Fathers and Daughters

A daughter’s relationship with her father is like no other. But as a girl gets older, it can be harder to connect with Dad. Here’s how Washington women relate to their fathers—and what they do to keep the bonds tight.

By: Brooke Lea Foster

My mother talks about the day I was born. Her labor lasted an hour, and I came out crying. The doctor wrapped me in a blanket and laid me in her arms. Mom ran her lips across my forehead.

She smelled my father.

Mom expected I’d have Dad’s hazel eyes, but the idea that my skin could carry his scent surprised her.

She told this story as she was putting out food on Thanksgiving, three weeks before I turned 29. I liked that a scent linked my father and me. We were given a bond that had little to do with how he raised me or how many fights we had.

The story also made me miss Dad. Since my parents had divorced, I’d had to schedule time with him. Still, we had a good relationship. When I would visit my family in New York, we’d go to the movies and I’d tell him about work.

Then sometimes when we were alone, we could seem like strangers, as though we were trying to get to know each other.

Daughters have a different relationship with their fathers than with their mothers. Our mothers listen to the play-by-play of our days.

Fathers provide different support: They talk with their grown daughters about where to invest their money, whether the job they’re considering is a good choice. Dad is the person we call if our car breaks down, sometimes even after we’re married.

Press daughters a little further—more than 100 women filled out an online Washingtonian survey, and a dozen were interviewed—and a different story emerges. Sure, these women talk to their dads, but many feel the relationship is missing an intimacy. Many wonder if something’s wrong, as the relationship feels so different from what they have with their mothers.

Many women in their twenties and thirties grew up with one kind of father. Our dads weren’t the strong, silent types our baby-boomer mothers knew, nor were they the hyperinvolved fathers many children know today. We were raised by men somewhere in the middle: fathers who would buy their daughters tampons but hand them over without saying a word.

Few women interviewed admit to having a bad relationship with their father. Many refer to him as their hero. They look to him for guidance and support, and they aren’t afraid to call him when life takes a detour.

Philadelphia psychologist Matti Gershenfeld calls the father-adult daughter bond fragile. In a 1994 study of 1,500 children over the age of 25, 80 percent of sons and daughters reported feeling closer to their mothers than to their fathers.

Another study found that the closer children are to their fathers, the happier, more satisfied, and less stressed they tend to be.

Says one 29-year-old woman who grew up in Rockville: “There’s a big difference between feeling close with Dad and feeling comfortable with him. I think many of us are just comfortable.”

When i think of my father, it’s a series of moments we spent alone together—only we weren’t really alone. One of my two sisters was there, or my mom was. If it was just Dad and me, we most likely were doing something insignificant. Maybe we watched TV together or ran up to the store for pizza.

One Saturday when I was five, Mom had to work. She was doing hair at a nearby salon, and Dad had to give a painting estimate. I remember some back-and-forth about who would watch me; my older sister was in school. In the end, Dad decided he’d take me to breakfast at a diner, and after that I’d wait in the car while he gave his estimate.

I remember what I wore—red terry-cloth shorts with white stripes down the sides, navy-blue knee socks, a white T-shirt. My hair was in pigtails. I ate scrambled eggs with ketchup and bacon. I talked the entire time and felt so happy that I had Dad to myself and that he was listening to every word I said. Or at least I thought he was. He nodded a lot.

Linda Nielsen, a psychologist at Wake Forest University who studies fathers and daughters, says it was probably the first time I had spent one-on-one time with Dad. “Those memories stand out so vividly because they’re so rare,” she says.

Nielsen challenged me to think about my happiest memories of my father. I thought back to when I was young: Dad playing guitar while I danced around him. Dad teaching me to ride a bike. Dad showing a den of bunnies to me.

That I was so young in these memories didn’t surprise Nielsen. “Culture says dads should stay involved with their daughters until they’re nine or ten,” she says. “In adolescence, we see them distancing. Often our best memories of Dad are from our childhood—and then our wedding.”

A father may distance himself from a young daughter because he’s unsure how to raise her or he assumes his wife can teach her more. Sara Raley, a PhD candidate studying family structure at the University of Maryland, says a father’s role is more scripted when it comes to sons. He knows how he’s supposed to act with them.

Some sociologists say fathers tend to invest more time in their families if there are sons and daughters, in turn leading to improved marital quality and lower divorce rates. An uneasiness in raising daughters may be why 45 percent of men surveyed in a 2003 Gallup poll said they’d prefer having a son; 19 percent said they’d want a daughter.

Freud argued that a father becomes uncomfortable with his daughter’s sexuality when she hits puberty and that this unconscious pulling away changes how he relates to her.

Laura, a 27-year-old woman who grew up in Woodbridge, remembers the moment her dad made her feel different from him. She was standing in the kitchen in a towel. She’d recently developed breasts, and when he saw her, his face turned red. “Put some clothes on,” he stammered. “Don’t be walking around half naked.” Laura remembers feeling more self-conscious around him after that.

Says a 30-year-old woman living in George­town: “Who didn’t feel that way?”

Linda Nielsen suggests that a daughter’s discomfort with puberty makes her unconsciously pull away from her father. Then adolescence lasts several years, making it easy for a father and daughter to grow apart.

Someone like Laura may have still played sports with her dad or giggled with him about a boy she liked, but she didn’t confide in him. Her development made her uncomfortable being “naked” around her father, physically and emotionally.

Says Nielsen: “You end up with a 22-year-old daughter who doesn’t know her father as much as she knows her mother—a girl who doesn’t communicate with her father about personal things, who thinks her father is an enigma.”

Because mothers tend to assume so much parenting, it’s easy to take their presence for granted. Even if our mothers worked, many still got us up and dressed, made our breakfast, picked us up at school, volunteered in the classroom, prepared dinner, helped with our homework, put us to bed.

We expected Mom at our track meets, but if Dad came, our hearts soared. He was around less, so some of us learned to fantasize about being in his world.

At age eight, I would put on lipstick and ask Mom to paint my nails. But my favorite activities were ones where I mimicked Dad—and I wasn’t a tomboy. I’d pretend to be a mechanic—I’d twist a wrench around the handlebars of my bike—and pump “gas” into my tires. At ten, I’d dream up treehouse designs, sneak tools out of Dad’s shed, and nail pieces of wood together, hoping to impress him. What stands out is how much I wanted to get his attention and make him want to spend more time with me.

Rebecca, a 28-year-old who grew up in Chevy Chase, says she learned early on that her father’s time was worth more than her mother’s. “My mom is a teacher,” she says. “She was home. Dad is a businessman. He seemed to be doing such important things all day long. When I had his attention, I wanted to keep it. I would make mental notes of things I wanted to say to him. If I had him for an hour, I was going to make sure I had things to say.”

Daughters are sometimes so intent on connecting with their fathers that they may choose an activity they know their dads will be excited about: Got a dad who loves baseball? Then join a softball team.

Jill started running a year ago because her father always wished one of his kids would run with him. “It’s great bonding time,” she says.

Ellie, a 29-year-old in Vienna, says she learned to appreciate golf, baseball, and football while growing up: “I definitely watched a lot of games I wasn’t interested in so I could be a part of Dad’s unit.”

Ellie loves that she was the first person her dad called—not her brothers—when he got tickets to the Masters golf tournament last year.

Do women aspire to be like their dads just so they can feel close to them?

Says psychologist Gershenfeld: “I don’t think things like this are done consciously. But my father loved music, so I kept taking piano lessons. You learn the connection. It becomes a way to get attention from Dad.”

It’s often assumed that daughters mimic their mothers, that fathers take a back seat in the development of a young woman’s identity.

But “I’m just like my father” is repeated often by adult daughters. Women will go out of their way to tell you what aspects of their personality they got from their dads: “We’re really strong-willed.” “Dad thinks very logically, just like me.”

Jill, a 24-year-old in Arlington, looks up to her father. He grew up in a poor family and worked his way through college. “Everything he has, he earned,” she says.

His values were ingrained in Jill. She worked through college. When she graduated, she lived at home for the summer and saved money to move into her own apartment. She still works weekends.

“I don’t like asking Dad for help, and I can’t tell you the last time I did,” she says. “I want him to know I can make it on my own.”

As we get older, we don’t always have the same interests or hobbies as our fathers. So maybe we find other ways to feel connected to him. If we lead a life similar to Dad’s, we’ll have more to say. Then no matter how much we change, we’ll always feel like our father’s daughter.

If people ask about my father, I tell them how silly he is. It’s the part of him I most identify with. As I get older and feel myself changing, I rely on our silliness to keep us close. Part of what bonds us is that we imitate the velociraptors in Jurassic Park or pretend we can break dance.

But sometimes I worry that’s not enough; I feel I’m slipping away from Dad. I love literary fiction, independent movies, and European cities. Dad doesn’t like to read novels, and he hates getting on airplanes. He runs a painting business on eastern Long Island. As a reporter, I tend to interview the kinds of people whose houses he spackles.

Still, it’s not that Dad wouldn’t want to hear me talk about my interests—and I’m hardly the model of sophistication—but talking with him about what interests me sometimes makes me uncomfortable, as if I’m putting on airs. So I leave things out when we talk.

Sometimes I fear that my life in Washington is getting too different for Dad to relate to. I worry that the more I tell him about who I really am, the less he’ll want to be around me.

“Sometimes conversation doesn’t flow with Dad,” a 27-year-old woman in Alexandria says. Several other women reported feeling similarly. They call their dads when they can report a promotion or a bad day. But many say that conversations are typically shorter than those they have with their mothers.

Julie, 24, says her dad will ask how work is going, how her boyfriend is, what she did that day. “He wants to hear the surface, not the details,” she says. “After a while, he’ll start watching TV as I talk.”

“Carrying on” about something—as our fathers might put it—is what we do with our mothers. Says Julie: “Dad wants to know the CNN of my life. He wants to read the headlines, and Mom wants to read the articles.”

Around our fathers, we often edit ourselves. We call our mothers to complain that we shopped for two hours and came home empty-handed, but we never think of bothering Dad with those details.

“I don’t want to bore Dad,” says Sandra, a 31-year-old in Alexandria. “I’ll tailor the conversation to what he finds interesting, like work or our pets.”

A piece of us changes into something different from who we are when we’re around our fathers. Maybe we still feel the desire to please Dad that we felt as girls.

One 36-year-old woman reads the paper every Sunday before she goes to her parents’ house for dinner so she’ll have things to talk about. “Last night,” she says, “we talked about retirement plans. It’s nice when I tell him my opinion on something, and he validates it with a similar one.”

When Claire, a 23-year-old from Woodbridge, and her father go out to dinner, they discuss the news or maybe her budget. She never talks to him about dating or what she did with friends. She gets the sense her father doesn’t want to hear it.

Sometimes Claire and her dad run out of things to say and sit in silence. Claire tries to keep the conversation going: “I’ll think: Should I tell him what I’m going through?” But she won’t. ➝

“If I need to talk about how I’m feeling,” one 27-year-old woman says, “I’ll tell Mom. She’ll give feedback and talk more. Dad will say, ‘It will be okay,’ and that’s it. I don’t think it’s a lack of concern, but I don’t know if he knows how to deal with me being upset.”

Many of us try to be strong around Dad. We don’t want him to see the weepy side we show Mom. A 31-year-old woman says, “I don’t want Dad to see my weaknesses.”

Fathers show their devotion to daughters differently than mothers do, and daughters don’t always understand that. Some mistake the way their fathers want to bond with them as not wanting to bond with them.

Mothers tend to be overt in their affection. Even when their kids are adults, mothers are more likely to hug and kiss them. You could talk to Mom while she cooks and feel you’re bonding.

Fathers typically look to connect with their daughters through activities. They want to take us golfing or out to dinner. To be with Dad means doing something with him.

Still, daughters may use these activities to confide in their fathers. Dad’s not going to analyze our problems, as we may have wished when we were younger. Now he’ll offer logical advice; we may not agree with it, but we still appreciate it.

One 28-year-old says she always went to her mother with problems when she was an adolescent, but in adulthood she talks to her father first. Mothers may listen, she says, but fathers come up with solutions and help fix things.

Dads can also be brutally honest. Christa, a 39-year-old in DC, says she once told her father she was scared she’d never have children. They were at a Wendy’s drive-through window.

“I’m worried about that, too,” he said.

The moment meant a lot to Christa. He wasn’t afraid to say something that wasn’t bright and cheery—“which is what my mother does, and it drives me crazy.”

Five years ago, I went home to visit my family. It was a year before my parents separated, and the three of us went sailing on Dad’s boat.

I’ve never liked being around my dad while wearing a bikini, but we’re so often at the beach or on his boat that I’ve had to get used to it.

“You look good, honey,” Dad said. “You have muscles. Must be that kickboxing—right, Diane?”

Mom nodded. I shrugged and pretended not to care. Every girl can be body-conscious, and that summer I felt flabby, even though I was thin. Dad’s compliment made me reassess things. I stood in front of a mirror that night and tried to see what he did. I felt better.

Whenever he remarks on my appearance, I react similarly. If he says I look tired, I know I must really look tired. If he says I look pretty, then I must really look pretty. That’s the way it is with most fathers—they aren’t going to whitewash the truth to make you feel better, as moms often do.

Maybe that’s why many women say a compliment from their father means more.

“They see their father as representative of other men in the world,” says Gershenfeld. “She’ll think, if my father says I’m not looking good and he’s on my side, what does everyone else think?”

So much of what we learn about beauty comes from our fathers. We make unconscious notes about the women Dad thinks are pretty or which outfits they praise.

“Fathers teach daughters what is attractive,” says Virginia Revere, an Alexandria clinical psychologist. “Mothers teach them how to attain it.”

This isn’t to say we’ll dress up for Dad, but we might get a spring in our step if he says something nice, more so than if our mothers say the same thing.

A father’s insults can sting more, too. Claire was eating a plate of cheese enchiladas when her father said, “I don’t know why you have to eat all of that. You should really join a gym.”

She didn’t speak for the rest of dinner.

When women call their parents to share big news, they often talk to their mothers first. There’s the assumption that because you’re talking to Mom, you’re talking to Dad, too. We see them as a unit.

“I’ll always assume Mom will tell Dad what I say,” a 28-year-old woman says, “but sometimes she doesn’t.”

“I just never want to upset Dad,” Laura says. She wouldn’t tell her dad she’s annoyed at him. She’d let it pass and try to forget about it rather than talk to him.

Ellie says she knew her father would be angry that she was going to spend Thanksgiving with her new husband. She asked her mother to tell him.

“If Mom gets annoyed with me,” she says, “it’s easy—we’ll make up. It’s more of a process with Dad. If I hurt his feelings, I have to work twice as hard to get back in his good graces.”

Many women have trouble expressing anger to their fathers, psychologists say. This is different from adolescence, when many of us fought with Dad. But in adulthood, the fragility of the relationship is respected. “Daughters are more fearful of losing their fathers’ love,” Revere says.

Mothers are useful in helping us figure our fathers out. “But it can be a danger if every time you’re trying to interact with Dad, you go to Mom,” Nielsen says.

One mother has said to her 31-year-old daughter more than once: “Tell your dad yourself.”

If mom dies or parents divorce, daughters are pushed to interact with their fathers. Many women whose parents divorced later in life report closer relationships with their fathers than those whose parents are still together.

Does moving away affect how close you are to Dad? I’m not sure. In a 1994 study, about half of the adult children said it made them closer to their parents. When they went home, they spent more quality time with their parents than did children who interacted daily with them. The other half said the distance made it harder to remain close.

That study was done a dozen years ago. E-mail has changed the way some of us talk to our dads. One 29-year-old woman says she’s been able to tell her father things over e-mail she wouldn’t say in person. ➝

Some women shoot off funny jokes to their dads or confide their fears. If their fathers work a lot, they may hear from them on e-mail before they have time to pick up a phone. Says a 23-year-old woman: “It has increased how often we talk.”

The way we interact with our boyfriends and husbands may be traced to our fathers. “We’re often willing to take in our own relationships what we’ve watched our fathers do,” Revere says, “both good and bad.”

If you never really talked to your father because he didn’t seem that interested, and then you talk to your husband and he doesn’t seem that interested, you might assume that’s how men are. You may think you don’t deserve more than your father gave you.

Sometimes we seek out men who are similar to our fathers because that’s the dynamic we’re comfortable with. In trying to understand why her romantic relationships weren’t working out, one woman realized she was picking unavailable men. “Just like Dad,” she says.

Jill says her father is a know-it-all. Her long-term boyfriend was the same way. Even though she despised the quality in her father, Jill accepted it in her boyfriend. She let the behavior slide, just as she did with her dad.

“Your father is your prototype for all men,” Gershenfeld says. If your father was honest and loyal, you may find yourself drawn to men who share those qualities.

Is it a coincidence that my husband’s defining trait is his silliness, or that when we argue, we work things out similarly to how Dad and I do?

Therapists see this pattern in their practices. Daughters who stand up to their fathers while growing up may be more comfortable standing up to their husbandsor other male authority figures—later in life. If they were more open with their dads about their emotions as children, they tend to be more open in their own relationships.

Many women say they’re actively looking for a partner like their father. “As much as I hate to admit it,” Claire says, “I want to marry someone just like my dad.”

There are lots of reasons many of us fall for our dads. Maybe it’s because he’s the first man to love us for who we are. Maybe the relationship is so special to us that we want to replicate it.

Says one 27-year-old woman: “I married the improved version of my dad.”

Many women think they know their fathers. Then he dies and the questions they never asked surface. My mother is haunted by how little she knew her dad. She’s often guessing what he would have said or done.

In a study in the Gerontologist medical journal, researchers reported that after retirement, mothers often visit less with children while fathers visit more. Other research suggests that “the older the offspring and parents become, the more positively they view their relationships with each other and the closer they become emotionally.”

Nielsen advises taking time and talking to Dad—really talking to him. He may be more open than you expect. She suggests collecting a dozen photos of your father at different ages and asking what he was doing in each picture, where he was, what he was thinking.

“Your relationship with your father continues long after he’s dead,” Nielsen says. “You don’t want to feel guilty that you never took the time to know this person.”

For lots of women, there’s a moment when they realize how little of their fathers they actually know. Maybe they know he likes chocolate ice cream or that he grew up in the back of his father’s dry-cleaning business or that he cried when he got his tonsils out.

In adulthood, we often realize that our relationship with Dad is centered around our taking and his giving. At a certain age, you want to equalize the dynamic, help your father as much as he’s helped you.

Maybe you realize this when your father reveals a more emotionally complex side. Or maybe he dropped a piece of information, such as why he joined the Army, and you think: Why haven’t I ever asked him that?

Anne, who grew up in southern Virginia, says she’ll never forget the first time her father needed her. Two years ago, his own father died. After everyone left the wake, Anne’s father remained seated in the front pew. When she saw him, she didn’t know if she should talk to him or leave him alone.

Anne walked up the aisle and sat next to him. They sat in silence, and a few minutes later he put his arm around her. They remained that way for 20 minutes. She could see his eyes welling up.

“It was the first time I ever felt like I was helping him, like I was a comfort to him,” Anne says. “It was the most important 20 minutes of my life.”