• Relationships

Frisky Q&A: Dr. Peggy Drexler, Author Of “Our Fathers, Ourselves” About Women And Their Dads

Confession: I’m a bit of a daddy’s girl. My dad has always made me feel protected and loved, even if he hasn’t always verbalized it the way my mom does. In the back of my mind, I’m always comparing how well the men I date treat me with how well my father treats me.

But Dad also does some confusing stuff, too. When I got dumped over the phone a few months ago, I was at my parents’ house, and when I started crying, my dad yelled at me and told me to stop making such a big deal out of things. I was, like, “Ummm, what? I just got dumped.” Why was the sweet guy who mailed me Snoopy cartoons yelling at me to stop crying when I just got my heart broken?

Then I read Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family, by Dr. Peggy Drexler. Based on her interviews with 70 women, ages 20 through 40, she explores the relationships of fathers and their adult daughters: why grown women seek their fathers’ approval; why some of us are still a “daddy’s girl” even in adulthood; and whether we date/marry men “just like our fathers,” as the rumor goes. I also learned that my father’s reaction to my post-breakup behavior — hysterical crying, snot everywhere — was not at all uncommon. Fathers understandably feel powerless when their child is in pain (the same goes for mothers, too) and sometimes their knee-jerk reaction is to make the child stop showing how hurt they are. My dad was just being … a dad.

Dr. Drexler — who (unrelated but interesting) is married to the CEO of J.Crew, Mickey Drexler! — very kindly responded to several questions of mine about Our Fathers, Ourselves for The Frisky. Learn more about your relationship with your father after the jump!

The father’s job through time had been to shelter, feed and protect a daughter until she is ready to be handed off to the protection of another man. Female independence — particularly sexually — puts a big kink in the handoff. Even though fathers may not like to talk about it, I think there is the realization that sexual liberation — making your own choices — comes as a package with the same liberation that puts daughters on the playing field or on career paths.

Is dating or marrying a man who is just like your father is a total myth?

Aside from Bigfoot and Elvis being alive, very few things are a total myth. And I’m not that sure about Elvis. There is often a kernel of truth in there somewhere. The mistake we tend to make is to draw the line directly from father to lover or husband. Any daughter, any child, reflects both mother and father. Part of that is just genetics. A daughter is likely to share a father’s interests if they’re both good at something — maybe it’s basketball, maybe it’s raising dogs, maybe it’s Sudoku. So out of that that mash-up of innate ability and exposure to things a father likes, comes a daughter with her own abilities and interests. The man she chooses may well reflect her father. But a big part of that is because he reflects her. A daughter who lives to be on the beach is not that likely to bond with a man who hates sand. Is that because her father likes the beach? Or is it because some of the best times of her life were playing in the sand with her dad?

Why is being daddy’s little girl good for the daddy, but not necessarily for the girl?

“Daddy’s girl” is a term that changes meaning with age. Younger, it’s great. Interestingly, it has a whole different meaning and implication than “mama’s boy.” Older, it depends. It can imply that a daughter is weak, submissive and under a father’s unhealthy control. But I think today, there is a “new daddy’s girl.” It is simply be a woman who can engage with her father, and relate to his world, more easily and with more dimension than was possible when gender roles were more rigidly assigned. I don’t see the idea of an independent woman and daddy’s girl being mutually exclusive at all.

How much importance do women give their father’s expectations of them?

Among the women I interviewed, it was much more important than I expected—especially how consistently I saw it. I focused on accomplished women who had the kind of achievements that would lead you to believe they no longer need anybody’s approval. For many of them, others seek their approval. But dads were a special case. Well into adulthood, women still needed their fathers to be proud of them, to be on board with their life decisions. When I asked why, many of them said they asked themselves the same question. Some felt it was because their father’s approval was so important when they were little. The need just never went away. What is particularly surprising is that the need was still there even when fathers were absent, uninvolved or so bad at the job that they didn’t deserve to be part of a daughter’s life at all.

Do fathers treat their daughters’ need for independence — especially her sexual coming of age — differently than they do sons?

There will always be some weapons-grade ambivalence there. It’s pretty deeply rooted.

The father’s job through time had been to shelter, feed and protect a daughter until she is ready to be handed off to the protection of another man. Female independence — particularly sexually — puts a big kink in the handoff. Even though fathers may not like to talk about it, I think there is the realization that sexual liberation — making your own choices — comes as a package with the same liberation that puts daughters on the playing field or on career paths.

Enlightened fathers know that they can’t dictate sexual choices, but they can provide the emotional infrastructure to help a daughter make ones that don’t end up badly. So the same independence that came to sons as a rite of passage is now increasingly being afforded to daughters. But for many fathers, that doesn’t mean the affording comes easily.

Your book posits that a father’s relationship with his adult daughter usually intellectual (ex: talking about the news), versus the relationship with her mother, which tends to be more emotional (ex: talking about dating problems).

I think it’s just one of those man/woman things. It’s always dangerous to generalize. But women connect by talking; men connect by hitting golf balls. So where there is talking, there is more room for emotion. Even as daughters are much closer to the worlds of fathers, moms will likely be the parent-of-choice when it comes to romance, or personal problems, or help with issues like children and families. That is certainly not to say that mom can’t be a coach or dad can’t weigh in why a boyfriend hasn’t called.

Many women in your book talk about their fathers being uncomfortable with displays of emotion, especially crying. Daughters often interpret that as a lack of sympathy or interest in the problem. Is it?

Tom Hanks said in “A League of Their Own,” “There’s no crying in baseball.” I just don’t think crying or raw emotion is in a typical father’s playbook of problem-solving techniques (which is not to say it is for all women). It doesn’t mean that fathers dismiss the problem. They are just less comfortable with a tearful expression than might be a mother who knows the cleansing power of a good cry.

You say that daughters often favor fathers, and are more openly critical of mothers. Is that internalized sexism?

I think it may tie to the need for a father’s approval that we talked about earlier. It may also be the same kind of family competition you often see between fathers and sons. The like genders in a family often butt heads with each other in ways they don’t with the other gender. Another factor goes back to the fact that mother-daughter relationships have an emotional component that is different from fathers and daughters.

You touch briefly in your book on the phenomenon of “purity balls,” where daughters go to a dance with their father and, standing before him, pledge to remain a virgin until they are married.

They scare the hell out me. Purity balls introduce fathers into a young girl’s sexuality in a truly dangerous way. Think how creepy it would be if sons made that pledge to mothers! A father certainly has a right and a responsibility to protect a daughter from making stupid mistakes. But with her sexuality already intertwined with her relationship with her father and to give her sexual urges to him for safe-keeping takes things into dangerous territory. Dad as keeper of her virginity? That can’t be good. The big problem here is that major studies have shown that abstinence education has had no impact on the sex habits of teens. What happens to a daughter who makes the pledge to her father, then can’t live up to it? When dad is peering into the back seat of the car, it sets up a conflict that shouldn’t be part of an already highly-charged, usually confusing time in a young girl’s life.

Dr. Peggy Drexler is a gender scholar, research psychologist, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and author of Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family (Rodale). Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook.

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