March 26, 2018
I grew up a daddy’s girl. I dislike the term because of the infantile, and sometimes sexual, connotations it carries. But it’s shorthand for doted upon, a bit indulged, a girl child loved deeply, if imperfectly, by her father. A Scout to his Atticus Finch.
And I am better for it. According to the work of child development expert Norma Radin, women raised with highly involved fathers are more likely to be warm, mature, independent and possess high self-esteem.
Yet when I share this bit of personal history with men, more often than not, eyes roll.
I get it: The archetype holds that a favored girl child is forever a spoiled and entitled woman. Veruca Salt all grown up. Or worse, an aging Lolita. Some men hear “daddy’s girl” and instantly imagine a lifetime striving to live up to or please a false god of man. (See: Jared Kushner and President Donald Trump.) I know this. I understand this. But I share my truth with would-be beaus anyway, because knowing that I’m a daddy’s girl is central to understanding me as a woman. It speaks to how I view and interact with men, and, perhaps, unknowingly, how men view and interact me.
And how could it not? The dynamic between my father and me directly influenced the emotional responsiveness, validation and intimacy I look for in my adult relationships with men.
Take friendships, for example. I have several deep, intimate relationships based not on romantic or sexual desire, but affection rooted in genuine respect and trust. Philia versus eros or ludus. I have a network of brothers from other mothers because a childhood spent in the company of my father and his “padnahs” – at backyard bid whist games, auto body shops and NCO club bars – taught me to recognize and appreciate the company of good men.
The world of men, with its brashness and bluster, tall tales and trash-talking, is almost as familiar and beloved to me as the world of women. Even today, you are as likely to find me sneaking nips of North Carolina moonshine with my male cousins as you are to find me gossiping with my female ones in the kitchen. I am attracted to the company of men simply for the sake of their “maleness.” This, of course, can present challenges when it comes to dating.
It requires a certain level of trust and security to understand I will often be found at a table full of men not because I seek sexual attention, but because such settings are comforting and invigorating to me.
The independence and high self-esteem I engendered in part by my father’s affection can also be challenging. I am no Coffy, but in showing me how a man safeguards himself and what is precious to him – sit facing the window; walk near the outside curb; keep jumper cables, a flashlight, and an Old Timer in the car – my father showed me how to do the same. He was demanding and supportive, two paternal parenting traits that studies suggest positively affect the development of resilience and perseverance in women. I am confident in my own abilities, which can be unnerving to males conditioned to believe women, regardless of age or achievement, need and want paternal guidance and protection.
My father also encouraged me to be competitive, delighting when I bested him. Turns out not all men find being beat by a woman endearing, and romantic entanglement makes it less likely that they will. Nor do all find the post-win, trash-talking skills I learned at my father’s knee amusing when coming out of the mouth of a woman.
But you know what I don’t find amusing? The idea that men lack emotional intelligence to overcome that conditioning. Being offended by displays of female bravado smacks of chauvinism, which neither my mother nor my father taught me to tolerate. In fact, I find the whole notion of men’s limited emotional intelligence to be a cop-out, a deliberate choice to let men off the hook. Take the way the conversation around the #MeToo movement has devolved into debates on whether men should forgo all banter and physical interaction with women lest they be accused of harassment or worse. That line of thinking, hyperbolic or not, holds that men are incapable of discernment, of processing emotional cues. Which is simply not true. Women might be better at it, but men have the aptitude. I have seen it displayed my entire life – beginning with my father.
Still, my legacy as a former daddy’s girl is not all one of personal power and positivity. There is some truth to the spoiled princess trope. My happiness was everything to my father, a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it bred confidence. There was security in knowing that if asked, he provided. I prided myself in rarely asking, but knowing I could allowed me to test my abilities and figure out what I am made of. The curse is his unwillingness to see me unhappy meant I was well into my mid-20s before I realized charm will only soften the blow of brattiness so many times when dealing with men who lack a biological imperative to ensure my health and happiness. And I was well into my 30s before I realized the ideal partner is not a man who loves unquestioningly, as my father did, but instead one who loves wholly. Flaws and all.
I was the apple of my father’s eye, but his view of me was limited, grounded in the child I was versus the woman I became. I protected that image at all costs. Worked diligently to remain on the pedestal he built for me. I carried that same commitment to perfection into romantic relationships only to find myself at a loss when the facade alienated partners. True intimacy requires vulnerability, an acknowledgement of weaknesses and warts. My dynamic with my father taught me to protect men in my life from hard truths about me.
My divorce changed all that. Made my father and me see each other with new eyes. I became a woman reckless enough to leave her marriage and he became a judgmental man obtuse to the reasons why. I greatly disappointed my father, and he greatly disappointed me in return. But I am better for that, too. In some ways the whole wretched experience – the hurt and the healing – was his final gift to me. The final standard I hold dear in my relationships with men: I jumped off the pedestal, and he still loved me.