A Conversation with Dr. Peggy Drexler
Author of Our Father, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family


A Conversation with Dr. Peggy Drexler

Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family

Q: Your provocative new book OUR FATHERS, OURSELVES reveals that all women have “daddy’s girl” issues that impact their relationships with men throughout their lives. What led you to write this book now?

Dr. Peggy Drexler: For centuries, fathers were locked in the roles of provider and protector. Just as their job was to toughen their sons to prevail in the world, it was also their job to hand off their daughters to husbands. Today, women are educating themselves and making their way in the world of work, often modeling themselves more on their fathers than on their mothers, and looking to their fathers for guidance in their careers. I was eager to learn how a daughter’s connection with the first man in her life changes when she looks up to him not only as daddy but also as a role model.

Q: You found that women, regardless of their level of professional success or how content they feel in their marriages and families— despite everything they have achieved — still have not liberated themselves from the need for daddy’s approval. Why?

Dr. Peggy Drexler: A father is the first man a girl gets to know on intimate terms. He’s bigger and stronger than mommy, and in many families, wields the most power. He’s around less often, and the little girl learns early on to understand her father’s absences as evidence of his eminence in the outside world: if he’s so important out there, he must be worth pleasing here, at home. Many daughters idealize their fathers because they don’t know them well enough to see their weaknesses, their vulnerabilities, their flaws. The father’s fallibility remains elusive, and his daughter, perceiving his strengths but not his frailties, desires his approval.

Q: You speak about the profound ways that a father can boost a daughter’s career and chances of creating a happy home, or set up roadblocks that she may continue to stumble over, affecting her relationships with men as bosses, business associates, and husbands for her entire life. Can you give some examples?

Dr. Peggy Drexler: One woman I spoke to became a scientist because, from her earliest childhood, her father insisted that she think for herself. When she came home from school, he’d ask her what she’d learned, and when she told him, he’d say, “It’s good to trust your teacher, but what do you think?” Today she’s a physicist working for NASA and thriving in a male-dominated field. At the other extreme was a college-educated professional woman who turned over her paycheck to her husband every week and, while claiming that he never denied her anything she wanted, also said she’d started saving money by walking to work rather than taking the subway. “My dad always wore the pants in the family relationship, and my husband does too,” she said. This woman allowed her husband to dominate the marriage because that’s what she saw her father do.

Q: What are the specific characteristics adult daughters feel are a direct connection to their fathers?

Dr. Peggy Drexler: Primarily, their choice of men as romantic partners and how comfortable they feel with men in work and social situations. For example, some women said they were at a loss as to how to flirt with men because their childhood interactions with their dads had been distant, formal, or fraught with tension, thus denying them a safe place in which to practice using their girlishness to gain favor with the opposite sex. Others said they were clumsy or inept at bantering with men at work and attributed their discomfort to their uneasiness with their own fathers. One interesting finding was that many women said they demanded good treatment from romantic partners because of the way their dads had treated them—both good and bad. Some women liked the gallantry with which their dads had treated them and demanded it from their boyfriends; others were so wounded by their fathers’ insensitivity that they refused to tolerate it from the men they dated. Both patterns showed that many of today’s women are aware of their fathers’ influence on their self-esteem—an encouraging sign.

Q: Why do we as a culture take for granted that a mother’s love can make or break a daughter’s self-concept, self-esteem and psychological well being, and gloss over her father’s contributions?

Dr. Peggy Drexler: Mostly I think it’s because we have not paid as much attention to fathers’ effects on their children as we have to mothers’. There are reams of scientific studies examining the ways that a mother’s affection and attention, or lack of it, affect a baby, but very few that examine the effects of a father’s presence or absence. One reason for this is our deeply entrenched beliefs about how children grow into healthy, balanced adults—notions based on folklore more than on science. In my first book, I challenged the notions that a boy needs a man in the house (and his mother’s bedroom) to grow into a virile adult male, and that women rearing sons without in-house dads undermine the boys’ masculinity. My research proved that neither notion is true.

Q: You note that daughters are increasingly occupying the family role once reserved for sons, and are in a position to out-achieve their fathers. How does this affect the father-daughter dynamic? The mother-daughter dynamic?

Dr. Peggy Drexler: For many fathers and daughters, her triumphs were his triumphs; her success was a reflection of all he did to help her achieve it. For these daughters, success was doubly sweet, as it affirmed both her faith in herself and her father’s belief that he’d helped her succeed. But for other women, out-performing their fathers provoked feelings of resentment, competition, and embarrassment in their dads. Some of them spoke about the awkwardness of coping with fathers who insisted on giving advice about matters in which they had no experience. For instance, one woman expressed frustration with a father who lectured her about how to negotiate a pay increase with her boss when he, an independent contractor, had never had to deal with a supervisor.

I perceived conflict in the mother-daughter dynamic mostly in cases where the daughter had chosen to emulate her father more than her mother. Whereas some mothers enjoyed their daughters’ admiration and respect, others’ accomplishments were perceived by their daughters as less noteworthy than their fathers’, especially when the mother had forsaken her career to stay home with kids. While most of the women I interviewed relied on their mothers for emotional support, many felt that their lives had little in common with their mothers’.

Q: What in your research surprised you most?

Dr. Peggy Drexler: The first surprise was how little research I found on the subject of daughters and fathers. The second surprise was that, despite the huge shift in women’s and men’s social roles and the elasticity of gender roles, innovative ways to have children and create families, and ever-increasing opportunities for women, the father-daughter bond—whether strong and nurturing or broken or nonexistent—still holds an enormous sway over women, no matter their age. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that, no matter how much their fathers may have disappointed or even hurt them, all the women felt a measure of loyalty and gratitude to their fathers, and expressed their eagerness to stay connected to the men who were among the first loves in their lives.

Q: What in your book do you think will surprise readers most?

Dr. Peggy Drexler: I think readers will be surprised at how much they feel it is a book for and about them. Among the diverse sample of women I spoke to, the thoughts and feelings they expressed about their fathers were remarkably universal.

Q: Daughters confide more in their mothers, yet many still want to emulate their dads, prefer his company, feel closer to and want to spend more time with him, and see dad as their role model and the “fun” parent. Do you feel mom is undervalued?

Dr. Peggy Drexler: No, quite the reverse. Most of us are aware of the innumerable, immeasurable things that mothers do for their kids. But few of us are aware of the things that fathers do for their children.

Q: You break open a highly sensitive but under-examined repercussion of the father-daughter relationship — when women become mothers, their daddy issues can erupt into unspoken jealousy of their daughters’ closeness to their dads. What can women do to help themselves and their daughters?

Dr. Peggy Drexler: I experienced this firsthand, when my husband was between jobs for a few months and was spending more time with our young daughter than before. This loving, energetic father was suddenly encroaching on my turf, and it made me feel less necessary than I was accustomed to feeling. As mothers, we need to understand the unique gift our daughters get from having a good relationship with their dads: the experience of interacting with a man whose energy, perceptions, and ways of thinking are different from but no less valid, compelling, and praiseworthy than ours. We need to encourage our daughters’ closeness with their fathers and not be threatened by it, and it’s easier not to be threatened when we realize that our daughters are getting something from their fathers that we simply cannot give them.

Q: What did the women you interviewed have to say about the dads who got it right?

Dr. Peggy Drexler: The daughters of dads who got it right were extravagant in their praise. They appreciated their comfort around men, which they attributed to the ease they felt around their own fathers. Much of the time, the daughters said this was due to their fathers treating them like intelligent beings rather than delicate playthings. Their fathers’ tendency to involve them in conversation and seek their opinions made them feel appreciated for their minds long before their bodies began to attract attention. One woman spoke reverently of her father’s patience in answering her endless questions; another remembered her father’s remarkable self-control when she left the bathtub water running and flooded the dining room on the floor below: instead of screaming at her, he went outside and chopped wood until he’d calmed down. Others praised their fathers’ insistence on the importance of getting an education and improving their minds. Overall, the dads who got it right instilled in their daughters a sense that they mattered and were worth listening to.

Q: What can a daughter do to salvage a strained relationship with her father?

Dr. Peggy Drexler: The father-daughter bond does not happen as naturally as we might think, is more fragile than we might hope, and is more open to improvement than we might expect.

Women who say they hunger for a new intimacy with their fathers often have a hard time defining it and quantifying it: How much is too much? How much is not enough? How much is just right? How would you define a greater intimacy with your father? Would it mean a deeper involvement in each other’s lives? Would it mean starting an ongoing dialogue of some sort? Would it require unquestioning and unconditional support, perhaps unspoken, but there in a moment? Would you want it to remain the same, or would it change with the stages of your life, perhaps most being most present in your younger years, and fading as your independence and confidence evolve? When you can picture what you want your new intimacy to look, sound, and feel like, you can start trying to make it real.

Once you’ve done that, ask yourself if you are able to forgive your father. If the answer is yes, do you have an idea of how to show him you forgive him? If the answer is no, can you imagine forgiving him at some point in the future?

The next step is to connect with the man behind the hurt and resentment you associate with him. Try to spend time alone with him so you can get closer to who he really is. Just as you act one way when you’re with your parents and another way when you’re with your friends, so your father may act one way when he is with the family and a different way when he is alone with you.

Finally, it is worth noting that sometimes our childhood selves dictate our adult feelings without us even realizing it. Can you temper the childhood self’s feelings with your adult self’s wisdom? Can you accept the less attractive aspects of your dad without losing sight of the good in him?

All relationships are works in progress and the progress usually depends on the quality of the work. If you can bring yourself to accept and even embrace your father’s failings as well as his finer points, you will have laid a foundation on which to work. A closer bond may await you, or your dad may remain impossible to connect with in the ways you want. In either case you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you tried to connect with him, and you will surely have the satisfaction of knowing more about your father and yourself.

Peggy Drexler Ph.D. research psychologist and former professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and gender scholar at Stanford University.