In this surprisingly vulnerable collection, twenty-eight talented fathers explore the complex, enigmatic bond they have with their daughters. These endearing, often funny and sometimes heartbreaking stories have in common an overpowering sense of responsibility and a depth of affection that is unflinchingly tender. Through their shared experiences, they examine relationships fraught with challenges and struggles, but always filled with love. The gentle strength they bring to this important role in their daughters' lives will speak to families for generations to come.
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About the Author
she is editing a forthcoming father-daughter anthology (Harlequin, May, 2010). She has worked for Thomson Publishing in London, Red Herring and Edutopia magazines, and McCann- Erickson in San Francisco. Visit her at nickirichesin.com.
Read an Excerpt
In the Swedish folktale "Singeli's Silver Slippers," a poor cobbler sews his daughter a pair of magical shoes to protect her from harm and lead her on many adventures. When it's time for her to go out in the world on her own, her father says, "These silver slippers will guide you in the right way Into them I have put all my love."
The writers in What I Would Tell Her have invested a similar love, almost overpowering in its intensity. With a touching vulnerability, they write from their hearts about their hopes for their own daughters.
The beauty of this collection lies in the many different ways the contributors attempt to become like mythic heroes to their little girls, to protect them and guide them throughout their lives. They recognize how important it is to be a strong male role model. After all, how a little girl sees her father and the strength of their relationship will shape and inform her relationships with men for the rest of her life. Knowing that they are the first man she'll ever love, these fathers are devoted to nurturing them. I have noticed this with my own daughter, how much she looks to my husband for encouragement and how he reflects this back to her every day. Fathers are arguably the most important men in their daughters' lives.
After editing the heartfelt essays in Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond, I was frankly stunned by the outpouring of emotion in this collection. I suppose I initially expected a more stoic and practical, far less impassioned and confessional response from these fathers. As both a mother and daughter, I felt I deeply understood the innate connection between the two, but found I had much to learn about the depths of the father-daughter connection. At first, men don't always experience the same intuitive attachment like a mother's love and it may often take some time for this nurturing bond to develop. For all these reasons, I was happily surprised by the tender essays I received.
This remarkable anthology delves into the intense nature of the intimacy of these ties between father and daughter. The talented contributors write about their love for their daughters, the emotional conflicts they've overcome together and what they've learned from them.
They also demonstrate the role their parents played in informing how they rear their daughters. Some have chosen to embrace their background, while others have decided to create a whole new model for their families. They take us on a journey through the many stages of fatherhood: birth, toddlerhood, adolescence to sweet sixteen, graduation, becoming a grandparent and even the loss of a child.
As Steve Almond amusingly explains in "What Next, Papa?" "We all fall for our girls. We all worship them. We get to perfect the heroic version of ourselves that mates never grant us. Our love resides in a passionate physical connection that is not sexual, but grounded in the sensuality of childhood." Eric Goodman echoes a similar sentiment in his essay "Do I Dote?" He discovers a father's relationship with a grown-up daughter symbolizes "an idealized kind of love, with all the sweetness and caring remaining from childhood, but without all the real-world difficulties and concerns that color a relationship with a wife or lover." Goodman believes if he has made his daughter feel "loved, respected and admired," he will have "succeeded as a father, representing to her everything that a loving relationship with a man can be."
Protecting their daughters emerged as the most common theme in this collection. Akin to a warrior impulse, the writers often feel a strong need to defend their daughters. Dean Bakopoulos realizes as a father, there are many things he cannot fix. For him, parenthood is ripe with what he deems "small mournings," or "those brief moments of daily clarity when you realize that you are unable to protect your children from every danger, humiliation and woe that the world can offer." He recognizes his daughter is likely to experience all these things with and without his help, and sometimes despite his best efforts. He ventures that it's "possible that men do not fully realize the precarious sadness of the world until they watch their own children try to navigate their way through it." Bakopoulos wonders whether as fathers "we have long realized it, and now the shattering part is that we must watch a tiny creature, whom we love more than anything else in the world, realize it, as well."
His daughter's "guarantee against everything," David Teague straps the colicky three-month-old Annabel to his chest and walks the mean streets of Philly to keep her nighttime existential woes at bay. They witness a gang of hooligans brutally attacking an innocent man. In a moment of heroic determination, Teague hands Annabel to his wife and mysteriously mumbles, "I've got to see about something." No spoilers here, but in the end, he confesses if he saw the ne'er-do-wells again today, he would "crush them to powder, take that night back and give it to Annabel."
James Griffioen offers an alternative view to the clichéd idea of "shotgun dads" and the mythology of protecting daughters from teenage boys. Although he understands the emotions involved, he doesn't think his daughter needs to be protected from boys or her own feelings. His essay is more about "sexual" protection than actual physical protection (i.e., standing by the door during dates with the mythical shotgun). When he attends a "purity ball" in his wife's hometown and talks to other fathers about their fear of their daughters' sexuality, he decides he wants his daughter to develop a healthy attitude about sex. In his stunning conclusion, he offers his most astute observation that fathers must protect their daughters from themselves, asserting "it takes real strength to stand aside and let her navigate the darkness without you." In his essay "The Man on the Stairs" Robert Wilder also notes, "A father's love for his daughter is borne out of weakness and that's the way it should be, if he only lets it." Even though Wilder would like to defend his daughter, he realizes he must let her fight her own battles.
As part of this poignant journey of fatherhood, they must witness their little ones growing up. In his mind's eye Laird Hunt creates a film that doesn't exist. His little daughter is running away from him, past the monkey bars, until he catches a last glimpse of her "grown tall and strong shouldered, racing across…the grass field beyond the playground fence. Then she is gone." Fathers ache with bittersweet longing for their young daughters and, like Hunt's flickering film, the passing of their youth and innocence. When Steve Almond's daughter Josie proclaims, "I'm starting to grow up, Papa," he experiences "a thrilling, terrifying moment, feeling the weight of her, breathing in her hair, and it's all so fleeting, the chance to love her with such uncomplicated fervor, such uncensored declaration." He suspects "Josie has sniffed out the secret power of every childhood, which is that it ends little by little, that it's ending all the time, that each moment, whatever else it might contain in the way of joy and love and need, brings her a little closer to escape."
What begins as such a sweet, uncomplicated love can become fraught with frustration and misunderstandings as daughters grow up. An uncomfortable distance may grow out of this disconnect as father and daughter try to determine how to act around one another. Robert Dugoni is heartbroken when his eight-year-old daughter locks the bathroom door for the first time. He mourns the loss of his little girl, but wears a lipstick heart tattoo with her name in the middle on his arm to prove his devotion to her at the school sock hop.
Single fathers Trey Ellis, Richard Farrell and Michael Kearns have insecurities about being both mother and father to their little girls, but leave no doubt they are all this and more. They have forged a bond with their daughters not unlike a mother's wherein they, too, dispense advice and form an intimacy based on mutual respect and compassion. They've discovered a way to communicate and connect with their girls, even during especially difficult times like puberty. They find they, too, can braid hair and offer advice on how to deal with boys, while never losing sight of how to help their daughters not only survive but also flourish during these tough years of adolescence.
In their attempts to encourage them, fathers often feel frustrated by their ambitions for their daughters, but must learn to let go. David G.W Scott recognizes when he needs "to arrest my ambition for her, and let her find her own." Although he had the best intentions, Swan Adamson finally realizes his expectations for his stepdaughter "didn't fit the reality of who she was, or thought she was, or was trying to be." Although Carl Lennertz felt the need to stake out his daughter's after-prom party, he eventually learns how to let go of her and take pride in knowing he has adequately prepared her. They've ultimately learned to accept that their daughters are on their own journeys and have faith in their judgment.
So much depends upon finding inner strength. Richard Nash is plagued by insecurities of not being enough, and the responsibility of living up to his daughter's expectations may seem terrifying at times. Yet he finds the courage from his daughter. Michael Kearns draws strength from his bond with his adopted daughter, Tia. Together they have formed an unlikely duo, sharing a mutual love so powerful it has helped Kearns survive living with HIV these past fourteen years. We feel the pain and immensity of these ties when Amitava Kumar's daughter, Ila, reaches out to her father through tears in the dark when he becomes frustrated with her. He yearns to fulfill his "secret desire to be the person that my daughter thinks I am." Robert Bausch experiences a strange mix of regret and pride when his determined and defiant six-year-old Sara stands up to him when he tries to punish her. These intense moments demonstrate, as Nash observes, that the tiny girls who come into their lives "expand dramatically the universe of what matters."
As with all familial relationships, there are also regrets. Robert Bausch never knew his daughter Suzi until she was nineteen. She contacts her father, they're reunited and she ultimately forgives him for abandoning her. Although he is still haunted by the loss of the years he missed with his daughter, she becomes a part of his new family. Suzi teaches him an important lesson, one that he writes to her in a birthday note, "Love is something to be done, not simply to be said. Loving is taking action."
Carrying on the legacy of his family, Rand Richards Cooper's daughter seems to him a little reincarnated version of her grandmother. When Cooper's brother-in-law and mother die tragically, he's diagnosed with skin cancer. In his "Late-Onset Fatherhood" he observes, "A child demands a future of you, but she also gives you one, changing your place in the procession—not only the ancestors lining up behind you, but now the descendants in front of you as well." Thomas Beller believes, "In becoming parents we meet our parents again. In some way, we meet them for the first time. And if you didn't really know one of your parents that well, then the dialog that springs up becomes not so much a reunion on different terms, but a whole new acquaintance."
And so, too, they must deal with death as Daniel Raeburn grieves over the loss of his daughter Irene and somehow must survive the hellish months afterward, when a compassionate albeit uncomprehending world cannot understand his and his wife's terrible despair. On their visit to Thomas Beller's father's grave, his daughter must recognize her father's father is no longer alive, which must mean her father will one day die, as well. Mike Adamick tries to reassure his little Emme when she discovers a dead baby bird on the street and insists on staying with it until the mother bird returns to it.
In quite a few instances, these fathers not only admire their daughters but have also learned from and seek to emulate them. Rob Spillman has the surreal experience of going from being a depressed, sullen teen who listened to a lot of punk music to now having a daughter who performs the same music in her rock band and has embraced it as empowering. When Isadora writes angry punk songs, he can't help but feel a fierce pride. While coaching his daughter Phoebe, David G.W Scott becomes frustrated when she fails to dribble ahead of her teammates during a soccer game. When she points out that she must build her teammates' confidence rather than just try to score a goal, Scott recognizes, "Sometimes, the child is father to the man. Sometimes the daughter is coach to the father, and I think that if I'd missed that moment, not let Phoebe coach me, I might have undone years of work."
The fathers featured in this anthology don't need to offer magical slippers to their daughters. They would defend them to their deaths to protect them from wolves in sheep's clothing, false friends and enemies. With great hope and trust, they attempt to help them choose the bright paths and lead them to a future not of their making but of their daughters' own creation. My dad certainly did the same for me when he encouraged me to follow my bliss even when it meant leaving him and my family behind. As a young father, he sacrificed his youth by working long hours to pay for ballet slippers and cello and piano lessons. He believed in me even when I didn't. Dad encouraged me to travel the world to find what I was looking for. And I did. When I was just eleven years old, my parents put me on a plane to Sweden to live for a month abroad. I've never felt more blessed than I did being given this opportunity and knowing they had faith in me even as a little girl. I hope to embolden my daughter in the same way.
Love is the answer and the key to these mini-memoirs. Claude Stanush wisely notes that "Love isn't something you can demand, or even expect, of children. It has to be spontaneously given." His daughter Michele has proven her love for him by carrying on their strong family legacy of storytelling. In their mutual admiration as adults, daughters are no longer a possession to their fathers, but grown women they know as equals.