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Dr. Peggy Drexler Headshot

The Dark Side of Being Daddy's Little Girl

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At 33, Dianne had been married to Daniel for just under a year. She was smart, pretty, cheerful, and enjoyed the finer things: The slouchy designer handbag slung over her shoulder must have cost upwards of a thousand dollars. She was used to being taken care of: Back home in Missouri, she'd grown up the youngest of six children, and the only daughter. "I feel like I had a princess childhood," Dianne told me. "Like I lived my whole childhood in a pink tutu and everything was perfect."

She had me at "tutu."

Dianne went on to recall her relationship with her parents as "ideal." She described her mom as a terrific cook and her father as an exceedingly hard worker. She said her relationship with him was -- then and still -- "incredibly close and special." I asked Dianne if she had looked for a husband who shared her father's qualities. She nodded. Both had great senses of humor, were intensely career driven, and fully in charge. "My dad always wore the pants in the family relationship, and my husband does, too," she said.

Turns out, there were other similarities. Dianne's father had been an alcoholic; whenever he was in a bad mood, she'd be the one to make him laugh. When she succeeded, she felt even more special, empowered. As a child, this role had given her a sense of purpose and security. Her husband, though not necessarily an alcoholic, would sometimes stay out all night, she told me. "I told him it's all going to change once I start having babies, though," she said lightly. I worried about how Dianne might handle it if -- and likely when -- things didn't change. Similar to having learned to cater to her father, and be catered to by him, Dianne avoided fighting with her husband. "Sometimes I'll even say, 'Fine, you're right,' even if I believe differently, just because I don't like confrontation," she told me, adding that her husband controlled all of the family's finances. "But he's very loyal and dedicated. I never question what he's doing. I know he wants the best for me."

There's nothing wrong with trusting your husband's judgment and believing he holds your
interests close to his heart. But Dianne had lost the ability to see what "the best" really meant -- for her. She'd lost sight of her own intelligence and basic common sense. Like many women who are pampered or treated as extra special in childhood, Dianne's sense of her own power had peaked back when she was a girl; back when a few words and a smile were all that were needed to transform her father's mood from melancholy to joy. Along the way, her self-worth had become deeply rooted in others' happiness. She never developed the ability or assuredness to express her authentic self, especially when that self wasn't pleased.

There is a myth that the pampered child holds a lucky lot in life. In reality, that life reads more like a grim fairy tale. Adorable and adored, her joy and laughter enthrall her parents, who revel in their ability to so easily please this tiny being. As one father joked to me, "Being a dad is so fulfilling. Where else will I find people who will literally jump up and down with joy at seeing me?" In turn, making his children happy makes his day.

But as a daughter changes and grows, so too should the pleasure a parent -- especially a father -- feels in her happiness. Instead, many daughters are spoiled by their fathers, who rush in with car keys, money, and indulgent yeses. On an emotional level, she basks in the knowledge of her power to please her father, and learns to respond more to his pleasure than to her own. She feels taken care of, but it's a false -- and conditional -- sense of security.

In this way, a child's real feelings may be derailed by her parents' influence. She becomes unable to determine where her parents' feelings end and her own begins, unable to speak up for herself. That stays with her. Consider Dianne: Why would a bright, educated, articulate woman be so willing to relinquish her opinions, her paychecks, and her power to her husband? It's because she learned early on the pleasure of pleasing her father, an ongoing dynamic that engaged her emotions with his and led her to seek out the same in a spouse. From an early age, Dianne's mission in life was to bring joy to her beloved, beleaguered father. Now, that mission had transferred to her husband. She's still playing the role of the obedient and complaisant child, and tacitly enforcing the notion that there's only one adult in the marriage. And it's not her.

The Daddy's pampered little girl dynamic can also pose a threat to a girl's sexual development. Take Julie, a 32-year-old single woman whose father taught her to always "be nice and make people feel comfortable." Now, whenever Julie dates a guy, she lets him treat her like a doormat, rather than offend him or risk confrontation. Or Lisa. When Lisa was 12, her father drew up a "contract" stating that Lisa would not date until she was 21. In exchange, he would get her a puppy. "At the time, I just wanted the dog, and I didn't care about boys," Lisa told me. "But later, when I obviously 'violated' the contract, I felt awkward and guilty and confused."

That's not to say that fathers should not dote on their daughters. There is no question that a father's responsibilities have grown both more numerous and more complex over the years. That's a good thing. No longer can a dad acquit himself admirably by merely providing financial support for his daughter, protecting her from harm, and teaching her how to operate a manual transition. More and more, he must also serve as her buddy, mentor, emotional anchor, sports coach, companion, and confidante.

But while many fathers of grown women still see themselves as their daughters' protectors -- which, again, is perfectly fine and understandable -- it's also necessary for a father to instill in his daughter the belief that she can be her own protector, too. When a girl is able to observe her father as a strong role model who's masculine -- but not entitled or domineering or overly placating -- she absorbs that into her system and manifests it in her life. She feels protected but also independent and capable. Fran, a scientist, tells a story about growing up in the hills of Southern California. She and her brother and their friends, 10 or 11 at the time, would go hiking by themselves, bringing along whistles to use in an emergency. One day, one of the kids fell, and they were forced to use the whistles. "My father came bounding up the hill, Paul Bunyan-like, running to see what was wrong," Fran remembered. "You could tell he'd been listening. People these days might think it was negligent parenting. But it taught us to have a sense of adventure and independence."

Listening to Fran, I could tell that experience -- even the memory of it -- was liberating. It's not "perfect," but it's pretty close.