June 14, 2012

I wish that thinking about my dad filled with me heart-bursting joy. Instead, he left me with bittersweet memories. But thanks to a really marvelous book, my feelings are now more loving, whole — and realistic.

The journey towards resolution began last fall when I got hold of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family.” Published in 2011, it’s a beautifully written, personal book by Peggy Drexler, who teaches psychology at Cornell University.

When Drexler was barely three, her dad died. At 15, her  mom’s second marriage ended. Drexler got interested in exploring father-daughter relationships after watching the special bond between her husband and their teen girl.

Between 2006 and 2010, she went on to interview 75 youngish American women of various races and ethnicities, including some from immigrant families. Six were selected for individual warts-and-all chapters that show how an imperfect father can still be a good dad. Her down-to-earth commentary throughout made me feel a little naughty, like I was chatting on a peer level with a shrink.

Six kinds of good dads, six kinds of dad-daughter bonds

One of Drexler’s most important messages is that fathers don’t have to be perfect to be good dads. And, that good dads fall into six basic categories, creating six types of positive father-daughter relationship:

— the dad who encourages risk-taking and independent thinking

— the dad who answers endless questions

— the dad who bestows a mantle of power

— the dad who always knows what his daughter is feeling

— the dad who inspires perseverance and success

— the dad who teaches his daughter everything he would have taught a son

As for bad dads…

If that list of good dads leaves you yearning, welcome to the club. Sadly, many of us — sometimes, it feels like most of us — live with disappointment over our daddies.

The book wraps up with some very, very practical suggestions on how to deal with Dad. I got a good cry out of this section which describes different types of difficult dads and offers a checklist of questions for exploring ways to deal with him.

For instance, there’s the physically unavailable dad doesn’t hug, touch or even show up in the same room. And the dad who isn’t interested in knowing who his daughter really is. There are also inaccessible fathers who can’t deal with feelings and the ones who are competitive with their daughters. Check, check, check — I relate to all of the above.

Hey, Daddy, hellooooo!

A few quotes from the book is in order. They describe both what my dad could be like, and how our relationship influenced my choices in men I dated.

What I learned from my father-daughter relationship also impacts how I treat others. That, if you ask me, is the worst part, internalizing the negative behavior:

When she was down, he was her savior, rescuing her from disaster and displaying his superior gifts. But when she succeeded, he undermined her confidence, intimating that success was hers only if he had something to do with it. The bottom line was that when it came to his daughter, it was all about him. 

But let’s not end this post on such a downer note! This book is also helping me to truly love and accept my daddy, who died when I was 19:

…Whether you are a daughter or the father of one, you are part of an ancient dynamic of primal, profound significance. And if the dynamic is less than you wish it were, you can choose to either perpetuate the disappointment or foment a solution. A relationship need not be idyllic to be worthwhile and deeply fulfilling: As a long-married woman, I feel amply qualified to speak on this point. If relentless sweetness and light are what you’re after, you won’t find it in a real relationship — not with anyone…

The question is, how much do you want to be closer, more engaged with, more connected to your dad? How much darkess are you willing to venture into before you emerge into the light of deeper understanding? Because, like it or not, there are unknown, dark places in all of us and in all relationships, and you have to feel your way though them before you can make things better.” 

Best wishes to you for a Happy Father’s Day — because WE ALL deserve to celebrate this day. xo.