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Dr. Peggy Drexler Headshot

Decoding The Mysteries Of The Father-Daughter Bond

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A friend runs a small, successful, consulting business. His daughter, who is in finance and starting to get the big bonus checks, had just returned from safari in Kenya.

He said: "It dawned on me. She planned this trip to Africa as casually as I plan a trip to the beach. I can see her starting to live a life with dimensions bigger than the life I had always provided. Ninety nine percent of that makes me immensely proud, and gratified that I could provide the education that makes it possible. But there is that one small part that feels like change in status. It bothers me that it even crosses my mind. And I wonder if I'd feel the same way of it was a son."

While the post-feminist rebalancing of power between working men and women is the topic of ceaseless debate over meaning and progress, my friend may represent a small part of the gender divide that has largely escaped exploration.

What has a new time of unfettered female achievement done to the centuries-honed relationship between fathers and daughters; particularly the balance of power?

In my interviews with high-achieving women, I found many who adjusted to the era of female achievement just fine -- with dad the same joyful supporter and cheerleader he was on the soccer fields, with his daughter driven by his confidence and basking in his pride.

For others, it's proved to be a rougher passage.

Some daughters felt guilt that their lives had so dramatically escaped the orbit of their father's experience.

One of my interview subjects was Janice, an African American graduate of UCLA and Harvard. She is the co-founder of a start-up investment firm. Just a few years out for school, she is earning a six-figure income that she sees as just a start of things to come.

Her father is divorced from her mother and living in the Mississippi town where he grew up. He lives a simple life doing home repairs. He can neither read nor write.

After a move to the West coast with her mother following a difficult divorce, she made her climb in business with the considerable help from mentors who spotted her intelligence and drive.

Today, she has rebuilt a relationship with her father. It's tenuous, but she doesn't feel the need to make it stronger. "It's horrible to say," she admitted, "but I think the gap is just too large between our lives. He's a good man. He has worked hard. And he knows a lot about life. But there just isn't that much for us to talk about. Our lives are so different that I don't know where to start."

Some fathers - say the daughters - are proud of their achievements, but struggle with the reality of daughters who have the resources to do what they want, when they want - with fatherly review and permission not part of their life-decisions.

Emily, a well-educated, highly paid technology executive, said her father is a self-made man who built and runs a collection of businesses around the world. As she puts it: "He's tough as nails, a workaholic, and fought for everything since he was very young. He's the alpha male that the other alpha males want to impress."

With his global travel, and her boarding school education, she has few memories of him before the age of 15, when - for reasons still unclear to her -- he asserted himself in her life as if she were an acquired company.

He was involved, but less than supportive. With every education and career challenge, he would predict her failure. And she would go on to prove him wrong.

"I tried to tell myself it was motivation," she said. "But I think it's more about control. He wants me to succeed, but he wants it to be success that he made possible. So in a weird way it's a competition between what I accomplish myself, and what I accomplish because he helped."

Two examples at the opposite sides of the spectrum of the evolving relationship between fathers and high-achieving daughters; two lessons in the reordering of the worlds of fathers and daughters.

For some, finding relationship equilibrium in that new world comes easily, and naturally.

But my work tells me that for others, there may be some adjusting to do in one of nature's most powerful bonds.

I have honored promises of confidentiality by changing names and disguising identities.