Fathers and Daughters (Apr 07)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 12:28

Fathers and Daughters

Published in The Times, 26 April 2007


Is it significant that many of the women who succeeded in a man's world had in their childhood a strong relationship with their father? Alfred Roberts was highly regarded in his home town of Grantham but his greatest claim to fame proved to be that he was the father of Margaret Thatcher. Hugh Rodham will be even more famous than Alfred Roberts if his daughter Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes President of the United States. Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru was undoubtedly famous in his own right as the first prime minister of India, but so was his daughter Indira Gandhi, the third prime minister. When William Edward Nightingale taught his daughter mathematics he did not expect that Florence would not only turn nursing into a profession but that she would become a remarkable statistician who, amongst other achievements, pioneered the visual presentation of statistics which is now so much part of our lives. It seems that in a close intellectual relationship with her father a girl can get something which she cannot get from her mother, particularly if the mother has concentrated her efforts on domesticity and motherhood.


These relationships between father and daughter are not of the 'Daddy's little girl' variety where the father delights in his daughter's feminine charms and rewards her for being pretty and charming. Rather, they are relationships where the father recognises and encourages the girl's intellectual ability. Right from the beginning the father responds to the girl's interest in the world. He doesn't direct her interest solely to what he sees as feminine things while ignoring or punishing her for being interested in what he sees as masculine things. He doesn't ignore or punish her for being interested in, say, fairies, but acknowledges that an interest in fairies can be accompanied by an ambition to become a genius in computing.


A father should reward his daughter's intellectual achievements, but he should not set this up in such a way that the daughter comes to see winning her father's approval as her main aim in life. A weak man who feels that he requires the adoration of a woman to maintain his appearance of being a strong, tough man will try to bind his daughter to him when he sees that his wife knows and despises his weakness. Men who cannot bear the thought that they will one day be surpassed by their children will withhold their approval in order that their sons and daughters continue to feel that they are failures. Most intellectual women, having survived a presidency with faithless Bill, would regard a seat in the Senate as a quiet but interesting way of completing their career. The fact that Hillary is working so hard to claim the greatest political prize suggests to me that she is still trying to gain from her father something he has never given, his unconditional approval. During the Second World War Hugh Rodham trained recruits in the US navy. Such officers never gave their recruits unconditional approval, and many of them had the same attitude to their children.


In my work with depressed clients I encountered many sons and daughters who felt that their sheer existence depended on the unconditional love and approval given by the dominant parent in the family. When this love and approval was not forthcoming, they blamed themselves.  Not all children who become locked into a lifelong battle to get their parent to give them unconditional love and approval become depressed. The child whose dream is to get unconditional love can become the adult who never quite leaves home, who stays close to the parent, caring for the parent no matter how unpleasant and demanding the parent might be. The child who believes that the parent's unconditional approval is absolutely essential can become an achiever who always sees yet another goal ahead that must be attained. Yet, no matter how great each achievement is, no achievement brings the desired approval from the parent.


Some parents mellow with old age and have no difficulty in giving their children the unconditional love and approval which the children desire. However, we should always remember that we each live within our own individual world of meaning. There are always meanings, that is, ideas, which lie outside our world of meaning and which we cannot comprehend. The ideas of compromise and reconciliation lay within Ian Paisley's world of meaning, but he wouldn't apply them to Sinn Fein until a combination of the mellowness of old age and a canny political sense allowed him to do so. I would guess that the idea that the Catholic Church is an admirable institution lies so far beyond Ian Paisley's world of meaning that there is no way he could make it his own. Similarly, there are parents for whom the ideas 'unconditional love' and 'unconditional approval' lie far beyond their worlds of meaning. They could no more show their children unconditional love and unconditional approval than Ian Paisley could become a Catholic priest. Adult children who cannot see that their parent is incapable of giving them what they want can waste their lives trying to get from their parent something which their parent cannot give. It's very sad to have to give up such a hope, but until they relinquish this hope they cannot be free and autonomous adults.


However, if we focus only on the daughter's need for the father's approval we miss the very profound effect that the father's interest in the daughter's intellectual ability has on the daughter. This effect is found in many women who didn't go on to become world famous though they may have done well in whatever field they chose to work. In my family my sister, six years older than I, was close to our mother and I was close to my father. I became an intellectual ('brainy' as my sister would say scornfully). My sister chose teaching domestic science and being in charge of a home, a husband and children. My father had left school when he was only eleven and went to work delivering groceries. He educated himself by reading and seeking out better educated people with whom to converse. His passions were history and politics. My mother didn't share these passions, and so he talked to me. My mother was interested only in what related directly and immediately to her, and my sister absorbed her way of thinking. I saw how my father's way of interpreting events differed markedly from my mother's interpretations of events. I found his interpretations infinitely interesting and my mother's interpretations infinitely boring. I didn't realise until much later that my father had given me an understanding of a masculine way of seeing the world.


What I call a masculine way of thinking is not confined to men and does not apply to all men. It is a way of perceiving the world in terms of seeing the essentials and stripping away the decorative and the dross. This way of thinking can be seen in Florence Nightingale's reports and statistical analyses. The feminine way of thinking, which again does not apply to all women, is made up of a myriad of observations, thoughts and feelings, with constant interruptions and changes in what is being attended to, often with details being attended to and the wider picture ignored. Not all women who think in a feminine way are as self-centred as my mother was. Most women are interested in all the people they encounter in their life and through the media, though the wider world doesn't always catch their attention. The feminine way of thinking grew out of domestic settings where women had a multitude of overlapping tasks, usually involving people, and where they had little control over their situation.


Many men, who think in a masculine way, make one major error. This is that, when engaged in interpreting a situation where people are involved, they disregard how these people interpret their situation. Men who make this mistake fail to understand that what determines our behaviour isn't what happens to us but how we each interpret what happens to us, and that no two people ever see anything in exactly the same way. The Royal College of Psychiatrists is an institution where men have always outnumbered women. Last year the Royal College abandoned their long-held idea that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and declared that depression is caused by a combination of seven factors, all of which are events which may have occurred in the life of a depressed person. These are: life events, circumstances, personality, alcohol, being a woman, inherited characteristics and physical illness. Yet again the College fails to see that, if we interpret the difficult events we encounter as challenges to be mastered, we don't become depressed, but, if we see ourselves as causing or deserving the disasters that befall us, we do become depressed.


Thus a girl may learn from her father how to see the essentials, but, if he does not understand that an individual's perception of a situation is an essential, the girl is likely to be as inept in dealing with people as many men are. On the other hand, if her father shows her how essential it is to understand how other people think, she acquires the great skill of combining clarity of thought with compassion.


Another feature of a masculine way of thinking is being able to put aside emotion when it is appropriate to do so. A colleague of Hillary Clinton once remarked, 'Hillary can separate personal emotions from the goal and task ahead in a way few women can do.' Many men claim not to feel emotion, but they are lying to themselves in order to appear strong and manly. Later they are likely to discover that unacknowledged emotions take a mental and physical toll. To put aside our emotions when we know it is appropriate to do so, we need to be aware of our emotions but not let them overwhelm us. To do this we need to understand that emotions are solely about us. They are interpretations which relate to ourselves in terms of whether we feel safe (happy, content, satisfied) or in danger (fear, anger, guilt, hate, envy, etc). Acknowledging our own emotions can help us perceive and understand what other people feel, but, if we consider that our own emotions are of absolute prime importance, we are simply being selfish.


Humour comes in many forms, and is passed from parent to child. My son Edward and I always laugh at the same things, and, if Dad were with us, he'd be laughing too. Ours is that form of humour which is based on seeing the essentials and, in them, the contrasts, the ironies, and the sheer ridiculousness of human endeavour and stupidity. This kind of humour abounds amongst male comedians, cartoonists, and commentators, both public and private. My mother and my sister found such humour utterly baffling, whereas Sandy Tostig, with her immense delight in the ridiculous, and Linda Smith with her whimsicality which momentarily hid her uncompromising criticism of the stupid and the vain, show how a woman can combine the best of masculine and feminine thinking.


Having a father who appreciates his daughter's intellectual ability can have its drawbacks. Like her feminine counterpart, she can see in him the ideal man whose exact copy she forever seeks and fails to find. She can mould herself and her life to suit his wishes and never be herself. In emulating her father she can find herself alienated from other women, despising their femininity. She can spend her life trying to live up to her father's expectations, or to prove him wrong, and never get the response which she tells herself she must have. On the other hand, she can simply get from him a way of seeing herself and her world which gives her a larger vision and a greater understanding of the complexities of life.


Dorothy Rowe My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend: The Making and Breaking of Sibling Bonds Routledge, 2007

Dorothy Rowe Beyond Fear third edition, HarperCollins 2007.