders.'"7 It is notable if not surprising that both she and Sergeant Major King downplayed their identification as females, emphasizing instead their identities as professional military personnel.

The ascension of women to military positions formerly restricted to men indicated to me that some daughters had decided that walking in their fathers' shoes felt more fitting, more comfortable, more right than walking in their mothers'. Now, with statistics galore, about 120 hours of interviews echoing in my head, and 1,600 pages of transcriptions shuffling through my fingers, I sat down to analyze what I'd heard and learned.

It was exactly as I thought it would be, except when it wasn't.


In keeping with their much-trumpeted advances at work and at home, I thought the women I spoke to would celebrate the vast professional and personal opportunities available to them, and they did. They spoke of six- figure salaries, budding medical careers, happy marriages and harmonious domestic partnerships, worldwide travels, and ambitions to accomplish great and noble goals. But they also expressed something that made me sit up and take notice: No matter how successful they were or how much they had achieved, and no matter how content they were in their own marriages and the families they had formed, they still wanted and in some cases hungered for their fathers' love and approval. Even among women whose fathers had neglected and in some cases abused them, there was a yearning for connection, reconciliation, and the sublime satisfaction of knowing that, in spite of everything, their fathers loved, admired, and approved of them.

I had read copiously about the phenomenon of father hunger, but as I thought about it in the new context of the interviews, I realized that nearly everything I'd read had explored the issue almost exclusively in the context of starving sons, with daughters seldom being thrown a scrap. In a Father's Day newspaper piece about her own father hunger, essayist and literary critic Daphne Merkin cited a book on the subject whose case studies contained very few about daughters and whose author acknowledged the gap to less than Merkin's satisfaction. "'Of course, girls need their fathers too,' "she quoted him as writing. "'It may be, however, that either they need them more when they reach Oedipal age or they can make out better without them before that time.' Or it may be," Merkin drily noted, "that the response of daughters, whether young or older, to paternal abuse or indifference simply didn't capture [the author's] interest."8

I hold with Merkin, who invokes notoriously powerful father-daughter pairs such as the seventeenth-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi and her father Orazio, Anna Freud and Sigmund, and Jackie Onassis and "Black Jack" Bouvier as subjects of fascination (Miley Cyrus and Billy Ray?--your call) in lamenting the apparent lack of interest in father-daughter alienation. I was particularly struck by this lack after conducting interview after interview in which women expressed their unwavering wish that their dads would be more forthcoming in expressing their pride in them.

This was especially astonishing coming from women whose fathers had treated them less than gallantly and in some cases even cruelly. Why, I wondered, would you covet the affection and respect of someone who mistreated you? It didn't seem to matter. When it came to their fathers, these women had an inexhaustible capacity for forgiveness that they had for no one else, notably their mothers. This wasn't a complete surprise, as I've endured more than my share of family battles at which my daughter tossed cherry blossoms to my husband while hurling cherry bombs at me. But what did grab my attention was the consistency of the pattern: With few exceptions, most of the women I spoke to were far more lenient with their dads than they were with their moms.

Why should this be?

One reason, and it's a big one, is that a father is the first man a girl gets to know on intimate terms. He's bigger and stronger than Mommy, and in many families, he wields the most power. The young daughter naturally wants and needs him to be perfect, so she downplays both his flaws and her disappointments, transforming his shortcomings into pluses so she can continue to see him as the ideal dad. Like many girls who grew up without fathers, I invented one, and he was perfect. He was always there when I needed him; he was affectionate, kind, patient, and funny; he always had time for me, was never cross or grumpy, and greeted my every word and gesture with unmitigated delight. He wasn't real, of course, but he was my ideal, and the idealization stage is critical in the development of a girl's view of the mysterious XY side of the universe. It teaches her that men can be loving, caring, strong, and protective, and totally in her camp. No dad is perfect, but for a time, his daughter needs to see him that way so she can develop the capacity to trust men and feel confident in their company. If things go well, she eventually realizes that all fathers are fallible, including hers, a finding that in no way diminishes her love and admiration for the man who is her dad.

But in some cases a daughter never outgrows her need to see her father as perfect. In the next chapter, you'll meet a thirty-two-year-old executive who said in all sincerity, "Dad always knows the answer. I learned long ago that he is always right. It's true. He is always right." To appreciate the lopsidedness of this position, try to imagine a woman of the same age earnestly asserting that her mother always knows the answer and is always right. Can't do it? Neither can I.

But why? Why are daughters so much more accepting of their fathers' flaws and foibles than they are of their mothers'? Author and journalist Victoria Secunda, who has written extensively about women's relationships with their mothers and fathers, suggests that children indulge their fathers' frailties because fathers are around less often, which increases their value. "It makes perfect sense to impart to fathers heroic qualities," she writes. "Surely, [children] think, Daddy would be here if he could; he must be doing something very [Secunda's italics] important out there."9 The little girl learns early on to understand her father's absences as evidence of his eminence in the world, whereas, on her evolving map of it, her mother's absences signify a lack of devotion to her. Secunda further suggests that daughters also idealize their fathers because "it is their training [Secunda's italics] to read between the silences, to interpret the dark moods, to flesh out the unspoken feelings of men. Being understanding of one's father is a daughter's labor of love. By compensating for Daddy's absence in this way, a girl keeps him close, if only in her head. But what's kept close is the fantastic image, not the real, human father. To see Daddy's flaws is to deidealize him. And to lose an idealized daddy is to jeopardize not only his tenuous, piecemeal love and protection but also one's last court of appeal if the relationship with Mommy falls apart."10

This makes sense: If you spend less time with Dad than you do with Mom, your knowledge of him feels shallower and your connection with him flimsier than they do with her. You're not as sure of where his limits lie and how far you can go before he'll blow his stack, so you deploy your emotional intelligence and powers of observation to intuit what's going on with him while keeping a safe distance. But with Mom, there is no distance: You're always in each other's faces because you're talking to each other all the time. Linguist Deborah Tannen, PhD, whose specialty is decoding the nuances that derail our attempts to communicate with one another, asserts that "talk typically plays a larger and more complex role in girls' and women's relationships than it does in boys' and men's," adding that "among girls and women, talk is the glue that holds a relationship together--and also the explosive that can blow it apart."11

This might explain the Roman candle that flared in a story a woman told me about her daughter, who had recently returned from a junior year abroad. "She'd put on some weight," the mother said, "but I vowed to myself I wouldn't say a word about it, and I didn't. We were in the family room and she sat down on the couch next to my husband, and he made a lame remark about how voluptuous she'd become after living in Italy. And she gives me this withering look and says, 'So, Mom, now you've got Dad doing your dirty work for you, huh?' I was so furious I had to leave the room." Who could blame her? This daughter was so attached to the idea of having a perfect dad that she could neither fathom him hurting her feelings nor tolerate the idea of being angry with him. To rationalize the pain his remark caused her, she fabricated a scenario that cast her mother in the role of Machiavellian manipulator and her father as feckless innocent. Her need to see her dad as perfect was paramount; better to demonize Mom than acknowledge Dad as flawed.

So there it was, and so it is: Despite everything women have achieved and the freedoms they have won, they still have not liberated themselves from the need to forgive their fathers and, in so doing, reassure themselves that they are indeed loved by them.


Many women said they enjoyed good relationships with their fathers and had concrete memories to call upon. They remembered their dads cheering them on at soccer and tennis matches, helping with homework, and providing an oasis of rationality during stormy interludes with their moms. When I asked them about the notion of masculine strength and assertiveness and what their experience of it had been with their fathers, they described going to work with their dads, helping them in the garden and toolshed, attending and watching sporting events together, and the thrill of being interlopers in the exotic world of men. Some also described dads doing decidedly un- dadlike chores: "My mom didn't know how to brush long hair, so he taught my sister and me how to brush hair; also, he was the first one that bought my tampons for me," a college student said.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Why I Wrote This Book VII

Part I Fathers and Daughters: Searching for Meaning

1 Fathers and Daughters: What's Changed, and What Hasn't 3

2 Father Knows Best, Least, and Everything In Between: Themes and Variations 43

Part II Daughters and Fathers: When Something Goes Right

3 Fathers Don't Have to Be Perfect to Be Good Dads 101

4 A Father Who Encouraged His Daughter to Take Risks and Think for Herself

5 A Father Who Answered His Daughter's Endless Questions 123

6 A Father Who Bestowed a Mantle of Power Upon His Daughter 134

7 A Father Who Always Knew What His Daughter Was Feeling 148

8 A Father Who Inspired His Daughter to Persevere and Succeed 163

9 A Father Who Taught His Daughter Everything He Would Have Taught a Son 181

Part III You and Your Father: When You Want to Make Things Better

10 Who Is This Man? If You Think You Know Your Dad, Think Harder 195

Questionnaire: How Well Do You Really Know Your Dad? 199

Afterword 233

Appendix: My Process of Discovery 238

Notes 243

Acknowledgments 247

Index 248

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