06/20/2010 10:56 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Adult Women and Their Fathers

As Father's Day approaches, adult women confront a broad range of recollections and emotions. Many adult women remember a childhood with a father who was caring and supportive, a man who shared their dreams, validated their successes and encouraged them to persevere following failures and setbacks. These women will have no difficulty picking out a Father's Day card and signing it "with love." Other women have unhappy memories of fathers who failed to provide love and support. Understandably, these daughters are ambivalent about thanking their unavailable fathers for what they did not give.

Around this time of year, these adult daughters often find themselves "forgetting" or even consciously ignoring Father's Day. Most adult women fall between these two poles. They have some fond memories of dad, but they also recall disappointments and conflicts. These women may experience considerable ambivalence regarding how they will respond to the expectations generated by the holiday.

A prevalent attitude toward the Father's Day holiday among adult women is illustrated by a 44-year-old client of mine who defended her decision not to send a card or to call her dad on Father's Day by pointing out that "It all seems so contrived. I mean, we're both adults now, and I don't have any regular communication with the man at this point in my life. Besides, when you come right down to it, I realize that he really wasn't the best dad in the world. He wasn't even a good one. So why should I go through the charade of buying a mushy card expressing my love?"

But fathers are important to women. Psychological research and clinical practice indicate that a good relationship with one's father is crucial to the young woman's development of high self-esteem, and to the maintenance of a confident attitude toward the challenges of life. One's father provides a model for how to interact with the world at large, including the willingness to set high goals and compete hard to achieve them, and for the value of honesty and integrity. A father provides his daughter with a model for how men should act, in particular for how men should treat women. Therefore one's father has a crucial role in shaping the choices an adult woman makes when it comes to the choice of a partner.

And fathers continue to serve these functions as women move from childhood into adulthood and beyond. Even adult women who have achieved noteworthy successes in a profession or in business activities typically continue to place great value on the approval that they receive from their fathers for their accomplishments. And the image of one's father interacting positively with one's children is priceless. For all these reasons, it is important to nurture the relationship with one's father (assuming he's not abusive or toxic, in which case severing the relationship may be appropriate or even necessary). Otherwise, the importance of nurturing the relationship with your father pertains, even if he is living many miles away, and even if you haven't been in the habit of communicating frequently.

Of course, not all adult women feel that they have received all these positive lessons from their fathers. But if this is the case, it is valuable to understand why. Fathers can be unavailable for a variety of reasons. Perhaps your father and mother divorced and they were so angry at each other that your father could not bring himself to visit you, for fear of a heated exchange. Perhaps he was never at home because he was driven to succeed and "married to his job." Maybe he had a mental illness or problems with substance abuse that rendered him incapable of making his love clear to you or providing you with dependable support. Maybe he was a traditional man who felt that he could be close with his sons, but not with his daughters. He may have been the type of dad who felt comfortable attending your brother's sporting events, but not yours. Possibly, he simply couldn't provide a daughter with the encouragement to pursue lofty educational or career goals. Any of these issues could explain why he "wasn't there for you" as he should have been.

Communication may help to explain aspects of a father's behavior that seemed to indicate a lack of love, but may in fact have been the result of unknown external factors. Even in the situation where a father was really incapable of loving, a review of what actually happened can help an adult daughter understand why things were the way they were then, as well as to comprehend how her relationship with her father has affected her own self-concept and behavior. Such understanding can in turn be used to help initiate positive changes in attitude and behavior that may bring about a more satisfying quality of adult life.

In closing, let me say a word to fathers. Don't forget that you continue to be an important source of validation and emotional security to your adult daughters. As Father's Day approaches, go out of your way to let them know how much you love them. No matter how successful and established they may be, they still need you.

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