I was recently speaking with a teen aged girl who said: "I adore my father but I would never date anyone like him. He treats me like a princess, but I don't like the way he treats women."
I was blown away by her ability to so succinctly articulate the complexity of her emotions about the two sides of her father; the man who loves her and the man who seemingly treats women as disposable, interchangeable, companions for the purposes of physical and social convenience. It's not that he's blatantly disrespectful on any level and as a single man, his behavior is far from inappropriate, yet she has learned well, and recognizes the contrast between how he has taught her to be loved and how he treats women in general.
Her father lavishes her with affection and attention, so she feels cherished. Before she even understood what it meant, he told her she was beautiful, smart and worthy. This makes her relatively immune to the compliments of boys who try to impress her with words that would make a girl deprived of such reinforcement swoon or flee. Ambition, intelligence and good communication are her basic requirements. The young men courting her understand the bar has been set high and vie for her respect and friendship.
Our exchange prompted me to think about the fathers in my life: my father, my friend's fathers, my brothers, colleagues etc. and what their daughters could possibly be learning from them about their self image and how they should be treated as women. Everything from what love looks and feels like, to the value of intelligence and definition of physical beauty are transmitted from father to daughter in verbal and non-verbal cues.
When I was about five years old, my father looked at me and offered a stern warning, "You have fat potential!"
At the time, I had no idea what he meant, but I could tell from his tone, and the way he looked at me, it was not good. I eventually learned what it meant and became obsessed with my weight. I was terrified of gaining weight. It took me many years, a handful of therapists and even more self-help books to get myself firmly on the path to reversing the damage inflicted upon my self image by my father's well received words.
A colleague of mine recently bragged "I've been married 18 years and never once cheated!" I laughed and asked if he was impotent. Of course he wasn't, but he did boast that his wife could wear his fourteen year old daughter's bathing suit. This was his reason for fidelity; having a wife in her 40's, with three children, that does God only knows what, to fit herself into clothing belonging to her child, barely two years into puberty. I could only hope that she was modeling healthy choices to her children in her efforts to keep herself this size.
I congratulated him and wondered if he would take responsibility if he were to discover his daughter throwing up her meals to meet his weight requirements. Could he even see how with all the pressure surrounding young girls to look like airbrushed, anorexic models, that his comments might have a detrimental effect on his daughter?
Another father, married 20 years with two teenaged daughters, has a beautiful family, whom he professes to love deeply and value greatly. Yet, he has been having an affair for almost 10 years. I asked him if he really believed his daughters and wife were clueless about his clandestine activities. He looked at me earnestly and nodded yes. I told him I disagreed and shared with him my understanding of the uncanny ability of children to know all things that parents try to hide. He admitted that he watched his own father's infidelity throughout his parent's marriage.
Then he mentioned a cousin of his who serially cheats on her husband; she attributes this to watching her father cheat on her mother and she realized in therapy how this experience left her with trust issues. Subconsciously, her cheating is her way of avoiding the heartache and humiliation she watched her mother endure. He became introspective when he realized how many of our friends are dealing with the fallout of their father's affairs playing out in their relationships.
With so much emphasis on fathers to take care of their sons, and I emphatically agree that this is crucial, I would ask all fathers to recognize that your daughters need your care too. They are watching you and learning about their value based on the actions and words you offer them. Your treatment of their mother and the other women you befriend, love and interact with, speak volumes about a woman's worth.
Your power lies in your understanding of the significant impact your behavior has on your daughter's self image and how it will influence the quality of relationships she chooses. This is the currency she will carry as she travels into the world of adulthood.