A Woman's Toughest Relationship? The One With Her Dad

Dad and daughter
Image by Peter Werkman via Flickr

Interesting piece in today’s Wall Street Journal about how adult women stumble when trying to communicate with their fathers:

When Jennifer Wallace realized her marriage was over, the very first person she called was her mother. During that initial conversation—and each morning for weeks afterward as she drove to work—she poured her heart out about her anger, embarrassment and despair.

But it wasn’t until four years later (long after she had divorced, changed jobs and remarried) that she talked about the experience with her father.

In a lifetime of difficult male-female conversations, some of the toughest, surprisingly, can be the ones between fathers and adult daughters—especially when there is a problem in the daughter’s life.

Ms. Wallace, 29, an executive and personal assistant in Los Angeles, says she always knew her father loved her dearly. When she was growing up, he praised her often, ate dinner with her each night and attended every track meet, play and debate team event she participated in. These days, he is her go-to person for career advice.

Yet at the time of her divorce, she and her dad had never discussed personal problems—hers or his—and she found it impossible to bring up such a sensitive topic with him. “I felt that he would have been deeply, deeply sad,” says Ms. Wallace. “And I felt that he wouldn’t know what to do with me.”

Her dad says she is right: “I needed to protect my princess, but I failed,” says Bruce Wray, 58, a marketing manager for a bar-code company in St. Paul, Minn. “I wasn’t there being Prince Valiant, preventing her mistake.”

Why is it so hard for a grown woman to bare herself emotionally to a man she’s loved all her life? And why would a man have trouble discussing something sensitive with a woman he helped raise?

I often post on stories, and issues, that hit a chord for me personally — and this one did. It was too funny, the phone ringing with an unfamiliar number as I was reading that article.

It was my Dad calling from London, where he’s on vacation, to and from Spain. No big deal for many people, but my Dad and I went many years not talking at all, angry and bitter and frustrated. We’re both stubborn, determined and have a complicated enough family as it is, with 3 step-siblings and my late step-mother, with whom my dealings were often very strained.

So it was great to hear from him and to get the emailed photo of him with a candle-lit cupcake — he celebrated his 81st. birthday in London with his new partner.

I was hit hard by the lede of the Journal story, as I went to Ireland to visit my Dad about two months after my husband walked out of our very brief marriage, and Dad said some things I won’t ever forget and had to work hard to forgive, but I think it’s also because he has always had high hopes, if not expectations, for me and what I will accomplish and achieve. I like that he sets the bar high, for himself and others, but am also really glad it’s come down a few notches over the years. It had to!

I also know that my Dad’s Dad (who I never met) was pretty tough and frosty, and he comes from a generation of men (maybe all generations?) that wasn’t big on expressing feelings, let alone tender, private or emotional ones. So I’ve grown up in this style as well. We rarely, if ever, say “I love you” — but our actions show it, and that’s how I prefer it. At his 80th. birthday celebration last year I made a short speech and thanked him publicly for what he’d taught me: to embrace the world as a place full of adventure and possibility, to be confident, and to want to tell stories, as he did through his films.

Better to say it aloud now than at a funeral or memorial service.

How is your relationship with your adult daughter? Or with your Dad?

6 thoughts on “A Woman's Toughest Relationship? The One With Her Dad

  1. citifieddoug

    Roberta Bondi once wrote that we imagine God the way we see our father’s. Which is probably why my God is so placidly Lutheran.

  2. Hahaha, too funny. In my case, God wears a lot of denim, likes to hunt and fish, and was a war hero, at least to me. My relationship with dad wasn’t always great; I remember the first time I made him cry and I thought I had caused the end of the world. But now, I think of dads as the standards by which girls judge other men, be it in good or bad ways. I love my dad, and I cherish the little time I do get to spend with him now that, as a grown woman, I have my own home and family. I would not be who I am today without his influence.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    I think it’s very true that Dad sets the tone — for better or worse — when we measure the worth of other men, romantic or professional or as friends. On paper, my sweetie and Dad are very different, didn’t get along for a very long time, but are both driven and creative and curious — and snappy dressers! My stepmother, years ago when I could never find a man I wanted to commit to, said “Your Dad is a hard act to follow.” True.

  4. kharlamovaa

    You know, it’s hard to think of myself as a grown woman at 20 y.o., but I guess when looked at objectively, I’m definitely starting to become one. Therefore, my relationship with my dad is still freshly bitter from all of my teenage rumblings and his non-acceptance of those rumblings. I hope it’ll get better, but I feel like certain things will always stick to me – memories, harsh words – much more than our current placidity every will. Maybe I’m wrong, and that would be a much better outcome than the one I predict. Who knows?

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    Indeed. My Dad and I had our worst fight ever (and we have had many over the decades) when I was 20; I’ll be blogging about him for Father’s Day and mention what I learned from that fight as a result.

    It may not be comforting, but, like any relationship, mine with my Dad (and likely yours) will wax and wane and change as you both grow (up.) It took me a very long time to ignore his harshest criticisms (which I internalized, ouch) and to realize that his Olympian standards weren’t universal, thank God. (Not having siblings to bitch to about this made it worse.)

    Now, many decades past 20, he and I have a veru good relationship that I never, ever thought possible. He finally, somehow, has begun to see and appreciate — and express that — who I am and my value to the world, and to him. It is the greatest gift, and one we could not have enjoyed had I (likely) cut him off for good.

    Give Dad a chance. 🙂

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