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Fathers, Daughters, and Questions

Dr. Peggy Drexler   |   May 10, 2011    9:08 AM ET

On a pleasant summer night, when I was three and a half, I was tucked into my bed a carefree toddler with a complete family down the hall. I woke up without a father. My father had been taken during the night by a heart attack--leaving three daughters under the age of ten, my mother a widow at thirty-three, and me a lifetime of wondering what I missed.

The hole created by my father's loss never fully closed, and I have spent my personal and professional lives probing the meaning of that absence.

Growing up as a fatherless daughter, I spent hours conjuring that foreign land where girls grow up with two parents, wondering what it must be like to be a part of the kind of family I imagined families should be. That intense curiosity about definitions of family played a featured role in my decision to earn a PhD in psychology and to then embark on a career studying the interplay of gender and family life.

Stemming in part from my own lack of a father, I wrote my first book, Raising Boys Without Men, comparing boys from female-headed households with boys raised in traditional mom-and-dad families. Contrary to then-prevailing wisdom that being a son of an unmarried mother sentenced one to a life of crime and that being a son in a two- mother family sentenced one to life as a sissy, my ten years of research for the book found happy, well adjusted and perfectly masculine boys being raised by these maverick moms.

But then I found myself wondering about fathers and daughters. Now married to the same man for over thirty years, I'd seen him parent our two children: a grown son long out of the house and our daughter, who is finishing her first year of college. I had naturally assumed my son would absorb and eventually manifest some of his father's qualities, as boys are wont to do. But watching him with my daughter was a real revelation. Although I believe that boldness and decisiveness are inherently human rather than masculine traits, I was nevertheless surprised to find my husband's vibrant, muscular expressions of self-confidence shape our baby girl's personality as much as they had her brother's.

I'd never really known my father; any memories I have are from peeks through a rustle in the curtains of my subconscious. How much of him -- and the absence of him -- made me who I am?

In the same way I'd investigated single mothers and sons, I now wanted to know about fathers and daughters. I wanted to drill into the connection in ways that broke through the layers of platitude, myth and assumption. I wanted to start from the premise that because the father-daughter bond is ancient -- and has formed the prose of countless Hallmark cards -- does not mean we really understand it. I especially wanted to learn if the dramatic changes in female power and possibility have enriched the bond or -- at least in the traditional sense of the father as protector and provider -- weakened it. I wanted to tell the stories of real women, real fathers, real joy, real disappointment, real fulfillment, real longing.

For my new book, Our Fathers, Ourselves, which is out today, I did 120 hours of interviews, which generated over 1,600 pages of transcripts, and the stories I heard were as different as the many women I met. They were from various backgrounds, races and places. They were single and married. But I was particularly interested in -- and sought out -- women of accomplishment, both personal and professional. I wanted to see how their fathers influenced a generation of women who are earning and achieving shoulder- to-shoulder with men.

The relationships with their fathers ran from great to benign to frightening.

Across the diversity of their lives and father relationships, I was struck by how badly these women wanted a close relationship with their dads -- even with fathers who didn't deserve a place in their lives at all. I was also taken by how many told me that, years after they struck out on their own, they still run actions and decisions through the filter of their father's approval: "What would dad say?"

The book, for me, is part of a long personal journey toward understanding and, maybe, even closure. Every stop -- husband, children, the work I do, the women I've met -- adds to and rounds out my perspective on growing up without a father.

This stop on the journey was the realization that when you lose your father at a young age, he is forever perfect; always loving, always there. Real fathers are not perfect. They're human.

They told me stories of love and support, and disappointment and regret. They told me about fathers who constantly challenged them, and about fathers who ceaselessly criticized them. I heard about fathers who were always there, and fathers who were always gone. I saw how fine the line can be between healthy involvement and oppressive control. In some of their stories, the best of fatherhood and the worst were bound up in one man.

What fascinated me in the women was love in the face of imperfection -- sometimes unthinkable imperfection. There was amazing elasticity in what they were willing to forgive. Fathers are that powerful. These women want closeness with them that much.

One more thing stood out. The women I interviewed were not just willing to share their stories; they were eager, and incredibly candid. Virtually every conversation stretched well beyond the scheduled session. Every one of them thanked me for the opportunity -- not to be in a book, but just to talk about something very important in their lives. That got me thinking. We all have our stories to tell.

I would very much like to hear from more women, to keep the conversation going.

The question I'll leave you with is this: What is the best advice your father ever gave you?

I hope you will answer it yourselves and encourage your mothers, sisters, aunts, friends, and even the men in your life to answer. You can respond below (and 10 individuals will receive a copy of the book), and I hope you'll also invite others to join the conversation: tweet about it (using the #OurFathersOurselves hashtag), post it on Facebook, email your friends, bring it up at the dinner table.

I look forward to your responses, and I'll be sharing your thoughts in a future Huffington Post piece and on my website,

Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, gender scholar, 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.